LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Five years ago, China's gentle giant, Yao Ming, came into the NBA surrounded by wonderment and mystery.
Fans on both sides of the Pacific couldn't get enough of Yao's smile, old-school charm and stereotype-smashing size.
He was unique -- we had never seen a ballplayer quite like this, a 7-5 center with refined skills. We had certainly never seen a player like this from China.
Even after watching Yao dominate in international competition, many NBA GMs and talent scouts weren't convinced. Yes, some thought Yao was the next Shaq. But others were thinking Michael Olowokandi.
Since then, Yao has gone on to become perhaps the best traditional center in the NBA. His game has improved steadily and remarkably every year. He is a cultural icon in both the U.S. and China.
With more than a billion people in the basketball-crazed nation of China, it seemed likely someone would follow in Yao's footsteps.
That time is now.
Yi Jianlian is here.
Yi is a top prospect and he's 7 feet tall, but he's not a center like Yao. In fact, as draft prospects go, he's more like Kevin Durant than he is like Greg Oden.
For the past few months, a number of NBA general managers and scouts who have followed Yi closely have said he's the third-best prospect in the draft. But for many others around the NBA, he remains a mystery.
Earlier this week, I spent two days with Yi, watching him in the gym and hanging out with him around town, to see for myself what had created such intrigue in NBA circles.
What did I find?
For better and for worse, but mostly for better, Yi represents a new generation of Chinese players more influenced by Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady than by Yao Ming.
CHINESE GUYS CAN JUMP
Several top draft prospects are working out in Los Angeles, including Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer of Florida and homegrown star Nick Young of USC.
But for the past four days in L.A., as I traveled from gym to gym, the chatter wasn't about two Gators or a Trojan.
Yi, who has been living in L.A. for the past month, has been making the rounds and earning awe and respect everywhere he goes.
"Have you seen the Yi kid yet?" Young's trainer Don MacLean said after I watched him work out Young and Jason Smith on Saturday. "That kid was amazing."
"The dude can play," Young chimed in. Then, with a wide grin, he proudly declared he had dunked on Yi in a workout. "When you see him play, you'll know how impressive that is."
Different gym, same buzz.
At the Home Depot Center, trainer Joe Abunassar interrupted a discussion of the players he's training to say, "Wait until you see Yi. There isn't a drill I could come up with that Yi couldn't excel at."
Noah was giving love, too.
"Where did that guy come from?" Noah asked when I asked him about his workouts with Yi. "That's something to behold."
That "something to behold" walked into the Velodrome at the Home Depot Center at around 11 o'clock on Tuesday to unveil the mystery.
It was worth the wait.
After a brief warm-up, Yi began his shooting drills. He rarely missed. He got great elevation on his picture-perfect jump shot -- high release, elbow in, nothing but net from both inside and outside the 3-point line.
Nevada's Nick Fazekas, a draft prospect known for his shooting stroke, followed suit on the set shots, but started to lose ground to Yi once the players moved to shooting off the dribble. For Fazekas, the accuracy started to waver a bit. The needle didn't move for Yi.
And Noah? His shaky jumper found the basket, but his form looked even worse when he was matched up in shooting drills with Yi and Fazekas.
Yi handled the ballhandling drills with the same aplomb. He got low to the ground, showing impressive balance and control on spin moves to the basket.
Fazekas could do some of that too, but at a pace far slower than Yi. Noah kept up the pace with Yi, but without the consistency. Noah was all over the place, for both the good and the bad.
None of this came as a shock, given the basketball system in China. Yao likewise showed an amazing set of fundamental skills when he crossed the Pacific. Since he was 15 years old, said Yi, he's been put through five-hour daily practice sessions.
Noah, in contrast, said he taught himself how to shoot and never really knew there was anything funny about his shot until he exploded onto the scene as a sophomore at Florida.
As we saw again in the playoffs this year, for all his skill, Yao Ming lacks NBA speed, agility and explosiveness. Yi, on the other hand, is reputed to be a good athlete -- fast and bouncy. But until now, that rep has been based primarily on what he's shown against lesser players in China.
So what's he got? One way to find out was to see him next to Noah, a very athletic big man. Could Yi keep up?
It didn't take long to get the answer. After the shooting drills were over, Yi, Fazekas and Noah went through a drill in which they took the ball at the top of the key, cut right or left, were given one dribble and then had to finish around the basket.
