Like father, like son? Perhaps but not necessarily for a group of young CBA talents who are stepping out of the shadows of their basketball-playing parents.
Despite their advantageous genes, these players’ path to prominence has arguably been even tougher than their peers.
Jiangsu Dragons rookie forward Zheng Qilong is one of those second-generation prospects who has silenced accusations of nepotism by making his presence felt in the top flight this season.
Selected by Jiangsu as the fifth pick in this year’s CBA draft from Tsinghua University, Zheng has emerged as a hot favorite for the league’s Rookie of the Year award. A power forward with a deft shooting touch, the 24-year-old’s exceptional athleticism is reminiscent of his father Zheng Wu, a prolific scorer for Team China in the 1990s.
A role player who only averaged 5.7 points on Tsinghua’s roster, the 2.02-meter forward has proved an instant fit for the Dragons, who are coached by his father’s former national teammate Li Nan.
Zheng announced his arrival by scoring 20 points in his CBA debut against the Qingdao Eagles on Oct 17. Since then he has averaged 11.7 points (shooting 44.7 percent from the field) and 4.4 rebounds over 12 games off the bench in the first phase of the 2020-21 regular season, which was staged in a bio-secure bubble in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having already being accepted for a postgraduate course at Tsinghua by the time he decided to sign up for the draft, Zheng is grateful that he opted to pursue a pro basketball career and follow in the footsteps of his father.
“Just like everyone, I was not sure about my future after graduation,” Zheng, who majored in business management, told Xinhua in a recent interview.
“If I continue my graduate studies, I will probably have to give up playing basketball. But I do not want to let it go since it has been with me for so many years.”
Coach Li has high expectations of Zheng, whose mobility around the court is a rarity for such a big man.
“He’s got a natural gift, without question,” Li, one of the CBA’s greatest ever 3-point shooters, said of Zheng.
“But nothing is taken for granted here. Playing well in the first few games doesn’t mean anything. He needs more experience at the top level to be able to deliver on a more consistent basis throughout the season.”
It doesn’t look as if Zheng will be getting carried away with his flying start either.
“My father has taught me a lot, both about being a good person and a quality basketball player. Now he also watches my games and points out my weaknesses and things that I need to improve on,” he said.
“I used to feel the pressure when I was young, but now I don’t care about it too much. After all, my father is my father, and I am still me.
“I just want to be who I am and try to do better. In the long run, I do hope to play for my country and follow my father’s journey.”
A member of China’s “golden class of 1996”, Zheng senior was a member of the national team that finished eighth at the 1994 world championships and 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Jiangsu also boasts another young thoroughbred hoopster－Li Lutong, the offspring of head coach Li, who promoted his son from the Dragons’ youth system this season.
Given that difficult dynamic, the younger Li perhaps requires greater efforts than other rookies to earn minutes off the bench.
A 2.10-meter center with a slender frame, the 18-year-old Li only averaged 3.3 points and one rebound in 25 minutes over three games this season.
“Apparently he’s lacking the strength to handle the physicality of the CBA at the moment,” coach Li said of his son’s performance after the Dragons’ 110-92 defeat to the Jilin Northeast Tigers in the season opener on Oct 20.
The Li family could perhaps learn a thing or two from the Zhejiang Lions, where head coach Li Chunjiang and his sharp-shooting son Li Jinglong have worked together for years.
The senior Li is known for his rigorous and demanding coaching style that helped steer the Guangdong Southern Tigers to seven league titles from 2001-13. He never shows mercy when it comes to correcting his son from the sidelines.
Having already been put through his paces on the court at the age of 9 by dad, the younger Li never imagined he would one day play professionally under his father’s direction until the Lions signed the renowned coach from Guangdong in 2013.
The uncharted territory, combined with challenges in his own development as a pro, put Li Jinglong in a tough situation.
“It really bothered me at the beginning to delineate our roles on the court and at home,” said Li, 25, who made his pro debut in 2013.
“Having gained more experience coping with this delicate working relationship, I’ve now become used to playing under coach Li while treating him as father at home. It’s all about doing your job well and enjoying family time separately.”
With dad furiously barking instructions from the sidelines, Li’s game has flourished, shooting 38.1 percent from 3-point range to score 10.1 points per game in the first phase of this season.
Among the rising stars of this campaign, the Liaoning Leopards’ former NCAA player Zhang Zhenlin also boasts strong hoops genes. Zhang’s mother is Wang Fang, a former women’s national team player who helped Team China win a sliver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Known as Kevin, Zhang averaged 5.8 points and 2.3 rebounds in 60 games representing Tulane University in the NCAA Division 1 from 2018-20 before he decided in the summer to turn pro and join his hometown club Liaoning.
After a two-week break, the CBA will resume its regular campaign on Wednesday with each of 20 clubs playing 26 games behind closed doors in the second phase in Zhuji through Feb 4.