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Bigger is better for China's Cup crew

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-12 08:53
Yi Jianlian grapples for possession during China's 73-62 victory over Angola in a World Cup warmup match in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, on Saturday. XINHUA

Coach Li cautious about sacrificing height to adapt to modern game

Size still matters for Team China. That's the message from the host squad as it looks to adapt to basketball's ever-quickening evolution ahead of the forthcoming FIBA World Cup.

With the so-called small-ball style speeding up the game and tending to favor shorter, more agile players, China head coach Li Nan remains reluctant to sacrifice height in pursuit of the latest tactical trends.

"I think our strength is still our size under the rim, although we don't have a dominant force like we did in the past when we had Yao Ming as our backbone," said Li at a Nike event in Beijing on Thursday to unveil China's new jersey for the tournament.

"I believe our post players are still among the best in the world and that we need to play them in the right way to maximize their performance," added Li, who was a member of the Yao-led Chinese team which finished eighth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

With Yao now a keen spectator from the sidelines as chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, it's left to former NBA players Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi as well as Wang Zhelin, the Memphis Grizzlies' second-round pick in the 2016 draft, to collectively try and fill the great man's sizable shoes.

The smooth shooting, mobility and defensive stretch of the three big men, although not quite up to NBA standards, can help make China more competitive in the modern game, where transition offense dictates play and zone defense make traditional post-ups in the paint nearly impossible.

"Playing stretch fours and even stretch fives has become a new trend internationally, and I think talent-wise we have the ingredients to adapt to the style. It just depends on if we can get the best out of them," said Li.

The 32-team FIBA World Cup, formerly the world championships, will run from Aug 31-Sept 15 in eight Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Drawn in Group A with Cote d'Ivoire, Poland and Venezuela at west Beijing's Wukesong Arena, Team China has targeted reaching the quarterfinals and qualifying for next year's Tokyo Olympics as the best Asian performer.

The rise of big-yet-versatile NBA players from overseas, such as the Denver Nuggets' play-making center Nikola Jokic of Serbia and the Milwaukee Bucks' 'Greek Feak' Giannis Antetokounmpo, pose a threat to the United States' traditional dominance at the tournament.

Speaking at the Nike event as a brand ambassador, NBA legend Scottie Pippen expects the World Cup to be an intensive showcase of the new game.

"I see it as a new trend … I like the word position-less," said the 53-year-old, who was Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls wingman and was on the USA's 1992 Olympic champion Dream Team.

"The game is different now. There are no big centers blocking in the lane. Guys are not playing in the traditional way of throwing the ball inside and cutting. It's a faster game, it's an outside game and it's a shooter's game."

One big concern for China is how quickly veteran forward Yi can get up to speed following a three-month ankle injury layoff.

Yi, the only member of the 2008 Games squad on the current roster, officially made his comeback for China in Saturday's 73-62 victory over Angola in Kunshan, Jiangsu province.

After representing five different NBA teams since being drafted by Milwaukee sixth overall in 2007, Yi returned home in 2016 and led the Guangdong Southern Tigers to their ninth CBA title in May.

"Physically, I feel just fine. I just have to figure out how I can fit in smoothly and communicate better with the others as quickly as possible," said Yi, who contributed 10 points and seven rebounds in his 20-minute run-out against the Angolans.

Asked what his expectations are for China at the Cup, the 31-year-old replied: "I hope we can at least equal our national team's best result (eighth place in 2008) this time and leave a legacy for the next decade."

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