LAS VEGAS — Zhou Qi stands out as one of the most intriguing prospects at the Las Vegas Summer League. The lanky, 7-foot-1 Zhou would be hard to miss under any circumstances, but he’s also notable as the NBA’s first Chinese player since Yi Jianlian last played in the league in 2011-12. (Yi signed with the L.A. Lakers for training camp last fall but did not make the team.)
Before playing for the Houston Rockets in Las Vegas, Zhou signed a four-year contract that is fully guaranteed this season, suggesting he will be part of the team’s roster. In four games with the Rockets’ summer team so far, Zhou has shown surprising skills for a 7-footer as well as areas he’ll have to improve to become an NBA regular.
Because of Zhou’s underdeveloped frame, Houston has been using him almost exclusively as a power forward, typically alongside second-year center Chinanu Onuaku. In Mike D’Antoni’s offense, the power forward serves primarily as a floor spacer. So we haven’t seen much of Zhou in the paint, though he has made some opportunistic plays around the rim. In the Rockets’ opening game last Friday, Zhou made five baskets in the restricted area and scored 17 points, nearly twice his total from the next three games (nine).
Zhou’s strong opening performance also included a pair of 3-pointers in six attempts. Since then, Zhou has missed all 12 3s he has attempted, putting him at 2-for-18 for the week. To succeed in the NBA, Zhou will almost certainly need to shoot the 3 at least well enough to force opponents to defend him honestly.
For now, opponents are closing out hard enough to allow Zhou to occasionally upfake and put the ball on the ground with surprising adeptness for his size. On Monday against Phoenix, Zhou managed to get all the way to the rim on one such move, drawing a shooting foul. Zhou has also shown good court vision, making high-value passes despite handing out just three assists in four games. The one time I’ve seen him post up was largely to enable him to pass out of the post, sort of like Andrew Bogut’s post-ups within the Golden State Warriors‘ offense.
At the defensive end of the court, Zhou relies heavily on a wingspan measured at nearly 7-foot-8 at the 2016 NBA draft combine. He has averaged 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes, including a powerful swat of No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson in Monday’s game.
Early in his career, a high percentage of Zhou’s blocks are likely to come when he surprises a shooter as a help defender from the weak side. Though he does a nice job of getting in help position — and already has good timing for staying in the paint for 2.9 seconds before retreating outside it to avoid a defensive three-second violation — Zhou doesn’t really get off the ground enough to utilize verticality and can be overpowered when a player drives directly at him. Opponents have also been able to bump Zhou off his spot and create enough separation to shoot over him.
In general, a lack of strength is Zhou’s biggest shortcoming. When he isn’t diligent about doing his work early and boxing out, Zhou can be pushed out of rebound position and becomes a nonfactor on the glass. He has grabbed just 10 defensive boards in 100 minutes of action so far. NBA opponents will also be able to attack Zhou in the post.
That noted, Zhou’s length has conveyed more defensive advantages than just blocking shots. He has been a regular presence in the passing lanes, tipping away passes when he comes off his man. Zhou also uses his wingspan when switched on guards to play far enough off them to avoid being blown by off the dribble.
Twice Wednesday, Zhou ended up switched on by crafty Denver Nuggets second-round pick Monte Morris, who had earlier beaten Houston second-rounder Isaiah Hartenstein badly on a similar switch. Zhou forced Morris to miss his first attempt over a contest before fouling Morris while blocking his shot the next time.
For his size, Zhou is quite agile, giving him hope of staying with guards on switches and defending other stretch 4s. On one play Wednesday, Zhou was able to elude a screen attempt enough to force the screener to move, drawing an offensive foul in the process.
Most likely, Zhou will struggle with fouls himself. He has committed 18 of them in four games, including seven against the Suns. (Players are allowed 10 fouls in nontournament games at the NBA summer league.) Foul trouble is one of many reasons Zhou is unlikely to play much if at all his rookie season. Realistically, he’s just not strong enough to deal with NBA big men yet or skilled enough to make up for it.
Still, the Rockets’ four-year investment in Zhou isn’t really about what he’ll do next season. They’re taking the longer view of what Zhou can be if he improves his 3-point shooting and continues to add strength — assuming he can do so without sacrificing agility. If Zhou does that, he could surpass Yi as the best Chinese player since another Houston center by the name of Yao Ming.