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Bateer getting a good look in Denver
by Eric Peterson / April 5, 2002

At the end of the 2001-02 Nuggets season, the big news is no news. Once the postseason commences, this situation is going to change markedly, with a probable coaching change, a lottery pick, and an intriguing free agent crop generating plenty of ink. For now, the most captivating story originating from the Pepsi Center: the minutes that center Mengke Bateer has been getting in what is essentially an audition for a roster spot in 2002-03.

As of this writing, Bateer had started five of the last six games, putting up 6.2 ppg and 5.6 rpg in an average of 19 minutes during the Nuggets' late March road trip - modest yet promising numbers for a player whose NBA career began less than two months ago. His offense (his shooting percentage is hovering around .380) and footwork definitely need polish, but he could develop into a tough inside presence if given the chance.

"He's adjusting," said coach Mike Evans of Bateer's progress. "He has good instincts and he has a decent touch, even from the three-point line, and he has some nice weaponry in his low post game." The language barrier, whistle-happy refs, and the relentless pace of the transition game are Bateer's biggest hurdles, Evans added.

But Bateer already has the one thing you can't teach: a great NBA body - 6' 11" and 290 ultra-sturdy pounds. He's also the only pure center currently on the Nuggets roster.

After trading away C/F Raef LaFrentz on Feb. 20, Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe wasted no time in signing Bateer for a stint in the Denver paint. The team brought Bateer to pre-season training camp last October, but was forced to cut him because of his binding contract with the Chinese Basketball Association's Beijing Ducks, where he posted 21 points and 12.8 rebounds a game last season.

Once the Ducks' season ended, the door opened for the Nuggets to make Bateer the second Chinese NBA player, after Mavericks C Wang ZhiZhi. With the playoffs already an impossibility, it looks like Vandeweghe is using the latter stages of the season to take a good look at the prospect of bringing Bateer back next year. (His contract is up at the end of the season.)

A native of Inner Mongolia, Bateer started playing basketball as a nine-year-old six-footer in the mid-1980s. Now 26, he is a seasoned Chinese pro and two-time Olympian. The last two months have been a crash course in
American basketball for Bateer. "There are lots of differences" between the NBA style and that of China, he said through an interpreter. "The rhythm and the instinct of the offense are faster in the NBA."

Basketball is the most popular spectator sport in China, Bateer added. "It was popular before, but now even more popular since [Zhizhi and I] started playing in the NBA," he explained. With 7'5" Chinese C Yao Ming touted as a
potential lottery pick in the upcoming draft, basketball's popularity in China is poised to make even further strides.

"He has the talent," Bateer said of Ming, whom he has played with and against. (The Chinese press has collectively labeled Bateer, Zhizhi, and Ming as "The Walking Great Wall.") "With his potential, he should be very,
very good in the NBA."

If all three Walking Great Wallers play in the NBA next year, expect an unprecedented cross-cultural marketing push. The Chinese market -1.3 billion people in all - has top NBA execs licking their chops. The average weekly TV audience for NBA games in China is 200 million fans strong. For the Mar. 3 Mavericks-Nuggets game, a staggering 400 million Chinese viewers tuned in. (There are probably more Nuggets fans in Beijing than there are
in Denver.)

As the Chinese economy slowly opens itself to globalization, more players will jump the Pacific. In turn, the NBA is more than willing to export programming, jerseys, pennants, and everything else that the marketing gurus dream up.

Bateer will play the remainder of the Nuggets season and then return to Beijing in May. He has enjoyed his time in the Mile High City, and hopes to be back on the team next year. But with a tumultuous offseason looming, Bateer's return to Denver is far from a sure thing.

The Nuggets could do much worse than bringing Bateer back for 2002-03. Physically, he has what it takes to be an imposing center on both sides of the court, and his offense can only get better with experience. In the meantime, however, he's already got a prettier shot than most of the bangers who pass as NBA centers these days.

Eric Peterson is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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