While Fazekas labored to get to the rim from that distance, Noah had no problem, as expected. He finished every time with either a finger roll at the rim or a dunk.
Yi's performance was more surprising. I had to change angles to make sure it wasn't an optical illusion.
As Yi finished at the rim, his elbow was often at or just below the rim.
Whether he kissed the ball high off the glass or finished with a dunk, his explosion off the floor was impressive. Not impressive like Tyrus Thomas, mind you. But for a 7-footer, he could really explode.
Yi continued to impress in full-court sprints, flying up and down the court. His pull-up shots around the basket looked nearly impossible to block, thanks to his impressive 7-foot, 4½-inch wingspan.
He also possesses great lower body strength, which should help him hold his position on the post. His upper body appeared to need work, but given his good frame and the progress he had already made in his daily workouts, it appeared that he was well on his way to filling out. At 246 pounds, Yi is nearing his prime playing weight.
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.
Purely in terms of talent and tools, I have no doubt he's the third-best prospect in the draft.
BUT CAN HE PLAY?
Is Yi ready for NBA competition?
This is a more difficult question to answer.
I didn't see Yi do anything but drills in the two days I watched him. His workouts made clear that his athleticism and skill level are at the NBA level. But as I've learned from somewhat painful experience over the years, what a player does in a workout doesn't always translate to a 5-on-5 basketball game.
I've seen him play about a dozen games on tape from China. In some, he's been dominant. In others, he's been a little disappointing.
A number of NBA general managers and scouts flew to China to watch Yi's Guangdong Tigers play in the Chinese Basketball Association finals, and they came away with mixed feelings. He clearly did not play his best, and questions about his motor, aggressiveness and toughness have been raised.
That concern should be tempered by the fact that he's listed as 19 years old. However, some say he might be 21, and some say he's even older.
There's an ongoing question about what Yi's true age is, because there was a time when his birth year was listed as 1985 before later being listed as 1987.
What does Yi say? He points to a passport that says his birth year is 1987.
Regardless of his age, his production suggests he won't just be a workout wonder. He scored 24 points per game (on 57 percent shooting) and pulled down 11 rebounds per game this season in China.
That puts him in contrast to past draft prospects such as Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Before going fifth in the draft, Tskitishvili had barely played competitive basketball at all, and he was evaluated almost entirely on workouts. Yi has been playing and excelling, both in China and in international competition.
He impressed everyone with a 13-point, seven-rebound game against Team USA last year at the World Championship. But that was just one game.
That question -- can he play? -- remains a significant one. But there's another concern floating around, too.
IS HE READY?
Yao Ming's success in the NBA has been based, in large part, on his amazing mental toughness. The demands placed upon him, on the court and off, are unique and exhausting.
Can Yi handle the same stresses and strains, the weight of the world?
Yi already has the Chinese media camped at his doorstep. In China, 14-year-old girls scream for him on the streets. An entire nation is waiting to see if he can fill the footprints of a national icon.
It's heavy stuff.
Two days weren't enough to learn everything about Yi, but what I saw was an individual who amazed me with the speed with which he adapted to the U.S. and the NBA way of life. That process has taken years for Yao Ming.
Yi already conducts interviews and conversations in English, meaning he won't need an interpreter following him and translating his every utterance. He takes English classes every night to improve, but his skill is already pretty impressive.
Yi is already independent. He drives on his own in L.A., finds his own restaurants and hits the nightlife, including red-carpet walks for the movie premieres of "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek 3."
He listens to hip-hop music and jokes around with American players. He plays video games and dresses like a young star, with the requisite Sean John jeans and Jumpman shirt.
The decision by his agent, Dan Fegan, to bring Yi to the U.S. early so he could get acclimated before training camp should pay off big on the court, too. His daily workouts include lessons from NBA players and a former NBA assistant coach on what he can and can't get away with in the league.
When the 2007-08 season comes around, Yi will have a big head start in the acculturation process. He's already comfortable, it seems, with a life full of basketball, media appearances and travel.
He also has a sense of humility about the whole thing, with great respect for Yao. But he doesn't want to be Yao. He has his own game, his own style and his own dreams.
Now, if only Yi can land in a place as nurturing as Houston was to Yao.
If he can find the right home (as I discuss in today's blog entry), Yi has the potential to be every bit the star Yao is, both in America and abroad.
But if he doesn't land in the right place, all of his enormous basketball potential might not translate to NBA success.
That makes Yi the biggest risk/reward player in the 2007 NBA draft.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.