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Rising star Zhang arrives with a bang

China Daily | Updated: 2021-05-06 09:14
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Zhang Zhenlin has been a revelation for the Liaoning Flying Leopards this year, scooping the Rookie of the Season award after helping his hometown team to the CBA Finals. XINHUA

Liaoning forward dreaming big after stunning rookie season in CBA

All that was missing from Zhang Zhenlin's recently concluded debut CBA campaign was a championship ring.

The 22-year-old was named Rookie of the Season and MVP of the Rookie Challenge, as well as winning the Slam Dunk Contest during the CBA All-Star Weekend-all this while helping the Liaoning Flying Leopards reach the CBA Finals.

Despite seeing his team lose 2-1 in the finals to the Guangdong Southern Tigers last Saturday, Zhang was mightily impressive in the best-of-three series, averaging 17 points, seven rebounds and 1.7 steals.

"Guangdong is one of the best teams in the league. Every time we play them, we learn a lot from them, especially young players like me who have just entered the league," Zhang told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.

"It's a pity that after all the hard-fought games, we were not able to take home the trophy, but my teammates and I have given our all for it. We will learn from it and get prepared for next season."

Zhang averaged 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in the regular season. His most impressive performance came in an overtime victory over Guangdong, when he contributed 46 points and nine rebounds. He registered 24 points and five rebounds in the other regular-season meeting between the teams.

And the rookie seems more than comfortable in the limelight.

"I feel relaxed now. It's not really a big deal for me because I treat every game the same. So it's just a regular game for me," he said.

He was even caught playing the piano before Game 2 of the finals, joking how working with his fingers can make him hot on the court. Zhang began playing the piano to pass the time in the CBA's bio-secure bubble. He also enjoys listening to music, playing video games and reading novels in his downtime.

His musical warm-up seemed to do the trick in Game 2, with Zhang notching 24 points and seven rebounds to help Liaoning keep the series alive.

The youngster continued to impress the fans in Game 3 when he ascended for a sky-high dunk after a missed free throw from teammate Guo Ailun that sent the decider to overtime.

Considering the hoops pedigree of his family, Zhang's skills on the court are not so surprising.

His mother, Wang Fang, was a member of the Chinese women's national team that was runner-up in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and the world championship in 1994.His father, Zhang Yan, enjoyed a career with the Liaoning provincial team as a power forward.

His family background has not only bestowed him with extraordinary talent but also with professional guidance along the way.

"My mother was my coach when I was a kid. Since coming back (from the United States) to play in the CBA, my parents have come to watch every game of mine," said Zhang. "And they look into the details, often pointing out my technical deficiencies. When I have an excellent performance, they never praise me, for fear that I might become arrogant."

From age 14, Zhang spent seven years studying and playing basketball in the US.

He played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) with Tulane University as a freshman, registering 24 points and seven rebounds in his debut. That's when he began to step into the spotlight.

"NCAA rules are close to FIBA rules. This spell allowed me to experience diverse training methods and game style, which laid the foundations for my professional career," he said.

Deciding to begin his pro career in China, Zhang returned to his hometown Liaoning to join the Flying Leopards, gelling with an experienced squad that includes Team China stars Guo, Zhao Jiwei and Han Dejun.

The fact that he had played youth hoops for Liaoning has also helped him settle in well with the 2018 CBA champions.

"I grew up training in Liaoning's arena, and sometimes shared the same court with the senior team," said Zhang. "It's fair to say these big brothers watched me grow, and they cared for me since I was a kid.

"Being able to live, train and compete with these top domestic players helps me improve a lot."

Zhang also credits his parents for being crucial to his development.

"They have been taking good care of me and teach me how to be a good person. At the same time, they leave enough space for me to develop myself," he said. "All these years I was abroad, I did not fulfill my role as a son, so I hope to make it up to them."

Now Zhang is desperate to pull on the red of Team China.

"It's the ultimate privilege for an athlete to represent his country. I hope I can have the chance to represent China on the international stage," he said.

"Meanwhile, I hope I can devote myself, together with my teammates, to helping Liaoning achieve even better results."

And that is sure to mean more hard work on the practice court for the dedicated youngster.

"There is a lot for me to improve, for example shooting stability, finishing, man-to-man defense, technique application and tactical execution in games and so on," Zhang said.

"I need to make the most out of training and games to accumulate experience and hone my skills.

XINHUA

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