With five minutes left in the second quarter of Team USA’s July 26 exhibition game in Oakland against China, Kevin Durant, coming off a ball screen set by teammate DeMarcus Cousins on the right wing, looked poised to prey on the mismatch in front of him.
Durant deftly crossed over a lumbering Chinese big man and drove into the paint. But just as he got off the ground outside the restricted area for what looked like an easy left-handed layup, he was met in midair by an even lengthier body wearing a white No. 15 jersey. Apparently bothered by the high no-fly zone established by the defender’s ridiculously long arm, Durant lost control of the ball.
What exactly happened in this play? It depends on whom you ask.
Rockets not worried about Zhou Qi’s age, praise his basketball IQ
The Rockets reached to China with their second-round pick, and GM Daryl Morey sees big upside in 7-foot-2, 218-pound Zhou Qi.
For Durant, one of Team USA’s (and the world’s) most prolific scorers, it might simply be an offensive turnover. Chinese media, however, insisted it was solid swat by Zhou Qi, the 7-foot-2 forward who was tasked with guarding Durant on most occasions that night.
In no time, headlines featuring “Zhou Qi’s huge block on Durant” permeated Chinese sports news outlets. Speaking to media after the game, Zhou, the Houston Rockets’ second-round draft pick this year, made no mention of his “block” on his idol, but rather displayed humility.
“This type of matchup means something significant to me,” the 20-year-old said. “[Durant] is the role model that I should learn from, and he has a very large influence on my practice and games. For me, matching him up on the court is a very rare opportunity.”
The root of Zhou’s much-hyped “rivalry” against Durant — as depicted in a Chinese media poster previewing the Oakland game — could be traced to Zhou’s response to an interview question the week before.
Asked about his expectation from China’s Olympics opener against Team USA, Zhou said besides hoping to help China play a good game, he would “make an effort to deliver Durant a block.”
The fanfare that ensued is understandable. Durant is Zhou’s favorite NBA player. Although the two play different positions (Durant usually plays the 3 while Zhou is normally a 4), they share some similarities — they’re both long, lean, nimble and prefer to do most of their work from the perimeter over the paint.
Durant might not be aware of the “rivalry,” but Zhou certainly made an impression on him.
“The young player they had that was picked by Houston is pretty good,” Durant said of Zhou days after the game. “He is long, he is agile and he can shoot the basketball really well.”
Since Yi Jianlian’s departure from the Dallas Mavericks in 2012, China has been eagerly looking to fill the void of Chinese players in the NBA. As the country’s best big man, Zhou shows promise that he’ll be the one to live up to Chinese expectations.
Among those thrilled is Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who watched Zhou score a team-high 13 points in Oakland.
Zhou Qi high scorer vs team USA tonight #toughopponent
– Daryl Morey (@dmorey) July 27, 2016
Morey — now almost a household name among China’s NBA fans, many of whom are rabid Rockets fans due in large part to retired Rockets All-Star Yao Ming — might understand China’s expectations for Zhou best. He was in the midst of all the rumors and chatters leading up to the Rockets’ seemingly surprising selection with the No. 43 pick, after other teams favored by Chinese media and fans passed on Zhou.
It only became clear later that the Rockets’ move on draft night was rather part of a thorough plan. The team’s officials met with Zhou and his team in Chicago weeks before the draft. The Rockets’ scouts also had been following the Chinese team during its earlier exhibition games in Europe. Morey had even called up his good friend, Yao Ming himself, to discuss in detail Zhou’s perspective and situation.
During the draft, news first broke even before NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum made the official announcement. Morey wasted no time confirming to disbelieving Chinese fans through his Weibo (a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform) account.
“Welcome to Houston, Zhou Qi!” Morey wrote in a post, which quickly generated nearly 6,000 responses, many grateful to him and the Rockets.
However, the joy was overshadowed by talks that Zhou might not be able to play in the NBA next season because of complications. China’s two leading sports media outlets even started a tug of war; it began with one outlet quoting a Rockets source confirming Zhou will skip next season, only to be refuted by the other outlet, saying the negotiations were still under way.
It remains unknown when exactly Zhou will arrive. But an overall lackluster summer performance so far with the national team has led to some to conclude that Zhou is not ready for the NBA right now.
An impressive stint with China’s junior national teams allowed Zhou to demonstrate his prowess and huge untapped potential at an early age. He has been playing for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in the country’s top-tier league since 2014, alongside former NBA forward Andray Blatche, winning rookie of the year and leading the league in blocks.
However, Zhou has not developed into the dominating force most were expecting in his two seasons thus far. His inability to defend the post against former Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns center Hamed Haddadi in last season’s Chinese league playoffs raised more doubts as to his suitability for the NBA’s physicality.
Still, for Zhou and his team, slipping to the 43rd pick — a significant plunge from their expectations — was certainly disappointing. After the draft, Zhou had several bad games with the national team, but he insisted the draft was not a factor.
Zhou might never impact the NBA the way his predecessor Yao did, but they play very different games.
Durant, who has fought critics and doubters of his NBA potential since he entered the league in 2007, had some wisdom to share.
“Nobody knows how it is once you get inside of it,” Durant said of the league. “Once you get inside of it, your body is used to everything. It’s just a physical grind of the NBA season, you will be fine. Your confidence is going to grow when you play.”