Rise of the rookies

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It's still early in the regular season but already a number of budding young talents have caught the eye in the CBA league, offering glimmers of hope for the future of the national team.

From left: No 1 draft pick Chen Guohao of the Beijing Royal Fighters, Qingdao's 18-year-old center Yang Hansen, and Zou Yang of the Fujian Sturgeons have been the standout rookies so far in this season's CBA league. XINHUA/CHINA DAILY

The retirement of the great Yi Jianlian in August has left many fans wondering when Chinese basketball can unearth a similar gem. That search feels even more urgent after a difficult past few months for the men's national team, which included a disappointing 29th-place finish at the FIBA World Cup and losing the Asian Games title to the Philippines in Hangzhou.

The new CBA league season, which tipped off on Oct 21, offers clues as to where the national team might go from here, with several rookies dazzling with their raw ability and composure under pressure.

At the top of that list is Chen Guohao, the No 1 draft pick in 2023.Chen was sensational in his pro debut, registering a double-double of 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks to become the first drafted player to achieve a 20-plus-10 stat in his first CBA match.

The feat was made all the more sweet as his team, the Beijing Royal Fighters, outlasted the Qingdao Eagles 109-103.

Chen entered the fray with 3:45 left in the first quarter, and, having missed his first shot from beyond the arc, admitted he initially struggled to steady his nerves.

"In my first CBA game, I could feel the pressure," Chen said after the game. "Then I got my rhythm back, thanks to the encouragement of my coach and teammates."

Chen, a graduate of Guangdong University of Technology, helped his team overcome Tsinghua University 87-83 in the Chinese University Basketball Association league final with 30 points and 10 rebounds, and was awarded MVP of the final in June.

After being selected into the CBA with the first overall pick, the university star faced the same question as other rookies: Can he really adapt to the pro league?

A prolific scorer in the paint and boasting solid rim protection to boot, the 24-year-old Chen has answered that question with his performances on the floor.

After playing 39 minutes and 46 seconds, he rated his first outing as a seven out of 10.

"I didn't expect to play the entire second half, and I just tried my best to help the team," he said. "The double-double was beyond my expectations, but I need to improve in defense and gel better with my teammates."

Royal Fighters coach Min Lulei hopes Chen can stick to his own instinctive style while also leveling up the weaker aspects of his game.

"It was not that I intentionally wanted to give Chen so much playing time — he simply earned it through his hard work," Min explained, who led the other CBA outfit from Beijing, the Ducks, to three titles in four seasons between 2012 and 2015.

Without starting in any of his first seven games, Chen averaged 13.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in less than 32 minutes.

The Royal Fighters-Eagles opener was billed as a clash between two promising young stars, with Qingdao's 18-year-old center Yang Hansen also generating a buzz around the league.

Yang caught the eye at this year's FIBA U-19 Basketball World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary, where he averaged 12.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 5.0 blocks. Despite China's 10th-place finish, he also led the tournament in blocks and was named on the All-Second Team.

Developed in Qingdao's youth ranks, Yang showcased his nimble footwork, court vision, and ability to protect the rim. Standing 2.18 meters tall, Yang has been touted as the Chinese version of two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic.

The teenage center has averaged 18 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks so far in his first CBA season, and was the talk of the league after registering 31 points and 16 rebounds against Chinese international center Wang Zhelin in a double-overtime victory over the Shanghai Sharks.

Despite the rave reviews, Qingdao coach Liu Weiwei is attempting to keep expectations in check about the youngster.

"He has a long way to go," said Liu. "At this stage, he needs to block out the outside noise. He needs to improve step by step, without being distracted by those opinions. Hopefully, he can keep working hard, and we will continue to nurture him and be patient with him."

Zou Yang is another standout rookie this season. The Fujian Sturgeons power forward notched 15 points and 10 rebounds against the Zhejiang Lions to become the CBA's first drafted rookie to register a double-double in his debut.

Selected with the fifth overall pick, the 23-year-old Zou has been averaging 11.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in seven games.

Other newcomers to impress so far include Guangdong Southern Tigers forward Zhang Wenyi, Liaoning Flying Leopards guard Li Huyi, and No 2 draft pick Fang Jiachen of the Sichuan Blue Whales.

Their end-of-term reports will provide a clearer measure of their abilities, but for now their performances have at least given beleaguered Chinese hoops fans reasons to believe that brighter days could be ahead.

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