International Man Of Mystery in Draft

yi jianlian - 2007 nba draft
In a draft filled with recognizable faces from the college game, the rise of Yi Jianlian presence raises several questions, the biggest concerning his age: Is he 19 or 22 years old? (Kathy Willens - AP)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

NEW YORK, June 27 -- Yi Jianlian leaned back in his seat and yawned as a bus took him and a handful of prospective lottery picks in Thursday's NBA draft from a community relations event back to their midtown Manhattan hotel.

The bright lights and billboards of Times Square didn't move the 7-foot Chinese player much at all. This was his second visit to New York, plus Yi was too tired to be overwhelmed.

Yi is the most intriguing and unknown commodity in the draft, yet there is a strong possibility that he will be the first player chosen after Portland and Seattle select Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, in whichever order. According to league sources, the Atlanta Hawks are leaning heavily toward taking Yi with the third overall selection. If the Hawks pass on him, Yi isn't expected to slip past No. 10.

In a draft that will be filled with recognizable faces from the college game, Yi's presence raises several questions: Is he 19 or 22 years old? Will his career more closely resemble the success of all-star Yao Ming or the reticence of reserves Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer? Does he have the upper-body strength and toughness to survive? Can he play defense?

Yi is adamant that his birthday is Oct. 27, 1987. And, Yi seemed unfazed on Wednesday when pressed about the rigors of the NBA.

"A lot of people have been talking with me about this. Yao has been talking with me. I think I'm ready for this," Yi said through his interpreter , Ray Lu, an agent with the William Morris Agency. "To be honest with you, I don't think it's that hard. But it's part of the homework for me to do."

Yi has offered little to dispel the mystery surrounding him on Wednesday; and the protection of his agent, Dan Fegan, along with the structures of Chinese basketball have kept him a secret to most outside international and NBA scouting circles.

Yi will become the fourth Chinese import in the NBA, but his game is much different from his predecessors. While Yao, Wang and Bateer were slow, plodding and physical, Yi is sleek, rangy and athletic.

Yi played on China's 2004 Olympic team, which finished eighth, and averaged 24.9 points and 12 rebounds in his fifth season with the Guangdong Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. Some of his exploits have been captured in video clips on YouTube; those clips show a player with tremendous bounce toward the basket and a deft shooting touch.

"He can run and jump with any 7-footer in the league," Del Harris, the Dallas Mavericks assistant who coached the Chinese team in Athens, said in an e-mail on Wednesday. "He is like Tyson Chandler but with a shot -- though he will not be the devastating rebounder Tyson is. He will have to take some time to adjust to the competition, but should do it. Remember that even after the first year, many people doubted that Yao would become what he has."

Yi credits Yao for paving the way for him, but added that the commercial and on-court success of the five-time all-star has also raised the bar for him.

"I hope I can get that number of fans from my country to support me," Yi said.

Yi already has one advantage over Yao. The Chinese government granted Yi permission to come to the United States prior to the draft, a concession Yao didn't receive before Houston drafted No. 1 overall in 2002.

Yi has quickly immersed himself in the culture. He wears Sean John clothing, listens to hip-hop and R&B music (he lists Akon, Jay-Z and 50 Cent as his favorites, and chose their songs, among several others, for his cellphone ringtones). He has gone to Hollywood movie premieres for "Shrek The Third" and the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean." Yi is also taking English classes six times a week. He said overcoming the language barrier -- more than playing basketball -- will be his greatest challenge as a rookie.

Yi did not attend the predraft camp in Orlando, and teams have had limited access to him, as he provided private workouts in Los Angeles for Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, the Lakers, the Clippers, Sacramento, Golden State and Philadelphia. Chinese officials reportedly want Yi to play in a city with a large Chinese population.

"They just don't build guys like this, not very often anyway," said ESPN analyst and former Denver Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who worked out with Yi two times last month. "He reminded me very much of Dirk Nowitzki when I first started working with Dirk. He's a little more athletic, certainly at the same age. Talent-wise, it is all there. He's as good as anybody in the draft."

During the bus ride, Yi glanced at a huge advertisement for Sean John with music mogul Diddy holding his right first toward the sky. "That'll be you up there one day," someone tells Yi.

Yi laughed, typed a text message onto his phone and dozed off.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company