Xinjiang basketball sets its eyes on the prize

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/10 20:13:39 Last Updated: 2016/8/10 21:13:50

Xiralijan Muhtar (right) of the Xinjiang Flying Tigers celebrates with teammate Li Gen during the match against the Beijing Ducks on February 21. Photo: CFP

Cultivating China internationals - players who can go toe-to-toe against other athletes from around the world at international competitions - has been a major concern for teams in China's top-tier league the CBA. Of them all, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers can certainly be said to be one of the best.

Though the team has yet to win a CBA title, they have made it into the CBA playoff finals four times since the 2008-09 CBA season, illustrating their ambition to become king of the hill of domestic basketball.

"Our goal this new season is still winning the championship," said Li Qiuping, head coach of the Flying Tigers.

"However, team spirit is still our No.1 priority."

With a strong squad boasting several China internationals, the Urumqi-based team was a favorite for the CBA title last season. However, they were unexpectedly swept out of the semifinals by the eventual champions, the Sichuan Blue Whales - a team promoted to the top tier just three years ago.

Despite this loss, by eliminating the Beijing Ducks in the quarterfinals, the Flying Tigers proved they had the potential to win a league title.

Unfortunately for the team, the disappointing season led to the departure of some key players, with veterans Liu Wei and Su Wei topping the list.

As to the new season, the Flying Tigers have signed on point guard Luo Xudong from the Qingdao Eagles and center Sun Tonglin from the Shenzhen Leopards.

"The purpose of bringing in Luo and Sun is to speed up the team's pace when it comes to offensive-defensive transitioning," said Li.

The team also has some foreign muscle, signing American Darius Adams, who averaged 13.2 points in the Spanish league last season, and still holding on to center Andray Blatche, the US-born player who became a naturalized citizen of the Philippines.

Lately, however, most transfer talk has been focused on one person - 20-year-old power forward Zhou Qi.

Zhou's NBA saga

Although the Flying Tigers have yet to confirm whether they will let the promising player - who is representing China at the Rio Olympic Games - move to the Houston Rockets, which picked him during the second round of 2016 NBA Draft, many have already begun to hope Zhou will become the next Yao Ming.

Flying Tigers General Manager Zhang Aijun, who previously stated that the team has always supported Zhou playing in the NBA, remained cagey when asked about the topic recently by saying playing in the Olympic Games should be Zhou's priority.

"We are doing everything in favor of his future," Zhang said.

"At present, not commenting on this issue will best help him prepare for the Olympics."

Pundits are divided on whether Zhou should play in the NBA next season, as some argue that it would be better for him to stay in China for one more year, as he is "not strong enough" to go against the powerful centers in the NBA.

"He is talented, but if he wants to be a starting player in the NBA, he needs to be stronger," said Zhang Weiping, a basketball commentator with CCTV. 

"I think it's better to let him stay in the CBA for one more season.

"It would hurt his confidence if he were to play in the NBA now."

Meanwhile, Su Qun, editor-in-chief of Basketball Pioneer newspaper, said while Zhou is unlikely to play for the Rockets, he thinks the earlier Zhou moves to the NBA, the better for his career.

The 2.18-meter-tall Zhou averaged 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in the CBA last season, topping the domestic player rebound ranking list. China's current No.1 center Yi Jianlian was one place behind him with 9.1 rebounds.

Minority stars

Four members of the Flying Tigers are often included in the Chinese national team's training sessions, but only Zhou and swingman Li Gen made the cut for China's Olympic squad.

Uyghur shooting guard Xiralijan Muhtar skipped the quadrennial event due to thigh and knee injuries, which have bothered him for a long while now. Kirgiz small forward Korambek Makhan also missed out on the trip to Rio even though he was included in the preliminary roster.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has a rich history of cultivating minority stars as the region is home to more than 45 ethnic minority groups.

Uyghur point guard Adiljan Suleyman made a name for himself on the national team during the late 1980s. He was the first basketball player from Xinjiang to play for the national team.

He later became the head coach of the military team Bayi Rockets, where his former teammates Wang Zhizhi and Liu Yudong were in his squad.

Du Feng, who helped the Guangdong Southern Tigers claim the CBA champions eight times, is also from Xinjiang. Though he has never played for the Flying Tigers, Du - who was born in Urumqi and belongs to the Hui ethnic minority - has been the team captain of the South China giant's star-studded squad since 2013.

Mongol center Mengke Bateer was named CBA regular season MVP three times in a row from 2009 to 2011 while playing for the Flying Tigers.

China international Ding Yanyuhang, 23, is one of the CBA's rising stars. Born in Karamay city in ­Xinjiang, the shooting guard is on the Rio Olympic squad.

MVP of the national youth basketball championship in 2014, Uyghur small forward Abudushalamu Abudurexiti made his Flying Tigers debut last year.

He faces strong competition in his position as China internationals Li Gen and Korambek are ahead of him, but the 20-year-old also scored 32 points during his limited 58.5 minutes of court time last season.
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