Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Max Zhang post (the future of Cal Basketball?)

If you've been following Cal Basketball over the past decade you are probably familiar with former Coach Ben Braun. His tenure was marked with relative mediocrity (although he did win Cal a "National Championship") and a knack for signing players international players. Some would be good contributors (Richard Midgley, Amit Tamir) while others (Saulius Kuzminskas, Shahar Gordon) were total busts.

One region that Braun never tapped was Asia. Although Ma Jian had a standout career at the University of Utah -- there had not few if any Chinese nationals to play NCAA basketball. After the first Chinese players entered the NBA (Wang, Bateer and Yao) I thought that Cal would be uniquely positioned to recruit collegiate Chinese basketball players.

  • Cal's large Chinese American student population
  • The Bay Area's strong Chinese American community
  • Top basketball competition in the Pac 10 conference
  • Cal's worldwide academic reputation

It seemed clear to me that if China was going to allow its players to play collegiate basketball that Cal would be the perfect place to go. There have been many stories written about how China has hundreds of top basketball players within its sports academies. Market research has shown that basketball's popularity has grown rapidly over the past decade and some think that China is the next basketball powerhouse.

Enter Max Zhang. The 7-3 center was the last member of Braun's recruiting class and many saw the move as another desperate "project" recruit. Zhang, who would be the tallest player in Cal history was admittedly very raw. He had only played the game for 5 years and did not have the strength to play right away. Braun's critics were very focal with their discontent.

I think this was a brilliant move by Braun. If Zhang could develop into a serviceable NCAA basketball player -- Cal could have a pipeline to the burgeoning Chinese talent pool. St. Mary's University has become a top 25 team by recruiting Australians. If Cal can recreate this model -- the future for Chinese basketball players in the US could be very bright.

Max was more of a curiosity than a basketball player in his first year. He sat out the season to develop physically and adjust academically. Although Braun was fired after season's end, new coach Mike Montgomery has been very complimentary of Max during his tenure. Next time we'll discuss Max's on-court progress.

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