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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 product."
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 level."
Nonetheless, Yi, 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.