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Smooth launch

Happy in Milwaukee, Yi off to an impressive start

Posted: Tuesday October 9, 2007 11:54AM; Updated: Tuesday October 9, 2007 12:52PM
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Coach Larry Krystkowiak (front) said he expects rookie Yi Jianlian (right) to get his minutes at power forward.
Coach Larry Krystkowiak (front) said he expects rookie Yi Jianlian (right) to get his minutes at power forward.
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MILWAUKEE -- He's been greeted by a shrieking mob at the airport, seen his face on a giant electronic billboard and received a standing ovation from the home crowd for hitting a half-court shot.

Other than those pesky questions about his age, Bucks rookie forward Yi Jianlian is off to a flying start in his new town.

"I'm very glad I got here," said the Chinese phenom, who made headlines this summer when he initially balked at playing in Milwaukee. "The city and the players are very nice, and I'm very happy I'm here."

Needless to say, the Bucks are thrilled (and relieved) as well. After spending the No. 6 pick in the June draft on the 7-foot prospect, Milwaukee could ill afford to have Yi spurn the franchise -- as his representatives had threatened to do over concerns he wouldn't prosper in a small Midwestern market. It took a visit to China, led by Bucks owner and U.S. senator Herb Kohl, to finally persuade Yi to give Brew Town a chance.

"We're just glad he's here," Bucks GM Larry Harris said.

Though he just arrived in the States last week, Yi already has impressed his teammates and coaches with his skills. At the team's media day last Friday, the talk was of Yi's long wingspan, his ability to run the floor, his soft outside shooting touch and his generally high basketball IQ. While the consensus was that Yi was raw and would need time to develop, several Bucks veterans said he was a player with a bright future.

"He's not behind basketball-wise, talent-wise or skill-wise," center Andrew Bogut said. "He knows how to play the game."

"I'm very impressed," veteran forward Samaki Walker added. "He's got speed and strength. Even though he's a slender guy, he's got a strong base."

Yi certainly has a strong fan base already. A Chinese media contingent of about a half dozen reporters seems to follow his every move, and some 70 Asian-American supporters -- part of two separate Yi fan clubs in the United States -- turned out at Chicago's O'Hare Airport late last Wednesday night to greet his plane after a 15-hour flight from Shanghai. They shrieked as he came through customs, with one girl even jumping into his arms.

Yi was then whisked away by Bucks officials on a bus for the 90-minute drive north to Milwaukee. Along the way they passed a giant electronic billboard showing his face, courtesy of the Bucks' marketing department. On Sunday, about 300 Asian fans packed a Bradley Center atrium for a Yi welcoming party complete with crashing cymbals and booming drums.

It's all part of a concerted Bucks effort to make sure Yi feels appreciated in his new town. One of the reasons Yi's reps initially balked at his playing in Milwaukee was their concern that he wouldn't feel at home in an NBA backwater with a relatively small Asian-American population. If early indications mean anything, Yi seems to like what he's seen so far.

The only drawback might be the repeated questions from the local media about Yi's age. He's listed at 19, but many suspect he's really more like 22 or 23. When asked about it for the umpteenth time at media day, Yi responded with "no comment."

Though he seems more suited physically to play small forward right now, the Bucks are already loaded at the position with Bobby Simmons and Desmond Mason. Coach Larry Krystkowiak said Yi would share time at power forward with Charlie Villanueva -- and apparently he'll have to earn his minutes. While it has been rumored that the Bucks promised Yi a certain number of minutes as part of the negotiations to get him to agree to join the Bucks, both Harris and Krystkowiak flatly deny it.

For now, the only guarantee from the Bucks is that they will do what they can to help Yi succeed. He certainly got off to a good start in Saturday's public scrimmage, racking up 10 points and five rebounds. He also got a standing O from the Bradley Center crowd of around 7,000 when he sank a midcourt shot during a fan contest after the third quarter.

The Bucks can only hope it's a sign of things to come.

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