BEIJING (Reuters) - Increasing numbers of former NBA players are turning to China’s professional league for jobs and their aggressive domination of the court has drawn criticism from a sports system dedicated to developing Chinese players.
China’s teams stepped up recruitment abroad this season after new rules allowed them to field two foreign players, a move the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) hoped would attract interest in the league and expose players to tougher competition.
High-level imports such as former NBA players Bonzi Wells and Donnell Harvey have, however, refocused virtually every CBA team’s strategy around the scoring power of the foreigners, reducing stats and game time for Chinese players.
“In the past it’s been guys who were good but more team-oriented,” said Jason Dixon, a U.S. import who has played for the Guangdong Tigers for 10 years.
“This year you’re finding a lot of high-caliber NBA players.
“Even in college (Americans) are told, ‘If you want to play in the NBA, you have to score, you have to have a sense of selfishness,’ and I think the Chinese don’t understand that.”
The CBA’s top 15 scorers are all foreigners this season, and the reaction has not been positive.
Dontae Jones, a former Celtics forward now leading the CBA in points scored, has been described by local media such as Titan Sports as a “cancer” on the Beijing Ducks because he shoots too much.
Former NBA guard Wells, who left the league last month, was also blasted by domestic media for pulling down the stats of his team mates by scoring as many as 50 points per game — without improving Shanxi Zhongyu’s record.
CBA office director Zhang Xiong agreed that the domination of the imports had been “detrimental for the growth of Chinese players,” who now play less.
However, increasing play time for imports had also helped to make the CBA more physical and created competition that would force Chinese players to improve, Zhang told Reuters.
The CBA is ultimately a training ground for players in a state-run sports system focused on increasing China’s success in international competition.
The association has encouraged physical play this season after critics, including Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, said the league’s low-contact style was not producing players tough enough for the international game.
“We want to become Asia’s best professional league,” Zhang said. “Then we can use this status to send high-level players to the national team and achieve historical breakthroughs at the Olympics and the world championships.”
The imports themselves needed to learn about China’s culture and adjust to its less individualistic system, he said.
“They are here to help CBA teams play, not just to exhibit their own shooting skills,” Zhang said.
One result of the surge of foreign talent into the CBA has been a reversal of fortunes for the once-mighty Bayi Rockets, who have won eight out of 13 championships since the league started.
Bayi, whose name means August 1 — the date of the foundation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — are unable to recruit overseas because their players are all officially soldiers.
Known for their rigorous, boot camp-style training and their never-say-die battling spirit, Bayi became the most popular team in the nation as they won the first six CBA titles.
This year, however, they have struggled against import-loaded squads and are 20-19 after an eight-loss streak last month.
Bayi remained a model for other teams, said Xu Jicheng, a top Chinese basketball commentator and former member of a junior army team.
“The ‘Bayi spirit’ is not just empty talk,” Xu said.
The team, who produced China’s first NBA player, Wang Zhizhi, had developed Chinese talent without recruiting foreign players before, and could do so again, Xu added.
“In this sense Bayi spirit is not outdated. It is a strong spirit that Chinese basketball can learn from in the future.”
Bayi may not even make the playoffs this year and this month suffered their worst loss ever — by 49 points — to defending champions Guangdong Tigers, a team they defeated in the CBA finals two years ago.
Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Clare Fallon