Breaking news courtesy of every basketball analyst, NBA broadcaster and Twitter user in Las Vegas, Zhou Qi and Yao Ming are both Chinese seven footers.
We’ve learned two things in Las Vegas so far: A cursory search of TMZ shows James Harden can celebrate a new contract discreetly and secondly the comparison between Zhou and Yao can only be taken at face value, or based on nationality, or height.
The Rockets rookie is a rough draft who doesn’t look prepared to do more than provide spot minutes in the upcoming season. And his promising future as a new age stretch four dictates the Yao comparisons should end at the superficial.
The NBA Stereotype
Comparing Yao Ming to Zhou Qi is against the rules of the Houston Rockets front office. Literally.
Moneyball author Michael Lewis’ latest book included a passage about how Morey requires his staff to only make comparisons between players which bridge racial and ethic lines.
Morey’s solution was to forbid all intraracial comparison. “We’ve said, ‘If you want to compare this player to another player, you can only do it if they are a different race.’” If the player in question was African American, for instance, the talent evaluator was only allowed to argue that “he is like so-and-so” if so-and-so was white or Asian or Hispanic or Inuit or anything other than black. A funny thing happened when you forced people to cross racial lines in their minds: They ceased to see analogies. - The Undoing Project
A Morey employee would have to speak of Kevin Love’s game resembling Rasheed Wallace, not besting the play of Keith Van Horn. Similarly Zhou should be compared to mobile lanky stretch fours. During an NBA broadcast the name Channing Frye or even Cliff Robinson should seep from an announcers mouth before Yao Ming does.
We get it. If you’re an NBA play-by-play announcer it’s impossible to get through a Hawks game without making mention to Dennis Schroder and Dirk Nowitzki’s shared German nationality. And if you’re calling a 2017 - 2018 Rockets game you’re going to drop Zhou and Yao’s name in the same sentence. It’s forgivable. But just like Schroder and Nowitzki that’s about where your comparison can start and end.
All of this makes it even more surprising Morey dropped this comment at the press conference announcing Zhou’s signing...
‘The Best Chinese Player Since’
"We feel that Zhou Qi has the potential to be the best Chinese player since Yao Ming,” Daryl Morey.
The belief Zhou will be the best new NBA Chinese player is so unspectacular it will transition from wistful comparison to cold hard fact if he ever averages three or more points in an NBA season.
These statements is like declaring “this is best Fountains of Wayne song since ‘Stacy’s Mom,’” or the best Yellowcard song since “Ocean Avenue,” or the best Ataris song since “Boys of Summer.” Did I just horribly date myself in a corner of 2000’s pop-punk music? Sorry.
Since Yao’s retirement in 2011 there’s been a single season from a Chinese player in the NBA, Yi Jianlian’s 2011 - 2012 season with Dallas: 30 G, 6.8 MPG, 2.6 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 0.3 BPG.
Keep those numbers in mind when you read this gem from the ESPN summer league broadcast crew, “Zhou Qi being the best Chinese player since Yao Ming is a lofty expectation.”
It’s not lofty at all! He’s literally the only new Chinese player in the NBA since Yao.
Suns rookie Dragan Bender (actually a great developmental comparison for Zhou) put up a better line last season than Jianlian did in 2011 - 2012. Oh, and Bender had the league’s lowest PER of any qualifying player last season.
Only five other Chinese players have taken the court in NBA history. Argentina’s sent 12, but you didn’t hear anyone comparing Patricio Garino to Manu Ginobili (this is probably false and people rampantly did this for a week at some point).
Give Zhou some space. It’s unlikely he’s destined for a hall of fame career and there’s little chance putting him in Yao’s shadow every time he touches the ball is going to make the comparison any more valid.
The Offensive On-Court Comparison
It goes without saying there’s defensive similarities between the two. Size and arm length alone would dictate that. So let’s focus on the offensive end of the floor.
Over two Las Vegas Summer League games Zhou Qi has taken 12 three pointers, a two game total which eclipses Yao’s career total of 10 three attempts.
This statistic alone should be enough to dissuade NBAers from comparing the play styles of the two countrymen, though it probably won’t.
As the NBA evolved so has its players. Yao showed surprising dexterity for a man of 7’ 6”, but the wealth of Yao’s offensive opportunities were confined to the post. A role which doesn’t exist in Houston’s current offense. And even his pick-and-roll baskets were often a product of his size, and height, not his speed.
Houston would routinely send Yao into the post or run a high pick-and-roll where Yao moves to the basket. In Houston’s summer league games we’ve seen Zhou set every manner of screens above the three point line, but he rarely rolls to the basket. Off a standard pick-and-roll or pindown screen Zhou floats like Ryan Anderson to a shooter’s position.
In summer league game two Zhou took all six of his shots from behind the three point line. A stat line you could never put next to Yao’s. He also didn’t make any, which is antithetical to Yao’s hallmark efficiency.
There’s no avoiding the basic comparisons. Announcers and fans will continue to put Yao and Zhou’s name in the same sentence for years to come. There’s no doubt the cultural impact of a Chinese player suiting up will hark back to Yao. Hell, Chinese fans once helped Yi Jianlian finish third in Eastern Conference All-Star voting at forward.
On the court however it’s a rote comparison supported by little evidence and based almost entirely in stereotypes. But what do Rockets fans care as long as we get a four/five worth 15 minutes a game of heaving from three point range.