“Gonzaga is a very successful program with great people — coaches, staff, players and all the fans,” Zeng told ESPN. “They’ve had many significant examples of developing international players. That was definitely very important to me throughout the recruiting process. Coach Mark Few has been an extremely successful coach. Coach Tommy Lloyd has been taking such a great care of the athletes that came from overseas. He really showed me what the program is about and how I’d fit perfectly at Gonzaga. I already can’t wait to join!”
Zeng picked Gonzaga over scholarship offers from Florida State, Florida, Virginia Tech and others. He arrived in the United States in 2017 as a 14-year-old, establishing himself as one of the top players in his class in a strong sophomore season at Windermere Prep high school in Orlando, averaging 15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 2.1 assists per game last season.
A good athlete who plays above the rim frequently, but also possesses strong passing ability and a smooth lefty shooting stroke, Zeng’s high school coach, Brian Hoff says he’s a “special, unique player, at 6-9 who shot 47% for 3. He’s a great passer who can handle it as well. What’s going to separate him is he’s got a humility about him. He wants to go to work every day, maximize his potential and be the best. He’s as hard of a worker as I’ve ever coached.”
Coming from a basketball family, with both parents’ ex-players, Zeng was identified at an early age, moving from his hometown of Huban to an Academy 750 miles away in Beijing at the age of 11, before eventually moving to Oregon, and then Florida.
“My family always teaches me to be a great person before everything,” Zeng said. “Being kind and grateful has been very important in my life. On the court, I see myself as a skilled, athletic and smart perimeter player. A playmaker with size who has range as well. I’m very confident on the court and enjoy every second of playing ball. I need to keep working on getting stronger. That’s one of the important goals I have at Gonzaga. Also, just to develop overall. Which I’m sure it will be a blessing to train with some of the best coaches and teammates.”
At the onset of the pandemic in March, Zeng, like many U.S.-based international players, elected to return home. The US travel ban on China will unfortunately prevent him from finishing his final two years of high school at Windermere, so Zeng will spend this upcoming season in China and will attempt to enroll early at Gonzaga, starting next summer.
“It’s been difficult for the entire world,” Zeng said. “For me, my plan of going back to high school in the States had to be canceled. I had to finish high school back in my hometown. I will also finish schoolwork a year early and start playing in college next year. So, it had a pretty big impact, but at the same time showed me more options.”
Gonzaga has had significant success throughout the years with international players, which Zeng says played an important role in his decision. Japanese forward Rui Hachimura was the No. 9 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, while Lithuanian big man Domantas Sabonis was selected No. 11 in 2016.
“It’s always more difficult for international players to adapt,” Zeng said. “It’s very, very important to have coaches who understand different cultures and can guide me through this process.”
The 17-year-old Zeng has been garnering considerable attention both in the U.S. and in his home country of China thanks to the progress he made this past season. With only one Chinese player drafted since 2007, the basketball-crazed country has significant hopes for his development over the coming years.
Zeng says his decision to come to the U.S. at the age of 14 should help his transition to the college game and hopefully bolster his chances of playing in the NBA. He preferred to downplay comparisons to former Chinese NBA draft picks.
“It was important because it helped me learn a different style of playing, as well as the culture. The transition to Gonzaga will be so much easier because of that. I was lucky enough to have Coach Brian Hoff from Windermere Prep and my AAU coach Anthony Ricks to help me grow as a student and a player.
“I really appreciate people believing in me and I’ll use that as a motivation. I’m far from being compared to the greatest Chinese players that ever played. I’m lucky enough to have someone like Yao [Ming] as a pioneer. He paved the way for Chinese players. Especially players who play in the States. I can only work harder to achieve what they have achieved. It’s a huge motivation for me rather than pressure. I really hope that someday I’ll be playing in the NBA.
“Most importantly, I wish I can contribute wearing the Chinese National jersey and represent my country on a global stage. That’s the ultimate goal. I hope that I can influence Chinese basketball, and even the youth. But I must work extremely hard to have a great career and accomplishments. There are no shortcuts.”