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Intriguing import

'Chinese Magic Johnson' aims to earn spot with Lakers

Posted: Wednesday July 4, 2007 1:25PM; Updated: Monday July 16, 2007 2:36PM
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Sun Yue may be the size of a frontcourt player, but he has the skills of a point guard.
Sun Yue may be the size of a frontcourt player, but he has the skills of a point guard.
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In 1979, the Los Angeles Lakers shocked no one when they selected Earvin "Magic" Johnson with the first pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty eight years later, the Lakers picked Magic again -- only this time they waited until the second round to acquire China's version, raising more than a few eyebrows in the process.

Sun Yue, affectionately known as the "Chinese Magic Johnson," does not come to the NBA with the same hype as Johnson -- at least not Stateside. There is no NCAA championship on Sun's résumé, and his personality will never be compared to the charismatic Johnson's. In fact, in many ways Sun is more Tony Parker than Johnson, as his girlfriend is one of China's top models. But whenever you have a point guard who looks like a power forward, the comparisons to Johnson are inevitable. Just ask Penny Hardaway.

"I have a different style [than Johnson],'' Sun said. "Yes, I'm like him because I pass more than score. Maybe I play kind of like him, but he was a superstar.''

What the 22-year-old Sun does bring is a pretty impressive skill set. Sun, along with countryman Yi Jianlian, is part of a new generation of Chinese basketball players, a flashy ball handler and aggressive dunker who at 6-9 towers over opponents at the point-guard position much the same way Johnson did two decades ago.

Sun averaged 10.5 assists last season for the Beijing Aoshen Olympians, a Chinese professional team that jumped to the American Basketball Association in midseason. He showcased a nice perimeter jump shot and a fluid left-handed stroke that had scouts intrigued at the possibility of a Chinese NBA player who didn't play one of the power positions. His overall performance -- he averaged 13.5 points and was named to the All-ABA first team -- coupled with a solid showing at the NBA predraft camp in Orlando put Sun on the radar as teams frantically searched for playmakers in a relatively weak draft for point guards.

"We looked hard at him," an Eastern Conference scout said of Sun, who is hoping to follow Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer as Chinese players to make the NBA. "It was split down the middle, but a lot of our guys were very high on him."

Certainly the Lakers were. In selecting Sun with the 10th pick in the second round (40th overall), Los Angeles passed on more accomplished college point guards like Marist's Jared Jordan and Florida's Taurean Green. The Lakers also selected Sun after using their first-round pick on Georgia Tech point guard Javaris Crittenton. While the Lakers like Sun's versatility -- he can defend four positions -- it's possible that he could be asked to remain with the Chinese team for another season.

"We feel [Sun] is a prospect," Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said. "He could come with us early or perhaps play overseas."

Others feel Sun needs more seasoning before he makes the leap to the world's elite basketball league.

"If you ask me which skill Sun needs to improve in terms of playing in the NBA," Chinese national team coach Jonas Kazlauskas said recently, "I'd tell you he needs an all-around improvement, because he is not strong enough to join the games there."

The world won't have to wait long to find out. Sun was scheduled to participate with Yi and the rest of the national team in two exhibition games this week and will likely head to Las Vegas to play for the Lakers' summer-league team later this month. An impressive performance against a group of young prospects and NBA vagabonds would go a long way toward earning an invitation to Lakers' training camp in the fall.

"I used to dream about playing on the Lakers," Sun said. "They are very young and talented. I think the team fits me well."