Having bypassed the college game for a $1.2 million paycheck courtesy of the Guangdong Tigers, Emmanuel Mudiay will already be a millionaire before he registers for the 2015 NBA Draft. On paper, this seems like a great idea. The only catch is it that he first has to survive the Chinese Basketball Association.
From a playing perspective, the adjustment from high school basketball to China shouldn't be too difficult. Defense in the CBA is woeful, with blown assignments commonplace. In terms of body size, many Chinese guards will struggle to compete with a player who is already 6'5 and 200 pounds. It won't be like knocking around teenagers in his native Dallas, but Mudiay should be able to hold his ground.
There will be some quirks, though. Most CBA teams are allowed two foreign players (traditionally a guard and a big man) who can be used for six combined quarters. This means each foreigner plays a quarter in the first half and then the entirety of the second, with the guard often starting the game to help set the tempo. It can be a confusing, stop-start experience that even veterans struggle with. Incompetent officiating is also a problem and home teams enjoy hugely preferential treatment from officials, which in turn forces visitors to alter their playing style and minimize the opportunities referees have to get involved.
The travel schedule is especially brutal. Given the remoteness of some CBA franchises and the fact that the Chinese military controls the country's entire airspace (and regularly shuts it down for military maneuvers), it can sometimes take days rather hours to reach a destination. Even when players arrive at a road game, they might discover the arena is more than 40 years old and lacks the central heating needed to keep out China's crushing winter.
The language barrier also remains an issue for foreign players, making a local translator essential and personal space a luxury. Another problem is the markedly different Asian diet, meaning it is not uncommon to hear of homesick players sneaking off to Pizza Hut or KFC after training. Others complain about the terrible air and water pollution that are endemic in most Chinese cities. Even when players are alone in their hotel rooms, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked by China's Internet firewall, leaving many feeling trapped in a bubble.
Yet for all the concerns Mudiay should have about coming to China, he still could not have landed with a better team than Guangdong. The franchise is a CBA institution, having won eight titles in 11 years, a run of success built around its core of elite homegrown players. Yi Jianlian remains the most famous member of Guangdong's golden generation, but several Tigers players are regulars on the Chinese national team. What is also significant are the relationships fostered between the local roster and the generally better-paid Americans.
"It's like a family there because you're always together," says Jason Dixon, who played 10 seasons for the Tigers between 1998 and 2009. "You could go to the owner's office, knock on their door, and he'd let you in, even if he was having a business meeting. I'd interrupt those a few times by accident, but he'd just introduce you to everyone. It made it so easy to just play for them."
Through having the best Chinese roster, Guangdong enjoys a substantial advantage over most CBA teams, who remain reliant on their foreigners. It also allows the Tigers to be picky about their own overseas recruits, who are expected to forsake their numbers and buy into the team-first philosophy.
"At the end of the day, you're only there for five months," said Dixon. "The Chinese guys, they've been winning for such a long time; they understand you have to get along with your Americans but they also expect the Americans to get along with the locals."
This doesn't mean Mudiay is there just to make up the numbers, though. The Tigers need the raw but gifted Mudiay in their increasingly bitter rivalry with the Beijing Ducks, led by Stephon Marbury, of all people. The Ducks, who boast a local roster that can just about keep up with Guangdong's, also have a pair of top-level overseas players in Marbury and his former Knicks teammate Randolph Morris. The result has been two postseason series victories over Guangdong in the last three years; an unthinkable situation given the Tigers' recent history. When Marbury scored 31 points in a Game 5 victory in Guangdong last season, the Tigers, who had relied on former Sixers bench guy Royal Ivey to handle the ball, knew they needed an upgrade. With Mudiay on board, they might now have a galvanizing point guard of their own.
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Going forward, it is difficult to say how Mudiay will be utilized, but Guangdong's current roster gives some clues. Yi, who remains a genuine star in the CBA, will presumably be running numerous pick-and-pops with the teenage guard. With three excellent spot-up shooters in Zhu Fangyu (who made 45 percent of his threes last year), Zhou Peng (39 percent from three-point range) and Wang Shipeng (37 percent from three-point range), expect to see a lot of drive and kicks as well. Defensively, Mudiay may have less responsibility. Last year, Guangdong was the CBA's best defense, limiting teams to 90.1 points per game in a league where most teams regularly shipped triple figures. Zhou, arguably the best perimeter defender in China, will handle the opposition's best guard, meaning Mudiay can be given an easier assignment until he settles into the Chinese game.
Dixon, who won five titles with the Tigers, will also be following things closely.
"The Chinese are very result-based people," he said. "If Mudiay goes there and has great success, I think another team will give it a try, but the league will be watching what happens [this year].
"When you deal with younger players, you deal with the unknown and the immature things they do. How will Mudiay handle the Chinese ways, like when the coach takes your phone and tells you to go rest, at 18 and making a million dollars? That will be an interesting one to watch."
With the first round of CBA games now just a few weeks away, the stakes have rarely seemed higher in Guangdong. A strong season for Mudiay means returning to America already a millionaire but also a better player and a probable high draft pick. For Guangdong, it could mean another title. But for the CBA itself, Mudiay's performance could drastically alter how the CBA targets American players, incentivizing Chinese teams to sign talented high school players instead of the older pros they would traditionally target.