Rise of the underdog

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Nanjing Monkey Kings rookie Lin Wei goes for a layup during a 108-93 win over the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in the teams' final game before a season break in Hangzhou on Sunday. [Photo/China Daily]

With young guns muscling their way into the spotlight, the start of the Chinese Basketball Association season has witnessed a power shift as the domestic game's future suddenly looks bright again.

After nine games for each club inside the bio-secure bubble in Hangzhou, the first phase of the CBA regular season ended on Sunday, with league underdogs — bolstered by surging young talents — overthrowing perennial powerhouses.

Four teams that fell out of the top-12 playoff cut last year had all cracked the top eight by Sunday to spark hope of long-awaited deep runs for the minnows.

Among the surprises, last year's bottom team the Nanjing Monkey Kings and crosstown underachiever the Jiangsu Dragons, who finished third to last, have both impressed with newfound confidence and momentum to rank fifth and sixth respectively after the first phase.

Nanjing's rookie guard Lin Wei, the team's top homegrown scorer, has emerged as a new face of the league after averaging 16.9 points and 3.7 assists in nine games to spearhead the revival of the Monkey Kings, who won only two games the whole season last year and haven't reached the playoffs since 2014.

In his CBA debut on Oct 11, Lin drained a tough mid-range jumper with two seconds to go to help Nanjing secure a 90-88 opening win against the Tianjin Pioneers. Five games later, the sharpshooting guard, who turns 19 next month, hit two 3-pointers in a row to tie the game against the Shanghai Sharks at the end of regulation before finishing with 32 points to lead the Monkey Kings to an overtime triumph.

Joining Lin on the standout rookie list is his wingman Wang Lanqin, a point guard developed in China's collegiate system who was selected as the top pick by Nanjing in this year's CBA Draft.

A former standout for Tsinghua University, Wang's composure and efficiency for the Monkey Kings have silenced doubts over whether his college-honed game would be able to cope with the physicality and intensity of the pro stage.

The 24-year-old has averaged 12 points, 3.2 assists and 1.7 steals in the first nine games, with Nanjing fans beginning to believe that the early-season momentum won't be a flash in the pan.

"As a rebuilding young team, we've done much more than we had expected for the beginning of the season," said Nanjing head coach Xirelijiang, who also plays for the team, following a 108-93 victory over former league champion the Xinjiang Flying Tigers on Sunday.

"The hard work we put in over the summer and the trust we put in our young players paid off big time," said the 31-year-old former national team guard, who was appointed the league's youngest head coach by Nanjing in May.

"For the growth of our rookies, I believe it's only possible for them to mature as long as we allow them to play and make mistakes on the court, rather than just having them sit and watch on the bench. I've been there and relate to them in that regard, so I am trying to help them from a player's perspective," said the player-coach hailing from Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

With the CBA continuing its strict limit on the use of foreigners this season, a group of homegrown talents has stepped up to embrace bigger roles with their respective franchises.

Shanxi Loongs forward Zhang Ning, also a product of the collegiate system, rising Beijing Ducks star Zeng Fanbo, and league leader Zhejiang Golden Bulls' towering center Yu Jiahao are among those intriguing prospects. It is hoped they can form the foundation of China's national program in the future.

After struggling to earn minutes in his rookie year, Zhang's prolific 3-point shooting and tough defense on the perimeter has transformed him into one of the best 3-and-D players in the league. So far, he is averaging 17.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.4 steals in his third CBA season.

Relying on the strong presence of Zhang and veteran shooting guard Yuan Shuai, Shanxi finished the first phase in second position in the league standings.

"I said last year after losing to Liaoning in the playoffs that we'd like to be up there to see the game on the higher level. I meant it and we did it this year," said Zhang, a 25-year-old former Peking University captain who was selected eighth overall by Shanxi in the 2020 draft.

"The desire to step up our game has inspired myself and the whole team to prepare for the new season with hard work and focus. I am really proud that I lived up to my words and we will keep going."

The league now takes a break as Team China readies for Asian qualifiers for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. China faces Iran on Nov 11 and Bahrain three days later in Teheran.

Due to the early deadline (Oct 5) of roster registration before the CBA season started, Team China head coach Du Feng omitted some of the outstanding early-season performers from his 17-man training squad this week, yet he insists that the door is always open to in-form players, regardless of age.

"This season has seen a lot of young players come up big and make great progress. As coach of the national team, I take pride and confidence seeing that happen," said Du, also coach of 11-time CBA champion the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

"We've established a fluid talent pool system with the CBA and will keep an eye on the improvement of all the young players to call them up whenever they are ready.

"The future of the national team relies on the development of young players. I think we've done a good job nurturing them in the league."

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