SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Guo Ailun doesn’t cut an imposing figure. A slender 6-foot-4, 187 pounds, tall enough for an onlooker’s athlete alarm to sound, slight enough for him or her to ignore it, Guo walked through a crowded lobby of a beachfront hotel last month largely unnoticed. No one knew he was one of the biggest stars of the Chinese Basketball Association. No one knew he could be the first Chinese guard to make a significant impact in the NBA.
Asia, China in particular, is one of the NBA’s final frontiers. Since 1987, when then-commissioner David Stern cut a deal to provide game footage to Chinese Central Television, the league has slowly increased its footprint. Today, more than 300 million Chinese play basketball, with hundreds of millions more devouring the 400 regular-season games available on free TV.
Yet the flow of talent from China has been slow, with imports largely limited to a handful of big men. Yao Ming, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year, is China’s most prominent NBA player, with Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer and Yi Jianlian among a small group of Chinese players to filter through the league. Last season, not a single Chinese-born player played in the NBA.
“It frustrates me that there are no Chinese players in the NBA right now,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said during the NBA Finals last month. “There’s probably more basketball being played in China than anywhere else in the world. And more NBA basketball is being watched in China than anywhere else in the world.”
For years, Guo, 23, was one of those viewers. Growing up in Liaoning, a province in northeast China, Guo, like many Chinese kids, developed an NBA addiction. He would rise early, settle in front of a TV in his living room and watch the two live games CCTV showed each week. Soon, he was buying NBA magazines and DVDs. He was scouring the internet for Allen Iverson highlights.
“That Iverson crossover,” Guo told The Vertical through a translator. “I loved that Iverson crossover.”
In China, Guo rose rapidly. He was identified by the national program in his early teens and added to the national team roster at 16. He led China to a first-place finish at the FIBA Asia Championship in 2015 and averaged 27 minutes per game at point guard in the 2016 Olympics. He has been a regular at offseason camps for years. In 2008, eager to prove himself against the U.S. elite, Guo played through the Adidas Nations camp with bone spurs in his ankle.
“I could barely walk,” recalled Guo. “But I wanted to play.”
As Guo’s game grew, so did his interest in the NBA. His first test against top NBA talent came in 2010, in a scrimmage against the U.S. national team in New York. “Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry,” Guo said. “I was nervous.” It showed. Guo’s final line: eight minutes, five shots, no makes. Added Guo: “I had one pretty good layup attempt.”
Still, he continued to work. Since 2012, Guo has spent summers training in the U.S. This year, he spent six weeks working with Rob McClanaghan, a noted trainer whose client list includes Westbrook, Curry and Kevin Love. For five to six days a week, they worked. Whatever McClanaghan asked, Guo did. And then asked for more.
“He’s a relentless worker,” McClanaghan told The Vertical. “He reminded me of Westbrook. He works so hard, and he doesn’t understand what time off is.”
With McClanaghan, Guo zeroed in on NBA skills. Pick-and-rolls. Change-of-pace dribble. Developing NBA 3-point range. In group settings, he drilled with NBA veterans Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings. Guo, McClanaghan says, “is an extremely good ball-handler, there is nothing he can’t do with the ball,” with a polished midrange game and an ability to finish strong at the rim.
“He can play in the NBA,” McClanaghan said. “He just needs to continue to work on NBA stuff.”
And there lies a fundamental issue with developing Chinese talent. In China, team skills are emphasized in training; individual skills are not. “In China, we always train as a team, so really, there is no individual fundamental focus to improve your weaknesses, whether it be shooting, whether it be passing, whether it be dribbling, because you’re trained in the team environment,” Guo said. “In the U.S., I get better at personal skills and personal game.”
The NBA has worked to change that. The league has invested millions in Chinese player development. NBA Academies have been launched in three cities – Hangzhou, Jinan and Urumqi – and the league has collaborated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, the CBA and Yao to grow the game. During the last school year, more than 500,000 students from 525 schools across 11 provinces participated in basketball classes. The NBA regularly sends its coaches to China to conduct clinics, while each year a dozen CBA coaches travel to the U.S. to observe NBA practices.
To McClanaghan, the ability to understand basic NBA sets is critical.
“Every possession in an NBA game there are ball screens,” McClanaghan said. “It’s not always like that over there. Read screens, read the defense, make plays in less dribbles. And be able to defend all that. You can’t defend a ball screen, it’s very tough to stay here.”
China could be represented in the NBA next season. Zhou Qi, a wispy 7-2 big man, signed with the Rockets this month. Ding Yanyuhang, the CBA’s domestic MVP last season, played in summer league with Dallas.
Guo will return to China, to the Liaoning Flying Leopards, his team since 2010. The NBA is still his goal, and interest is growing. Wasserman, a powerful player rep agency, signed him last year. So, too, did Jordan Brand, making Guo the company’s first Asian player. The Lakers, Warriors, Timberwolves and Heat have scouted Guo in recent years.
Eventually, Guo will have to make a decision. He’s well paid in China – around $3 million per year. The NBA’s rookie minimum is $815,000. He’s marketable, with a chance of becoming the best CBA player ever. In the NBA, he’s likely a career backup, at best. Fulfilling his dream will come at a cost.
Regardless, Guo represents progress. Chinese big men have penetrated the NBA, with varying degrees of success. In Guo, it’s a first, faint sign: The Chinese guards are coming.
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