The Olympics is always a great time for NBA scouts to assess the pool of new talent China has to offer. Menk Bateer (Atlanta 1996), Wang Zhizhi (Sydney 2000) and Yi Jianlian (Athens 2004), for example, all had their first exposure to NBA teams at Olympic competitions.
So which basketball star have NBA scouts had their eyes on in Beijing? His name is Sun Yue.
Chinese basketball player Sun Yue
The 2.06m point guard played a key role in China's advance to the Olympic quarterfinals. He didn't score much, but his ability to run the team's offense has made him an important player for Team China, which has longed for a decent guard for a while. His performance has also driven up his stock as a future NBA player.
"I want to show myself to the world," said Sun, who averaged 8.1 points and the team-high 2.3 assists in China's six games at Wukesong Olympic Basketball Arena. "I tried to do my best and play my part on the court. For me, every second counts at the Olympics, so I want to take the chance to let people know me."
With Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian already finding success in the NBA, the whole nation is wondering who will be the next big thing for Chinese basketball. There are numerous possible candidates, such as point guard Chen Jianghua, forward Wang Lei, or small forward Yi Li. But none of them have Sun's potential.
Dubbed "China's Magic Johnson" by domestic media, Sun was selected by the Lakers as the No 40 pick in last year's draft. The franchise has reportedly agreed to terms on a contract with Sun and hopes to finalize the signing soon.
Sun declined to comment on his deal with the Lakers, but the guard did admit that playing alongside Kobe Bryant is his ultimate goal. It turns out he already passed an informal interview with the Lakers star.
"I met Kobe and told him I'd like to play with him next season, he said 'OK', and 'see you in training camp'," Sun told China Daily after China's opening loss to the US.
Sun played a strong game despite spending most of it being guarded by Bryant, arguably the best outside defender on the planet. Sun protected the ball well and kept Bryant from disrupting China's offense too much.
The NBA's Most Valuable Player was impressed with Sun in the first meeting.
"I think he's very talented, actually," said Bryant. "I was very impressed by him. I think he has great size, great length, good shooting touch, good ball handler, good vision, good pace.
"I was surprised at his size right off the top. He was able to handle the ball. I tried to test him a little bit, see if he could go left, go right, that sort of thing. So I like him."
Chris Paul, the NBA's leading point guard and runner-up to Bryant in MVP voting last season, agrees.
"No 9 (Sun) is the best player in China's backcourt," he said during a press conference. "He is very quick, very athletic, very talented. He can shoot, and I think he can really play."
Sun isn't a stranger to Los Angeles either. He has played two seasons in LA in the American Basketball Association (ABA), a low-level pro-league in the US.
"I know that city pretty well," he said.
The Los Angeles Times describes Sun as a smaller Toni Kukoc - long and left-handed with a surprising all-around game.
But the competition to join the Lakers will be fierce. The team has already signed guard Dwayne Mitchell and drafted guard Joe Crawford. The team's backcourt features Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Kobe Bryant, Coby Karl and the recently re-signed Sasha Vujacic.
It may be a while before Sun's contract is finalized, but his massive improvements have won him high praise from teammates and coaches.
"He wasn't a very good shooter and dribbler before, but this time he was doing great on both sides," said Yao Ming. "I noticed his progress after returning to China in July. I think he is ready for his NBA trip."
China's Lithuanian coach Jonas Kazlauskas agreed with Yao. "Sun is very impressive on both ends. He has size, he can play three positions on court. He can play different offenses, and he is a great defender as well."
(China Daily August 23, 2008)