Is rookie Chinese center Zhou Qi just 10 kilograms away from achieving his dream? Can he become an NBA role player for the Houston Rockets over time or survive in the league long-term?
For Zhou Qi, the process of improving (and showing he belongs in the NBA) will be gradual. Tracking his progress requires a closer look than peaking at box scores or breaking down the minimal amount of game tape that exists (63 minutes of action through 13 appearances this season).
There are three main factors that affect an athlete’s comprehensive quality. The first is physicality — most notably size, strength, fitness and antagonism. The second one is the level of skill. And the last is judging ability, known as basketball IQ.
How large is the gap between Zhou Qi and other centers coming off the bench in the NBA? In terms of pure talent, in my opinion Zhou Qi is more skillful than most reserves who are taller than seven feet. He was a guard before the age of 16, so he can pass and dribble. As for judging ability, Zhou Qi is experienced – he has played a lot of international competitions, such as the World Cup, Asian Championships, and Olympic Games. Therefore, it is clear that whether there is a place for Zhou Qi in the NBA depends on his ability of antagonism. Physical strength is the most basic condition that influences whether players (especially centers) can make use of their skills and experience. As far as I know, however, most NBA bigs are much stronger than Qi, who is listed at 7-2, 220 lbs. with a 7-6.5 wingspan and 9-6.5 standing reach. Although Qi, who turns 22 in January, is definitely not a guy who relies on strength, he still needs to be able to fight for positioning in the paint. His speed and flexibility are advantages, and the key here is that Qi needs to add weight and build muscle without sacrificing his quickness and suppleness.
As Zhou Qi joined the Houston Rockets, a lot of Chinese fans have been (and will continue) comparing him to Yao Ming. It’s fair to wonder whether Qi will enjoy a lengthy NBA career like Yao or fail to survive long-term like Yi Jianlian. But in my opinion, it’s not reasonable to say Qi is successful only if he reaches Yao’s achievements. Similarly, I do not think Yi failed in the NBA, as he was picked sixth overall in 2007 and played 272 games (163 starts) during four years in the league. Equaling even Yi’s body of work should be seen as a positive given the evolving style of play, excess of centers jostling for jobs and steady incoming flow of young talent. Yi operated primarily as a power forward during his days in the NBA, the position which has transformed more than any other over the last decade. Listed at 7-0, Yi eventually filled out to 246 lbs., and he would have undoubtedly been forced to operate at center if he were coming into the league today despite being a sub-par rim-protector. Qi on the other hand has the length and standing reach to become a protector of the basket if all goes well for him.
Yao’s success probably cannot be duplicated. Special time, special person. But Yao’s mentality and his attitude should be learned by young Chinese players. When Yao entered the NBA in 2002, he was extremely thin compared to what he became. At that time, his bench press data was 220 lbs. Just two years later, Yao weighed over 300 lbs. and his bench press reached 330 lbs. Meanwhile, his fat content decreased from eight percent to five percent, as he built legitimate muscle. That was from countless hours of practice and working out in the gym. In the NBA, many trainers agree that Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Yao were among the most assiduous of all time.
It is extremely hard for international players, especially for Chinese players, to survive, much less thrive in the NBA. Players from the United States are often exposed to the sport much earlier in life, and then there are the less obvious hurdles, such as speaking a different language and coming from a completely different culture. He has made it this far already: can Zhou Qi become the next big guy from China to carve out a role? We shall see.