China’s World Cup hopes rest on towering front court

They’re ranked just 30th in the world, but China will have some promising new talent, a gentle group draw, and a billion-plus fans on their side as the hosts look to make some noise at the Basketball World Cup.

Although a perennial Asian power, China struggles against top-flight international teams and has failed to deliver on national hopes raised years ago when now-retired NBA Hall of Famer Yao Ming catapulted to global celebrity.

But expectations are slowly rising again, due once more to Yao, who has launched a campaign to revitalise Chinese basketball since being appointed its supremo two years ago.

For now, China’s hopes rest largely on the shoulders of its towering front court of three seven-footers: Yi Jianlian, Zhou Qi and Wang Zhelin.

The seasoned Yi spent several years in the NBA and has played four Olympics, while the 23-year-old Zhou turned out briefly for the Houston Rockets and combines a shot-blocker’s 2.3-meter (7-foot-7) wingspan with the ability to knock down three-pointers.

The Chinese offense will be directed by slashing point guard Guo Ailun.

“Who wouldn’t want to play in a FIBA World Cup at home, on your home soil and try to make your fellow compatriots proud?” Guo said in comments to FIBA last week.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we all want to have a great tournament.”

China also has landed in a relatively kind group along with Poland, Venezuela, and 64th-ranked Ivory Coast.

– The Yao effect –

Yao took over as head of the Chinese Basketball Association in 2017 and has set about reforming an entrenched state development system that he says badly needs an overhaul.

He has taken steps to expand youth access to the game, and increase the visibility and earnings of China’s professional league, among other initiatives.

AFP / ANTHONY WALLACEChina won the Asian Games basketball title last year in Jakarta

In a commentary published by state media on Wednesday, he expressed optimism that the country’s basketball achievements would someday rise along with its overall national power.

But he tamped down expectations of overnight success, saying the World Cup is a mere “sprint” compared to the marathon task faced in overhauling Chinese basketball.

“We should focus more on Chinese basketball’s perseverance and staying power and its potential and future prospects,” he said.

China failed to even qualify for the last World Cup in 2014, and has never finished higher than eighth place in the competition, which this year expands from 24 to 32 teams.

But China’s basketballers tend to get a lift as hosts, like they did in 2008 in Beijing when Yao, Yi, and company rode rabid hometown support to the Olympic quarter-finals, the national team’s best showing.

Either way, the World Cup will be a net gain for China, Guo told FIBA.

“Hosting a tournament like the FIBA Basketball World Cup is a booster for basketball in every country, and China’s love for this sport is very good,” he said.

“It’s going to keep basketball growing in our country.”

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