One year ago, 6-10 Chinese power forward Yi Jianlin flirted with seeking permission to declare for the NBA Draft after averaging 20.5 ppg on 57 percent shooting, grabbing 9.6 rpg and leading his Guangdong Tigers to their third straight Chinese Basketball Association title.

Instead, he returned for one more year in China. It didn’t go quite as planned.

Yi’s own game improved and he gained confidence starring for the Yao-less Chinese National Team as they won a Gold Medal in the Asian Games. But Guangdong lost in the CBA Finals, in part because Yi was outplayed by Wang Zhizhi, China’s first but not best NBA player. Still, that hardly dimmed Yi’s luster in the eyes of NBA scouts or made him reconsider.

Yi’s game grew and his NBA stock rose all year. In China, he became a truly public figure and the focus of a major Nike ad campaign. Even non-hoops fans know his name and constantly rush him for autographs. At the CBA Finals, the pack of NBA scouts following him had to hold a news conference for the mass of Chinese press to tell them they couldn’t say anything.

The level of interest doesn’t figure to decrease anytime soon. After dominating the CBA for a few years, Yi will likely need some time to adapt to
the faster pace and far greater athleticism of the NBA.

He’s a bit of a tweener—not quite big enough to rule the paint and not quite quick enough to run with 3s. But with some work, he’ll be a tweener in the good sense, doing it all.

His favorite player is Michael Jordan, but since he arrived in the US in April, Yi has been working with trainers and coaches to bulk up and gain post moves and confidence. In the right system and given some time, however, Yi—coming to a Lottery team near you—can blossom into a legit NBA big man and a strong inside-out presence. And when this happens, Yi will please the two billion eyes watching him from afar, cheering his every move.

—Alan Paul

This story appears in SLAM 110