Captain Yi targets big rebound
Team China leader has squad primed to end prolonged World Cup losing streak on Saturday
It's crunch time for Team China.
With the FIBA World Cup tipping off on Saturday in Beijing, can the much-hyped national squad prove its worth in front of tough home crowds?
It's been nine years since Team China won a game at the World Cup: an 83-73 victory over Cote d'Ivoire at the 2010 edition in Turkey, when the tournament was known as the world championships.
Newly appointed captain Yi Jianlian has vowed to end the long losing streak when the host squad opens its Group A campaign on Saturday at Wukesong Sport Arena - with Cote d'Ivoire again the opponent.
The 31-year-old Yi became a household name in 2007 when he joined the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. After 272 games over five seasons with the Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks, the Guangdong native finally returned to the Chinese Basketball Association with the Guangdong Southern Tigers in 2016.
Yi, who suited up alongside eight-time NBA All-Star Yao Ming for Team China at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has won five CBA championships and three CBA Finals MVP awards.
He was named team captain on Wednesday, and the news instantly went viral on Chinese social media with related topics viewed over 27 million times by Thursday morning. While tens of millions of fans expressed their support online, Yi posted on Weibo: "Against the odds! You can't step back! Let's go China!
"Eleven years ago we hosted the Beijing Olympics, and now we are hosting the FIBA World Cup. No one knows when we will have the opportunity to host such a high-level international basketball tournament.
"It's a rare opportunity for all of us. You can feel the special duty when you see the national flag on your chest. It's very meaningful for the national team and for me to play in the World Cup in front of the home crowd."
Yi will have a strong supporting cast, led by rising stars Zhou Qi, Guo Ailun, Wang Zhelin and Abudushalamu.
Zhou was the only Chinese player in the NBA last year when he saw spot duty with the Houston Rockets. The 23-year-old showed initial promise off the bench but was unable to become a more reliable player.
A series of injuries, including a sprained knee and a twisted elbow, limited Zhou's playing time and the Rockets eventually released him to their G-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He returned to his former CBA club, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, earlier this month.
Zhou proved his worth for the national team by playing a key role in China's gold-medal triumph at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.
"I'm in better condition now after a whole summer of training and competing," said Zhou. "Through the warm-up games ahead of the World Cup, the whole team has become closer and better. Each player has his own character, and we maximize our advantages when we play together."
The World Cup will also be a major test for CBA chairman Yao Ming who has been pushing a series of reforms to level up the overall strength of Chinese basketball since being elected to the post in 2017.
"Winning matches is Team China's priority, but that's not the only goal for Chinese basketball," said Yao.
"The World Cup and all other top international tournaments are like sprint competitions. It's important we win these games, but we should focus more on the tenacity and endurance of our overall basketball development."
The final 12-man roster:
Head coach: Li Nan.
Forwards: Ren Junfei, Zhai Xiaochuan, Abudushalamu, Kelanbaike.
Centers: Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhelin, Zhou Qi.
Guards: Guo Ailun, Zhao Jiwei, Zhao Rui, Sun Minghui, Fang Shuo.
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