#Rio2016: Young guns key for China's fortunes at Olympics

Li Muhao is among the players expected to step up for China in #Rio2016.
(image from FIBA)

*This first appeared on my weekly column on FIBA.com.

In order for China to make a splash at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, young guns Zhai Xiaochuan, Li Muhao, and Zou Yuchen will have to step up.

I mean, sure, Team Dragon will still heavily rely on the quartet of former NBA player Yi Jianlian, NBA Draft hopeful Zhou Qi, star guard Guo Ailun and veteran Zhou Peng, but, frankly speaking, head coach Gong Luming's wards won’t get very far if nobody outside of those four erupts for big production.

In a recent three-game series of tune-up contests with a selection from Australia's National Basketball League (NBL), China finished with a 1-2 mark, winning the inaugural outing before losing the next two. The Chinese beat the Aussies, 57-49, last May 6 in Nanning, fell 72-64 two days later in Guangzhou and then succumbed again last night, 76-65, in Beijing.

In those three games, Zhai, Li and Zou were among coach Gong's top performers. As the starting center, Li's size and length gave the Aussies a ton of problems around the basket, while Zhai's versatility also made him a tough assignment.

Zou, however, seemed to show the most promise. Despite being a little raw in terms of competing at the senior level, the 19-year-old power forward from Bayi shone brightly, scoring 13 points in the first game, 16 in the second, and finishing with 10 on Tuesday.

He was, by far, the team's most consistent performer, showing a lot of aggressiveness and energy on both ends of the court while also displaying his improved perimeter shooting. Without a doubt, he should be among Gong's top considerations in finalizing his roster for Rio 2016.

Zhai, for his part, will be an asset on the wings. At 2.04m (6ft 8in), he is big enough to be a power forward for this team, but his ball-handling and perimeter shooting also enable him to be a top choice for the small forward spot. In some ways, the native of Beijing plays a lot like former national team stalwart Zhu Fangyu. At the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, Zhai impressed as he hit 10 triples in nine games and averaged 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest. I wouldn't be surprised if he starts at small forward ahead of Zhou, who looks to be more comfortable being a leader in China's second unit.

As for Li, the 2.18m (7ft 2in) behemoth from DongGuan gave a good account of himself against the NBL selection. He recorded 10 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks in their lone win and put up 14 points in the second game. He didn't fare as well in the third outing, but the writing on the wall is clear: Li is, quite literally, a big piece of the present and future of Chinese hoops. He certainly is not as mobile as Zhou Qi, and the former also lacks the latter's defensive instincts. But what Li lacks in agility and rim-protection he more than makes up for in tenacity, especially when it comes to collaring those rebounds. He should be a solid reserve for China in Rio, barring any injury or very rapid improvement from another Chinese slotman, Wang Zhelin.

China may have lost their three-game series against Australia, but if Zou Yuchen, Zhai Xiaochuan and Li Muhao all continue to raise their level of play, the team should be a threat to contend for a medal in the Olympics.




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