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Getting to know Yi

Intriguing Chinese star soon could be recognizable as a Celtic draftee

CARSON, Calif. -- Dispelling a fraction of the mystery that still surrounds him days before the NBA draft, Yi Jianlian conducts a rare interview before his morning workout at the Home Depot Center. He glances over his shoulder at the basketball court behind him where other players preparing for professional careers skip back and forth. Yi wants to join the action, and those charged with conditioning the power forward for the NBA want the talk to end and the workout to begin.

After some subtle prodding by Yi's father, the interview concludes, and what happens next proves as demystifying as any bilingual conversation with the power forward. Warming up, Yi moves with a fluidity that makes it easy to forget that he goes 7 feet, 248 pounds . He launches shots from 12 feet in front of the basket with textbook form and a high release point that has made NBA evaluators salivate. His shot looks unblockable. In another drill, he spins around a defender and drives toward the basket for a dunk with quickness that would be impressive for a guard.

Since arriving in the United States two months ago, Yi has spent six days a week learning English and preparing to play in the NBA with drills and weightlifting. He has been getting acclimated to American culture while also meeting with representatives of lottery teams, under the guidance of agent Dan Fegan.

According to league and team sources, the Celtics are very interested in selecting Yi with the fifth pick in Thursday's draft, if Danny Ainge does not trade it. Ainge and coach Doc Rivers watched Yi work out at the Home Depot Center 18 days ago and talked at length with the prospect.

While Ainge asserts, "There are 30 teams that know exactly who Yi is," geography, cultural differences, and the strictures of Chinese basketball have conspired to keep Yi a largely unknown player outside international and NBA scout ing circles.

At first glimpse, his combination of size, agility, and quickness leads to comparisons to Andrea Bargnani, Pau Gasol, and Tyson Chandler.

"I'm ready for the NBA," says Yi, in Mandarin, through a translator. "If I was not ready for it, I wouldn't be in the draft.

"When I finished my last game in China, I felt I was ready for the NBA and I flew here to prepare. The target has been set and the plan has been made. A lot of people made the plan. I was one of them."

Despite the confidence of Yi and his advisers, the big question remains how skills primarily developed with the Guangdong Tigers and the Chinese national team will translate to the NBA. Scouts who have watched Yi overseas see great potential.

Yi has been projected as high as the third pick and as low as No. 10, with his stock fluctuating because of concerns about his toughness and ability to withstand physical NBA play. Yi has eschewed the travel and competitive workouts top prospects typically go through.

But spend a couple of days with him, and it is clear that he is more solidly built than many scouting reports indicate and will work hard to achieve NBA success. He understands the opportunity before him and accepts the high expectations of his countrymen.

"At this point, more or less I can feel the pressure," says Yi. "But for the last two months, what I've been training for, what I've been learning is huge for me, especially for my future in the NBA.

"I don't worry about anything. The pressure comes with the excitement. After two months [in the US], I feel different not only in my daily practice, but also in my daily life."

Noticeable difference
Walking near the UCLA campus, Yi and his 5-foot-5-inch translator, Roy Lu, are a comical pairing. But in a city fed by outsized celebrity, they do not prompt even the slightest double take from passersby. Wearing a striped polo shirt and baggy jeans, and projecting a laid-back vibe, Yi could be the taller-than-average California college kid next door. That is, until he takes a seat at the Napa Valley Grille and orders hot chocolate.

Yi struggles to get comfortable in his chair, shrugging his shoulders in large circles. Lu, a talent coordinator with the William Morris Agency, explains that they are near the end of a long day filled with workouts, English lessons, and meetings.

At his officially listed age of 19 (his birth year ranges from 1984 to 1987, depending on the source), Yi will arrive in New York for draft night better prepared for the NBA than Chinese predecessors Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, and Mengke Bateer.

