China's next big thing
Athletic and possessing a sweet shot, Yi Jianlian follows Yao as the latest Chinese import in the NBA
Posted: Friday June 22, 2007 9:45AM; Updated: Friday June 22, 2007 3:45PM
It is a warm and sunny June afternoon in Los Angeles when Yi Jianlian shows up for a workout. There is little fanfare accompanying the arrival of China's latest U.S. export, just a dutiful manager trailing him through the double doors of L.A.'s Home Depot Center and a trainer patiently waiting for him on the other side. Ever since China first approved Yi's entrance into the NBA draft last November, people have wondered if Yi is the next Yao Ming.
The answer is an emphatic no. Though Yi will likely be the highest Chinese draft pick since Yao in 2002 -- Boston likely won't pass on him at No. 5, and should he slip to No. 10, Sacramento would almost select him -- he has very little in common with Asia's most famous import. It doesn't take much more than a look at him to figure that out.
With Nickelback's Far Away blaring in the background, Yi begins to warm up. Stretching is followed by wind sprints as Yi slowly begins to work up a sweat. He pauses when he spots a contingent from the Sacramento Kings, led by president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie, walk onto the floor. He approaches the group and exchanges handshakes as well as rudimentary greetings he has learned in the two months he has spent in the U.S. learning the English language. He accepts a pair of Kings shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt from Petrie with a smile, quickly slipping them on and adding them to what has already become an extensive collection of apparel. His body, particularly his muscular legs and a wispy upper half that fill out his 7-foot, 248-pound frame, bear a striking resemblance to Yao, who is 7-6. But that is where the comparisons end.
"He doesn't look 19, does he?" remarks an onlooker as Yi begins his warmup routine. Certainly not, as a 7-5 wingspan, a dead jump of 33 inches, a three-step leap of 37 inches and 3.5 percent body fat make Yi more man than child. In fact, no one is entirely sure how old Yi is. Reports have varied from his stated age of 19 (the Chinese national team roster lists his date of birth as Oct. 27, 1987) to as old as 22. But as Yi resumes his workout it becomes increasingly clear that his remarkable talent makes any questions about his age nearly irrelevant.
Under the watchful eye of trainer Jarin Akana, Yi begins his workout routine with a steady diet of perimeter jumpers. Alongside journeyman center Matt Knight, who has been recruited to be Yi's sparring partner these last two months, Yi fires up shot after shot with many (if not most) making a clean swishing sound as it meets the bottom of the net. He steps back behind the three-point line and continues to launch, each make furiously recorded by a member of the Sacramento staff. It's a sweet stroke that, when coupled with his size and athleticism, makes Yi's game reminiscent of that of 2006 top overall pick Andrea Bargnani. When asked by Akana to showcase his finishing skills, Yi catches the ball several feet behind the foul line, and in a graceful yet explosive motion takes one dribble and finishes with an emphatic dunk at the rim. No, Yi has no aversion to dunking.
"The thing I like about him is that he does all the basketball related stuff really well," says Petrie. "He's pretty good at everything. That's what you're looking for first in a player."
There is no question Yi is not the prototypical center Yao was when he made the leap to the NBA in 2002. "I see him as a power forward in the NBA," says trainer Joe Abunassar, who was hired last October by Yi's agent, Dan Fegan, to oversee Yi's physical development. "He's going to be a matchup problem. When he catches the ball 12-15 feet from the basket, he's going to be dangerous."
Says one high-ranking league executive, "He has the athleticism of a Kenyon Martin or Richard Jefferson. But his skills are more advanced than either of them when they were drafted."
Following the 60-minute workout Yi, his new shirt drenched with sweat, departs for the second stage of his audition: a debriefing with Kings officials who use the time to interview the prized prospect who has yet to be vetted by the American media. There, at a local restaurant, Yi will answer a barrage of questions ranging from his hobbies to his experiences with alcohol and marijuana. For China's next big thing, it's all part of the process.
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