Yi Jianlian's age is a mystery, even to his teammates on China's basketball squad. "He is 16, you say?" asks Yao Ming, the team's star center. "I thought he was 17." Some think Yi (inset, 11, with Yao) could be as old as 22, but he is listed by the Chinese Olympic Committee as 16 and is thought to be the youngest hoops Olympian in history. Whatever his age, the 6'11" Yi has come a long way quickly; a reserve for most of the season on his club team in Guangdong province, he played 14 minutes at forward in China's opening game on Sunday, an 83-58 loss to Spain.
Yi doesn't have a clue about passing or dribbling on the move, but he has a deft shooting touch and he's an exceptional athlete with quickness and fluidity. He also has a deferential attitude--in effect, no 'tude--passing up shots and looking to set screens even against zones.
"He becomes draft-eligible in two years," says China coach Del Harris, a Dallas Mavericks assistant, "and he will be drafted." Of course, if it's discovered that Yi is already old enough to be eligible, he'll be drafted in 2005. --J.M.
Photograph by John W. McDonough