Limp exit rocks China's rebuild to foundations

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Team China head coach Li Nan shows his frustration during Wednesday's loss to Venezuela in Beijing. ZHANG WEI/CHINA DAILY

Instead of contenders, Team China proved to be faint-hearted pretenders at the FIBA World Cup.

The host's ignominious elimination following Wednesday's 72-59 loss to Venezuela is refocusing criticism on the nation's stagnant player development and poor league competition-and leaves Team China in the same vacuous limbo as the perennially underachieving national soccer squad.

The Venezuelans celebrated wildly at the final whistle while 18,000 fans at Wukesong Arena sat in stunned silence, overseen by a haunting image of Chinese Basketball Association chairman Yao Ming's disgruntled visage on the jumbotron.

Finishing third in Group A with only one win over Cote d'Ivoire, the host will face South Korea on Friday and Nigeria on Sunday in Guangzhou in the 17-32 classification round to try to finish ahead of other Asian teams and earn a spot at next year's Tokyo Olympics.

China's sluggish performance against Venezuela, an impoverished South American country that almost failed to send its team due to economic considerations, was so disappointing that fans and media expressed concerns that Iran, which next plays lightweights Angola and the Philippines, could yet outrank China in the classification round to grab the Asian Olympic spot.

An anticipated rebound of Chinese basketball on the international stage following the retirement of Yao's generation now seems a distant dream.

"I think it's time to reposition ourselves in the world as elite basketball has been evolving much faster than we have managed to catch up with," Team China head coach Li Nan told the post-game media conference.

"Physically, our players are neither strong enough nor athletic enough to be able to play comfortably in a high-intensity hustle game. We are tall but slow. We played hard ... but not creatively enough."

The Venezuelan players, on average about five centimeters shorter than their Chinese counterparts, had a 49-28 edge in rebounds while holding the host to just 33 percent shooting from the field and 64 percent from the free-throw line.

"Watching China's basketball team perform like this, I now feel related to those desperate soccer fans," said one post on social-networking platform Weibo.

Ironically, the basketball team is staying at the same hotel in Guangzhou as the soccer squad, which is preparing for its opening 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Maldives on Sept 10.

The heavy reliance on ex-NBA players in China's domestic league, especially in playmaking positions, has failed to develop a world-class talent pool for the national program and there is no successor to Yao on the horizon.

The current team's backbone is 31-year-old forward Yi Jianlian, the only veteran of the 2008 class, who will likely end his international career if the squad fails to qualify for Tokyo.

Joining Yi in the paint as supposedly the team's twin pillars, 7-footers Zhou Qi and Wang Zhelin, who were selected by the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies respectively in the 2016 NBA Draft, have been huge disappointments-both overpowered by international rivals in the same position.

The only impressive performer in China's backcourt, young guard Guo Ailun, displayed his immaturity after getting fouled out in the defeat to Poland and scoring only one point against Venezuela.

Yao, an eight-time NBA All-Star and Basketball Hall of Famer, has been rolling out radical reforms to revamp the game's outdated governance, expanding the talent pipeline out of the State-run system while professionalizing the league operation since he took over the CBA leadership in early 2017.

"We have so much to do to make things right in every aspect of the game from the bottom up," said Su Qun, chief editor of Basketball Pioneer newspaper.

"Rather than condemning how bad they perform this time, we'd better get down to business to keep pushing the reforms on all fronts."

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