Wang's a Mav, but don't expect much this year

With China's Wang Zhizhi joining up, half the Mavericks team isn't US-born.

Updated: April 9, 2001, 2:22 PM ET
By Marc Stein | Special to ESPN.com

In the little sporting hamlet of Dallas, the town renowned for its super-sized D, you have America's Team. And then you have Team We Are The World.

Wang Zhizhi
The Mavericks have been pleased with Wang's play in practices so far.

Guess which group is the playoff team?

Wrong. Not the 'Boys who have reduced Troy Aikman to an Opening Day, first-pitch dignitary. Try the team which starts a German (Dirk Nowitzki) and a Canadian (Steve Nash). The gang with backup from Mexico (Eduardo Najera) and Nigeria (Obinna Ekezie). The traveling band of national heroes who had to squeeze out an Australian (Chris Anstey) and a Croatian (Bruno Sundov) to make room for the newer foreigners.

Try the Dallas Mavericks, who commemorated their first postseason berth since 1990 -- since Nowitzki was 12 -- by signing the first Asian in NBA history the very next day. Wang Zhizhi, going one step beyond 1995 Clippers training-camp hopeful Ma Jian, will make his NBA debut Thursday night against Atlanta ... with the club that could field a full team of non-Yanks, if Don Nelson decided to stray any further outside the box.

A whole starting five and a sixth man of un-Americans, actually, if you count German-born Shawn Bradley.

"We've got a melting pot, just like New York," observed veteran forward Mark Bryant.

A more prominent Mark, the Cuban owner who's actually a rare American around here, sagely points out that "if we ever have to play anyone in soccer as a tie-breaker, we'll probably kick their butts."

And Nash, whose hair alone is so out there that it needs its own passport, jokingly calls this crew "the United Colors of Benetton."

Funny thing, though, about the Dallas Mavericks, when you sift through all the wisecracks. They're winning way more than the Cowboys and most of the teams on the Association map. They're doing much better internationally than the commissioner of their league, Emperor Stern.

It's a little arrogant to think, especially with a quarter of the world's population in China alone, that the only real talent will be found in our country.
assistant coach Donnie Nelson

At a time when El Commish has been forced to reduce his north-of-the-border membership by 50 percent, when domestic turmoil has forced Stern to focus on making things right at home before conquering territory outside US borders, the Mavericks are still spanning the globe, Jim McKay-style. They're never satisfied with the number of polyglots on the payroll.

"It's a little arrogant to think, especially with a quarter of the world's population in China alone, that the only real talent will be found in our country," asserts Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks' minister of foreign relations.

Only now, mind you, are Los Mavericks being applauded for such ambition. Now that they're winning, rival teams are wondering where they might be able to score themselves a Nowitzki. Long-suffering Mavs observers and fans have welcomed the Wang era, suddenly prepared to give the kid a couple years to develop before making any hasty judgments. Don't hear much sniping any more about the Nelsons, who were rapped repeatedly for 2 1/2 seasons after foisting a procession of overseas unknowns on the local citizenry. Infatuated with the exotic, it was said. Too smart for their own good, critics charged. Just draft an American already, fans wailed.

To Wang's benefit, the Mavericks were much more beloved in Beijing than they were in Big D lo' those lean years. Donnie, Don and then-owner Ross Perot Jr. made a few goodwill junkets to China, offering to run clinics and armed with Mavericks gear as the first NBA management personnel to visit. They also invited Wang's club coach, Wang Fei of the Chinese army's Bayi Rockets, to spend much of last season traveling with the Mavericks as an unpaid observer.

Nash
Nash

Nowitzki
Nowitzki

Finley
Finley

By the time Nowitzki and Nash blossomed, alongside Michael Finley and the newly annexed Juwan Howard on a team suddenly no one wants to see in the playoffs, plenty of Wang's countrymen were already on the Mavs' bandwagon.

Which is how the Mavericks managed to convince reluctant Chinese authorities to let Wang officially join the Nelsons' foreign legion for the rest of the season and most likely next season, barring unforeseen complications. Stern's office also played a part, sanctioning the Mavericks' unprecedented request to let Wang miss the first two months of the 2001-02 campaign to lead a Chinese army all-star team against other select squadrons from all over the country in a regional competition known as the National Games. The NBA has never allowed a foreign-born player to shuttle between the States and his home nation while under contract over here.

