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NBA Draft 2016: Is Zhou Qi the Next Yao Ming or Yi Jianlian?

China doesn’t produce a high volume of NBA-caliber prospects, but every few years, a highly intriguing youngster arrives on the radar.

The latest prodigy from the world’s most populated country is Zhou Qi, a 7’2″ tower with a 7’6.5″ wingspan and a soft shooting touch. The 19-year-old center for  Xinjiang Guanghui was crowned Defensive Player of the Year in the Chinese Basketball Association, and his offensive upside is equally sparkling.

He’s far from certain to enter the draft this spring, but it’s not too early to keep a close eye on him considering his CBA exploits.

Will he become a Chinese star like Yao Ming or a bust like Yi Jianlian?

The ultimate answer is that Zhou is a unique talent who’s neither Yao or Yi. But Yao represents heroic success, whereas Yi is one of the most overhyped disappointments among top international prospects. Scouts must figure out whether he’s more like the former or the latter.

Zhou’s NBA appeal stems from a fascinating mix of height, scoring touch and rim protection.

He’s still developing as an offensive weapon, yet his shooting touch and instincts are tantalizing. Zhou’s smooth shooting touch out to 18-20 feet will come in handy during pick-and-pop sequences.

While catch-and-shoot consistency is a useful skill, Zhou fortunately has much more in his offensive tool kit.

On forays to the rim, he shows great sense of angles and can convert fluidly with either hand. Zhou also exhibits glimpses of a post game, using step-throughs and spin moves for easy buckets. When he’s away from the hoop, he can also hit turnarounds and execute step-backs.

Aside from his size and scoring talent, Zhou’s other plus on offense is his feel for the game. His dives to the rim off pick-and-rolls are agile and well-timed, and he’s a gifted passer for a 7-foot center. Zhou is a deft distributor from most spots on the floor. He makes nice dishes when posting up and also hits cutters when facing up.

“(Zhou) has great offensive skills fundamentally,” noted Lukas Peng of NBADraft.net. “Off-ball movement is very good, and has a feel for finding open gaps and passing lanes…Above average passer for his position.”

The most glaring deficiency in his game right now is his strength and low-post potential. Zhou weighed 209 at April’s Nike Hoop Summit, which means he’s rail-thin for a 7’2″ center. He owns some nice interior scoring moves, but Zhou rarely gets the opportunity to use them because he’s too weak to carve out space on the block. It’s tough to tell whether he’ll gain the 30-40 pounds of base mass necessary to compete underneath the hoop.

If Zhou doesn’t bulk up, his offensive game could be limited to outside jumpers, pick-and-rolls and dump-offs.  The result would be something in the neighborhood of Yi, who is stronger but still had a perimeter-based style that starved for some low-post production. The good news is Zhou’s still just 19 and will likely put on a least some weight, giving him a fighting chance to play in the paint.

As for the defensive side, Zhou’s potential is monstrous. And it’s what clearly separates him from Yi, who has never been a standout stopper or rim protector.

Zhou’s 9’6.5″ standing reach enables him to block or alter shots from any type of opponent. Zhou’s length is so overwhelming that he can often get away with keeping his feet on the ground while stuffing attackers.

When you combine this eye-popping length with great awareness and mobility, you get a CBA rookie who blocked 3.3 shots per game (4.5 per 40 minutes) and had a staggering block percentage of 10.7.

Zhou moves his feet well and shows solid discipline for a young player. While he suffers from the occasional positional lapse, his overall performance on defense is marked by an awareness and eagerness to protect the ring.

Upside & Motor International scout Rafael Uehara broke down the good and bad of Zhou’s defense:

Zhou has good quickness rotating to the front of the basket in help-defense and is able to play above the rim both as a shot blocker and by using verticality to alter opponents’ balance through body contact…He has shown decent lateral mobility and isn’t slow footed by any means but is simply not built to defend in space — he doesn’t bend his knees much and gets run around easily by smaller players. Even by playing with a cushion, Zhou manages to contest mid-range shots rather effectively due to his length…

Even though Zhou’s not the quickest athlete in isolation scenarios, he’s long and mobile enough to rotate quickly and defend pick-and-rolls in the NBA. Don’t expect his block numbers to be as gaudy as they are in the CBA, but it’s not a stretch to think he’ll be a top-tier rejector—unlike Yi, who averaged just 0.7 blocks in the NBA and 1.3 in the CBA last year.

Zhou’s slender frame won’t doom him in the rim-protecting department, but it will prevent some rebounding chances early in his career. He averaged just under seven rebounds per game and 9.6 per 40 minutes in the CBA, which doesn’t translate to many boards in the NBA.

The long-term outlook for Zhou is positive because he has superb instincts to go along with that sky-scraping frame. It’s too early to crown him as the next Yao, but his two-way efficiency suggests he’ll enjoy a more impactful career than someone like Yi. Stay tuned for his next year or two of dominance in the CBA as he prepares for the Association.


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