A closer look at China's men's national team pool
MANILA (Enzo Flojo's Asia on my Mind) - China men's national team head coach Gong Luming doesn't plan on dilly-dallying. Not when his country has experienced an unusual dry spell in a sport it once dominated.
Since last winning the FIBA Asia Championship in 2011, the Chinese haven't performed up to their usual standards. They came in fifth at the 2012 FIBA Asia Cup, fifth at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, fourth at the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup and fifth at the 2014 Asian Games.
Without a single podium finish to show for in the past two years, China are expected to pull out all the stops when they host the 2015 edition of the continental championship, the last of its kind in Changsha, Hunan later this year (23 September-3 October).
Already, coach Gong has named his final national pool and reserves list and he has convened them to officially begin training camp. As of the time of writing this, there are 30 members in the active national pool and a dozen more on the reserves list. That's a testament to how much basketball talent China has, but it also illuminates the daunting task for coach Gong.
Will he choose to have a relatively young team with an eye on, quite possibly, the 2016 Olympics or even the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup (which China is one of two countries bidding to host)? Or will he choose tried-and-tested veterans whose main concern will be winning right now, in 2015?
My guess is it will be a little bit of both.
Of the 30 names on the active pool, perhaps the one that stands out the most is that of Yi Jianlian. Yi was selected sixth overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, joining the likes of future NBA MVP Kevin Durant, and All-Stars Al Horford and Joakim Noah in the top 10. Unfortunately, Yi's NBA career didn't pan out too well, but, despite that, he has continued to be among Asia's most reliable big men.
The GuangDong Southern Tigers big man averaged 17.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game in his last campaign for the national team in the Philippines two years ago. Those stats ensured he was still among the tourney's best players, but even his high-level production couldn't help China defend its Asian crown.
If coach Gong is truly serious about China regaining its place in the upper echelons of Asian hoops, then Yi should be a shoo-in for the final 12.
As for the other 11 spots? Well, it will be a toss-up.
Some might say that youthful big men Wang Zhelin and Zhou Qi are easy picks, since they have been widely regarded as the future of Chinese basketball. Liaoning-based point guard Guo Ailun has been a mainstay of the national team for a few years, so it only stands to reason that he should be another favorite.
Among the other players on coach Gong's list are veterans like Yi Li, Han Shuo, and Mugedaer Xirelijiang will do battle with some of China's hyped up young stars, namely Makan Korambek/Kelanbaike, Li Muhao, Zhou Peng and Gao Shang.
Veteran Liu Wei is also on the list, but he already announced his retirement from international basketball, so it stands to reason that he's there to just guide the youngsters. Most of China's other national team icons like Zhu Fangyu, Wang Shipeng, and the legendary Wang Zhizhi are also absent from the pool, so it is but logical to surmise that coach Gong is really looking for a team that won't win just this year, but a team that will have enough continuity to be competitive in the future.
At this point in time, nothing is certain yet. Will all the names mentioned here be among the final 12 in Changsha? Will coach Gong be able to succeed in his unenviable mission to have China regain its place among Asia's powerhouses? Will having homecourt advantage help the team play better, or will it put even more pressure on them to impress? Maybe or maybe not.
But if one thing is sure, it is that Chinese basketball is at a critical crossroads and its performance this year will have a significant impact on the national team's place not just in Asia, but in the world.
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