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Monday, September 24, 2007

Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy - Calipari to Help Chinese Players Get In the Flow

Calipari to help Chinese players get in the flow
By Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Posted September 22, 2007

Let's be honest about this: If John Calipari somehow can find a way to make this China deal about the Memphis Tigers -- which sort of equates to making it about John Calipari -- he certainly will.

With the University of Memphis forging an association with the Chinese Basketball Association, Calipari would love for that relationship to evolve in the direction of the world's most populous nation serving as another source of basketball talent for the team he coaches.

If this only were about the Tigers building a new pipeline, though, it never would have happened.

China wants to improve its basketball players. That's why this deal came about. Although Yao Ming and a few other big men have reached the NBA, China has had no success developing perimeter players. As I wrote back in June before the NBA draft, the sluggish progress of gifted 7-foot forward Yi Jianlian was bound to lead the Chinese to reconsider the manner in which their players were being trained.

At 16, Yi was considered one of the world's most exciting prospects - gaining more attention, even, than American center Greg Oden. Since then, Oden turned his wealth of talent into a package of dominance that led him to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, and Kevin Durant sprouted into a thrilling prospect whose name was called directly after Oden's. Yi was stuck on the board through three more picks until the Milwaukee Bucks gambled they could sign him.

Yi still might grow into a great player, but he's so big, nimble and skilled that there should be no uncertainty. This is where Memphis comes in. Seven Chinese coaches are expected to visit the Mid-South to observe early Tigers practices and to learn the basics of the Dribble Drive Motion offense Calipari borrowed from Pepperdine's Vance Walberg.

Calipari called from China the other day to talk about how excited he was to have a chance to influence the way the game is being played in the world's most populous nation. "For me, the pie in the sky is to have an impact on how they're teaching basketball in China," Calipari said. "Can you imagine that for a kid from Moon Township?"

Calipari sees his offense as being ideal for a team playing under FIBA rules, as they do in the Chinese Basketball Association and as China would in the Olympics or World Championships.

Certainly there are problems with the manner in which players currently are developed here. The summer club/AAU model overemphasizes competitive activity and minimizes time spent learning skills. NCAA rules overly regulate the amount of time coaches can spend helping players progress.

Where the U.S. has an advantage over every other country is obvious, though: The best coaches and the best players are here. Those young players who do compete in NCAA basketball get the opportunity to learn how to fill roles and perform under pressure in games that matter. If Yi had spent three years in a U.S. prep school and one season playing in the Pac-10 or ACC -- or, sorry about that, Conference USA -- he'd have been a much more advanced prospect by June 2007.

Getting Chinese players into U.S. colleges will be tricky because of the challenge of translating their academic records through the NCAA clearinghouse and because, like in many European countries, young amateur players in China can be commingled with "pros" on club teams. The NCAA has convinced itself this is different than when U.S. players team up with pros in summer league games. But Calipari points out that China has more English-speaking citizens than nearly any country in the world, so some aspects of moving here to play will be smooth.

"Will this turn into players coming over?" he said. "If it does for me, it will for others. It's not that Cal is going to own China."

He does like the idea of being first in line, though.

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