New Jersey Nets power forward Yi Jianlian will return to China to compete at the Asian Championships in August, chief officials from China's basketball governing body have confirmed.
Rumors have been gaining traction in recent weeks that Yi and Houston Rockets all-star center Yao Ming may skip the Tianjin-hosted event, much to the dismay of fans hoping to see the stars shine on home soil.
"Yi will definitely join the national team for the Asian Championships," said Hu Jiashi, an official at the Basketball Administrative Center. "I have never heard that he might not attend."
Hu said the specific timing of Yi's return has yet to be decided, but according to a clause in their NBA contracts, players like Yao, Yi and Lakers' guard Sun Yue should be able to free themselves for international duty.
Yet Yi has suggested lately that his principal goal is to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with for the Nets after a slow-burning start to his NBA career.
Yi, the 6th overall pick in the 2007 Draft, has been struggling with his form since the NBA's all-star weekend in mid-February. This has seen him surrender his place in the club's starting line-up as he spends his time warming the bench for the majority of recent games.
In Wednesday's clash against the Detroit Pistons, Yi did not play a single minute, increasing fears that Nets coach Lawrence Frank has lost faith in him and may trade the Chinese again.
Yi and Milwaukee's Bobby Simmons were traded for the Nets' Richard Jefferson last June after Yi completed his shaky rookie season for the Bucks.
His second year in the NBA has seen Yi again fail to deliver on his initial promise as the Nets slumped to second from bottom in the Eastern Conference to almost write off their playoff chances.
"I know Yi did not play very well and has lost his place (with the club)," said Hu. "I think the Nets' coach knows how to arrange Yi's court time based on his form. I hope Yi can hold on and get back on track soon."
In contrast, national teammate Yao has been solid this season. He has expressed his intention to stay healthy and lead the Rockets to at least the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his seven years in Houston.
Hu said Yao's return to China would depend on his physical condition.
"Yao has lots of matches to play in the NBA. He will also compete in the playoffs, so we will see how he's doing after that," Hu said.
However, the final line-up for the Asian Championships will not be decided until China appoints a new head coach for the men's national team.
Four Chinese candidates are currently running for the post made vacant by Lithuania's Jonas Kazlauskas after the Beijing Games, at which the team finished eighth.
The regional championships this August will serve as a litmus test for the new coach and team but not one that can be taken lightly; it is also a qualifying tournament for the World Championships next August in Turkey, with three berths on offer to the top-placed finishers.
China sent a second-string team to the previous Asian Championships in Japan in 2007, but finished 12th, its worst result in the history of the tournament.
(China Daily April 3, 2009)