CBA Draft finally coming of age

Record number of collegiate players picked in Shanghai

From its embarrassing debut in 2015 to Monday’s highly anticipated talent trawl, the Chinese Basketball Association Draft has evolved into a springboard for sending more young hoopsters to the nation’s professional ranks.

Initially ignored by most teams for having little value in terms of attracting talent, over the past few years the CBA Draft has become a high-profile stage for young players to demonstrate their commitment to the pro challenge.

The league’s effort to upgrade the draft system is paying dividends, highlighted by the record number of 16 players-including six from the CUBA-selected by 10 teams at its fifth edition in Shanghai on Monday.

That’s in sharp contrast to its 2015 debut when just a single player was picked-by the Chongqing Fly Dragons (now Beijing Royal Fighters).

The intense spotlight on this year’s No 1 overall pick Wang Shaojie, selected by the Stephon Marbury-coached Royal Fighters, was a far cry from the cold shoulder given to Fang Junlei, the lone selectee in 2015, who retired right after spending his entire rookie season on the bench.

The different receptions given Fang and Wang, both standouts in the Chinese University Basketball Association (CUBA), reflect the association’s progress in building a campus-to-pro talent pipeline to mirror the NCAA’s contribution to pro leagues in the United States.

Wang, who led Peking University to the collegiate title in June and was named MVP of the final, topped the list of 23 college players participating in this year’s draft-an all-time high.

That raises hopes the collegiate system will play a bigger role in complementing the State-run system, which produced 25 draftees this year.

“The CBA Draft is on its way to opening the doors wider to all talented players, no matter where they come from,” said Zhang Xiong, the league’s president of basketball operations.

“Our league is committed to offering opportunities to every player who has a professional dream, and the draft helps facilitate that.”

As part of the reform initiated by CBA chairman Yao Ming in 2017, this year’s draft featured a pre-selection training camp patterned after the NBA’s Draft Combine.

Six days of physical tests, one-on-one battles, team drills and scrimmages in front of general managers and coaches helped them measure the depth of the talent pool.

“It helps expose each of the draftees’ physical and technical strengths and weaknesses in an obvious way, which makes it easier for teams to identify and measure the players they like,” Cui Wanjun, head coach of Nanjing Monkey Kings, told China Daily during the camp.

“The challenge for players to prevail in each of the tests has become tougher while the competition levels up. The camp offers a valuable measurement of their survival chances in the pro league.”

To make a potential CBA career more appealing to college grads, the reform has extended rookie contracts from one to two years, at an increased annual salary of 500,000 yuan ($72,690).

Another highlight of the reform was inviting six grassroots players coming off neither collegiate nor pro backgrounds to attend the training camp. Although none were selected, the effort to widen the path to the pros is seen as a positive.

“Knowing I had little chance of being drafted, I still gave it a try because going pro is any baller’s dream, no matter where you came from,” said Zhou Rui, a 31-year-old who has earned a reputation as one of China’s best streetball players.

Over the weekend, this year’s draftees lost all three exhibition games against CBA Summer League teams featuring players developed by CBA clubs’ own youth systems.

“It will take time for the draftees to sharpen their game to the level needed in the league, but the overall talent coming through the draft has improved a lot,” said Cui, who led the Xinjiang Flying Tigers to the league finals in 2014.

The improved competitiveness of collegiate talent was showcased during CBA All-Star Weekend in January, when a CUBA select squad led by Wang defeated a youth team comprised of CBA reserves 90-88 in the Rising Star Challenge.

Jiang Yuxing, selected by Jilin Northeast Tigers as the top draft pick in 2018, won Rookie of the Year honors last season after averaging 8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2 assists in 47 games.

“Sooner or later, I believe players coming through the draft system will supply most of the talent in the league,” said Jiang, a 24-year-old point guard drafted from the country’s second-tier National Basketball League.

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