Basketball: Max is gone — he’s a pro in China

Max Zhang, one of the most popular Cal players in recent years, will not be back for his junior season.

The tallest player in Cal history at just over 7-feet-2, Zhang has signed with the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association.

“He signed, he’s done,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said after the team’s open practice Wednesday night. “We were getting unclear messages. It’s really unfortunate, but that’s water under the bridge. This is our team.”

Zhang, who was expected to miss the early season anyway because he is training wth the Chinese national team, averaged 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds a year ago. He started five games in 2009-10 and figured to be the Bears’ first big man off the bench this season.

Cal didn’t expect to have Zhang early this season anyway because he is home training with the Chinese national team. He played in the FIBA World Championships and awaits the Asian Games in China next month.

Word is Zhang was being courted by two Chinese teams, and finally signed with Shanghai, NBA star Yao Ming’s old team.

It’s a curious decision by Zhang, whose game remains undeveloped and could have benefited greatly from two more college seasons playing against American competition. He also leaves behind the potential for a Cal degree, which seemed a priority for such a bright young man.

Zhang’s departure means more minutes for someone else, possibly freshman forward Richard Solomon.

“I just see it as a great opportunity. Hopefully I’ll be ready and at  that point where I can play and I can get those minutes that are available,” Solomon said. “I’ve just got to keep working, keep my head up, keep my composure right and just play hard every night.”

Asked how he thinks he’s faring, Solomon said, “It”s been doing pretty good, I’ve been getting every day in practice. The coaches have been working with me on little things. My confidence is getting there.

“You start in a new system and you’re kind of at the bottom. You don’t want to do too much, but you don’t want to do too little. I’m starting to be a little more confident when I get in there.”

Jeff Faraudo