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Beijing (AFP) - The NBA will provide resources to three basketball training centres in China, one of its most important markets, it announced Wednesday as it seeks to discover the next Yao Ming.
China is the biggest market for the organisation outside the US, with an estimated 300 million fans.
Yet while spectators abound, world-class Chinese players are fewer and farther between, five years after Houston Rockets star Yao announced his retirement.
Three existing Chinese training centres -- in the cities of Jinan, Hangzhou and Urumqi -- will be dubbed "NBA Academies" and will offer top-level prospects "NBA-level coaching, facilities and competition", the league said in a statement.
Boys and girls as young as under-16s will be involved, it said, and more facilities in China and other countries will join the network later.
Experts say that China struggles to produce new stars to fill Yao Ming's size-18 shoes because of a lack of casual, grassroots sport in a society where youth are pressured to focus on studies for all-important college entrance exams.
"NBA Academies are the logical next step in the league's global grassroots basketball activities but are much more narrowly focused on helping elite-level junior players reach their full potential," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.
The NBA said it was its "most significant investment in elite player development", but no value was available or details of how many students would be involved.
The NBA has previously launched a junior basketball league in Beijing, and worked with the education ministry to have more basketball played in schools.