How should China approach #Rio2016?

Image from FIBA.
This first appeared on my weekly column on FIBA.com.

China have had mixed fortunes at the FIBA Asia Championship in recent years and they have also been quite unlucky at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. However, when it comes to the Olympics, the Chinese have been Asia's perennial representative, and Team Dragon will return to that world stage again this year at Rio 2016.

Their target of bettering their last-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics will be an uphill climb in itself, much less making an even bigger splash against international powerhouses such as the USA, Spain, Lithuania, Argentina and Australia.


Four years ago, China looked like a really solid squad headed by a duo of former NBA players - Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi - along with Sun Yue. They swept the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship en route to qualifying automatically for the following year's Olympics and were riding high from finishing among the top eight teams four years prior when the Games were held in Beijing.


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Once the tournament started at London 2012, however, China found themselves wanting in form as they got blown out left and right. By the end of the group stage, the lone Asian representatives had lost all their games and by an average of 23.2 points no less. To say that it was an unmitigated disaster would be an understatement. Things continued to go south for the Chinese when they finished outside of the top four at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in Manila - thus missed out on qualifying for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain - and failed to bag the 2014 Asian Games gold medal in Incheon.

Last year proved to be the turning point, though, as China - despite many of their veterans hanging their sneakers - were able to sweep the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship by beating the likes of continental contenders Korea, Iran, and Philippines. With Yi leading a young core, China turned a lot of heads, and their victory served as a chilling reminder that Team Dragon have finally woken up from its slumber.


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But here's the catch: of the 12 players that represented China in London four years ago, only four were in the 2015 squad and probably only three will make the trip to Brazil this year. They are Yi, playmaker Guo Ailun and swingman Zhou Peng. Oldies but goodies like Liu Wei, Zhu Fangyu, Sun Yue, and Wang Shipeng have all lost their spots and that means that coach Gong's team will enter the Olympics without much fanfare.

That's not to say China won't be a good team in Rio. On the contrary, they have several young guys to watch who can potentially make an impact.

China's approach as the Olympics close in, then, should be about balancing experience and youth, as well as going all out since the next world-level basketball tournament will be the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, which, incidentally, they will play at home.

Among the wealth of talent available for coach Gong, Yi will undoubtedly be the anchor. The 28-year-old big man from GuangDong is currently in his prime and he should be a real force in the paint for China. He was easily the best inside presence at the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, averaging nearly 17 points and 9 rebounds per game while shooting close to 53 percent from the field. If he can duplicate those numbers in Rio, then China will have someone who can go toe-to-toe with the Gasol brothers and Andrew Bogut.



Expected to team up with Yi up front is 20-year-old wunderkind Zhou Qi. The 2.15m (7ft 1in) native of Xinjiang was splendid for the Chinese as they bested Gilas Pilipinas in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship Final, effectively limiting his CBA teammate Andray Blatche. Zhou has a rare combination of length and agility for someone his size, and that should serve him and his team in good stead in Brazil.



While the twin towers of Yi and Zhou bang bodies around the basket, coach Gong will rely on a pair of precocious point guards to ensure that everything is running like a well-oiled machine. These are Guo, who was among the All-Star Five of the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, and Liu Xiaoyu, who was China's top player at the 2014 Asian Games.



Both are speedy and spunky floor generals capable of finding their teammates in their sweet spots or creating for themselves. That versatility will help them as they square off with the likes of Mantas Kalnietis, Raul Neto, and, gulp, Steph Curry.

In all, China will be heading to Rio2016 with a practically new team - one with comparatively raw and young talent, but a team with renewed and reinvigorated spirit.


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