But the landscape is clearly changing. In the surest sign of acceptance, the only jokes about the latest Nelson experiment are coming from the Mavericks themselves.

And you can honestly say, turning gravely serious, that the biggest front-office guy in Texas has to be envious of Ambassador Nellie's level of cooperation from the Chinese.

Isn't that right, President Dubya?

So, Can He Play?
Sorry. Almost forgot the Wang scouting report.

The timing of his arrival, to be fair, isn't the best. And not only because the 7-1, 255-pounder has arrived almost simultaneously with a Navy surveillance plane and its US passengers going down on Chinese soil. And with George Bush warning Wang's government that its refusal to release the Americans has "the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries."

From a purely team perspective, even Nelson calls this "a terrible time for a guy to join our team," with the Mavericks in the midst of a long-awaited playoff drive and a wholly unexpected bid for home-court advantage in the first round. Not the time to be hand-holding a long-term project. Especially one who doesn't speak English yet ... yet who commands maybe more worldwide media attention than anyone else on the roster. Good thing they have a small army of assistant coaches to watch over Wang.

LaFrentz
LaFrentz

Robinson
Robinson

Like most newcomers to this country, Wang has an outstanding outside touch. His favorite player is David Robinson, but he'll remind you of more silky southpaws like Toni Kukoc or Raef LaFrentz. He'll actually bank 'em in off the window more than any of those guys.

Also like most foreigners, though, Wang has lots to learn about the rigors of NBA post play ... and rebounding ... and defense. He's also not yet in NBA shape, and doesn't play with anything reminiscent of Alonzo Mourning-type intensity. Which is why, Don Nelson says, he won't play in Dallas' final eight regular-season games unless "the game's not in jeopardy in any way."

It has been widely speculated, incorrectly, that Wang was immediately placed on the Mavericks' active roster as some sort of deal they cut with the Chinese military to secure the player's release. Not so. It's just that, as per NBA rules, a newly signed player can't go straight onto the injured list. So Bryant sprained a thumb (wink, wink) to give Wang the opportunity to scrounge for a garbage-time debut against the Hawks.

"He shoots the ball significantly better than I was expecting," Donnie Nelson says. "He's got better range than I thought, although he's not used to shooting the NBA three.

"He also has a street toughness to him. But this is a long-term process. We made the mistake with Dirk two years ago, setting expectations too high."

Said Dallas special assistant Morlon Wiley, who played in two-on-two games with Wang over the weekend while the Mavericks were completing their recent 4-1 fairy tale on the road: "We were kind of telling Wang that he basically can write his own ticket if he's willing to work and compete. It's very physical, and a fast game. He's got to learn as fast as he can."

We were kind of telling Wang that he basically can write his own ticket if he's willing to work and compete. It's very physical, and a fast game. He's got to learn as fast as he can.
assistant coach Morlon Wiley

It's easy for the surging Mavericks to take the pragmatic approach, for a couple reasons. A) Unlike with Nowitzki, they no longer need an immediate contribution from their draftees. And B) Dating all the way back to their first brush with foreign imports and communism, starting with the groundbreaking Sarunas Marciulionis in Golden State, they've been through this a few times.

As always with the Nelsons, the combination of size and skill has them drooling. They see every lanky lad who can handle it a little as a potential next Paul Pressey. That said, they know how long it's going to take.

They had an up-close view for the pre-Olympic exhibition game in Dallas last August, when the full Chinese Olympic team -- led by Wang and Yao Ming -- couldn't handle Germany without a flu-ridden Nowitzki. Trust us: Germany sans Dirk is not a group the ESPN.com staff squad should struggle with. Especially given all the hype those Yao and Wang generated from Larry Brown and a fawning US media just a month later at the Sydney Olympics.

Trust us: Even the team that drafts Yao, the likely No. 1 overall pick if he gets permission to declare by May 13, better not expect too much too soon. With both of these pioneers, it's going to be a while.

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    Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics
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    With China's Wang Zhizhi, half the Mavericks team isn't US-born.