Yi Da Man
World Hoops 2010: Yi Jianlian is showing flashes of dominance.
China drags its way to a 1-4 record in a deadly Group C, and still advances. Without Yao Ming. Call this luck or blame it on Puerto Rico failing to capitalize, but the only reason China advanced was because of Yi Jianlian. Even sitting out the fifth game against Turkey with an inflamed Achilles tendon, he led all group play with 9.8 rpg and was third in scoring with 22.5 ppg.
They’ll face Lithuania on Tuesday in the first stages of the knockout rounds. With the way Yi is balling, don’t be surprised if China pulls off the upset.
by Matt Lawyue / @mlawyue
The dimensions of a professional NBA court measure 94 feet long by 50 feet wide.
On a chilly October evening, these proportions become the framework to a tri-state Nets vs. Knicks pre-season game. New Jersey enters Madison Square Garden losers of their first four pre-season exhibitions, a relatively miniscule statistic considering it’s just preseason. As the players trickle on and off the court warming up, chatting and the like, Yi (pronounced “E”) Jianlian, hair spiked to a point, strolls onto the hardwood.
Tall, lean and muscular, Yi is yet another foreign baller conducive to this era’s style of versatile, sharp-shooting 7-footers. His offensive potential is what brought him to the League, and it’s the reason the Milwaukee Bucks were bold enough to select him with the 6th overall pick in the 2007 Draft. No big deal, just your typical 19-year-old in a grown man’s body, getting paid a grown man’s salary, with an innocent child’s demeanor.
As Yi warms up, his facial expression doesn’t change. His eyes border on T-Mac laziness, yet not quite so droopy. He seems interested in what’s going on around him, but it’s hard to read. It’s been three years since the Bucks drafted him, when the rookie played in just 66 games due to shoulder, ankle and wrist surgeries. After a stint in Milwaukee, a city his agents and handlers tried very hard to keep him from being drafted in to, Yi was traded to the Nets. Goodbye Michael Redd, hello Vince Carter.
Unfortunately, the injury bug would bite him again his first season in the Swamp, in the form of a broken finger. Two injury-plagued seasons in two chances. Fantastic.
From 15 feet out, he stretches his arms outward and unleashes a jump shot that swishes the nylon with terrifying backspin. What’s the Knicks game plan to guard him? Specifically, that shot? There isn’t one. By the end of the first quarter, Yi has sliced New York’s Swiss cheese D for 10 points and 6 rebounds, giving the Nets a 29-23 lead. No matter who’s guarding him, from Wilson Chandler to Danilo Gallinari to Jared Jeffries, Yi is having his way. His 7-0, 250-pound frame is wreaking havoc on defenders attempting to contest his wet perimeter jumper.
At the start of the third quarter, however, Jeffries, by far the least offensively apt player on the floor, blows by Yi for the easy deuce. Nets coach Lawrence Frank is irritated enough to call a timeout. Defense is a glaring weakness of the China native’s game, something that hasn’t improved since he entered the League. The lapses on defense continue for New Jersey. The Knicks outscore the Nets 52-30 in the second and third quarters to put this game out of reach. Yi’s box score ends with 21 points (7-14 FG, 7-10 FT), 11 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal and an unsightly 5 turnovers. Overall, it’s one solid night’s work for this 21-year-old product. Keyword: One.
That’s 4,700 square feet of hardwood, plenty of room for 10 players, three referees and one round ball.
I’ll ask the question: How do players, in that much space, get caught stepping out of bounds? A guard will run off a down screen, catch the ball on the wing and have his heel mounting, if not flirting with, the out-of-bounds line. Baffling. Maybe if there was a vuvuzela alarm near the line, or if the borders were painted stoplight red, it would be useful. To be fair, if you dyed a black 65 mph speed limit red, it probably wouldn’t help. Particularly in New Jersey, along the infamous Route 95 Turnpike, manic drivers treat dividing lanes and speed limits as an unnecessary formality. Just because they’re on the ground and visible doesn’t mean it deserves any respect or attention.
Kind of like the ’09-10 Nets. Despite winning their final pre-season game, sometimes a momentum boost going into the 82-game grind, they started 0-18. Coach Frank was canned along the way, and the Nets only narrowly avoided finishing with the worst record in League history at 12-70. After swapping Carter with Courtney Lee in the offseason, the Nets relied heavily on injury-prone point guard Devin Harris, rising sophomore center Lopez and, of course, Yi, who couldn’t avoid the IR for another season. Fantastic.
