2012 London Olympic Previews, Group B: China

Today, we continue Olympic Madness with a preview of China!

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China

Group B

FIBA World Ranking: 10th

Qualfied By: 1st at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship

Previous Olympic Appearances: 8 (1984-2008)

NBA Players: Yi Jianlian (Dallas Mavericks)

History: The Chinese national team was mostly a joke internationally until the arrival of Yao Ming. They'd get to the Olympics and World Championship because nobody in Asia was really good at basketball, and routinely battle with the African and South American teams in the doldrums of international tournaments. When Yao arrived on the scene in 2002, things started to change. He was obviously the team's best player, but aside from former NBA player Wang Zhi Zhi, he never had any serious help. They qualified for the tournament stage in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but were destroyed in the first round by a better team. Yao did not play for the team in the 2010 World Championship, and they went out of the tournament with only one win.

Overview: With Yao's retirement in 2011, the team's current status doesn't look very good. Though China has a strong domestic league, it's dominated by NBA rejects like Stephon Marbury, and local players aren't given much of a fair shake (except on the Army team, the Bayi Rockets).

There is hope, however. The team has the help of NBA player Yi Jianlian, and former NBA player Wang Zhi Zhi. They're also still a step above their Asian basket competitors, rolling over most of their competition in the 2011 Asian Basketball Championship.

China's offense basically consists of two things: Shooting a jumper, or giving it to a big man inside. They'll have occasional drives, but for the most part, the team is really jumper happy. This leads to inconsistent offense, since their jumpers will go hot and cold. Their centers will do some post up moves, but for the most part they like to score putbacks or on open opportunities.

They don't have a point guard in the traditional sense, and will usually pass the ball around several times before actually throwing up a shot. This doesn't mean that they're necessarily good at passing, as the team is consistently one of FIBA's worst when it comes to assists. Basically, it means that if they rotate the ball around the perimeter enough or are able to draw pressure in the paint, they might get an open shot. Otherwise, the possession usually ends disastrously, with a bad turnover or a silly shot.

Defensively, China has two seven footers in the paint at all times, so their interior defense is really solid. But those centers, especially Wang Zhi Zhi and Zhaoxu Zhang, are really slow footed. So if the other team has a guy at power forward or center who can shoot, China will get routinely destroyed. This also means that they don't get that many steals, and rarely run the break.

Below: Depth, China's Younger Players, Why China is Ballin', Highlight Reels, Notable Players, Outside Quotes, Outlook For the Olympics and Beyond!

In terms of depth, China is usually five men deep. Once you venture outside their starting lineup, you start to see guys who are better at fouling or turning the ball over than anything else. As a result, the team will play their starters for long periods of time, and will get tired during more exhausting games.

That might change this year though, as China is looking to get some younger players into their lineup. Jinhui Ding, Peng Zhou, and Zheng Zhaoxu have been in the team's lineup since 2010, but didn't get playing time during the 2010 FIBA World Championship. The young Jinhui Ding and Li Yi have also been added to the lineup, adding to the intrigue. Many foreign eyes are resting on the young Guo Ailun, who was the youngest player ever to be selected to the senior national squad at 16 years of age in 2010. Basically, China's bench will be very young, and it's hard to determine how well they'll do until they're seen on an international stage.

Why This Team is Ballin':

Wang ZhiZhi. The BEST.

Best Highlight Reel:

I couldn't find any artistic highlights for China, but this video of their thrilling win in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship will do. It shows how China can win a game by basically dominating inside, using their combination of seven footers to strike the heart of the Jordan defense. To be fair, Sam Daglas basically lost the game for Jordan by missing an open floater, but China got work done offensively nonetheless.

