Publish date:

Foreign Intrigue

Is Yi Jianlian another Yao Ming--or Wang Zhizhi? An NBA team will likely use a top draft pick to find out

It's just after 8a.m. when the future of Chinese basketball steps out the door of his spartanone-bedroom apartment in Dongguan to join his team for breakfast. There is nostar treatment for Yi Jianlian, just a plate of eggs, a couple of slices ofburned toast and a seat at the table with the rest of his teammates onGuangdong Hongyuan, China's top professional team. In fact, the only hint ofany star treatment for Yi is the Myoplex protein shake the 19-year-old centergulps down, a perk, you could say, from his personal trainers who are furiouslypreparing Yi for the NBA draft next June, when he'll be China's most heraldedprospect since Yao Ming.

On Nov. 3 Chinesebasketball officials cleared the 6'11", 230-pound Yi to play in the U.S.The son of former athletes--both of Yi's parents were team handball players--Yigrew up in the southern town of Shenzhen. Already 6'4" and just out ofgrade school, Yi enrolled at one of China's full-time sports schools beforejoining the Chinese Basketball Association in 2002, at age 15. His game wasunpolished, but his athleticism--he could touch a spot on the backboard 11 1/2feet off the ground--was obvious. "He's long and runs like a deer,"says Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris, who coached Yi on the Chinesenational team in 2004, "and he isn't close to being a finishedproduct."

One of the peoplecharged with refining that product is Joe Abunassar, a trainer who's workedwith many NBA players, most notably Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups. Hiredin October by Yi's agent, Dan Fegan, to oversee the youngster's physicaldevelopment, Abunassar spent a week in China last month setting up a workoutprogram that Yi has added to his two-a-day practice regimen with GuangdongHongyuan. "He is a very strong guy," Abunassar says of Yi. "He'spowerful and understands how to use his body."

Over his fourseasons in the Chinese Basketball Association, Yi has stepped out of theoversized shadows cast by China's "Great Wall of Centers," whichincludes Yao and former NBA backups Wang Zhizhi (who isn't really a center) andMengke Bateer (who isn't really great). Last season Yi led Guangdong to itsthird straight title, averaging 20.5 points and 9.6 rebounds for the Tigers.This season he's utilized a feathery 15-foot jumper and a knack for finding theball around the rim to average 25.9 points and 12.5 rebounds, despite sharingthe floor with four other members of China's national team.

That glut oftalent on Guangdong may be one thing that's stifling Yi's development. "Itseems like all the top players [in China] are playing on his team," says anNBA assistant, "and the rest of the league is what's left over. Thecompetition is not at an NBA level. It's not even at a Division Ilevel."

Nonetheless, Yi,who has been compared to Al Harrington and Darko Milicic, is projected to be alottery pick come June. He'll finish the CBA season (which runs through April)before traveling to the U.S., but Fegan has already prepared tapes to send outto NBA teams, who can read the writing on the Wall: Yi may not be Yao, butthere is still plenty about him that wows.

Our nation's dependence on imports will continue in the 2007 draft. Here aresome foreigners who could be coming to America in June.