By Jeff Wong
It’s great to be a Toronto Raptors fan right now. Thanks to General Manager Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors are NBA Atlantic Division Champions after five years of playoff futility. However, my beloved team has no first-round pick (a top-15 protected pick has gone to the Charlotte Bobcats) in a draft year that boasts big names like Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah. Nevertheless, I’m following these guys anyway because of Colangelo’s reputation – he may surprise us with a trade or two. I wouldn’t call him my “Basketball Jesus” a la Bill Simmons, but with Colangelo, many things are possible.
Realistically, then, I’m keeping an eye on prospects available in the second round. [Note: I just found out that Toronto doesn’t have a second-round pick either – it’s gone to the Portland Trailblazers. Thank you, Isiah Thomas.] The name that leaps out at me right now is China’s Sun Yue, a 6’9″ point guard (yes, you read that right – 6’9″) who naturally draws comparisons to Boris Diaw and Magic Johnson. Of course, if he’s second-round fodder in the mocks, he’s probably never going to reach those heights, but Sun could still be valuable to a team like the Raps that maximizes versatile (a.k.a. “no defined position”) players.
But why is Sun, who had scouts drooling last year and played well this year, projected as a second-round pick or undrafted? Why is a top-five minor leaguer lacking major-league hype? For the answer, I contacted a few analysts who’d know more than little ol’ me.
JW: Matthew, how do you feel Sun is doing these past few months?
MM: Playing in the ABA has helped. He plays with a lot more flair and has done a good job adjusting to America’s style of play and culture. [Note: Sun’s team, the Beijing Aoshen Olympian, has unique circumstances as a CBA team transplanted into the ABA. – JW]
He has a great all-around game as he can rebound, pass and provide a decent amount of scoring. The most intriguing part of his game is that he is a 6’9″ combo guard. I don’t know if he is quick enough to play the PG position in the NBA but he can definitely do it in spurts.
As far as things he needs to work on: getting stronger, defense in terms of lateral quickness, and lastly perimeter shooting, which remains inconsistent.
JW: Mark, I’ve read that Sun disappointed in the 2006 Asian Games, and that he was quiet during the 2006 World Championships. Why do you think that was so?
MN: Well, first of all, the WCs were his first chance to really play against the best players in the world. Previously, he had only played internationally in Asian tournaments, and in the ABA (which is better than the CBA, but not the quality of the WCs). So, I wasn’t really surprised to see him struggle.
Now in the Asian Games, you would reasonably expect him to do better. Less talent there, and Chen Jianghua (who, if you remember, was something of a sensation for China during the WCs) wasn’t on the squad. By rights, he should have been the second point guard behind Liu Wei, getting a good 20 MPG out there (he had 13 in the World Championships).
So, why did he do badly? The number one reason is because his game simply isn’t suited to the Chinese style. If you have noticed, the talent pool in China is bent towards centers, and when Yao Ming is playing, 90% of the game consists of them dumping it to Yao and watching him score, or shooting a three when he is double-teamed. If there is one thing Sun is not, it’s a spot-up shooter. The worst part of his game, in fact, is his shooting.
JW: What are his prospects of getting drafted by an NBA team?
MN: To be frank, not a lot. At all. He’ll be fortunate to get drafted actually. My upper limit for him is probably a benchwarmer. Definitely not superstar material, and I’ll be mightily surprised if he makes out to be a starter, especially as a point guard.
His best skill is passing, and in a distributing role, he is probably the best point guard for China. However, beyond that, he just doesn’t have anything that makes him attractive as a PG. His shooting, as I said above, is quite horrible. He’s not strong enough to post up small point guards, nor does he have the low-post game to do it anyway. His lateral quickness is mediocre, which means quick point guards will burn him again and again.
Therefore, his best move would be to train as a two-guard, or maybe even swingman. But then again, his shooting is horrible, and when he starts guarding and being guarded by taller guards and small forwards, his height is negated, which is why most people are attracted to him in the first place.
So will he get drafted? Well, I think there’s going to be some team out there that is going to take a stab at him, late in the second round, maybe in the high 40s or low 50s. Maybe they’ll ship him to the D-League for a while, and see what he does. And who knows, maybe he’ll work his tail off, and actually make it. But as he is, he’s not worth more than your average benchwarmer.
JW: As a Sun Yue enthusiast, I feel deflated by your comments. Do you think his shooting can be fixed? Is it his form?
MN: Yes, I think that his shooting can be corrected, as it’s not a problem of form, merely not enough practice. But he would have to work and work and work. Yao Ming had to train himself to death to get where he was when he entered the draft in 2002, but then he had to redouble his efforts to be able to be effective at the NBA level. For Sun, it will be the same. Only a workaholic attitude will allow him to stay in the NBA.
JW: I know (from personal experience) that a Chinese person’s frame, typically, can’t pack on that much mass. Do you think his frame will allow him to play SG/SF acceptably?
