BEIJING (AP) -They love Yao. Now comes Yi.
That's Yi Jianlian, the 7-foot power forward who will be among the top choices in Thursday's NBA draft.
He'll be the fourth Chinese to make the NBA, but will he have the impact of the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming? Or will his stay match the short, modest NBA careers of Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer?
Yi (pronounced Ee) is a mystery in a draft in which Greg Oden and Kevin Durant are expected to go 1-2. Speculation has Yi going as high as No. 3, and most think he'll be picked in the top 10.
``Yi the X-factor in jackpot draft,'' read a recent headline in the state-run China Daily newspaper.
If Yi makes it big, it will be even easier for the NBA to make deeper inroads into China, where basketball is very popular. About 300 million Chinese play the game, and NBA jerseys are a badge for teenage boys, just as they are in the United States.
Nobody questions Yi's deft shooting touch from the wing, his ability to run the floor and his soft hands and athletic body. Some compare him to David Robinson or Pau Gasol.
But there are questions: Can he play defense? Is he strong enough? And exactly how old is he?
The Chinese Basketball Association lists his birthday as Oct. 27, 1987 - 19 at draft time. But some believe he's about three years older. Teams might give someone 19 to develop, but a 22-year-old player is expected to be a more refined product.
``He's definitely a great athlete who can be an NBA project for any team,'' said Xia Song, an NBA analyst on Beijing's BTV. ``The draft is hard to predict unless you are a Yao Ming or LeBron James or Michael Jordan.''
Yi played on China's 2004 Olympic team and the 2006 world championship team. This season, he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds in the Chinese Basketball Association with the Guangdong Tigers.
``Every international player - every Chinese player - is going to need time to adjust to the American culture, to the NBA, to the locker room,'' Xia added. ``It is going to take time, but he's young. He's a very smart kid and he will be able to handle it very well.''
Bruce O'Neil, president of the U.S. Basketball Academy in Eugene, Ore., has watched Yi for several years. The USBA has a long-term consulting agreement with the CBA.
``I think he's the least known player in the draft,'' said O'Neil, who returned this week to the United States from China.
``Some teams in the NBA have done their homework on him, some haven't,'' O'Neil said. ``For me he's a multidimensional talent - a top-five pick, for sure. Of course, they play different positions, but he's stronger than Yao was at this point in his career.''
For marketing purposes, Yi might prefer a city with a large Chinese population. His English is basic, but better than Yao's when he was picked five years ago. Yi has been in the United States for several weeks adjusting and, unlike the three Chinese who played before him, he'll be on hand to witness his selection.
``Whatever team Yi plays for, he will be followed by a huge TV audience in China,'' said Xu Jicheng, a longtime basketball analyst on state-run CCTV. ``Being where there is a Chinese community might help him get used to American culture and sports, but it's not necessary.''
Xu predicted more NBA players would be coming from China, particularly after the 2008 Olympics.
``China has a package of players 16 to 20 years old, and there are a few more players like Yi,'' Xu said. ``It's hard to see another Yao Ming, but next year and the year after I think some quick, athletic players will be drafted from China.''
That should please NBA commissioner David Stern, who already has announced the possibility of an NBA-sponsored league in China following the Olympics.
Another Chinese may also go in the draft - 6-9 swingman Sun Yue.
China's national team coach, Lithuanian Jonas Kazaluskas, criticized Sun this month for missing national team practice to attend an NBA pre-draft training camp.
``If you ask me which skill Sun needs to improve in terms of playing in the NBA, I'd tell you he needs an all-around improvement because he is not strong enough to join the game there,'' said Kazaluskas, who also questioned Sun's defense.
Angered by his coach's comments, Sun said they hurt his chance of being drafted. Others also doubt he's ready.
``People in the NBA don't know much about him,'' Xu said. ``I'm not sure. But, like Yi, if he could get into the right team, I think he could show his talent quickly.''

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