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NBA: Yi the X-factor in Jackpot Draft
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In a draft of slam-dunk certainties, Chinese power forward Yi Jianlian is the one true lottery pick in the 2007 lottery.

The June 28 draft is being tipped as the most important in a decade, heavier than Shaquille O'Neal at the top and deeper than the San Antonio Spurs' rotation down the bottom.

Tim Duncan heir-designate Greg Oden is penciled in as first pick for lucky Portland and Kevin Durant is expected to give Seattle's struggling Supersonics lift-off with the second, but after that the guessing begins.

Al Horford, Brandan Wright, Mike Conley Jr, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah are proven at US College level but throw into the mix Yi, with his sweet shooting, explosive dunking and soft hands, and now General Managers (GMs) have got themselves a ball game. 

"He's a 7-foot, 246-pound package of intrigue from China," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey. "When I imagine him, he's a cross among Yao Ming, Bill Russell and Brad Pitt."

The verdicts of scouts and draft watchers are further apart than hometown Shenzhen and Salt Lake City. Draft Express has him 10th to Sacramento, but Yahoo! Sports puts him 3rd pick by Atlanta; USA Today predicts he will be taken 4th by Memphis, Sporting News has him down in 12th to Philadelphia.

With the exception of Conley, the best of a weak point guard crop, nobody's projected pick varies as much as the former Guangdong Tiger.

ESPN.com draft analyst Chad Ford is Yi's biggest advocate. After watching him work out for two days in Los Angeles alongside former Florida Gator Noah, Ford waxed lyrical.

"Whether in the post, on the wing, or in the open floor, Yi looked as impressive in workout conditions as any elite NBA draft prospect I've come across in the last five years," he proclaimed. "Purely in terms of talent and tools, I have no doubt he's the third-best prospect in the draft."

Other draft watchers are more concerned with his body and defense. "He is very thin, and it's hard to figure how his game will translate to the NBA," wrote Sporting News analyst Sean Deveney. "He might be a Chinese Toni Kukoc, or a Wang Zhizhi with some ballhandling."

Adaptability, age, and risk are Yi's major liabilities. On video and in work-outs he looks impressive, but he lacks relative strength and bulk, meaning he will be barged around by bigger forwards in offense and could be a pushover on defense.

There are also question marks over his intensity and desire. He has been an inconsistent figure on an inconsistent Chinese national team, and during the CBA finals earlier this year he was outplayed by Wang Zhizhi - China's first NBA player, and a first-rate flop.

Then there is the age factor. Officially Yi was born in 1987 and is 19, but many believe this to be too young and that a more likely birth date is 1984, making him 22. A three-year age gap is a big deal in the NBA - teams will draft a 19-year-old high and give him time to develop, but a 22-year-old lottery pick has to be ready to go.

What makes the age dispute curious is the fact the disputed range is three years. It is an open secret that some youth teams in China have obscured the ages of youngsters, and six months can make all the difference at the age of 12 or 13.

However, it would require almost impossible nerve to field a 7-foot 16-year-old and claim he was 13. Equally impossible is that a 16-year-old can measure 7-foot and already have the skills and coordination to compete for his nation at an Olympic Games. Problem is, this is exactly what happened with Yi in Athens.

In the NBA, of course, impossible means practically nothing. LeBron James came into the NBA as an 18-year-old, but with a body - and beard - that made him look in his mid-20s. Dwight Howard was drafted by the Orlando Magic in 2004 also aged 18, and already he was 7ft-1 with shoulders the size of Space Mountain.

High risk

The age dispute and the lack of accurate information about Yi highlight the risks of drafting him, especially as he is coming from the China Basketball Association, a mediocre league. Yi may appear to have a sweet jumper and impressive blocking against a lumbering center from Shanxi, but that will mean nothing against Tim Duncan.

"As expected the games with 7-footer Yi Jianlian have begun. Yi pulled out of the official NBA physicals, and word is Golden State and Chicago may be the only teams allowed to work him out," reported Hoopsworld's Steve Kyler.

"Dubbed by some executives as the 'pre-approved' teams, anyone else serious about Yi will have to campaign his handlers for the right to look at him, as those that are steering him want him in a city with a large Chinese population."

The most likely destination now is Chicago with the 9th pick. The Bulls desperately need a post scorer like Yi, and its deep, youthful roster would allow Yi time to develop.

The more intriguing rumor, however, is that Golden State Warriors will trade up to get Yi. Under Don Nelson the Warriors play a free-wheeling offensive game that would suit Yi perfectly. The team is loaded with talent in a backcourt led by Jason Richardson and Baron Davis, but the team sorely lacks an athletic, scoring power forward.

In addition to this, the Bay Area is home to the biggest Chinese population in the US. The time difference across the Pacific means home games will be screened in China in the late morning, whereas if he went to the Eastern Conference home games are often prohibitively early.

Age 19, age 22; offensive upside, defensive weakness; Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi; pick 3, pick 12. GMs will all be looking at Yi in different way, and until one of them finally takes the plunge on June 28, the speculation about the draft's most mysterious prospect will continue unabated.

Chicago Tribune's Rick Morrissey sums it up best: "I'm excited about Yi Jianlian, and I don't even know who he is. I've never seen him play a game. But the Bulls have to draft him!"

(China Daily June 14, 2007)

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