Yi emerges from great's shadow
Updated: 2011-08-11 07:49
By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)
Yi Jianlian of China makes a shot against Angola during the Stankovic Continental Cup on Tuesday in Guangzhou. Cui Meng / China Daily
Chinese power forward has taken over from retired Yao as the national team's leader and is expected to spearhead the side's campaign at the Asia Championship next month, Sun Xiaochen reports
Without iconic giant center Yao Ming, former Washington Wizards power forward Yi Jianlian has emerged as the vocal leader of the Chinese national squad at the just concluded Stankovic Continental Cup.
"I often face double or triple teams without Yao or Wang (Zhizhi) on the court, so other guys' performances have to make a difference. They have to keep moving and passing the ball smoothly to make space. That will make things much easier for me," Yi said after the team lost its seventh consecutive game at the tournament against Russia on Monday.
Yi led China to its only victory at the four-team event, stunning African champion Angola, 64-54, in the third-place playoff on Tuesday.
The 23-year-old, who just joined the national team last month after a 30-day personal training session in the United States, is expected to spearhead the lineup at the FIBA Asia Championship in September after former Houston Rockets' all-star Yao retired on July 20.
Using the Stankovic tournament as a trial to develop chemistry with the young Chinese roster, Yi found his form after playing five games with an injury-plagued roster at the event, averaging 16.4 points and 8.4 rebounds to lead the squad.
However, the side's lackluster performance allowed its rivals to pressure the team's young leader.
"The youngsters still need more time to develop; especially their chemistry with me. Hopefully, we can play better after the injured members return to the roster," said Yi, who became an NBA free agent this summer.
Even before Yao's retirement, the quiet Yi, who used to be happy to stay in the background, was preparing to play a pivotal role on the team due to Yao's absence due to injury and veteran Wang cutting his playing time to maintain his strength.
To improve his shape and sharpen his skills, Yi took part in a mini clinic in the US after the NBA season in recent years.
National head coach Bob Donewald, who has witnessed Yi's increased work rate, has asked the fans and media to be more tolerant of the team's new leader.
"Man, be proud of him! He's doing everything he can to carry us right now. He's done his best. Don't let him hang his head. You asked a tough question to him. It's not fair," Donewald said after Yi's second-half performance against New Zealand was questioned by a reporter on Aug 6.
"He didn't have his crew around. So they kept beating him up with two or three bodies. If playing with full support, he would be an absolute monster out there," Donewald said.
Yi's transformation to a team leader has been hailed by his teammates.
"Every summer, he passes his experience and skills to us after coming back from America. I can feel the change. He used to focus on himself, but now he is keen to instruct us," said budding center Su Wei, who was Yi's former teammate on CBA club Guangdong Southern Tigers.
During last year's FIBA World Championships, Yi finished with 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, the only player who averaged a double-double, and helped the squad reach the last 16. He then steered the team to gold at the Guangzhou Asian Games in November.
Yi's challenge at the Asia Championship will be considerably tougher as teams will give him "special care", according to New Zealand's coach, Nenad Vucinic.
"It was great for us to play against a player of Yi's caliber. We tried different defenses on him. Some worked, some didn't. I am sure China's Asian opponents will also do what they can to limit him," said Vucinic.
(China Daily 08/11/2011 page24)