Zhou Qi is a rare prospect. Standing 7'2, with a wingspan just shy of 7'8, Zhou is among the largest players to ever play the game competitively, just about anywhere in the world. His measurements at the NBA Draft Combine were the second best on record, behind only Rudy Gobert for height and wingspan.
Unlike most players of his size, however, Zhou possesses a relatively slight frame, weighing in at just 218 pounds. For reference, that means he weighs less than P.J. Tucker, but is about 9 inches taller.
Zhou's physical profile means that he is probably never going to be a bruising, paint dominating center, either offensively or defensively. It seems unlikely he can add a large amount of weight onto his frame, and it seems equally unlikely his body would stand up to that kind of punishment as it currently stands.
Therein lies the rub for Zhou. He simply cannot be expected to be a traditional NBA center. That means his chances of being successful as an NBA player are likely going to rely on his ability to develop and master skills that would be somewhat unique among players of his size: mid-range and outside shooting, perimeter defense skills, and strong rebounding technique.
If those three things can come together, it seems likely that Zhou will have an at least modestly successful NBA career. He might never become a household name with those skills, but he'll become the kind of player teams actually actively pursue for the roster.
Lets break down those skills to see where he is to date.
Zhou is coveted already at this point in time for his fairly well developed scoring repertoire. In his most recent season in the CBA, Zhou averaged 16 points per game, on 60% shooting overall, including 60% from beyond the arc. His scoring came from all over the court, including a heavy dose of mid-range shots, post-moves and a small, but highly accurate barrage from the three point line.
The good news for the prospect that Zhou develops the necessary shooting skills to be successful in the NBA is that his shooting form looks natural and smooth. He possesses very little of the awkwardness or discomfiture you sometimes see among big men when they are forced to shoot from outside the painted area. In his CBA play, this was visible by his high free throw shooting percentage of 78%.
His free throw shooting gives us another indication about his offensive game: he's fairly proficient at drawing fouls. Zhou averaged 6 FTA attempts per game in his latest season. This is a really high number for a center, and is a reflection of his willingness to play through contact and be physical, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
Concerns about Zhou on the offensive side often revolve around passivity and lack of high level understanding of the offensive side of the game. He often times found himself isolated and out of plays, and would fail to re-position in order to get himself involved again with the offensive set. This is a bad sign, but may at least in part be explained by the nature of CBA coaching and playing styles, which largely revolve around isolation sets rather than the types of offenses more common in the NBA and Europe.
Exacerbating Zhou's perceived weaknesses in court awareness are his just average passing skills for a big man. This is an area that will likely need improvement if he is going to be playing on the perimeter more frequently in the NBA.
At this point in his development, much of Zhou's defensive potential is, well, potential. His physical profile obviously excites, and its clear at this point already that Zhou has a strong knack for shot-blocking. Last season in the CBA he averaged over 3 blocks per game, out-doing former NBA players like Sam Dalembert and Greg Oden, both of whom are known for their shot-blocking skills.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that Zhou athletically possesses the tools necessary to be able to step out and guard the perimeter for extended stretches. Zhou is not only rather agile for a seven footer, but also a rather natural leaper. He was among the best big men in both the lane agility and standing vertical drills at the Draft Combine. These physical tools began to manifest themselves in the CBA this year, where Zhou averaged a little over a steal per game, largely by playing the passing lanes, using his reach and his athleticism to intercept passes.
He also has begun to establish himself as a fairly strong rebounder. Zhou rarely overpowers someone for a rebound, and is pretty susceptible to being pushed off of the boards by a stronger player with better positioning. He does however make good use of his length and leaping ability to come up with rebounds that he probably should have lost. He definitely needs work on positioning and rebounding form, but he's no slouch in this department.
The concerns about his basketball knowledge return on defense, and might in fact be a little bit stronger. At times, Zhou seems lost on the defensive end; or perhaps worse, disinterested. There have been some that suggest that this is also a product of coaching and a lack of emphasis on team defense in the CBA, but these concerns about effort and awareness on defense are somewhat more damning, and are part of why Zhou's stock dropped from the lottery to the late first round earlier this year.
Fit in the NBA and with the Suns
The Suns were one of just four teams with which Zhou's representatives have so far allowed him to workout. The Suns obviously see something in him worth considering.
If drafted by the Suns, Zhou would bring about an instant increase in the positional versatility of the frontcourt rotation. With Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic both pending free-agents, Qi would instantly provide a stretch capability to the rotation, allowing the Suns to play a two towers-style system that worked so poorly last season with Tyson Chandler and Alex Len.
A pairing with Len might actually be what the Suns are hoping to develop. The skillsets of the two young players seem pretty well aligned: Len can stretch a bit, but is more comfortable as a scorer closer to the basket, while Zhou seems to be more comfortable scoring from the mid-range, but is more than capable of scoring in the paint on slashes and pick and roll combos; Len is a solid interior defender who struggles a bit with perimeter defense, while Zhou struggles with interior assignments but seems able to guard the perimeter with some success; Len is a better individual defender but can struggle to switch, while Zhou is touted as a strong help defender who does a good job compensating for the defensive mistakes of his teammates.
Zhou would be an interesting prospect for the Suns to pick up. He definitely has unique aspects to his game that would be useful for the team. The question is whether or not the concerns about his mental game are easily overcome with better coaching. If they can be overcome easily, and that impression is conveyed to teams through interviews and scouting, it wouldn't surprise me if he is gone before the 28th pick.