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Zhou eyes fresh start Down Under

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Zhou Qi has called time on his career with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers to join Australia's National Basketball League. [Photo/Xinhua]

With his domestic club career stalled by a contract dispute, Zhou Qi is taking his talent Down Under in the hope of eventually returning to the NBA.

The Team China star on Wednesday confirmed that he has signed with the South East Melbourne Phoenix in Australia's National Basketball League after failing to secure a release from the Xinjiang Flying Tigers to join a rival CBA team.

"I am really excited to join the SE Melbourne Phoenix, a strong NBL franchise with great potential and full of vigor," Zhou said in a Weibo post on Wednesday.

"I really appreciate the interest from the Phoenix management team in my game and I am looking forward to working with head coach Simon Mitchell and his team."

A formidable force on Xinjiang's 2016-17 championship roster, Zhou's overseas move was widely welcomed by Chinese hoops fans after the 25-year-old center refused to let a controversial CBA rule keep him with the Flying Tigers.

Even though his previous contract had expired, Xinjiang was, as per league rules, within its rights to keep Zhou by offering him an extension-reportedly worth 6 million yuan ($928,000), the highest possible salary permitted by the CBA's cap system.

Unable to seek opportunities elsewhere in the CBA as a "free agent", Zhou saw a move abroad as the only way out of the quandary as he aims for an NBA return while still in his prime.

"I felt my best chance of getting back to the NBA was to join the Phoenix," said Zhou, who was selected by the Houston Rockets in the 2016 NBA Draft as the 43rd overall pick.

"I will take my chances to improve my game in every possible aspect. I am braced for some tough drills and will try to make progress in the NBL to benefit my future career."

After arriving amid considerable hype at the franchise where the legendary Yao Ming made his name, Zhou's journey in Houston ultimately ended in disappointment after just two years (2017-19). The lack of power in his lanky frame was badly exposed in the NBA's muscular tussles, negating his agility and shooting touch.

After returning home to rejoin Xinjiang, the franchise's shrinking investment in player recruitment couldn't match Zhou's title ambitions, even though he led the league in a number of individual stats.

On the international stage, his throw-in blunder in a crucial group game against Poland at the 2019 FIBA World Cup contributed to China's failure to secure a direct qualifying berth for the Tokyo Olympics, with Zhou consequently bearing the brunt of often fierce online criticism.

The interest from Down Under offered Zhou a fresh start to reboot his career.

In a statement on the club's website, Phoenix owner Romie Chaudhari said:"Signing a Chinese player of Zhou's credentials is a landmark move for the Phoenix and the NBL. Bringing Zhou to the NBL further expands the league and the club's international presence-this signing makes the Phoenix a real player on the global stage."

'Game-changer'

The Phoenix, which joined the 10-team NBL in 2019, boasts a competitive roster that includes ex-NBA players Mitch Creek (formerly of the Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves) and Xavier Munford (Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks). Now the club, which finished fourth last term, is hopeful Zhou's arrival can turn it into a title contender.

"At 7-foot-1 (2.16 meters), Zhou's skill set is something we haven't had before, we think he can help us cement our position at the top of the NBL this year," Phoenix CEO Tommy Greer said.

"His dream is to get back to the NBA and we'll do everything we can to help him achieve that. With our starting point guard from last year, Keifer Sykes, starting training camp with the Indiana Pacers this week, we've shown as a club we can make that happen.

"Not only is it a fantastic signing for us as a team, it's a game-changing addition to the NBL."

With the new NBL season to tip off on Nov 18, Zhou is expected to miss the opening stages of the campaign to join Team China's preparations for its 2023 World Cup qualifiers.

"It's always my goal to contribute to the national program whenever needed. Many thanks to the Phoenix organization for being flexible enough to allow me to join the national team, as well as to the support from the CBA to make it happen," Zhou said.

The Phoenix had already established a Chinese connection prior to its inaugural NBL season when the team visited China in a preseason tour, playing warm-up games against the Zhejiang Lions. The sizable Chinese community in Melbourne is also believed to have been a factor in enticing Zhou.

On Tuesday, another NBL franchise, the Brisbane Bullets, announced they had signed Team China's Liu Chuanxing, a young 7-foot-5 (2.22m) center who previously played with the Qingdao Eagles.

According to the Bullets, "Big Liu" will be the tallest player in NBL history.

His offensive efficiency and defensive capabilities in the paint will strengthen the Bullets' roster, according to head coach James Duncan.

"With Liu's size and length, comes additional rebounding and rim protection. He plays with finesse and finishes well around the basket," he said. "We look forward to Liu joining the team and welcome the versatility and depth he'll add to our roster."

Liu, 24, made his international debut at this summer's Asia Cup qualifying event before impressing off the bench in an Olympic qualifying tournament. Last term in the CBA, he averaged 9.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 53 regular-season games for the Eagles, before boosting those figures to 17.5 points, 13 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the playoffs.

Now with Zhou and Liu in the NBL, fans have already begun looking forward to a "Chinese derby" between the Phoenix and Bullets, although the schedule for the 2021-22 season has yet to be released.

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