NEW YORK — Yi Jianlian is going to be big. Really big.
Everyone is counting on it: the National Basketball Association, the Chinese Basketball Association, his agent Dan Fagen, and even the William Morris Agency. Of course, the team that will draft the Chinese seven-footer Thursday night has a stake in his success as well.
It can be argued that no player in the draft, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden, is as big as Yi (pronounced “Ee”, as in “Big E”). At a listed 7-feet-1-inch, he is as tall as anyone else in the draft, but that’s not the issue. Others may be more talented, like Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Texas’ Kevin Durant, but none can affect the league’s long-term future as much.
How much? On Friday morning China time, tens of millions of Chinese fans will be sitting in front of their television screens, watching the live feed of the NBA Draft on CCTV state television and no doubt talking about it later on the league’s Chinese language Web sites.
David Yang, the NBA’s senior director of international operations and a Beijing native, thinks that the addition of Yi will be a big plus for a league already comfortably ensconced in the Chinese consciousness.
“Yi is a very prominent Chinese basketball player, who will have a positive impact on Chinese basketball as a sport and given the population, this will be a huge boost for the NBA,” said Yang, then adding in a bit of understatement, “I think it is very positive from the league’s perspective.”
It’s not as if the league needed a lot more help in China. With a weekly TV audience of 32 million people, and 300 million Chinese playing basketball, Yi’s arrival is the latest manifestation of a wildly successful NBA marketing campaign.
Yi will be the fourth player from China to enter the NBA, but only the second with any marquee value. The most successful, 7-foot-6-inch Yao Ming, was a no-brainer for NBA teams. He had excelled on the international stage prior to joining the Houston Rockets in 2002. His height and his skill set as a traditional NBA center made him a very rare commodity. Once the Rockets won the draft lottery that year and were guaranteed the first overall pick in the draft, Yao was the easy choice.
Yi, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. He doesn’t have Yao’s talent or height, is only 19 and could be taken anywhere from No.3 by the Atlanta Hawks to No. 13 by the New Orleans Hornets. Fegan, who has a reputation in the league as a skilled manipulator of NBA general managers, has limited Yi’s exposure. He has not allowed him to work out against other NBA prospects, only in controlled settings. He has not allowed him to workout beyond the Home Depot Center in suburban Los Angeles — even forbidding him from playing pick-up games around Southern California. And he has (mostly) limited Yi’s workouts to teams from cities with large Chinese and Asian populations. Milwaukee, Memphis and Minnesota, all of which have high picks, can’t get in the door.
The Chinese government supposedly wants it that way. The decision to let Yi join the NBA was not an easy one. He is the biggest star in the CBA by far.
Ma Jian, a former Chinese basketball star himself, with the Shanghai Sharks, and the first Chinese to significantly break into the American basketball scene says he understands why the CBA would be so particular.
"Of course, definitely, CBA and Yi's agents would prefer that he play in cities with large Chinese population,” Ma Jian said. “It will benefit both CBA and Yi, it will help promotion. And it will guarantee him better restaurants and perhaps better looking Chinese girl friend.”
The Chinese government also saw an opportunity to give him a lot of experience before next summer’s Olympics, which are not coincidentally in Beijing. China wants to medal at home in basketball.
“This is a very good opportunity for him to improve his skill level and when he returns to his home country, it will have a positive impact for him and his team,” said David Yang.
Yi’s take is a little different but he knows he has a debt to pay.
“It's because I want to, and my country supports me in my decision so I have to thank my fellow countrymen for that.”
Yi is more than just basketball, however. Fegan and others have been building Yi as a global brand, one that will capitalize on his personality and energy, his work ethic and dedication.
William Morris, the legendary Hollywood agency, has begun molding his image as they would a Hollywood star, getting him “A list” invitations to the premieres of “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where he looked the part, dressed in sunglasses and a sleek leather jacket. There was a very public tour of Disneyland, sponsored by the Disney company. He has agents, press people, trainers, translators. While other young players have posses, Yi has an entourage that would be the envy of Vincent Chase.
Grace Chen, managing director of William Morris in China, says that Yi is fully involved in the process of making him a household name in both countries.
“It’s important to have an understanding of the cultures, where the brand is coming from and where it is going. Yi is thoughtful of and sensitive to this. He gives us a lot to work with: he has a great personality, he is relatable, and he has an open-minded approach,” said Chen, who added that Yi is likely to be as attractive to U.S. companies seeking an entry to China as he will be to Chinese companies looking to make moves in the other direction.
“Yi will travel not just within the U.S. but between China and the U.S., which is fantastic because it keeps him relevant and accessible in the various markets,” she said.
Yi knows about marketing. He has been starring in Nike commercials since he was signed by the sneaker company four years ago at age 15. In China, he is a teen idol, regularly attracting mobs of screaming young girls. As Yang notes, “With Yi in the NBA, we will have further established an affinity of Chinese youth to the NBA.”
In a commercial for a milk company, Yi is the center of a romantic triangle featuring China’s most famous young soap opera star. In his first commercial for Nike, he takes over a staid practice in a rundown gym, suddenly flying above the rim for thunderous dunks as the music switches from a traditional Chinese string instrumental to blaring hip-hop.
The message was clear: Yi is the hip-hop Yao.
Yao on the other hand is best known for an Apple commercial where he and Verne “Mini-me” Troyer, compare laptops.
Yi himself is by turn shy and very, very confident. He and his parents, both former handball players, have been living in Los Angeles now for several weeks. He spends his time on the court and in intense English classes, which seem to be working.