It was November 2 and the Nets were visiting Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats at the Time Warner Cable Arena. Expectedly, the Nets started 0-3 but perhaps could steal a W against another floundering Eastern Conference cellar-dweller. Sure. Not only did the Cats win, but Gerald “Crash” Wallace fittingly rolled on to Yi’s right knee, severely spraining it. The big fella was sidelined for the next 24 games, nearly all of November and December.
Injuries not only take a toll physically on a player, but mentally as well. It’s vital their rehab environment is co-dependent on their healing process. Luckily for Yi, he’s on the East Coast and not Brew City’s 414. The diverse culture alone has helped keep Yi’s psyche on par.
“New Jersey is not very crowd,” Yi, in his Southern Chinese accent, says about NJ. “It’s good to live there. It’s very relax. I’m very comfortable.” He’s referring to Edgewater, NJ, his residence during the season and home to luxury condos of the NY Giants, an oversized Asian supermarket and a view of the New York City skyline. It’s a tunnel ride away from NY and a 20-minute, 8.2-mile car ride to the Nets home arena, the Izod Center, on the aforementioned Turnpike. As we went to press, Yi was traded to the Washington Wizards. The Nets motives were largely to create cap space for free-agent signings, while Washington mark the third team to be tantalized by the 7-0 shooter.
DC, NJ, even Milwaukee—they’re all a long way from China. Yi was born in Shenzhen, Guangdong, in southern China, to handball players Yi Jingliu and Mai Meiling. Initially “discovered” on a Shenzhen playground in ’99 (towering at 6-4 in grade school), he quickly found his way to the Chinese Basketball Association where he won ROY honors and three championships for the Guangdong Southern Tigers between ’02-07.
To understand the pressure of Yi’s potential while in China, Time magazine featured him in a 2003 profile titled “The Next Yao Ming?” The hype was—and still is—on.
The center circle of a basketball court has a six-foot radius, 12-foot diameter.
Forget the 12-foot diameter. It means nothing when you’re battling 7-6 Yao Ming for the jump ball. Yao is the biggest phenom, in terms of sheer height and hype, to ever cross oceans and play in the League. Just like perennial talk of the next Michael, there shall always be a next Yao. And Yi is the first one to even attempt to tackle the throne.
The two first tangoed in the L during Yi’s rookie season. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any ground-breaking AI crossover vs. Jordan moment. Yao dominated with 28 and 10, though Yi did manage a respectable 19 and 9. Houston, still led by T-Mac at that point, crushed Milwaukee 104-88. Yet, Yi’s performance left Yao gushing over his potential.
“His talent is unbelievable,’’ Yao told the media postgame. “You ask me how good he can be? I can’t say that. But I think he’ll be better than me.’’
The match-up would become one of the most-watched NBA games in China, drawing more than 100 million viewers. That year’s Super Bowl between the Colts and Bears estimated 93 million American viewers. Succinctly put, Yi was supposed to challenge Yao. He still is. Everybody was—and is—watching.
Studio 3 in New York City’s Chelsea Piers is a 5,760 square foot box. 1,060 more square feet than a regulation size court.
On a misty Wednesday morning in the middle of June, concrete floors echo the clatter of dress shoes and heels pounding the pavement inside Studio C. Black walls stare at guests filling the 72 foot long by 80 foot wide enclosure. The media is ready. The event coordinators are ready.
“When’s Yi going to speak with the media?” a blogger asks.
“He should be ready soon,” replies the Nike PR person.
The occasion? The announcement of the World Basketball Festival, a four-day celebration of basketball, culture and music to be held in New York City this August. It’s a pre-req to the 2010 FIBA World Basketball Championships in Turkey. Yi and Kevin Durant are the main attractions, as they’re showcasing Nike’s new kicks, jerseys and apparel.
Yi finally walks on to the floor, wearing a red, No. 11 China basketball jersey with new red 2010 Hyperdunks.
“With Yao not playing this summer, do you expect to have a bigger leadership role with Team China?” a reporter asks Yi.
It’s come to this. Through nagging injury, Yao will have to miss the WBC after an emotional display during the ’08 Olympics when China’s hobbling prodigal son cheered on his team from the bench. It is now Yi’s time to take the torch. Make no mistake, he hasn’t reached his full potential. Inconsistency and injury have befuddled his destiny and added fuel for skeptics looking to light the “bust” fire even brighter. Still, career-high averages of 12 points and 7 rebounds per game last season show that the potential is still there. Maybe we’ll see it in Turkey?
“For me, I’ll try to do my best and try to help the team win some games,” Yi responds softly. “We need to step it up another level and I’ll just try and do my best to play for the team.”
For a man pegged to lead Team China this summer and eventually beyond, whenever Yao’s aching legs can’t support him anymore, Yi will have to develop quickly. Because the world is waiting.