Since Yao Ming's 2011 retirement and Yi Jianlian's flameout in 2012, the NBA-obsessed people of China have yearned for another homegrown hero. To whomever that distinction falls, so too will the attention of over a billion star-thirsty onlookers.
Zhou Qi (pronounced "JOE CHEE") could be that star. But don't get caught up in the easy comparisons—the 7'2", spaghetti-thin center shares more in common with some tantalizing contemporary NBA stars than he does Yao or Yi.
"I used to call him Anthony Davis because of the things he can do on the court," former NBA guard and Chinese Basketball Association No. 1 scorer Jordan Crawford told Bleacher Report.
Crawford played with Zhou in 2014 before returning to the NBA D-League and is perhaps his biggest advocate.
"His mid-range is money; he'll never miss that shot. He blocked a lot on defense, dribbles well, can jump... I honestly thought he was older then because he understood the game. Most Chinese players just want to shoot all the time."
Like many Chinese prospects to come before him (including Yi), Zhou's age is debated, studied and doubted, as Crawford hinted. He claims to have turned 20 in January, but some trusted sources insist he's 22. Others say he's as old as 24.
"Qi should get drafted in the teens, 15-20 in this draft," an NBA scout said. "I've heard the age rumors; sure, it's a concern. If he is 24 years old, there isn't much time left to work on his body. Can he add muscle? Is the CBA level good enough to evaluate his NBA talents? If he doesn't come over now, will he ever?"
"The stuff Qi can do at that size, if he really is just 20 years old, is crazy," said former NBA guard and CBA veteran Bobby Brown, who cashed out on million dollar contracts in China. "Our translator said he was like 24-25, though. He needs confidence and guidance. He reminds me of Kristaps Porzingis but not as good."
"He is very talented, different than Yi Jianlian, one of the best since Yao Ming," said his CBA head coach, Liu Qiuping. "I think a good model for him could be Dirk Nowitzki."
When, Where and How?
Regardless of his age, Zhou's measurements—standing 7'2" with a 7'7 ¾" wingspan—could be enough for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to eventually call his name in the NBA draft's first round.
The real question is when, and that's where age again becomes a factor. The truth could be the difference between Zhou's status as a first-round draft selection and a second-round pick with little room for growth.
Per DraftExpress' latest 2016 NBA mock draft, the Chinese sensation is a projected early second-round pick. He's also listed as the No. 1 talent among 1996-born international prospects.
"He needed to gain weight and get stronger and bigger—not just for the NBA but also for the Olympics as he takes on a much bigger role with China's national team," said Tony Leng, Zhou's Chinese agent.
Earlier this spring, Zhou's coach didn't believe he was ready to test the NBA draft waters.
"We all think he should get stronger and more experienced in the CBA before he heads over there," Qiuping said.
Born in the poor province of Henan, Zhou comes from a one-child family, like most locals. He first blew up on a global scale at a FIBA under-16 event in 2011, with a monster showing of 41 points, 28 rebounds and 15 blocks against the German national team, according to NBADraft.net. He was eventually crowned MVP after tallying 30 points, 17 boards and eight blocks versus a tough Turkish squad in the gold-medal game.
At the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship in Prague, DraftExpress founder Jonathan Givony grouped the Chinese wunderkind with some familiar names:
Zhou posted averages of 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 9-of-15 from distance, along with 75.8 percent from the free-throw line through 42 games in 2015-16, according to RealGM. He became the first domestic player since Yao to lead the CBA in blocks (3.2 per game), ahead of former NBA players Samuel Dalembert and Greg Oden (2.2 and 2.0 blocks per contest, respectively).
"Qi was killing the league," Brown said. "He's active, athletic, runs the floor well, tries to block every shot, shoots the three-ball and has an overall game."
Several NBA teams made the long trip overseas this season to scout Zhou, including the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, among others.
A scout who watched Zhou in person noted a few specific qualities: "He isn't NBA-athletic, but he can get up. He is very smart and has a soft touch around the rim."
Timing is everything, however. Many scouts and players expressed concern for Zhou's development in China, particularly into an NBA lottery pick; Chinese coaches famously overtrain domestic players.
"He needs to get out of China fast. They don't know how to teach basketball—they'll treat him like a slave," Crawford said. "He needs confidence and structure because in China, they'll run him into the ground."
His comparisons to Nowitzki, Porzingis and Davis are tantalizing, but only if he lives up to them. Matt Beyer, a full-time China-based agent who served as a translator for Yi with the Milwaukee Bucks, addressed the Porzingis comparisons bluntly.
"I've heard the Porzingis talks a lot. I think it's irresponsible. I understand that body-type comparison, but Qi doesn't have the same awareness. He isn't hungry enough for rebounds, nor is he as versatile. ... It's unfair to expect Qi to perform like Porzingis at this point of his career."
"He won't be Davis or Porzingis, but I agree that if he wants to have a long NBA career, he needs to get the hell out of China because there is no awareness for rest and recovery," concurred one NBA scout. "The work ethic is relentless. Players break down fast. Coaches don't do it on purpose; they just don't know better."
David Pick is a veteran pro basketball reporter covering overseas hoops and American players abroad since 2010. His work can also be found at Basketball Insiders. Follow him on Twitter at @IAmDPick.