Hoopsters laying future foundations

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-16 08:23
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Zhou Qi defends as Zhang Zhenlin muscles his way to the basket during a Team China practice game in Beijing on June 8. Photo provided to China Daily

Team China trusts in youth as rebuild project looks to Paris Olympics

Although booking a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics appears virtually impossible for Team China's hoopsters, that doesn't mean they will be taking things easy at their forthcoming qualifying tournament in Canada. On the contrary, the men's national team is treating the event as the perfect opportunity to plan for the future.

The Chinese Basketball Association has, therefore, picked a largely inexperienced squad in the hope that the stiff competition that awaits in Canada can hone the youngsters for the next Olympic cycle and the Paris 2024 Games.

China failed to secure Asia's only direct berth to Tokyo at the 2019 FIBA World Cup tournament at home, so is now embarking on a rebuilding project.

Before their Canadian trip, Team China will first compete at the 2021 Asian Cup qualifying event in the Philippines, where they will play Japan and Chinese Taipei twice each from Wednesday to Sunday, before group games against the host and Greece-two opponents loaded with NBA players-on July 1 and 2 respectively.

Only the winner of the Canadian tournament will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to open on July 23.

The harsh reality is that China will almost certainly miss the Olympics for the first time since the country's Games debut in 1984, prompting the CBA to overhaul its player development model and ease the domestic league's reliance on foreign players.

"At least in my career as a player and a coach, this is the toughest moment ever for the national program," said head coach Du Feng, a former Team China player.

"Rather than expecting impressive international results, I think we'd better readjust our goals for the national team as we are focusing on nurturing the young players and giving them enough time and tests to grow in the right way," added Du, who took the reins after Team China finished 24th among 32 squads at the 2019 World Cup, its worst-ever result at the tournament.

A member of the national squad that produced the country's best-ever eighth-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Du has urged for patience to restore those halcyon days.

Yao Ming, president of the Chinese Basketball Association, chats with Yi Jianlian, who will sit out the Asian Cup qualifiers due to injuries, during Team China training in Beijing. Photo provided to China Daily

"We will keep the doors open to young players eager to fight for the country, and we have to allow the youngsters to make mistakes and learn from the international challenges," he said.

Of the 14 players in the Team China roster that departed for the Philippines on Sunday, only four-guard Zhao Jiwei, center Zhou Qi, forward Ren Junfei and captain Zhou Peng-have previously represented the country internationally.

Long-time national team leader Yi Jianlian and prolific guard Guo Ailun were ruled out through injury, taking a toll on the team's offensive options yet opening up more opportunities for the youngsters.

In Yi's absence, Zhou Peng, who missed the 2019 World Cup due to injury, is expected to lead the squad, which has an average age of 25 on both ends of the floor.

"Hopefully I can continue making a positive impact on the team, leading by example and motivating the young players with my standards and experience," said Zhou Peng, who was named the CBA's Defensive Player of the Year last season and helped Guangdong win a record-extending 11th league title.

Joining Zhou Peng on the front court will be his Guangdong teammate Ren, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers' former NBA center Zhou Qi, and Liaoning Leopards rookie forward Zhang Zhenlin.

Young Guangdong guard Hu Mingxuan, last season's CBA Finals MVP, the Zhejiang Golden Bulls' sharp-shooting guard Wu Qian, who was the regular-season MVP, and Liaoning's veteran playmaker Zhao will run China's offense on the back court.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has been deprived of international warm-ups for the tournaments, leaving the coaching staff with limited information to develop game plans.

"To keep fighting no matter what the score is and never give up is the mentality we need for this journey," said Du, adding that the squad has been working on rebounding, fast breaks and 3-point shooting.

According to the CBA, upon arrival at the squad's recent training camp in Beijing, each player received a motivational letter which read: "Prove yourself, for redemption, for the team, for the country."

"Whatever the results might be, I hope they can show the sense of responsibility during the games that they play for their country," said the 33-year-old Yi, the team's long-time backbone since the retirement of legend Yao Ming.

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