While the most noteworthy transaction of the Houston Rockets’ offseason has been the sign-and-trade of Chris Paul for obvious reasons, the decision of general manager Daryl Morey to finally bring over 2016 second round pick Zhou Qi from China to the United States should not be swept under the rug.
Zhou Qi touts a rare 7’2” height with a double-take-worthy 7’7” wingspan to make him one of the rarest athletes to come to the NBA. The 21 year old used that build to lead the entire Chinese Basketball Association in blocks in 2015-16 season, as he averaged 3.1 blocks per game. However, he also melds that rim protecting prowess with a growing comfort shooting from beyond the arc.
The “unicorn” big who can both rim protect and stretch defenses with perimeter shots has become one of the most prized commodities in the NBA and Zhou Qi has the potential to be an excellent version of one for an already high-powered Houston team.
With all this potential exuding from Zhou Qi, his first basketball game in front of American spectators obviously drew intrigue as the Houston Rockets faced the Denver Nuggets in the Las Vegas Summer League. In his introduction to American pro basketball, Zhou Qi didn’t underwhelm as he scored 17 points in 25 minutes to aid the Rockets in a 102-99 victory over Denver.
Zhou Qi demonstrated his floor-stretching potential by firing in 2 of 6 attempts from outside the arc as he spent most of his time on offense mandating the Nuggets bigs to face-guard him on the perimeter instead of indulging in their more comfortable interior defense duties. Zhou Qi did not do much in terms of moving off-ball around the perimeter to create shots but with his skyscraper size and the gravity of his shot, he probably did not have to.
Defensively, Zhou Qi as well flashed the immense obstruction to opposing layups his Reed Richards arms give to offenses. Malik Beasley in particular had frequent difficulty navigating around Zhou Qi to get clean looks at the rim on his many forays down into the lane. However, Zhou Qi also struggled to not lose his primary assignment of the night, sophomore stretch forward Juan Hernangomez. Zhou Qi’s mistakes and lack of recovery time in his closeouts helped Hernangomez accrue his 10 open attempts from beyond the arc.
Those shaky instincts and movements while manning a stretch big will possibly be a paramount reason why the Rockets may begin Zhou Qi in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers at the start of the 2017-18 season. With the Vipers, Zhou Qi can build his confidence as a featured option of the offense similar to how Guerschon Yabusele did towards the end of the 2016-17 Maine Red Claws NBADL season.
More importantly, Zhou Qi can use the G League to add necessary strength and heft to his very skinny frame and learn the nuances of the defensive responsibilities a NBA center usually has to fill. As Zhou Qi adjusts to the increased athleticism and more deliberately paced style of American pro basketball, by the end of the 2017-18 season, Houston may find itself a secret weapon to deploy off the bench in its tension-filled playoff march.