First there was Yao. Now there is Yi.

The next big thing to come out of China is Yi Jianlian, a teenager nearly 7 feet tall who has already worked his way into the national team's starting lineup alongside Yao Ming.

"He's better than me at 16. He can jump," Yao said. "If he keeps working hard, he can make it big."

That potential has already been recognized by China Coach Del Harris, an assistant with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks who was hired by Chinese sports authorities to help turn the team into a medal contender at the Athens Games.

Immediately recognizing Yi's potential, Harris decided that bringing him along slowly was not the way to go.

Yi did not start a single game last season for his Chinese Basketball Association team, the Guangdong Tigers, but he has been lining up alongside Yao -- and even jumping center for the opening tip-off -- in China's pre-Olympic exhibition games in Belgrade.

Yi blocked five shots and had seven rebounds in 24 minutes Saturday night during a 92-78 loss to Serbia and Montenegro in the DiamondBall Tournament, a warmup for the Olympics featuring six teams that will compete in Athens.

"He's a great combo playing with Yao Ming. He's very quick and fast, very aggressive crashing the boards. He's unbelievable, and if he's 16, he's really unbelievable. I thought 21," said Serbia and Montenegro assistant coach Igor Kokoskov, who was an assistant to Larry Brown with the NBA champion Detroit Pistons last season. "He likes to play the game, that's obvious. I think he's unique."

Many believe Yi (pronounced Ee) is actually older, and Yi has been sufficiently coy to fuel the skepticism.

"He's not 16. He's 17," Yao joked.

-- From News Services

Milos Vujanic wrestles for the ball with Yao Ming, left, and Yi Jianlian, right, of China, during Serbia and Montenegro's exhibition victory on Saturday.