By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 11:08 PM
Even though the Washington Wizards have played only two regular season home games, it's apparent the player who gets the crowd at Verizon Center to respond every time he touches the ball is not the electrifying rookie with the fancy dance moves or the longest-tenured player with a collection of big shots and catchy nicknames under his belt.
It's the one who feels rather comfortable in Chinatown and has the easiest name to shout.
If Yi Jianlian gets the ball in the post and spots up around the perimeter, fans will inevitably scream for several seconds, a long, drawn out pronunciation of his surname as Yi attempts to shoot: "Eeeeeee!"
Unfortunately, Yi has not rewarded them very often for their excitement, since he has struggled with his shot while settling into his role off the bench through the first five games. But with the Wizards facing Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, Coach Flip Saunders said he has noticed a much more focused and assertive Yi the past few practices.
"Whether it was Yao coming in or whatever, I think he's anxious to play. I think he'll play well," Saunders said. "I'm sure, growing up, Yi has respect for Yao. He's done a lot for basketball in China to give Yi really an opportunity. I think they both have a lot of respect for each other."
Yi tried to play down the matchup between two one-win teams that feature the most popular basketball players to ever come out of China. The game will surely attract a television audience of several hundred million in their home country. Since acquiring Yi from New Jersey last June, the Wizards have entered into several partnerships with Chinese corporations, including the athletic apparel companies Peak and Voit, and they are promoting the game by hosting an Asian Heritage Night that will include a halftime Lion Dance performance and the local winners of the Miss Chinese American beauty pageant.
But when asked what the game meant to him, Yi said: "Nothing special, for me. Maybe a lot of people watch in China. Won't be like the NBA Finals, but people will still watch it." The 7-foot Yi has rarely guarded the 7-6 Yao, and he has never defeated him in four NBA games, losing only one of them by fewer than 16 points.
The two haven't met since Feb. 17, 2009, since Yao missed all of last season while recovering from a hairline fracture in his left foot that kept him out of the entire 2009-10 season and the end of the 2009 playoffs.
The injury also kept Yao from participating in international games, which Yao said may have contributed to Yi's breakout performance at the FIBA world championships last summer. Yi came into his own, assuming the role as the face of the national team, as he averaged 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds and led relatively inexperienced China to a victory that helped it advance to the elimination round.
"You know, I think when you have a guy on the team like me play with him, somehow I block his way," Yao told reporters in Houston on Tuesday. "I had one year off. He [had an] opportunity to show how talented he is. He is a very talented basketball player. I was on the national team so long, somehow I blocked his way."
Yi has yet to have that success translate in the regular season for the Wizards, as he is averaging 7 points and just 2.4 rebounds - fewer than guards John Wall and Kirk Hinrich - in 20 minutes a game off the bench. He is also shooting just 37.5 percent, which would be a career low. "Just started," Yi said with a shrug. "We have a lot of games. I still have a lot to improve. Defense, offense, rebounding. Everything. Playing as hard as I can."
Yao is averaging what would be career-lows of 12.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games for the Rockets (1-5), who have placed their all-star center under a strict limit of no more than 24 minutes a game. Yi said Yao called him last week but the conversation didn't last long since he was preparing for a game. "A lot of people are hoping he can get healthy," he said.
Saunders said the team would still game plan as they always do for the times Yao is on the floor. When asked to explain Yi's problems early in the season, Saunders said, "I think it's a combination of things. I think sometimes he gets frustrated. I think sometimes he doesn't make his first couple of shots, he might doubt himself. He just has to know we have confidence in him. And that, as I told him, just do the little things. If he does little things, it'll lead to bigger things, bigger success."
Yi said he certainly has no problems with his new surroundings in Washington. "It's nice. International city. People here from everywhere. You see a lot of Asians and Chinese people in town. A lot around this area. A lot of good restaurants," he said, adding that the restaurants remind of home. "Tony Cheng's pretty good. Pretty similar, because the chefs, the people all come from China."