MN: In terms of strength, I also think a work ethic will do him wonders. I don’t know about Chinese players not being able to put on as much mass as other players. After all, Yao is no skinny chicken. The real question, as a player puts on muscle, is whether he will have to sacrifice his quickness to gain the mass. For Yao, that was probably the case.
That leads me to my next point. One of his deficiencies in the NBA will be his defense. He gets burned because, as I said, he’s not quick enough. Well, actually, he is not abnormally slow. The problem is that at 6’9″ he can’t chase those small guards, especially when he gets to the NBA. So, in a way, the reason that NBA teams are looking at him, his ability to play point guard at 6’9″, is the reason he might be held back.
However, I think if he bulked up (which would probably take a good two years or so), he could be very effective as a defensive stopper, somewhat in the mold of Tayshaun Prince. His long body and arms will be a natural advantage, and currently one of his greatest assets is his ability to time his blocks perfectly. If you’ll remember last year, in a warmup game against the US, Sun stuffed Carmelo Anthony from behind on a breakaway dunk. With more training, there could be more of those in the NBA.
To summarize, he needs more training, proper training, but he also needs to have a huge work ethic, the work mentality that Yao has, if he wants to make it. Also, he will not be very effective as a point guard at any level higher than the CBA or ABA. He would be much better off if he bulked up (and improved his shooting) and moved to SG or SF.
JW: I’ve never heard the Tayshaun comparison before. I guess in terms of body type, Sun might develop the same wiry form. I’d like to see something of a poor man’s Boris Diaw (as some draft sites like to say) – a multi-position-type player – but not PG. Someone on a message board said a point forward like Mike Dunleavy Jr. What do you think? I’d be overjoyed if he can put up numbers in the NBA like Dunleavy. [On a related note, here’s a post by Nate Jones wondering What Happened to the NBA Point Forward.]
MN: I would imagine Sun as a multi-positional player. Most probably it would be SF/PF, and maybe PG very occasionally. However, I think he would simply be pushed out of the block by stronger power forwards, which is why I don’t think he’ll develop as well as Boris Diaw has, in terms of versatility. I can also definitely see him as a type of point-forward, again something like Diaw, but less so.
JW: As for work ethic, is there reason to doubt that Sun doesn’t have it?
MN: I don’t think there’s anything to suggest he doesn’t work hard. After all, to get to any level of pro ball, a player really does have to work hard. But to go from the CBA, or even the ABA, straight to the NBA, requires an almost insane work ethic. Does he have that? I couldn’t rightly say, since I haven’t seen him a lot.
JW: You seem to imply that the ABA-NBA leap is bigger than NCAA-NBA. How does the ABA compare to NCAA?
MN: I was saying that the ABA is better than the CBA. However, comparing the ABA to the NCAA … well, if you’re talking D-1 ball, the top teams, I don’t think the ABA can hold muster. I think that the ABA is roughly level, or maybe somewhat behind, the NBDL in terms of talent.
In summary, Sun Yue will be a rotation player, a good role player. That’s as far as I seem him going. Although, of course, I would be pleasantly surprised and pleased if he exceeded my expectations.
Then Mark directs me to a former college player who is a regular observer of Aoshen’s games but would prefer to remain anonymous. Here’s what he said about the differences between ABA and NCAA competition, and Sun’s chances of making it to the big league:
There is a big difference between the upper echelon ABA teams and lower rung ABA teams. I don’t even count lower rung ABA teams because they are jokes. They don’t even have enough uni’s for everyone and players often show up late for games. However, the upper echelon teams, IMO, are better than your average NCAA D-1 programs because the players are proven and they are men. In the ABA, teams don’t care whether you’re from a top program like UCLA or a no-name junior college. They only care if you can play. That’s why you often hear of players you’ve never heard of playing really well in the ABA, while others with strong pedigrees don’t do anything impressive in the ABA. Examples are Paul Shirley (who played for the Suns two seasons ago and was one of the last players cut from the T-Wolves this season). He played for Aoshen last year and was completely useless. Other recent NBA players like Byron Russell and Tremaine Folks also played in the ABA this season or last and did nothing.
Given the way Sun Yue plays the game, I think he can be effective in the NBA, but there will definitely be an adjustment as there are for all players. I remember Derek Fisher’s first season with the Lakers … he could barely get the ball up the court against tougher defenders, and I used to cringe every time he had to do it against Gary Payton, because he’d get stripped half the time. Sun may go through such growing pains, but he definitely has the talent to be successful in the NBA.
So, there you have it. Though I’ve learned a few new things about the ABA and Sun Yue, I still have unanswered questions about Sun’s future as a player. The one certainty is that, if he does make it to the Big Show, he won’t play the point; he will have to switch to the 2 or 3 or he’ll be a turnstile for opposing 1’s. If he moves to the 2, his shot will have to go in far more frequently. He might make it as a 3, still boasting decent height, but will have to pack on the muscles to play in the “No Boys Allowed” league.
I don’t know if Bryan Colangelo has interest in Sun Yue but, as a basketball fan and as a person of Chinese descent, I’m rooting for the “Chinese Magic Johnson” to succeed.