MIAMI — Zhou Qi needs someone to help him communicate at workouts with NBA teams, simply because he does not speak English well enough to understand most instructions.
His game, however, translates just fine.
In an NBA draft class that will likely have LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram as the first two picks and then much uncertainty with the remaining 58, Zhou may draw plenty of intrigue. He stands just over 7-foot-2 in sneakers, has a wingspan just shy of 8 feet and can nearly touch the rim while standing flat-footed.
He is a big man with shooting-guard skills, China’s next NBA hope, a 20-year-old who’s already a pro at home and now wants to get on the game’s biggest stage.
“I am ready,” Zhou said at the NBA draft combine earlier this month.
Time will tell if NBA teams agree.
Some draftniks say he could be a late-first-round pick. The Boston Celtics – who have eight draft picks, including three first-rounders and the No. 3 selection – brought him in for a workout this week, as did the Memphis Grizzlies. He’ll audition for more NBA teams in the coming weeks, as everyone figures out their plans for the June 23 draft.
“I think his basketball English was good enough that it didn’t impede us from doing anything on the court,” Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger said after their workout. “I mean, obviously, we weren’t having detailed discussions about politics and economics or anything. … Very skilled for his size, very long frame, knows how to play.”
Executives seem to like what they’re seeing. Miami assistant general manager Adam Simon said Zhou made an impression even going back to last year at the Nike Hoop Summit – which annually brings together the best international players age 19 and under.
“He held his own against the top high school players in the country,” Simon said. “For him, here’s what you base it on: Big guy that can catch, has good hands and can run, especially for someone over 7 feet tall.”
Zhou is one of many intriguing overseas options in this draft class.
Forward Dragan Bender should be a lottery pick from Croatia, and countrymen Ivica Zubac and Ante Zizic are likely to get snagged in the first round by teams looking for centers. There’s also Turkish shooting guard Furkan Korkmaz, Serbian swingman Timothe Luwawu and Spanish forward Juan Hernangomez as strong first-round hopefuls. (And that doesn’t even include Oklahoma star Buddy Hield, a soon-to-be lottery pick who hails from the Bahamas.)
Fairly or not, each of the European and Asian draft entrants will be compared with Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 Latvian forward drafted last year by the New York Knicks who was the NBA’s second-best rookie.
“I think the international portion of this draft has got a lot of potentially good players,” ESPN basketball analyst and former college coach Fran Fraschilla said. “But certainly nobody ready to make an impact, let’s say, like Porzingis did a year ago.”
Zhou will face another automatic comparison, that being to 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinee Yao Ming. Zhou said China’s most successful NBA player is already a resource for him.
“We have been in touch,” Zhou said at the combine, speaking in Mandarin. “He shared a lot of his experience with me, mainly about training. I observed (what he did) when he came here back then, he told me of what he went through when he came, such as things to which to pay attention, and that the competition here can be tough.”
The drawback for Zhou is his build. He’s tall, but not big. At the draft combine Zhou weighed only 218 pounds, which means he would get overpowered in the post by even average-sized NBA forwards.
“I am growing all the time,” Zhou said, pointing out he’s gained 10 pounds in recent weeks.
The list of pluses Zhou brings is far longer. His wingspan and agility help give him a strong defensive presence, and he moves well. But his biggest asset is his shooting ability – 18-footers often seem like layups to him, and he’s working on extending his consistent range out to the NBA 3-point line.
His favorite player is Kevin Durant, but Zhou bristles at any comparison.
“I think I have my own style of play,” Zhou said. “Who am I like? I’m not like anyone. I’m like myself.”