BEIJING — They love Yao. Now comes Yi.
That’s Yi Jianlian, the 7-foot power forward who will be among the top choices in Thursday’s NBA draft.
He’ll be the fourth Chinese to make the NBA, but will he have the impact of the Houston Rockets’ Yao Ming? Or will his stay match the short, modest NBA careers of Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer?
Yi (pronounced Ee) is a mystery in a draft in which Greg Oden and Kevin Durant are expected to go 1-2. Speculation has Yi going as high as No. 3, and most think he’ll be picked in the top 10.
“Yi the X-factor in jackpot draft,” read a recent headline in the state-run China Daily newspaper.
If Yi makes it big, it will be even easier for the NBA to make deeper inroads into China, where basketball is very popular. About 300 million Chinese play the game, and NBA jerseys are a badge for teenage boys, just as they are in the United States.
Nobody questions Yi’s deft shooting touch from the wing, his ability to run the floor and his soft hands and athletic body. Some compare him to David Robinson or Pau Gasol.
But there are questions: Can he play defense? Is he strong enough? And exactly how old is he?
The Chinese Basketball Association lists his birthday as Oct. 27, 1987 — 19 at draft time. But some believe he’s about three years older. Teams might give someone 19 to develop, but a 22-year-old player is expected to be a more refined product.
“He’s definitely a great athlete who can be an NBA project for any team,” said Xia Song, an NBA analyst on Beijing’s BTV. “The draft is hard to predict unless you are a Yao Ming or LeBron James or Michael Jordan.”
Yi played on China’s 2004 Olympic team and the 2006 world championship team. This season, he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds in the Chinese Basketball Association with the Guangdong Tigers.
“Every international player — every Chinese player — is going to need time to adjust to the American culture, to the NBA, to the locker room,” Xia added.
“It is going to take time, but he’s young. He’s a very smart kid and he will be able to handle it very well.”