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New-look Ducks ready to spread their wings

By Sun Xiaochen | China Daily | Updated: 2020-09-30 10:17
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Beijing shaping up as CBA title favorite thanks to astute offseason additions

After a busy offseason of rebuilding and reinforcing, the Beijing Ducks could be about to take flight again.

The addition of a top European coach and two of China's best post players has raised expectations that the fallen dynasty is ready to launch its most serious title challenge in years when the league's 2020-21 season tips off on Oct 17 in Zhuji, Zhejiang province.

With the country remaining vigilant against the COVID-19 threat, the CBA will pick up where it left off last term and continue to be played inside bio-secure bubbles, with 20 teams split into two groups to compete in the first phase in spectatorless arenas in Zhuji.

Adding former national team center Li Muhao (from Shenzhen) and young forward Fan Ziming (from Guangzhou) to an already prolific domestic roster, the Ducks have been touted as the league's most balanced force on both ends of the floor as the capital franchise attempts to add an elusive fourth title to the three it won with former NBA star Stephon Marbury leading the way, from 2012-15.

The arrival of new head coach Simone Pianigiani looks a smooth fit in the Ducks' team-first style, with the Italian tactician having proved his credentials in the prestigious Euroleague.

The team, however, is playing down the hype as it focuses on making the best out of a tight preseason camp to build chemistry within its restructured roster.

"The new signings have really boosted our confidence, but we cannot get carried away by that," team captain Zhai Xiaochuan said after the Ducks' new-season welcoming ceremony in Beijing on Monday.

"We haven't won anything yet, the job is still ahead of us. We have to stay low when everybody is thinking high of us," said Zhai, who was a formidable member of the Ducks' three championship lineups.

"The most important thing for us is to keep our heads down and to make every day and every training session count ahead of the new season to prepare for it to the best of our ability."

Standing 2.19 meters tall and boasting a long wingspan and impressive mobility, the 28-year-old Li is expected to bolster the Ducks' front court with exceptional rebounding, post scoring and rim protection. He will be assisted by Fan, a 22-year-old prospect who averaged 12.8 points and 7.7 rebounds in 20 games during the resumed season on loan with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.

The Ducks have also re-signed American forward Justin Hamilton, who contributed 21.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last year before the COVID-19 shutdown.

"I really appreciate the chance to join a championship franchise like Beijing," said Li, 22, a product of the NBA's training center in Dongguan, Guangdong province.

"Coming in I know I can help the team with rebounding and shot blocking to make the Ducks' already tough defense even more intimidating," said Li, who is regularly called up to China's national team training camps.

With less than three weeks to go before the opening night, the Ducks' management team is still busy searching for a back-court replacement for American guard Jeremy Lin, who left Beijing after one season to seek a return to the NBA.

Although averaging 22.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 43 games for the Ducks, Lin's decision-making and physicality were frequently questioned by Chinese media during the brutally contested playoffs last season, where the Ducks lost to eventual champions the Guangdong Southern Tigers in the semifinals.

Boasting power in the paint and a group of homegrown shooters on the perimeter, the Ducks are scouting the European league for a playmaker with superior athleticism and scoring ability than Lin at point guard.

"I think the fresh additions will bring us new energy and the protection inside that we've been longing for," said assistant coach Xie Libin, who served as interim head coach during the league resumption last season in place of Ioannis Christopoulos of Greece, who was stuck overseas during the pandemic.

"The challenge is upon us to unite a restructured team as one in a short period of time without the head coach by our side," said Xie, a former Ducks' point guard.

With new coach Pianigiani unlikely to join the team anytime soon due to China's tight entry controls to contain imported coronavirus infections, the Chinese coaching crew has been briefing the Italian on the Ducks' preparations via videoconference, according to Xie.

As one of the most renowned coaches in Europe, Pianigiani, 51, has led three teams from the Italian and Turkish leagues into the Euroleague, the continent's most prestigious hoops competition, and has amassed seven national championships across leagues in Italy, Turkey and Israel.

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