Houston Community News >> China's Yi to Bring Excitement to NBA Draft

6/26/2007 LOS ANGELES — Yi Jianlian (pronounced yee chon-len), the likely top-10 NBA draft pick from China, is billed as the next Yao Ming, but don't be fooled. He's 7 feet tall, 247 pounds and quite an athlete, more akin to a power or small forward than a center such as the Houston Rockets' Yao at 7-6, 310.

Yi is quicker, faster and much springier. He's an excellent shooter up to 18-20 feet and can hit three-pointers, too.

Ahead of Thursday's NBA draft he has worked out informally for and with a variety of veteran basketball people not affiliated with particular teams, and he has universally wowed them. Respected observers such as Pete Newell, Kiki Vandeweghe and Don MacLean have watched Yi up close, and they think he can be an immediate starter or major contributor.

Newell, the legendary Hall of Fame coach who has run the Big Man Camp for years, had Yi there four years ago. He renewed acquaintances last month, watching Yi work out at UCLA.

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"Yi will end up being the best player in the NBA from China, and I know that's saying a lot," Newell, 91, says. "He has much more body control than Yao, and he's a much better jumper. I'm real high on him, and I think I'm right."

Yi has the full attention of teams with high picks in Thursday's draft. He worked out for the Atlanta Hawks (Nos. 3 and 11 picks), Boston Celtics (No. 5), Chicago Bulls (No. 9), Sacramento Kings (No. 10), Philadelphia 76ers (No. 12), Los Angeles Clippers (No. 14) and Golden State Warriors (No. 18).

ESPN analyst Vandeweghe, the former NBA player and Denver Nuggets general manager, says he was "blown away" by the Yi workouts he saw last month.

"What I didn't realize was how athletic he is," Vandeweghe says. "I've worked out big players for more than 20 years, and I compare Yi very favorably to when I first" worked out with Dirk Nowitzki."

Broadcaster MacLean, the former UCLA star and NBA forward, worked with Yi for a week recently.

"People say, 'Oh, he's good for a Chinese player.' No, he's good for good," MacLean says.

Yi, working out the past two months in Los Angeles, where his agent is based, still must prove he can mix it up inside, be a solid rebounder or capably defend the post. Then again, he's just 19.

His biggest promoters say he is not the next Yao, but The Next Generation — a Chinese player who can run and jump and dunk with a flourish.

Yi likes Yao personally but says he does not like the on-court comparisons to him. "Different positions," he says in English. "He's a center. He's very tall. I am not tall like that. I play the power forward. I can play some center, but it's not my favorite position."

Yi has a delightful personality, quick to smile, eager to please. He has been popular around L.A., taking in big Hollywood premieres of the new installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek films.

He did two interviews for this story, one in slow, halting, basic English, another, much livelier, in Mandarin, with an interpreter. He takes English lessons daily. Every night, he has a one-on-one session with a tutor. How's it going?

"OK," he says in English, shaking his head. "It's very hard."

But he does not, apparently, scare easily.

"Yes, I have been driving," Yi says, chuckling.

On the freeways?

"Yes," he says, his eyes widening.

So far, no accidents, no tickets, no big deal.

"It's not so different," he says. "Driving in China is hard, too."

Questions remain

NBA teams are less interested in how he drives the L.A. freeways than in how he drives the lane against the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett or Nowitzki.

Despite all the praise, he might be the biggest mystery in the draft. Some NBA teams have scouted him in the Chinese Basketball Association, where he led his Guangdong Tigers to three championships in four seasons.

He has an international track record, too, but it is spotty. He played only sparingly alongside Yao in the 2004 Olympics, averaging about three points and three rebounds.

Yi was more of a factor last year at the World Championships in Japan, averaging 6.2 points and 5.7 rebounds. He had a respectable showing against Dwight Howard, Elton Brand and the U.S. team, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes in a game the USA won in a rout.

His athleticism and potential are intriguing, although it's difficult to tell how that will translate to the NBA without seeing him regularly against high-caliber competition.

