New-look Ducks spread their wings

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Forget about the high-profile NBA imports. It's time for the Beijing Ducks to stand on their own.

With their roster reshuffled, the new-look Ducks look poised to make some noise in the forthcoming CBA season as the capital franchise plots its rebuild around homegrown talents.

Young forward Zeng Fanbo takes aim during a training session in Beijing on Friday. CHINA DAILY

For the first time in a long while, the Ducks are heading into the new campaign without any big-name foreigners on their roster. The team's decision to waive its right to re-sign American-born former NBA guard Jeremy Lin was the biggest indication of the fresh approach.

Touted as the cornerstone of the Ducks' brave new world is Zeng Fanbo, a 19-year-old forward who has just returned from the United States following a season in the NBA's G League.

An exceptional ball handler for his size, the 2.11-meter Zeng's combination of shooting accuracy beyond the arc and all-action shot-blocking at the other end of the court has drawn comparisons to NBA superstar Kevin Durant.

The rookie, though, is keeping his feet firmly on the ground ahead of his debut CBA season.

"I am still a young player who has just made it up to the adult team for the first year. Nothing more, nothing less," Zeng said after an open practice session at the Ducks' training facility in western downtown Beijing on Friday.

"Despite having played in the States, the intensity and physicality of the CBA league will be a big challenge for me. It will take time for me to get used to this level for sure."

A product of the Ducks' youth system, Zeng was sent to study and play in the American high-school system in 2017 as part of the "Basketball Pioneers Program", a youth project funded by the club's parent company Shougang Group. He signed with G League team Ignite in October last year, however an injury-plagued season diminished his chances of being picked in this year's NBA Draft.

In his 19 games for Ignite in the development league, Zeng averaged 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds. A rebuilding franchise like the Ducks is the perfect platform for Zeng to grow, reckons coach Xie Libin.

"We have young players like Zeng to mature and a lot of chemistry to build on a new roster. We need some warm-ups to figure things out and build from there. We are all in this together," said Xie, a former Ducks guard who last season served as an assistant under the team's previous head coach, Yannis Christopoulos.

With Christopoulos resigning following a disappointing first-round exit from the 2021-22 playoffs, the Ducks promoted Xie to replace the Greek in the offseason, opted to waive veteran guard Liu Xiaoyu and signed a low-key yet practical foreign combo in Nick Johnson and TJ Leaf.

The offseason of flux signals a major shift in the Ducks' style of play, with the younger players buying into the new approach, according to Xie.

"We've been working on our transition plays by pushing up the tempo and trying to go faster with more counterattacks," said Xie.

Zhai's high praise

Zeng's agility, height, long wingspan and threats on both ends of the floor make him a natural fit for the Ducks' new up-tempo style. Fans will hope he can adopt a similar role to that played by current team captain Zhai Xiaochuan when he was retired NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury's foil during the franchise's run of three championships from 2012-15.

"He's got more talent than me and has started his career higher than where I began," Zhai said of Zeng's potential.

"He's quite aggressive. He's got a lot of energy. I really like him as a young player," added forward Zhai, 29.

"But to be honest, he needs more drills to get used to the competition of this level. We are all on his side to help him grow and live up to his potential. It's on us all to build the Ducks' future together."

With just over a month to go before the season tips off on Oct 10, Zhai is facing a tough challenge of his own to get back to peak condition after just completing a long quarantine due to a bout of COVID-19 that he picked up in early July during the national team's FIBA Asia Cup campaign in Indonesia.

Zhai battled fatigue and fever for more than a week before isolating for over 20 days in total-first in Jakarta and then Hong Kong-while the rest of the national team flew to Europe for a training camp. He finally returned home to Beijing on Tuesday.

"Physically, I feel OK now but I still need at least a week to get back to my best shape so that I can go full tilt in scrimmage," said Zhai, a formidable member of the national team coached by Du Feng.

"It's definitely exciting that we are going to play faster under coach Xie in the new season. I will do my best to keep up with the pace of our young guns."

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