ORLANDO, Fla. -- Yi one-upped Yao in his debut.
At least he scored. China's latest offering to professional basketball, 6-foot-11 forward Yi Jianlian, didn't have the most memorable debut imaginable. He started and finished with nine points for his Milwaukee Bucks, who were handled, 102-83 by Orlando, in a game that was broadcast in his native land on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), through multiple satellite feeds.
|Yi Jianlian goes 4-for-5 with nine points in his debut; Yao was scoreless in his. (AP)|
CCTV, which is Mainland China's largest television broadcaster, features an array of soap operas as part of its programming schedule, including the American hit, Lost. Early on, you could joke that Yi was guest-starring in the NBA edition. It wasn't pretty.
Perhaps everything we need to know about whether Yi will be successful in this endeavor came through in the next sequence, when he shook off the embarrassing miscue to swat Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu on a layup attempt. Yi then rushed down to the other end and stepped right into a long jumper from just inside the right arc, scoring his first points of what promises to be a long career.
"I'll tell Yi, I'm gonna get him next time. He blocked me good," said Turkoglu, who wound up defending him for much of the contest. "He's still young. He's 20 years old and I'll tell you, he's going to be good. A guy 7-feet tall who plays inside/outside. This is an exciting time for him to come in and learn in the NBA. Once he gets his confidence, he's going to be a good one."
That's the general consensus on Yi, whether he's currently 20 years old or as some speculate, closer to 25. Regardless of the discrepancy, he's still the latest hoops hope of a country that looms as the NBA's focal point for forthcoming international expansion, more so than even Spain or England. It's unfair for people to compare him with Houston's Yao Ming, but at the same time, it's inevitable.
Media attention promises to follow him throughout his rookie season, similar to what happened to Yao after coming over as the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft. It was visible as soon as you walked into Milwaukee's locker room on Wednesday night, with a throng of Chinese media waiting on him to emerge from the Bucks training room. Standing among them, I got the first few questions in, and through another reporter who graciously interpreted his answers to my questions, Yi politely replied that he'd be able to play through the nerves. He also stated that it was important for him to be a starter for that reason alone, allowing him to get into the flow immediately. Then, through the same interpreter, he deflected the mandatory Yao comparisons.
"He says he's different from Yao. Different roles. He's just going to focus on his game."
Cliché question, cliché answer -- even via a third party.
No doubt, the last thing Yi wanted to be reminded of prior to his big night was that Yao's debut as a rookie was a disaster. He failed to score and grabbed just two rebounds in 11 minutes, which is now an amusing bit of trivia considering how special he has become. At the time, it bordered on a national disaster. TNT's Charles Barkley, after watching him play the first time, made the infamous bet with Kenny Smith that if the Rockets center ever scored 19 points in a game, he'd kiss his broadcast partner's ass. Two nights later, Yao went for 20, and Smith brought in a donkey for Barkley to smooch.
Talk of that inauspicious debut reverberated throughout the Amway Arena, particularly among the Asian media, who like everyone else, have learned their lesson in patience.
"There's a lot of rookies that struggle early, whether it's Yao or Dirk Nowitzki or Steve Nash. If you look at those guys statistics when they were rookies you would've never imagined they would be where they are," said Bucks head coach Larry Krystkowiak, who began his first full season in his new role. "That's kind of a rite of passage. Again, you know the initiation into the league is a challenge for all those guys. You've got to start somewhere."