Since Yi Jianlian's departure from the Dallas Mavericks in 2012, Chinese fans have been eagerly waiting for a player to fill the void of homegrown players in the NBA left by Yao Ming -- and so has the league.
"It frustrates me that there are no Chinese players in the NBA right now," commissioner Adam Silver told reporters before Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals. "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."
Chinese fans got a brief tease when Yi returned to participate in the Los Angeles Lakers' training camp before asking to be released due to concerns over playing time. After a long wait, they now have another possibility. Zhou Qi, the best big man in China, is signing a multiyear deal to join the Rockets, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. The expectations are high for the 2016 second-round draft pick.
At 7-foot-2, Zhou should be a promising addition to the Rockets' roster. His game is still raw, which will make it difficult for a team with title ambitions to rely on him immediately, but his ability and potential are intriguing.
"Coach [Mike] D'Antoni likes how Zhou Qi plays," Rockets' GM Daryl Morey posted on his Weibo last year. "Coach believes Zhou's a right fit for the team."
After the series of trades that Houston made to acquire Chris Paul before the start of free agency, the only quality big men left on the roster are Clint Capela, stretch-4 Ryan Anderson and potentially Nene, if he re-signs with the Rockets. Zhou has a good chance to be the team's third center at the start of the season. Given Nene's age (he'll be 35 when the season starts) and injury history, Zhou should get his opportunities to see the court.
His shooting range meets Houston's needs and D'Antoni's style of play. Last season in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), he shot 36.4 percent from the FIBA 3-point line on 55 attempts. That's a small sample size, and NBA defenders might not chase Zhou all the way out to the 3-point line early on, but if he proves he can hit shots he'll open up the floor even more for Paul and James Harden.
"The young player they had that was picked by Houston is pretty good," Warriors star Kevin Durant said of Zhou days after Team USA played China in the 2016 Olympics. "He is long, he is agile and he can shoot the basketball really well."
ESPN's Insider Kevin Pelton translated Zhou's stats from the CBA to project his expected performance in the NBA next season. (Pelton's draft projections loved Zhou in 2016, but they were bolstered by his listed age of 20. Some NBA scouts suspected he was up to three years older than that). While his impressive CBA production from 2014-15 has dipped, there's reason for optimism.
"With hindsight, Zhou's 69.6 percent 2-point shooting in 2014-15 was almost certainly fluky; he's made just 57.9 percent of his 2-pointers since then," Pelton said. "Zhou's block rate (9.9 percent) wasn't so much fluky as it was unsustainable; no NBA regular blocked more than 8.0 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts last season.
"Even Zhou's more recent translations suggest an NBA-caliber player if he can overcome a significant strength deficit. He's an incredible shot-blocker and has improved on the defensive glass to the point of adequacy. Add in Zhou's ability to stretch out to the FIBA 3-point line and he's an intriguing prospect, though probably not someone Houston can count on contributing right away."
Zhang Weiping, one of the top basketball analysts in China, thinks Zhou can earn minutes with his hustle more than his skills early on.
"Zhou Qi's arms are very long, that makes him a great rim protector," he said. "He needs to work on getting more rebounds from the defensive end but he's certainly improving every day. He should be prepared to be a blue-collar player for the Rockets and work his butt off to earn his minutes. Houston doesn't really need him to score at this point, but they need him to do all the dirty work out there. And that's his opportunity to shine."
If he reaches his potential, Zhou could become exactly the type of modern center NBA teams covet (especially challenging the Golden State Warriors). However, Zhou's biggest problem is his lack of strength. Last year, Houston sent a trainer to China to help Zhou develop.
"The trainer has helped me a great deal. I've gained pounds and learned how to be physical," Zhou told ESPN in April. "I am getting much stronger and better training at the Rockets' facility. With the right nutrition and practice, I will be just fine."
Yao Ming's shadow looms large in Houston -- for Chinese fans, for the league and for Zhou. But he doesn't need to be Yao. Not right away, and not even at his peak. They play very different games. In fact, Zhou's best chance to make it is that he might just play the exact right game for this moment in the NBA.