Wang Zhizhi's great leap forward into American, NBA culture
** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MAY 4-5 — FILE — ** Memphis Grizzlies guard Eddie Gill, front, drives against Dallas Mavericks forward Wang Zhizhi, back, during the second half in Dallas, in this March 23, 2002 photo. Players in the background are Dallas' Avery Johnson (5) and Eduardo Najera (14), and Grizzlies' Stromile Swift (4). Zhizhi has come to appreciate American pop culture in the form of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, SUVs and Texas steaks. But the Dallas Mavericks' second-year forward from China stops short of embracing the ultimate in NBA showmanship _ the dunk. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)

DALLAS (AP) — Wang Zhizhi has come to appreciate American pop culture in the form of Britney Spears and SUVs, the Backstreet Boys and Texas steaks.

But the Dallas Mavericks' second-year forward from China stops short of embracing the ultimate in NBA showmanship — the dunk.

In Game 1 of a first-round sweep of Minnesota, the 7-foot-1, 255-pound Wang tentatively missed two point-blank shots under the basket.

That led to a ribbing from All-Star guard Michael Finley.

"I've never seen him dunk. Have you seen him dunk? Can he even get up there?" Finley asked some teammates as they shot the ball around after a workout later that week.

Finley called Wang over to the basket, then lobbed a pass that Wang fluidly caught and slammed.

"Just checking," Finley said jokingly. Wang — who once won a dunking competition in a Chinese professional league — didn't smile.

"He's a little sensitive about that," Sary Benzvi, Wang's mentor and interpreter, said later. "It's all a part of his development. He has to get a little more physical around the goal."

Wang, the first Asian to join the NBA, knows a lot about Americana and much less about NBA basketball. He arrived in the United States as arguably China's biggest sports celebrity.

The buzz about Wang has extended to other members of the Chinese national team, which includes 7-foot-6 Yao Ming and 7-foot Menk Bateer, who is now with the Denver Nuggets. Many analysts have tabbed Yao, who worked out this month for NBA scouts, as a potential No. 1 pick in this summer's draft.

The underdeveloped parts of Wang's game hint at an NBA star to come.

"Wang is as good an offensive player as I have," Dallas coach Don Nelson said, including All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki.

That may seem a premature assessment for a player who has averaged fewer than a point a game in the Mavericks' current playoff run and has few offensive weapons other than an accurate touch from three-point range.

The language barrier has posed problems. Wang is learning English, but he mostly answers questions with nods or through Benzvi, an assistant coach.

"The NBA thinking. That's the toughest thing," Wang said through Benzvi.

Wang doesn't get many minutes on the court, and he's not particularly needed on a team with plenty of offense in Nowitzki (33.3 points a game in the playoffs), Finley (24.7 points) and point guard Steve Nash (21 points).

Wang did not play much when he first arrived, although Nelson worked him into the rotation in the final month of the regular season. It remains to be seen whether Wang will get more playing time as the Mavericks continue their playoff run against the Sacramento Kings in the second round.

He's certainly a work in progress. But Nelson and his son, assistant coach Donnie Nelson, believe they eventually will earn a return on their investment.

"He has not exceeded my expectations," said Donnie Nelson, who was helping coach the Lithuanian national team when he spotted the willowy 16-year-old from Beijing. "But he definitely has held his value. The next year is going to be a telltale year for him.

"He could be one of those multiposition guys that changes the way the game is played, but everything is yet to be proven."

Wang's parents are former basketball players — his 6-foot-4 mother played for China's national team and his 6-foot-7 father played in a Chinese pro league. At age 8, Wang was steered to the courts by his father and teachers.

His parents signed him up for the People's Liberation Army when he was 14, realizing that he would enjoy the best coaching and facilities in China. Wang rarely missed the weekly NBA game shown on TV in Beijing and spent much of his free time copying the moves of Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley.

It was 1993 in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Donnie Nelson first glimpsed the left-handed center with a reliable jump shot and surprising athleticism.

"He was very young, probably the youngest guy on the court, and didn't play very much," Donnie Nelson recalled, "but the thing that kind of stood out about him … he had a little edge, something that was just near the surface."

He continued polishing his skills, finally impressing scouts from all over the world at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He averaged 11.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as China placed eighth in the games.

The Mavericks knew Wang might never earn the release needed from the Chinese military, which was reluctant to let go of its best player without getting anything in return. The Mavericks selected him in the second round of the 1999 draft.

"We never do things the conventional way; our philosophy in some respects is all or nothing," Donnie Nelson said. "In the second round, you can afford to take some gambles."

Still, Wang seemed to be a draft-day risk with potentially great rewards. He averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds a game, leading the Bayi Rockets to six consecutive Chinese Basketball Association championships.

The Nelsons made several visits to China. Beijing officials needed the good publicity to secure a bid for the 2008 Olympics, and they realized that allowing Wang to play in the NBA would in turn improve China's national team in international competition.

After two years of negotiations, Chinese officials finally agreed to let Wang play for the Mavericks.

He entered his first NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 5, 2001, and immediately made a splash by scoring points 100 and 101 — securing a free chalupa for Dallas fans as part of a fast-food promotion.

He melded with his teammates quickly, which wasn't difficult in a locker room of players from Germany (Nowitzki), Canada (Nash), Mexico (forward Eduardo Najera) and Argentina (forward Ruben Wolkowyski). Several are familiar with language and cultural hurdles.

"Once he gets acclimated to the language and style of play, he'll have a great career," Nowitzki said. "We all try to make him feel comfortable, but there's only so much we can do. We'll talk to him with our hands and legs."

Off the court, Wang spends much of his time with friends in the Dallas area and with his girlfriend, who came with him from Beijing.

Benzvi acknowledges he sometimes worries the leap from China to the United States is a little too daunting.

"There's a little more cultural differences there than with the European countries," Benzvi said. "It's going to take time, but as he progresses it will become easier for him. He's doing as well as you can do."

— Arizona Daily Sun

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