Believing in Li Muhao

Li Muhao could become the first Chinese basketball player drafted since 2007, and could be the best Chinese player in longer than that. So why does China not believe in him?
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Considering that he’s the first Chinese player since 2007 with a chance of getting picked in the NBA Draft, Li Muhao has a pretty dysfunctional relationship with Chinese basketball. When news broke that the 7’2 power-forward/center was flying to America for workouts, one commentator in a popular Chinese basketball forum noted that Li would be little more than Shawn Bradley. Within minutes, another had impishly pointed that unless Li grew a few more inches, he’d only be Hasheem Thabeet. These were not compliments.

It wasn’t just random haters in internet chatrooms that had something to say about Li. A couple of weeks later, the iconic center Wang Zhizhi, who is now settling into a Shaq-ian ‘respected former player with strong opinions’ role, said Li lacked a solid defensive game and needed to improve his technique.

All of this neatly sums up life for Li. Here is a player that has long been spoken of as a highly promising young player -- and who is, for all this noise, one of the most promising players to come out of China in recent years -- but who still remains oddly maligned in his home country. Game tape and statistics say some very complimentary things about Li. Many others in China say otherwise. NBA teams will have to decide who to believe, about Li Muhao.

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Part of the issue seems to be that Li Muhao is not Wang Zhelin, the rising superstar (and likely future NBA pick) of the Fujian Sturgeons. This is not Li’s fault, and while both men play together for the national team, otherwise they have very little in common. For starters, Wang’s game is closer to the punishing, back-to-the-basket style that China likes to see from its big men, while Li relies on his uncommon athleticism to give him an edge.

As the two players’ young careers have developed, their teams’ differing fortunes have also played into how local media perceives them. Wang is a critical part of an inept Fujian team; trusting their young dynamo to get his numbers was that team’s only option, and only hope.

Li, on the other hand plays for the Dongguan Leopards, a perennial playoff team that has kept him to a tight minutes restriction and which runs a largely guard-heavy offence that limits the touches for the frontcourt. Last season, Wang played almost forty minutes a game, and averaged 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds. Li, by comparison, got barely half as many minutes and put up 8.7ppg and 5.2 rpg for the year. Per minute, the two are more or less peers. In the public perception, they’re anything but.

Wang, like Li, will one day target a move to the NBA, but not this year. The CBA has a longstanding rule stopping Chinese players registering for the draft before they turn 22, and Wang is not about to break it. Wang has a couple of years left in China before he can jump, but Li, who turned 22 in early June, filed his papers immediately after his birthday. This may well have been the right choice for his career -- everything about Li’s recent CBA work suggests it was -- but it did little to help his standing where public opinion was concerned.

Following his registration, the inevitable backlash duly followed, amid talk from various quarters that Li was going too soon. This is a valid argument, as far as it goes. It’s tough to say that Li is ready for regular NBA minutes when he’s only recently received anything like that in China. But in a basketball culture that hews to Big Narratives even more slavishly than the NBA and its attendant media, there is also some predictable pushback against the idea that the runtish Li -- if that’s the word for a 7’2 frontcourt player -- would get his shot before Wang.

This rivalry has been brewing for years, going back as early as 2011 when China’s best young players took on Duke in a series of exhibition games. With a freshly retired Yao Ming watched courtside, game three of the series was probably the first time when the Chinese public realized that both their promising big men had flashes of something special. Li in particular got into a groove, toasting then-freshman Mason Plumlee on a couple of occasions. He earned rave reviews for his overall performance during the series, and found himself on the NBA’s radar for the first time.

The problem was that for all of the plaudits, Li still had to return to Dongguan, and his rigidly defined role with that team. Wang, for his part, would make his professional debut a year later. He did so with Fujian, which had no qualms with giving their teenage star all the shots he wanted so long as his presence kept the turnstiles moving. As Wang filled up the box score, Li faded into the background, even as he continued to produce in his limited minutes. Li has mostly stayed there ever since.

But while China might seem to care about CBA stat lines, onlookers in America evidently did not. Last month, a crowd of roughly 40 NBA personnel, including Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, attended Li’s draft workout in Los Angeles. The photos that ran on Chinese social media caught many by surprise. For the first time, it seemed like the Dongguan player had an outside chance to have his name called in the upcoming draft. They were behind the story, in that regard, but it worked. The jokes about Li, or most of them, stopped after that.

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As with any non-lottery prospect, there’s no guarantee that Li ever plays a minute in the NBA. He is a project, and not only because of his team-dictated inexperience. But in the right hands, the seven-footer could become something unique, and potentially very valuable for the team with the patience to develop him.

Most notably, there is the athleticism. Li’s herky-jerky back-to-the-basket style looks unusual, and it is. But, because of how well Li inhabits it, this oddball game has become increasingly weaponized; this is thanks in no small part to the big man’s speed and agility. There is also the semblance of a mid-range game, here, and Li is already a solid free-throw shooter for a player of his size. The raw potential is there; for it to be harnessed, Li will require a coaching staff willing to put in the hours. In that way, and maybe only in that way, he’s like many other young big men in this stacked NBA Draft.

In China, though, Li is still just The Tall Guy Who Isn’t Wang Zhelin. Days after his workout in LA, Li was playing for the national team in Australia, starting the first of four games in eight days. His participation in the grueling exhibition series was essentially mandatory given that his place on the national team is not even guaranteed for the upcoming Asian Games, a tournament that China sees as a gold medal opportunity.

It rather summed up life for Li, who had been shown little sympathy from the CBA for jetting off to attend work-outs. The national team is a big deal in China, and players do whatever it takes to get on the roster. In Li’s case it was catching multiple flights and playing with heavy jet lag days after an NBA workout. A prize prospect wouldn’t be treated this way, even in China. But among sections of Chinese basketball, some still stubbornly refuse to understand just how good Li Muhao might become.

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That Li was out there playing at all in Australia says quite a bit about the determination and toughness that -- along with the height and athleticism with which he was blessed -- have gotten him to the NBA’s doorstep. Born and raised in Dongguan, Li should have been a target for the neighboring Guangdong Tigers, whose youth teams have been a longstanding breadbasket for the Chinese national team.

That wasn’t how it went down. Li was passed over, signing with his hometown team instead. A popular story goes that having realized their mistake, an official from Guangdong approached Li in an airport when the latter was still with Dongguan’s farm team. The teenager politely but firmly told the older man to shove it.

Given his determination, it might not be a surprise then to discover that the lanky big man idolizes Kevin Garnett; he even wears Garnett’s number 21 with Dongguan. An increasing steeliness has emerged in Li’s game of late, contrasting sharply with skeptics who look at his slender frame and suggest that he must be soft. For all the things that are unfinished and unknown about Li’s game, it seems safe to say that soft is one thing he is not. The evidence is everywhere, ranging from trash talking after a meaty dunk to almost launching former D-League stalwart Mike Efevberha into the stands with a forearm shiver. There is some nasty in Li’s game to go with all that unpolished pogo-stick agility.

It would be somewhat fitting then if Li did hear his name called on Thursday after all the casual doubt and dismissal he’s received at home. The ‘other man’ of Chinese basketball has more than earned his chance at the big time and the recognition that would come with getting a call from the NBA. Li will have to earn everything from here on out, of course, but he’ll have a nice additional incentive in knowing that every bit of success he achieves will prove a great many people wrong..


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