China, Marbury And The Next Yao

At 6’7” and 215 pounds, he stands out in China for his frame alone. Joe Ye, an avid basketball player and fan, played in high school at the International School of Beijing with former NBA lottery pick Joe Alexander (the 8th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft). He then used his size and 3-point shooting ability to play a season of college basketball in the U.S. He has lived in both countries, speaks both languages fluently, and now works for the NBA in China.

I had a chance to catch up with Joe, who understands the impact of Marbury’s arrival perhaps better than anyone.

“Dust…Grunge…Grime.”

These are the words Joe uses to describe Stephon Marbury’s new home, Taiyuan, Shanxi. It is a blue-collar city whose economy is centered largely on coal mining. And even though there are reports that Stephon is staying in a 5-star hotel, Joe chuckles and says, “there really aren’t any 5-star hotels in the city.”

Joe also expects the travel will be tough on Stephon as his team will be busing to away games in close proximity. Joe points out, “Unlike the NBA, there will be several 2-3 hour bus rides through the countryside for away games. In addition, when the team does fly to games, everyone flies coach class.”

The list of former NBA players who have played in the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) includes a wide range of players, from Smush Parker to Stromile Swift, but none generated this kind of excitement. Joe says, “Fans absolutely cannot wait to see him (Marbury) play.”

Though excited by his star-power, most fans were disappointed with Marbury’s first performance – in which his team lost by a single point. They expected Bonzi Wells-like numbers, who posted a string of multiple 40-point games to begin last season.

On the other hand, Joe reasons that if Marbury keeps his cool and stays for the entire season, it is conceivable that he average 30 points per game.

Andre Emmett, the league’s current scoring leader, averages about 33 points per game, including 53 in each of his first 2 games. Marbury’s second game stat line: 34 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals.

What about marketing his shoe?

Marbury’s presence alone should elevate his popularity and generate more sales in Southeast Asia but Joe shares that “the CBA will not let Marbury promote his shoe officially as a part of the league or with his team’s assistance.”

The CBA’s official sponsor is Anta (worn by Luis Scola of the Houston Rockets). So with the exception of foreign players or those boasting agreements with other international brands, everyone must wear Anta. Nike and Adidas pay the CBA league office significant money to allow selected domestic players to wear their shoes during games, but these players must cover the logos with athletic tape.

The other big name Chinese brands are Peak (worn by Jason Kidd, Ron Artest and Shane Battier) and Li Ning (worn by Shaq and Baron Davis), so the market is already saturated with options.

The Next Yao?

Looking at CBA teams now, Joe agrees that not one Chinese player appears to be ready to make the jump to the NBA. Some people like the potential of the 6’10”, athletic, Dong Hanlin who bumped up to the senior team in Guangdong last season.

However, Joe insists, “One name I promise you will hear in the next few years is a 17 year old, 7’3” kid from Dongguan named Li Mu Hao. If he receives the right coaching, he could definitely play at a higher level.”

Li Mu Hao will be representing the international team at the Nike Hoop Summit Game this April.

In Joe’s opinion, one of the biggest issues hampering young Chinese players is poor coaching, which has allowed terrible defensive habits such as hand-checking.

“Chinese players play defense with their hands and arms their whole life,” Joe explained to Hoops Addict. “So when they try to play in an international tournament or an NBA training camp, they foul out in 5 minutes.”

On the contrary, it is the body-to-body contact that is legal in the USA and most of the world that Chinese players have trouble adjusting to.

Many scouts agree that China also lacks quality point guards with court vision, a problem apparent from the high school level all the way up to the national team. Joe attributes this to “a need for grassroots programs across the nation…and not just programs paid for by sponsors.”

While in China the last three summers, I noticed a burgeoning craze for basketball that most likely began with the emergence of Yao Ming, but is now merging with pop-culture and becoming a way of life. Instead of the usual one or two pick-up games seen on U.S. campuses, schools across China are hosting up to 16 pick-up games on side-by-side, full-length, outdoor basketball courts.

Joe recognizes this basketball revolution as well, and with a nod to Field of Dreams adds, “If you build it, they will come…”

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