Team USA’s first game of group play ended in a fairly predictable result: a 57-point blowout against China that put on full display what the rest of the field has to deal with. Team USA only has two players on the roster shorter than 6-foot-7, and more than half of the team has a wingspan of at least 6-foot-11. The team is a leviathan of flowing arms and sliding feet. A 6-foot-1 Zhao Jiwei was hounded by Paul George, who has the dimensions of a power forward.
There’s only one thing we’ll remember from this aggressively forgettable game: The world witnessed George’s ankles fall into a hypnic jerk while guarding Zhao in the backcourt. But George did a good job for most of the game, I swear!
China’s guards were pressured 25 feet out on the perimeter, which made every pass attempt, let alone possession, a precarious operation. At times, the smartest play for the China was simply to get the ball into the hands of Yi Jianlian as quickly as possible and have him hoist a shot. Yi scored 25 points on 8-for-19 shooting, and was the only Chinese player to take more than six shots. He may have only shot 42 percent from the field, but in a strange, retrograde way, China was playing the percentages: The Chinese team committed 24 turnovers, and had one more assist (16) than Team USA had steals (15). Keeping the ball in one player’s hands was safer than trying to force ball movement against an overwhelming American squad.
Team USA’s versatile pressure defense will be a challenge for any team in the tournament, but it was an especially tricky proposition for the Chinese national team, which has long had a fraught relationship with developing backcourt talent. Chinese athletes are targeted early for specific traits and brought into academies run by the government. As Doug Collins mentioned on the NBC broadcast, height is the primary concern with China’s basketball development system. A look at the box score reveals just that: Their starting lineup featured only one guard. Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer, Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, and Sun Yue have all passed through the NBA, with Yao the lone success story, and all five are 6-foot-9 or taller. If the unicorn in modern American basketball is the mobile, multifaceted 7-footer, China’s is something of its inverse: finding exceptional talent in a player of unexceptional size.
The nation of more than 1 billion people thought it’d found that player in the early 2000s with Chen Jianghua, a prodigious talent who was stringing together NBA-grade crossovers by the time he was 14. China thought he was the next Allen Iverson. As a 17-year-old, Chen played against Team USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championship and got rave reviews from both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade; Mike Krzyzewski joked about recruiting him to Duke. China has always needed a caretaker at the point guard position, but Chen never evolved past the unhinged flashiness of his formative years. He’s only 27 now, but he hasn’t played for the national team since 2013.
Zhao and Guo Ailun lead the backcourt rotation now, and it’s a step in the right direction. They don’t quite see the court as a canvas for an endless YouTube highlight mixtape, but in this case, that’s a good thing. Guo, especially, is a treat to watch. He has the hesitations and crossovers you’d expect from a high-level point guard, as well as a 6-foot-4 frame that’s stronger than most Chinese guards at the senior level. He was China’s most efficient offensive player, but curiously only managed to play 16 minutes off the bench. With Yi Jianlian and 2016 Rockets draftee Zhou Qi — two skilled, NBA-caliber big men who serve as the respective present and future of the China’s hoops scene — this is the time to begin building a stronger national identity that goes beyond Biggest Player Available. But that might have to start with the coaching staff. Against Team USA, you need as much offensive creativity as possible. Playing a bunch of big men at the same time for the sake of playing big won’t work — especially if few of them are capable of creating for themselves.