Yi breaking through barriers in rookie year

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / March 15, 2008

MILWAUKEE - After talking to the American media through an interpreter, Bucks rookie forward Yi Jianlian had a half-dozen Chinese media members waiting to ask more questions after a Dec. 14 game against the host Celtics. The Chinese journalists following the Bucks write only about their popular countryman.

It's tough enough just being a rookie in the NBA. But at 20 years old, the 7-foot, 238-pound Yi is dealing with a language barrier and a new country, and adapting to having a spotlight on him - one that previously had shined on Rockets star Yao Ming.

"It's stressful," said Yi in a recent interview, through an interpreter. "There are a lot of Chinese fans paying attention to Yao Ming and me. That's a phenomenon that we have because there have been a lot of people paying attention to us.

"Regardless to whether we win or lose, playing as a rookie I'm going to have a lot of stress. No matter what it's going to happen, it's inevitable."

While Yi and Yao are both from China, their games are very different.

Yao is a true center at 7-5 and arguably the best at his position in the NBA, dominating the post offensively and hitting occasional midrange jumpers. The versatile Yi runs the floor like a deer, has 3-point range, can score many ways in the post, and is very athletic.

The son of former athletes, a 6-5 father and 5-8 mother, Yi went from being discovered in 1999 on a playground in Shenzhen to being one of the top prospects in last year's draft.

The Celtics reportedly would have drafted Yi had they kept their fifth overall pick instead of dealing it to Seattle in the Ray Allen trade. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge declined comment on that, but said of Yi, "You've got a lot of potential. I like his energy, size, and athleticism."

The Sonics ended up with Georgetown guard Jeff Green with the fifth selection and Yi went sixth to Milwaukee. Yi's handlers initially were disappointed by him going to a small market with a tiny Chinese population, but he played for the Bucks' summer league team and signed Aug. 29.

Before making his NBA debut, Yi was given words of wisdom from Yao.

"He's told me to be really careful about not being injured," Yi said. "Everything he's told me is useful and I'm experiencing it myself. And I have to go through it myself to realize my way to progress."

Yi, who missed Saturday night's game against the Celtics with a sprained right wrist, is averaging 8.9 points on 43.3 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds in 25.4 minutes per game. He scored a career-high 29 points against Charlotte Dec. 22 and played for the Rookie Team during All-Star weekend.

Yi has been on the inactive list for five straight games with the injury and has missed eight total since January because of wrist, shoulder, and ankle injuries. One NBA scout said Yi looked tired when he recently watched him play.

"You're playing four or five teams in a week," Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "A lot of different opponents, a lot of different hotel rooms, different things. It's a little different for him as well as all the things he has going on off the floor. He probably has more going on than anyone else on our team.

"He leads our team in workouts off the floor. We tried to taper things off a little bit. It's going to take its toll on him."

One thing Yi and Krystkowiak haven't had a problem with is the language barrier.

"I'm very straightforward with what I want to talk about," Krystkowiak said. "I try to keep it as simple as possible. He's really solid when it comes to basketball language. We haven't had a lot of time off the floor. There hasn't been much time for him or I to do much off the floor.

"It's not one of those deals where you tell him something and then 10 minutes later you say, 'Oh, he didn't understand what I was saying.' He does it and he doesn't make the same mistake twice."

Yi won't get much rest once the season is over, as he will play for China in the Beijing Olympics. But with lots of basketball still left to play with the Bucks this season, he's hoping to finish his long rookie season strong. While it's stressful, he is enjoying his first-year experience, and described living in Milwaukee as "cool."

"The season's full of ups and downs . . . and what I'll continue to do is expend my energy and all my efforts to work hard," Yi said. "I just want to perform hard, play better, and that's what I'm hoping to do the rest of the season.

"This is an experience that is really good for me."

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