Italian league's top prospect has sweet stroke and is certain lottery pick if
he enters draft, but he's been reluctant to leave Europe.
Unpolished but with a nose for the ball around the rim, he could be that rare
commodity, a true center, if he declares for '07 draft.
Fluid, athletic floor leader could run an NBA team right away; Pau Gasol's
Spanish sidekick doesn't shy away from the big shot.
Pure shooter with high hoops IQ plays three positions (though he defends none
of them); he can spot up from anywhere.
It's just after 8
a.m. when the future of Chinese basketball steps out the door of his spartan
one-bedroom apartment in Dongguan to join his team for breakfast. There is no
star treatment for Yi Jianlian, just a plate of eggs, a couple of slices of
burned toast and a seat at the table with the rest of his teammates on
Guangdong Hongyuan, China's top professional team. In fact, the only hint of
any star treatment for Yi is the Myoplex protein shake the 19-year-old center
gulps down, a perk, you could say, from his personal trainers who are furiously
preparing Yi for the NBA draft next June, when he'll be China's most heralded
prospect since Yao Ming.
On Nov. 3 Chinese
basketball 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--Yi
grew up in the southern town of Shenzhen. Already 6'4" and just out of
grade school, Yi enrolled at one of China's full-time sports schools before
joining the Chinese Basketball Association in 2002, at age 15. His game was
unpolished, but his athleticism--he could touch a spot on the backboard 11 1/2
feet 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 Chinese
national team in 2004, "and he isn't close to being a finished
One of the people
charged with refining that product is Joe Abunassar, a trainer who's worked
with many NBA players, most notably Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups. Hired
in October by Yi's agent, Dan Fegan, to oversee the youngster's physical
development, Abunassar spent a week in China last month setting up a workout
program that Yi has added to his two-a-day practice regimen with Guangdong
Hongyuan. "He is a very strong guy," Abunassar says of Yi. "He's
powerful and understands how to use his body."
Over his four
seasons in the Chinese Basketball Association, Yi has stepped out of the
oversized shadows cast by China's "Great Wall of Centers," which
includes Yao and former NBA backups Wang Zhizhi (who isn't really a center) and
Mengke Bateer (who isn't really great). Last season Yi led Guangdong to its
third 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 the
ball around the rim to average 25.9 points and 12.5 rebounds, despite sharing
the floor with four other members of China's national team.
That glut of
talent on Guangdong may be one thing that's stifling Yi's development. "It
seems like all the top players [in China] are playing on his team," says an
NBA assistant, "and the rest of the league is what's left over. The
competition is not at an NBA level. It's not even at a Division I
who has been compared to Al Harrington and Darko Milicic, is projected to be a
lottery 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 out
to NBA teams, who can read the writing on the Wall: Yi may not be Yao, but
there is still plenty about him that wows.
Our nation's dependence on imports will continue in the 2007 draft. Here are
some foreigners who could be coming to America in June.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]