The Chinese sports world was abuzz after the Houston Rockets’ recent signing of 7-foot-2 center Zhou Qi — who they drafted 43rd overall in the 2016 — to a multiyear deal, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. While the exact structure of the deal has yet to be revealed, Zhou Qi is all but guaranteed to become the first Chinese national to log minutes in a regular season NBA game since Yi Jianlian in 2012. That’s a long time for basketball-crazy China, where an estimated 300 million play the sport.
Going to the team that drafted Hall of Famer Yao Ming means Zhou will continue to face inevitable comparisons. “The new Yao Ming?” SCMP asked in a headline in 2016. (The answer is no.) The pressure is only heightened by the NBA’s very public desire for a marketable mainland Chinese star. None other than league commissioner Adam Silver said before the start of this year’s NBA Finals: “It frustrates me that there are no Chinese players in the NBA right now. There’s probably more basketball being played in China than anywhere else in the world. And more NBA basketball is being watched in China than anywhere else in the world.”
Who is Zhou Qi, and will he be any good? First, he does have some game — an ability to stretch the court with a deft outside shot, and a 7-foot-7-and-three-quarter wingspan that makes him a low-post defensive presence. Former NBA guard Jordan Crawford, who played in the Chinese Basketball Association, compared him to current New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, and said, “His mid-range is money; he’ll never miss that shot. He blocked a lot on defense, dribbles well, can jump… I honestly thought he was older then because he understood the game. Most Chinese players just want to shoot all the time.”
Again, he’s not Anthony Davis — he’s twig-thin, for one, and will need to add considerable bulk — but he has potential. The man is 21 years old (if you don’t believe the rumors that he’s actually a few years older), and he’s been China’s next great hope for years — ever since a 41-point, 28-rebound, 15-block performance against Germany at a U-16 tournament in February 2011. He recorded a 32-inch vertical at a pre-draft combine, which is pretty good for someone over 7 feet.
His nickname is “Big Devil King,” which speaks for itself.
Here he is in 2016 scoring 21 points and grabbing 8 rebounds in an epic 20-point comeback win against South Korea in an Asia Championship pool play game:
Zhou will likely begin the 2017-18 season as the Rockets’ third center, but he’ll get his chances. As early as April 28, Rockets GM Daryl Morey posted on his Weibo account this assurance to Chinese fans: “We plan to have Zhou Qi join the Rockets. We are excited to welcome him to Houston.”
Zhou has played the last three seasons with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, which won its first CBA title in franchise history this year (in a clean sweep against the Guangdong Southern Tigers). Here he is rejecting former NBA player Carlos Boozer in Game 1 of the finals:
Zhou led the league in blocks in 2014-15. He averaged 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in 42 games in 2015-16, the year before he was drafted. This past season those numbers increased to 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds, with a respectable 3-point percentage of 36.4 on 55 attempts. He was voted league Defensive Player of the Year.
Here he is with an impressive 27-point, 10-rebound game in December:
Born in Henan province, Zhou appears to be getting out of China at just the right time — if he stayed any longer, NBA scouts and executives would be concerned about the CBA stunting his development. Zhou was actually drafted on the same day as Wang Zhelin (No. 57 overall, to the Memphis Grizzlies), another big man who shares some of his skills. Wang, who is two years older than Zhou, has played five years in the CBA now, and at this point it’s extremely unlikely he’ll get a shot at the next level.
It remains to be seen how Zhou will fare against world-class competition. He’s a long-shot to be anything more than an NBA role player, but that might be enough for now… as long as he pulls out the occasional move like the one below, faking out — twice on the same play — NBA Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green:
We wish him the best.
POSTSCRIPT: It should be mentioned that the CBA’s domestic MVP this past year was not Zhou, but Ding Yanyuhang of the Shandong Golden Stars, who recently started a game for the Dallas Mavericks in NBA Summer League. Summer league means very little, but nonetheless, here are some highlights of the 23-year-old (via Asian Players):