LAS VEGAS — It was a cold January day, like most January days in Yingkou, a port city in northeast China. Inside the Tiexi Gymnasium, though, the lights had never been brighter, the atmosphere never hotter.
The same was true of He Tianju's stroke. With an arena full of rabid Liaoning Flying Leopards fans looking on and anticipating a marquee matchup against the Guangdong Southern Tigers, He (pronounced huh) turned an otherwise ordinary shootaround into a spectacular display in its own right.
In went one three-pointer. Then another. And another. And another. By the time He finally missed, he'd strung together 24 straight makes from beyond the arc and worked the attendants into a tizzy in the process.
"That got the crowd going," said David Booth, who was in the stands that day. "You could hear the buzz and the vibe of the people who were following him in that game. He had his confidence early."
That confidence carried into the actual battle between the top two teams in the Chinese Basketball Association. NBA veterans Will Bynum (46 points) and Lester Hudson (37 points) were the scoring stars for Guangdong and Liaoning, respectively, but He stole the show with 16 points of his own, shooting 4-of-9 from three, albeit in a 114-111 loss for the home team.
That may not seem like much of a scoring total, especially with the gaudy individual numbers that are so common in the CBA, but Michael Cheng, Liaoning's assistant general manager, noted, "In China, normally American players get most of the buckets. He got 16 points. It means he played pretty impressive."
Impressive enough—especially given the pressure to perform in a game with playoff implications—to convince Booth, the New Orleans Pelicans' director of player personnel, that he needed to keep closer tabs on this 6'9" sharpshooter.
Booth had flown in from the Crescent City to see He, whom he'd heard plenty about from noted international scout Yarone Arbel, but now he was sure the trek had been worth his while.
"We were fans before," said Booth. "We went over there with the thought process to watch him and see what he can do. He was as good as advertised."
That performance alone didn't secure a spot for He with the Pelicans, but it turned out to be a crucial step in his quest to cross the Pacific Ocean and bring China back to the NBA.
Come spring, He was far from Liaoning province and his hometown of Dandong, just west of China's border with North Korea. With Cheng serving as his translator, he relocated to an apartment in downtown Philadelphia, within walking distance of Chinatown and Temple University.
He did his own grocery shopping, his own cooking and his own laundry. The 24-year-old carved out a comfort zone for himself, one that included new friends from among Temple's contingent of international students.
"I don't even need to take care of him every day," said Cheng. "I don't have to take him to the restaurant and translate the menu every day."
When He wasn't acclimating himself to his surroundings, he was busy preparing his mind and body for the summer league with the Pelicans. His handlers specifically chose Philadelphia for the facilities on offer at Temple. He needed treatment on his gimpy knee, in addition to his strength-and-conditioning work with Jim Morgan and his on-court training with former NBA assistant Joe Connelly.
Those who'd brought He stateside wanted him ready to compete at a level higher than any he'd ever encountered, with as few distractions as possible. They'd seen others try (and fail) to crack the NBA by way of the summer league in the three years since Yi Jianlian last played for the Dallas Mavericks and, in turn, unwittingly became the last Chinese-born player to set foot in the Association.
They didn't want He, who went undrafted in 2012, to fall victim to the same mistakes.
"That's why he picked things up so quick," Cheng explained. "In the past, we've had six or seven Chinese players play in the summer league, not very successful because they flew directly from China to the states. You're not ready at all."
He, on the other hand, wouldn't be completely blindsided by the experience. During his month-and-a-half in Philadelphia, He picked up as much English basketball terminology as he could. He told Cheng, "Man, I wish I could stay here for five months, pick up all the language, think as Americans think. I'll play way better. I cherish every single second. I want to keep on learning. Now I know what the NBA is."
Or so he thought. Following minicamp with the Pelicans just outside of New Orleans, He traveled with the team to Las Vegas to get a taste of something approximating NBA basketball.
It didn't take long for him to unveil that sweet stroke of his before fans and observers in Sin City. In his NBA debut, He scored nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, including a made three, to help New Orleans hold off the Milwaukee Bucks, 101-89. His all-around performance was sturdy and, to some extent, worthy of all the postgame fawning from the Chinese media that followed.
But the honeymoon phase of He's American odyssey didn't last long. The next day, he missed all three of his three-point tries during New Orleans' 90-86 victory over the Mavericks.
"He had the green light to keep shooting it," said Pelicans summer league coach Darren Erman. "On a back-to-back, especially since we haven't had a day off in six days, legs might be gone a little bit, but he adjusted."
As for the physicality and intensity of the games, those proved to be tougher to adjust to. He struggled to hold his own against the big, strong front line of the Brooklyn Nets. If his body could've handled the game as well as his mind, He might've played more than seven minutes against the Nets.
Instead, He spent the second half tethered to the bench and finished the contest without scoring from the field.
"It's given me a lot of trouble on the court, our opponent," He said afterward. "But I appreciate that I have learned a lot from them, and I'm making a lot of progress."
Chinese basketball analyst Andrew Crawford seconded, via SB Nation, the hurdles He and the Pelicans may face with each other:
It's unclear how good He's chances are of making the team. The forward can't rebound and no-one in China bothers to play defense so if He stays with the Pelicans, it might have to be as a specialist three-point shooter. But it is also important to note that when He gets going, it is hard to stop him. In the final game of this year's regular season, He went 8-of-11 from deep and then held onto that form during the postseason, averaging 53% during that span. New Orleans will know what they are getting with the no-thrills shooter from Northeast China—but it might also be exactly what they need.
The Pelicans aren't fretting over He's growing pains. They figured coming in that the speed and strength of NBA competition would pose problems for him. He's transition from playing the wing in China to serving as a stretch 4 stateside has only made matters more difficult.
Still, New Orleans knows he can shoot and understands that a player with his intelligence and work ethic can and will improve as a defender and rebounder.
"The only thing that I see [that He has to work on] is lateral quickness and guarding quicker players out on the floor," said Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry. "He definitely has to improve in that area."
If He can make some strides defensively before his summer-league audition is through, he may well wind up in training camp with the Pelicans later this year. New Orleans will need all the shooters it can scrounge up to spread the floor for the likes of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon in Gentry's wide-open, ball-sharing offense.
The Pelicans won't know for sure if He will get another tryout to that effect until after they've wrapped things up in Las Vegas.
"I think he's been doing great," said Booth. "He's been able to stretch the defense. We all know he can shoot. He's a pick-and-pop 4 for our summer-league team.
"He's been noticing how physical the game is, the NBA game is, but he knows that this is going to help him down the road. It's going to help him next season."
Even if He doesn't end China's drought of NBA representation this fall, his time in America won't have been spent in vain. Either way, he'll be home in time to represent his country in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, with his sights set on helping China earn a spot in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"You need to have a goal and have a dream to fight for," He said. "I don't want to put the nail down there that I'll be in the NBA for sure. I have to cherish this every moment. Seriously, I cherish every moment.
"It's going to make an impact on my whole life."
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.