Other Highlights: 2010 World Championship: Loss vs. Greece, Win vs. Ivory Coast, Loss vs. Puerto Rico, Loss vs. Lithuania 2011 Asian Championship: Win vs. Jordan (1), Win vs. Korea (first 54 Seconds)

Players to Keep an Eye On (click on their name for highlights): Wang ZhiZhi, a former NBA center who's mostly known for his deadly shot. Standing at 7'2", he has the ability to bully his way to open shots in mid-range and near the basket, and he's perfectly capable of hitting a three. He's can be a deadly offensive weapon, but his old age (32) and his slow feet hurt his defensive effectiveness. Yi Jianlian, an athletic big man and the team's only NBA player. Having spent time languishing on the bottom of rosters, he's considered to be a draft bust in the NBA. But he's the best China has to offer, and is a great shotblocker and dunker. Sun Yue, a former Lakers draft pick. He was to be the "Chinese Michael Jordan", but he never panned out in the NBA. He has insane hops and a great mid-range shot, but his court vision needs work. Wang Shipeng, probably the best non-NBA Chinese player. He has starred on the Guangdong Tigers for years in the CBA. He's smart with the ball, and does a decent job of driving the lane and firing threes. Wei Liu, a point guard who focuses on getting clean scores down low and open shots on the perimeter. Guo Ailun, China's next big guard prospect. He has a fantastic sense of where other players are on the floor, and a really fast first step. He's not exceptionally athletic, but he can finish around the rim and loves to run the break. Ding Jinhui, a young forward with a developing post game. Zhou Peng, a young swingman with decent athleticism. Zhaoxu Zhang, a 7'3" center who wasn't drafted out of Cal despite his height. That's about all you need to know about him.

What Others Are Saying:

"Yao hanging up his sneakers leaves a huge void in the middle of China’s team – one that the Iranians were able take advantage and beat China in the final of the 2009 Asia Championship and some expected would be the same last summer.

In London – as in 2011 – Donewald’s team will rely predominantly on Yi Jianlian – who himself has been battling injuries in recent years. Yi dominated the 2011 Asian tournament, averaging a double-double including 25 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks in the final against Jordan.

....

Besides Yi, the other real question mark is how well point guard Liu Wei can run the team as promising playmaker Yu Shulong – who will be 22 years old come the Olympics – is not yet far enough along to contribute at the highest level."

-FIBA.com Profile

"China's Asian title proves that the loss of Yao won't mean the loss of relevance for Chinese basketball in international competition. But there's no question that China is far less likely to escape group play without the 7'6 megalith. Wang Zhizhi, the former Maverick, is a fine player, and he replaces Yao as starting center. But that's a massive downgrade, and it hurts the nation's frontcourt depth considerably. Yi Jianlian (another former Maverick!) is the team's best player at power forward, and while he should put up numbers, he's a clear step or two below most Olympic nations' best players.

Sun Yue and veteran Liu Wei are respectable in the backcourt, though there are some particularly nasty match-ups due in Group B (like Australia's speedy Patty Mills and Brazil's tandem of crafty Marcelo Huertas and lightning bolt Leandro Barbosa). To advance to the knockouts for the second straight Games, China will likely have to beat Great Britain (likely) and either Australia or Russia. It could happen, but you'd be wise not to bet on it."

-Tom Ziller, SBNation.com

Does This Team Have a Shot at a Medal?

Having seen them play in past tournaments, right now, I'd have to say their shot at an Olympic medal is slim to none. They're at the level of international competition for the most part, but their unusual style of basketball gets them into trouble against every type of international competition. They're too big to guard Luol Deng and David Andersen, high scorers on the British and Australian teams that they're supposed to beat. Offensively, their guards don't have the flow necessary to score consistently, and their untested bench will hurt them early on. In my opinion, it would take a major upset for this team to beat anybody except maybe Brazil, who doesn't really have the talent or tools to exploit the Chinese in one way or another. But, if they do upset and get to the tournament stage, they don't really have the talent to beat Team USA, Argentina, or France.

Future Outlook:

China is continually developing young stars, and with foreign players now flocking to the CBA, the talent level there is increasing, and domestic players are getting used to the higher echelon of talent. China has 6 young players on this team, ready to take the reigns from the old. While there isn't a Yao-like prospect to get excited about (yet), I have no doubt China will be challenging for world medals within the next 20 years.

How do you think China will finish? Do they have a shot at beating Team USA? Vote in the poll, post a comment!

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