HANGZHOU, May 4 (Xinhua) — When it comes to promising basketball stars in China, Zhang Zhenlin is a name one cannot neglect.
Starting in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) finals in his rookie season, the Liaoning Flying Leopards forward averaged 17 points, seven rebounds and 1.7 steals in the best-of-three series, although his side lost 2-1 to defending champions the Guangdong Southern Tigers on Saturday.
“Guangdong is one of the best teams in the league. Every time we played with them, we learnt a lot from them, especially young players like me who just entered the league,” the 22-year-old told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.
“It’s a pity that after all the hard-fought games, we were not able to take home the trophy, but my teammates and I have given our all for it. We will learn from it and get prepared for next season.”
A championship could be a perfect end for Zhang’s first CBA season, which was already fruitful enough. He was the MVP of the Rookie Challenge and the Slam Dunk Contest champion during the CBA All-Star Weekend. He was also named Rookie of the Season, averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in the regular season.
His most impressive performance in the season came in an overtime victory over Guangdong, in which he contributed 46 points and nine rebounds. In the other regular season clash with the then 10-time champion, he had 24 points and five rebounds.
These probably explained why the rookie looked calm ahead of the CBA finals.
“I feel relaxed now. It’s not really a big deal for me because I treat every game as the same. So it’s just a regular game for me,” he said in a pre-match interview.
He was even caught playing the piano before Liaoning went into Game 2 trailing 0-1 in the series, joking about how working with his fingers can make him hot in the match. This is the new hobby he picked up during the grueling season playing inside a bubble, alongside music, games and novels, all of which he turned to for down time.
And it worked, as Zhang put up a 24-point and seven-board performance in Game 2, helping Liaoning keep alive its title hope in overtime.
The youngster continued to impress the fans in Game 3 when he ascended for a sky-high dunk upon teammate Guo Ailun’s missing free throw, which extended the game to overtime. In fact, he has kept wowing fans with his explosive power, gifted by the basketball family he was born into.
His mother Wang Fang was a member of the Chinese women’s national team that was runner-up in the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 and the World Championship in 1994. His father Zhang Yan had a career with the Liaoning provincial team as a power forward.
This family background not only bestowed him with extraordinary talent, but also professional guidance along the way.
“My mother was my coach when I was a kid. After I came back to play in the CBA, my parents watch every game of mine,” recalled Zhang. “And they look into the details, often pointing out my technical deficiencies. When I have an excellent performance, they never praise me, for fear that I might become arrogant.”
The “come back” he referred to is coming back from the United States, where he spent seven years studying and playing basketball starting from the age of 14.
He later played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) with Tulane University as a freshman, registering 24 points and seven rebounds in his debut. That’s when he began to step into the spotlight.
“NCAA rules are close to FIBA rules. This spell allowed me to experience diverse training methods and game style, which laid foundation for my professional career,” he noted.
Deciding to start his professional career in China, Zhang returned to his hometown and joined Liaoning Flying Leopards, which has a strong squad with experienced players including 25-year-old Zhao Jiwei, 27-year-old Guo and 33-year-old Han Dejun. Zhang felt a sense of belonging while playing in his hometown for the 2018 CBA champions.
“I grew up training in Liaoning’s arena, and sometimes shared the same court with the senior team,” said Zhang, who was once on the youth team of Liaoning. “It’s fair to say these big brothers [in our team]watched me grow, and they cared for me since I was a kid.”
“Being able to live, train and compete with these top domestic players helps me improve a lot.”
The Liaoning hopeful believes he is “very lucky” to have received support and help from people around him when he grew up, and said he was most grateful for his parents.
“They have been taking good care of me and teach me how to be a good person. At the same time, they leave enough space for me to develop myself,” he said. “All these years I was abroad, I did not fulfill my role as a son, so I hope to make it up for them with extra effort now.”
Speaking of future goals, the young talent expressed his desire to put on national team jersey.
“It’s an ultimate privilege for an athlete to represent his country. I wish I can have the chance to represent China on the international stage,” Zhang said.
“Meanwhile, I hope I can devote myself, together with my teammates, to helping Liaoning achieve even better results,” the 2021 season runner-up added.
At the same time, Zhang says he will continually work to improve his game.
“There is a lot for me to improve, for example shooting stability, finishing after physical play, man-to-man defense, technique application and tactical execution in games and so on. I need to make the fullest of future trainings and matches to accumulate experience and hone my skills,” he concluded. Enditem