MacLean says it's a legitimate concern.

"I watched him on tape and saw him play in a couple games in that Chinese league," he says. "It would be like me playing against sixth-graders. One game he had like 42 points and 15 rebounds and 38 of them must have been dunks.

"You're taking a chance picking him real high without seeing him against guys who are going to play in the NBA."

Yi has strong, muscular legs, is lean in the belly and thin in the upper body and arms. He has worked off and on for nearly a year with strength and conditioning coach Joe Abunassar, who has trained such NBA players as Garnett, Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis.

Abunassar says Yi has less than 4% body fat, a vertical leap of 361/2 inches and can run the floor as fast as a lot of guards.

"He's at the top end of every kind of test for speed, strength and agility," Abunassar says. "I've rarely seen a guy with his athleticism and work ethic."

Four years ago, Yi got permission from Chinese officials to attend Newell's camp in Las Vegas. Yao had just finished his rookie season. Yi, then 15, was dreaming of following Yao to the NBA.

Last month, when Newell saw Yi work out at UCLA, Yi at one point executed a quick spin move that caught Newell's eye.

"Who in China taught you that move?" Newell asked Yi.

"You did," Yi said, smiling. "In Las Vegas."

Bottom line, MacLean says, is that Yi "should be a good power forward who can really step out. Nobody's going to ask him to get 25 (points) and 12 (rebounds) or be an immediate All-Star.

"But he's big enough and skilled enough to be a contributor and be a starter right away."

No contact in practice

Yi will be the fourth NBA player from China, but his agent, Dan Fegan, said he did not know how Yi's contract would be negotiated with the Chinese government. Yao, Wang Zhizhi and Menke Bateer had to give part of their salaries to the government.

Fegan has been protective of Yi on and off the court. He has allowed only a few interviews.

Yi has been staying in an apartment in Westwood, near the UCLA campus. His father, Yi Jinglin, 50, and mother, Mai Meiling, 49, are staying in a nearby apartment and will stay here until the draft. They are retired postal workers.

"They didn't need a job, so they just relax," says Yi, who has drawn a salary from his club team (around $250,000) and income from an endorsement deal with Nike — "a pittance," Fegan says.

Yi hasn't played in any pickup games in L.A., although the area is full of good runs with talented college and pro players.

"That's too dangerous," Fegan says. "Someone is always going to want to prove himself. It's a recipe for injury."

So Yi works day after day on his shooting, post moves, agility, strength — mostly against no one. On a typical day recently at the UCLA gym he worked out for about an hour on a court separated by a curtain from pickup games.

His mother and an official from his Chinese team sat on the baseline, expressionless, while a coach fed Yi for shot after shot, occasionally giving him pointers on his release or trying to get more leg in his shot. His father crouched on the far sideline, expressionless.

A week later, Yi held a formal workout for the Kings at Home Depot Center in Carson, about 20 miles southeast of the UCLA campus. Yi put on quite a show, hitting shots from all over, polishing off post moves with strong dunks, stroking three-pointers, running the court and finishing high above the rim.

What did Geoff Petrie, Kings president of basketball operations, think of it all?

"Good, for what you're allowed to do in these workouts," he said.

Fegan and Yi's parents say Yi is really is 19, although stories for several years suggest his age was doctored by the Chinese basketball federation, and he might be 22.

"I don't think anyone is worried about his age," Petrie says. "You're looking at whether or not the guy's a real good basketball player."

Less than a week before a monumental day for him, Yi says he is not nervous or afraid about what NBA clubs are thinking.

"I have talked to Yao, and he tells me you have to be aggressive and mentally strong," Yi says. "Some people have told me to be prepared for a little bit of a rocky start, so I am preparing as well as I can for that. I know I have to get stronger.

"But everything has gone well here in my training and my workouts. I am not really surprised. I think I have a good sense of what the competition will be like, and I know what I am capable of doing. I think I am ready."

(Contributed by AP)