Li Kai'er expected to bounce back strong from scoreless World Cup debut
Published: Aug 27, 2023 06:48 PM Updated: Aug 27, 2023 09:48 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia / Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia / Global Times

"I love adversity. Stay tuned." 

China's first naturalized basketball player Li Kai'er, who made a scoreless debut for Team China at the FIBA World Cup on Saturday night in Manila, posted the two lines, coupled with a Chinese national flag icon and heart emojis, on social media on Sunday morning. 

Contributing only four rebounds and four assists, the 29-year-old, 2.06-meter-tall Minnesota Timberwolves forward, better known to National Basketball Association (NBA) fans as Kyle Anderson, missed all his nine shot attempts during the World Cup game against Serbia on Saturday. Team China swallowed a tough 105-63 loss with Li struggling to deliver a pace-setting performance.

Disappointed Chinese basketball fans rated Li's debut a meager 4.6 out of 10 points, one of the lowest of the team squad, with some even saying that his "assimilation" to the team should not mean playing at their level. 

When asked to comment on Li's first game with Team China in the World Cup, Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) Hall of Famer Liu Yudong told media that even in the NBA, Li is not a main scorer. 

"It would be difficult to rely on his individual performance to compete in the World Cup. Basketball fans should not overestimate the capability of him or the team." 

However, it is still too early to feel deflated or to look down on Team China's recruitment of its first naturalized player since growing pains are inevitable for both the team and its new floor general Li as the young squad goes through a period of adaption and adjustment.

Admittedly, despite having a shining resumé and being active for nine years and counting in the NBA, Li has hit a "rookie wall" in the international game under the FIBA basketball rules, Su Qun, one of the best-known basketball commentators in China, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

Li has not played against any European powerhouses as strong as Serbia throughout his decade-long career within the NBA. It is hard for his signature slow-motion game style to cut when facing Serbia's well-disciplined defence, Su said. 

Outside failing to score, statistics showed that Li could be considered the worst performing individual in the China-Serbia faceoff - when he was on the court, China was losing 35 points more than when the team was without him. 

It also marked the most embarrassing debut at an international basketball game for any naturalized player worldwide so far, which, according to Su, shows that Li has not fully adapted to playing with the rest of the squad and that China's tactics system built around him has not yet been established.

Naturalizing Li so he could play for Team China before the World Cup and Paris 2024 Olympic Games was a carefully considered decision and so there is good reason to believe that Li and Team China can deliver well-engineered games, Wei Qi, a basketball commentator with the Beijing Radio and Television Network, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

Also, it would be unrealistic to expect that the young man from New York could instantly adapt himself to the European basketball style that China's new head coach Aleksandar Djordjevic, who is from Serbia, is known for, Su noted. 

The only nine shot attempts showed that Li has a strong will to better coordinate with Djordjevic's team basketball play style, Wei said.  

Chinese basketball commentators and fans still have high faith in Li, and there could be a strong rebound in the remaining two games in the World Cup group competitions, where Team China is set to take on South Sudan and Puerto Rico. As they won't be going up against powerful Serbia, that means victory is much closer in reach for the team.  

Players with South Sudan who are mostly playing in the development league of the NBA or at that level are entirely different than those with Serbia. Although they also have great physicality, Li may find that kind of game more familiar and there is a great chance Li can deliver a great comeback individual show in the next game on Monday with South Sudan. 

The bad performance China had battling Serbia could also be the result of a "strategic retreat" for the sake of better preparation for matchups with more evenly matched rivals, which is quite common in international tournament games, analysts said. Therefore, there is only more hope that China will bounce back with force in the next games. 

China aspires to be the best-performing Asian team in order to win direct qualification for the Paris Olympics in 2024. All six Asian teams competing in the World Cup, including tournament hosts Japan and the Philippines, suffered losses in the first round. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.