Yi is China's new 'Mr. Basketball'
NEW YORK - Yi Jianlian's exaggerated, oversized cartoon image towers over people as they walk down the 33rd Street side of Madison Square Garden, where China will play Puerto Rico in an exhibition on Sunday. Sporting a menacing scowl and embracing a basketball with powerful forearms that make it appear as if he is about to tear it in two, Yi is a rather imposing figure in posters and billboards promoting the World Basketball Festival this week in New York.
But ask Yi about the gigantic billboard hanging on the side of the world's most famous arena - and the home of the New York Knicks - and the Washington Wizards forward can't help but flash a huge grin. "It's great to see my poster in New York City," Yi said after scoring a team-high 13 points as China lost, 98-51, in a scrimmage against the United States on Saturday. "It's great."
Yi is being promoted as the face of the Chinese national team, with Yao Ming retiring from international play following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and still slow to recover from a major foot injury. And, there was no denying Yi's status as the team's best player on Saturday as the 7-foot forward displayed the versatility and athleticism that led the Wizards to acquire him from the New Jersey Nets last June in exchange for Quinton Ross (the Wizards also received $3 million in the deal).
"I think I did pretty good," said Yi, who added a team-high seven rebounds in nearly 27 minutes. "I was fighting. We were playing Team US, the best players in the NBA. I'm just focusing on my game. A chance to play Team US, very good opportunity to get ready for the Washington Wizards."
Yi certainly wasn't in awe of his opponents. He made a three-pointer with Derrick Rose charging at him, drove around the foul line to bury a pull-up jumper over Lamar Odom, and later hit a baseline jumper over Tyson Chandler. He also juked Kevin Durant with a pump fake and dribbled around him for a two-handed dunk.
"Yi, of course, is their main piece. He can score from the outside and inside," Durant said. "Guys here have been watching him play in the league for three years. It was nothing new. It was a great play."
But Yi's value to China became more apparent when he sat the entire third period and Team USA outscored his team, 35-8. China is one of the 24 teams set to participate in the World Championships in Istanbul later this month, earning an automatic bid last summer as Yi and former NBA player Wang ZhiZhi led it to a second-place finish in the FIBA Asia championship. Yi understands that China faces a huge challenge with an extremely young team. At age 22, Yi is the fifth-oldest player on the squad.
"We have so many young guys who have been playing. All the players are pretty excited and bring some energy. They are fighting," Yi said. "In China, we've got a lot of fans that focus on basketball. They want us to play good. It's a little bit of pressure, but we have to fight through it. We'll just play as hard as we can and we'll see."
Yi's role for China is much different than the one he'll hold with the Wizards, where he will likely back up Andray Blatche at power forward, JaVale McGee at center, and even see some time at small forward. But he embraces his position with his national team, understanding that teams will focus mostly on shutting him down.
"I'm just focusing on my game," Yi said. He added that he is fine taking a leadership role once reserved for Yao. "Yao hasn't played after the Olympics, he had the injuries. We have to learn to play without him, because basketball is always changing. Some guys retire or get older or injured. It gives a chance for other players to have an opportunity to play. I think it's good."
Note: Team USA doesn't have to submit its final 12-man roster for the World Championships until Aug. 26, but it may have offered a hint at two possible cuts as Coach Mike Krzyzewski used just 13 of his 15 players, leaving McGee and former Georgetown star Jeff Green to sit the entire 40-minute exhibition against China. The United States will play France in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Krzyzewski said the team may take more than 12 players to Europe for exhibition games against Lithuania, Spain and Greece, leaving open the possibility for McGee to travel as an insurance policy in case the team suffers an injury to either starting center Tyson Chandler or Lamar Odom, a natural power forward who is also getting action at that spot. Durant even saw action at center on Saturday.
"We already know what JaVale and Jeff can do," Krzyzewski said. "I would think we'll cut down, but I'm not sure we'll do it to 12. We want to go through tomorrow and not make decisions we would regret a week from now."
When asked about not participating on Saturday, McGee said, "It's definitely disappointing not to play, but we got the win."