Asked if he is a mystery, as virtually every sports writer has described him, he seems genuinely taken aback.
“I don't think I'm a mystery. I don't know why they would think that, because I train here (in America)? Maybe I came to U.S. and stay in L.A., practice here and I’ve never been to other city so some people cannot (see) me,” he said.
He is a bit less taken aback when asked if he is a star.
“I wouldn't use the word star. In America, there are a lot of very big basketball fans and they have an interest in me, and are supporting me,” he said.
But asked which NBA player he is most like, Yi leaves no doubt of his opinion of himself.
“I don't think there is one,” he said.
So how is he as a basketball player? Most scouts who have seen him develop over the years, watching him in youth camps, in international tournaments, or in the Chinese Basketball Association come away raving, but not everyone.
Jonathan Givony, who runs DraftExpress.com, a respected draft Web site, said there are doubters.
“There seems to be a lot of confusion as to what kind of prospect he really is,” Givony said recently. “One team we spoke to…drafting in the mid- to late- teens told us they wouldn’t even take him if he was on the board for them. There is a big discrepancy on what people think his stock is right now.”
The general manager of a team that is drafting in the mid- to late-teens — the New Jersey Nets at No. 17 — expressed his concerns last week on WFAN, a New York sports radio station.
“The Chinese kid,” said Ed Stefanski, referring to Yi. “I went over to see him play. He’s a real interesting character but how do you equate the talent level in China, which isn’t very good, to playing against the best players in the world.”
He even questioned Yi’s listed height.
“You take two inches off whatever they list them in the program, so he’s probably 6-feet-10-inches,” but he is a four man (power forward) not a center. He can really run the floor. And if you give him one or two steps, his head is literally at the rim. Now, inside against half-court, grind-it-out basketball, I think he is going to have to learn how to do that, but he is quite an athlete.”
Watching him work out, you can see all his strengths and Stefanski’s concerns, Yi is quick, fundamentally sound and likes to play above the rim. There was very limited contact in practice session, but Yi easily pounded the ball inside for a quick turnaround jumper or baby hook shot (both left and right handed).
His three-point shooting wasn't that consistent but he was very reliable from the top of the key. He only got frustrated with himself when he missed that shot badly, cursing in English. Overall though, Yi does have a sweet stroke. The workouts were high energy, fast paced but pretty quiet. No one except for his trainer, Jarin Akana, said much of anything throughout the workouts.
Wherever he goes Thursday night, Yi will still be a rookie. He may be a burgeoning global brand but he will have to carry veterans’ bags. However, they should be nice to him. He could make some of them even richer than they already are. Yao Ming helped make Shane Battier richer last fall.
Battier was traded from small market Memphis to big market Houston, but more significantly for his visibility. He was suddenly the teammate of Yao Ming. It wasn’t long before his agent, Jim Tanner of Williams & Connolly, saw an opportunity.
“The timing couldn’t have been better,” said Tanner. “His shoe contract with Adidas had expired. We knew his trade would give him tremendous exposure there. PEAK, the big Chinese apparel company, wanted to sign an NBA star and expand their profile.”
The result was a three-year, seven-figure deal and a signature clothing line, the Battier Line, all promoted by Battier—and an $8 million annual budget. Battier learned some Chinese, and flew off to the Far East to do commercials, make appearances and sign a lot of autographs.
Asked if the new deal was more lucrative than the deal with Addidas, Tanner would only say yes.
The NBA is obviously a willing partner in all of this. There are some months, says commissioner David Stern, where revenues from China outstrip those from North America and a fact sheet circulated by the league gushes with numbers that easily translate to dollar signs: the billion viewers every year, the 51 TV stations that carry the games, up from 32 a year ago, the launch of a third Chinese language variant of NBA.com.
And the NBA is only too happy to let you know that its success in China is not dependent on Yao or Yi. Yao, in spite of his huge popularity, is not the most popular NBA player, at least measured by uniform jersey sales. He ranks No. 6. Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Allen Iverson and others rank above him.
“NBA popularity is increasing rapidly. One single player isn’t going to make a big difference. It will help...Yao has been a great ambassador to us,” says Yang. “If Yi becomes an all star or reserve, we are not dependent on one player.”
But they do acknowledge that for the first time, there will 30 Chinese media in attendance at the draft Thursday night and that two Chinese networks, CCTV, the national network and GTV, the Southern China network, will be taking live feeds and that most important of all, there will be official delegations from the China Basketball Association on hand. Why is that so important? Because the NBA is about to set up something called “NBA China” which will foster links between the league and its Chinese counterpart. That could be a billion dollar deal.
Yi is also important to Nike, the sneaker company he represents for “a pittance” according to Fegan, his agent. On Tuesday, Nike reported strong numbers out of China for the second quarter. One reason for the company’s surge in China is the growing interest there in basketball.
“We’re jumping at opportunities to lead change,” Nike Chief Executive Mark Parker said. “We’re building and tapping into online communities based on the passion of sport … we’re going to use our digital brand tools to do what we did with traditional advertising.”
And perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Yi’s latest Nike commercial, is out this week. He is portrayed as someone about to make a great transition, from Chinese star to NBA superstar.
“You can join the professional league when you are 15,” he says over a stylized set of basketball graphics. “You can join the national team. You can become an MVP. But that's not enough. Because you can be the you that's making the next step forward.”
NBC's Alex Bregman contributed to this report.