Wang Zhelin impresses at Nike Hoop Summit

Nineteen points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

To the casual eye, that reads as a pretty nice box score. But, for Wang Zhelin and Chinese basketball as a whole, it will remain as a historic stat line stuffed with something way more important than just numbers: Potential.

By now, word of Wang’s impressive aforementioned performance has gotten around to basketball circles all around the world. In China, he’s getting some love for what is by far the best showing a Chinese player has ever thrown down in Hoop Summit history (the previous high for points was Yi Jianlian in 2004 with seven). Arguably the best player on the floor for the World team that came away with a 84-75 victory over the U.S. Select team, the seven-foot center gained attention for his size, mobility, composure and his enormous chase-down block (video below via OregonLive.com).

The other thing that has people excited: He’s is only 18 years-old. Which means there’s plenty of the p-word still to be realized.

Portland may have been his break-out party to the rest of the world, but in the PRC, Wang has been a big-time prospect with big-time expectations for a while’ so much so in fact, that he’s been receiving the all-too-obvious Yao Ming comparisons by Chinese media as early as last year. Born in 1994 in Fujian province to two tall parents who played basketball, Wang grew to 5-7 (1.7 meters) by the time he was 11 and kept growing until he reached seven feet (2.14 meters) last year. In between, he’s been coached domestically throughout has represented China internationally at several levels to develop into one of China’s top long-term prospects.

In 2010 at the FIBA U-17 World Championship in Hamburg, Wang averaged 5.8 points and 4.9 rebounds as China took home eighth place. Last summer in Latvia, he went for 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds the FIBA U-19 World Championship. He was also selected to the China Olympic National Team last summer, which is just a fancy way of saying China’s U-23 National Team. Duke fans may remember that as the team who played and hosted three exhibition games against the Blue Devils in Shanghai and Beijing in August.

But his biggest accomplishment of all came last month when Wang was selected to Bob Donewald’s 19-man Senior National Team training camp roster. It’s not so much impressive because of his age, but rather because of his experience, or lack thereof: Despite his considerable resume in international competition, Wang has yet to play a single game professionally.

Despite being meeting the Chinese Basketball Association age requirement, Wang didn’t play professionally this past season because his team, Fujian SBS, felt it would be better for his long-term future to let him develop his game and his body at the youth level for another year. Plus, as Wang has had considerable level of hype surrounding him in China for the last few years, the decision to hold him back was due also in part to take some pressure off and put him in a position down the road where he can deliver upon some of those expectations.

The decision was probably for the best: Given his National Team selection, and now his historic performance in Portland, those expectations are only going to increase. Though he’s practically a no-shot to make the final 12-man roster for this summer’s London Olympics, his inclusion in the Senior National Team setup indicates that the CBA feels he’ll be a big part of China’s basketball future.

And in the days after Portland, he may be a big part of China’s future in the NBA. Arguably more than any other prospect, he helped his NBA Draft stock the most. Even before the game, he was turning heads during practices due to his good frame and nice touch around the rim.

But where his ceiling is isn’t totally clear. Despite clocking it at close to 250 pounds with thick legs and a great motor, he lacks NBA athleticism and is equipped with short arms. Furthermore, he doesn’t run tremendously well, nor does he possess anything offensively close to the basket or facing up from midrange that truly stands out. And not to keep hating on the kid, but he put up those numbers against a U.S. team that had nobody even remotely capable of standing up to his giant 250 pound frame under the basket.

Still, players with that size don’t come that often, especially those who are 18 (if his age is indeed correct, not a given). As Tyler Ingle over at NBADraft.net writes in his World Summit recap: “If he continues to refine his scoring ability and upper body in China, then he’s a potential draftee in a few years. He’s already shown that he can bang in the post, shoot from mid-range and rebound at an effective rate. If he wasn’t on the NBA radar before this event, he definitely is now.”

Meanwhile, Wang is on the front page of Sina’s CBA page where Chinese media is churning out hype from every direction, both from the States (where they are translating almosteverything being written about Wang) and from within the Middle Kingdom itself.

How he plays in the next few seasons in China and how quickly he can climb into the Senior National team will determine exactly how high he’ll climb up scouts’ draft boards, but it’s clear that at present there is nobody in China with a brighter NBA future than young Wang. For now though, it’s probably for the best to remain patient, temper expectations, wait until he gets some professional games under his belt, and remember that there will never, ever, ever, ever be another Yao Ming.

Jon Pastuszek is founder and editor-in-chief of Niubball.com, the best English-language basketball blog focused in basketball in China. He is an occasional contributor to SheridanHoops.com.
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