Yi grew up the son of two handball players in Shenzhen, which neighbors Hong Kong. When China opened to the West, Shenzhen was one of the first cities to fully experience Western culture. That, combined with several years of international travel, including six trips to the US, has helped Yi adjust to his new surroundings. Living in an apartment near UCLA, he enjoys hamburgers, movies like "Spiderman" and "King Kong," and hip-hop music (he smiles when the names Jay-Z and 50 Cent are mentioned).

But while Yi can joke in English and talk basketball without a translator, the move to the US has not been easy.

"This is the first time I've stayed outside my country for this long a time," he says. "Every day when I walk out and face the elevator, I can feel the differences."

There are cultural differences on and off the court. Yi views the NBA as "really fast" and "very individual-skill driven" in contrast to the team-driven ethic of Chinese basketball. When asked how he will adapt to the NBA, Yi answers in English: "Work harder."

A strong work ethic helps account for Yi's quick rise through the Chinese basketball ranks. His height naturally made him gravitate toward the game at 7. He was enrolled in a sports academy for a year and a half before joining the junior national team. After winning the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year award in the Chinese Basketball Association, Yi earned a spot with the senior national team, coached by 30-year NBA veteran Del Harris. When the 2004 Athens Olympics began, Yi was starting beside Yao.

"He was just a great athlete, a runner and jumper with timing," said Harris. "He had a soft touch and his shot was good from 15, 17 feet. He was young and undeveloped physically and needed skills work, but you could see the potential.

"Definitely, in 2004, he had the potential [to play in the NBA]. He's a great kid with a great attitude. I don't expect him to be a real physical guy, but he'll learn NBA physicality. He'll learn because he's smart."

Yi is smart enough not to forecast what the future holds for him.

"It's not easy for me to predict how long exactly I will need to do it perfectly," said Yi. "But I can say I will do my best and try very hard to adapt myself as soon as possible into games and to the culture. All I'm thinking about is how to adapt and do well in the NBA."

Marketing opportunities
When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey talks with Yao, the 7-6 center wants to know where Yi will be selected. If Morey suggests it will be lower than No. 3, Yao appears disappointed. According to Morey, Yao, as "the senior statesman of the Chinese basketball structure," looks out for Yi. Meanwhile, Yi credits Yao and the other Chinese players who reached the NBA with making the league a reachable goal.

"The attention put on me started years ago when I started to play on the national team," said Yi. "People were saying that I could be Yao Ming 2. The experiences [of Yao, Wang, and Mengke] influenced me. By them playing in NBA games, it showed Chinese players are totally capable of meeting the challenges here. They helped me prepare to do better here."

Yao also created a global marketing model for Yi and the team that drafts him. At the Toyota Center in Houston, the commercial influence of Yao is evident in the Mandarin signage around the arena for the roughly 70 games broadcast in China.

The Chinese footwear company Peak advertises along the scorer's table and beneath the baskets. Anheuser-Busch, AIG, and Founder Computers have bilingual signage. Houston forward Shane Battier recently signed a shoe deal with Peak.

"From a marketing standpoint, it certainly opens up different opportunities than your typical player," said Rockets CEO Tad Brown. "While the NBA controls the rights for everything outside of our territory, Yao expands the universe of people we're able to do business with.

"There has been a financial impact to the organization and a great impact to overall exposure. There's also a definite trickle-down effect. If Yi becomes a presence similar to Yao Ming on the court, then it would certainly open more opportunities."

The Celtics can look to the Rockets and Yao, or to the Red Sox and Daisuke Matsuzaka, to see the impact a high-profile, successful Asian player can make. But with the current state of the Celtics, the bottom line with Yi is whether or not he can make a positive impact on the court and how soon that could happen.

Yi knows little about the history of the Celtics except that they "have gotten the national championship a couple times" and that Boston is "basketball-culture driven." When asked if he knows of Larry Bird, Yi nods, but he comes up empty on other well-known Celtics players -- until Ainge is mentioned. The meeting with Ainge and Rivers remains fresh in his mind.

When asked if he has ever been to Boston, Yi thinks for a moment, and smiles when he comes up with the perfect answer: "Not yet."