Last week, as shouts of "MVP" rained down from the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Ding Yanyuhang was clearly lost for words. "I want to thank everyone for their support," he eventually said via a translator, "I could never have imagined this."
The cheers from Dallas Mavericks fans for their summer league player represented the culmination of a surreal twelve months for Ding. To the Americans, he came out of nowhere to galvanize the crowds with his scoring and constant effort. But even Chinese audiences will admit the swingman's development into viable NBA prospect has been surprising to them too.
Last August, Ding was the only recognizable face on a rebuilding Shandong Bulls roster. The team was expected to struggle, but Ding, who spent most of his early career playing second fiddle to his team's foreign stars, emerged as a legitimate scorer in his own right.
In the Chinese Basketball Association, a league dominated by overseas imports, it is rare to see a native player wave off his American teammates and take a big shot—let alone someone just 23 years of age. But not only was Ding doing this, he was doing it to the tune of 24.2 points a game. Having guided a woeful Shandong side to the playoffs, Ding was voted as one of the youngest MVPs in league history.
Ding's summer league sojourn is the latest chapter in his remarkable year. It has also been a step up in difficulty, and the Chinese player experienced some issues. Fans love the offensive ingenuity but general managers also see the streaky shooting and the spotty accuracy from beyond the arc. Given their scouting networks, they will also be aware of Ding's struggles with high-level players when he encountered them with the Chinese national team.
There is a quiet acceptance among clued-up Chinese basketball media that Ding will be back in the CBA come the fall. The Mavericks reportedly want to offer a two-way deal but Ding, regardless of his deficiencies, is coming into his prime at a time when the CBA is looking for new stars to build around. It would damage Ding's prestige and finances to leave China for anything less than a fully guaranteed contract and a spot on the main roster.
Whatever happens next, Ding has still earned respect by leaving his CBA comfort zone—even if the rarified air of the NBA summer league has revealed Ding's limitations. "Ding has won the American fans and [Dallas'] affirmation," gushed Sina Sports in their write-up of the Mavericks semi-final defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Indeed, for a country still nostalgic about the Yao Ming era and keen for their countrymen to excel in the NBA, this was an unexpected turn of events. In Ding's Summer League ascendence, Chinese fans have enjoyed the simple pleasure of a feel-good story playing itself out. Even if he didn't win the MVP.