SHANGHAI, June 28 -- BEFORE flying to the United States to pursue his NBA dream in April, Yi Jianlian said he wanted to step out from the shadow of Yao Ming and carve out a career in the world's top league in his own way.
With some pundits tipping Yi as the first pick after stand-outs Greg Oden and Kevin Durant at Thursday's NBA draft in New York, the former Guangdong Tigers power forward appears set to challenge Yao's reign as China's hottest basketball export.
"Yi will end up being the best player in the NBA from China, and I know that is saying a lot," Hall of Fame coach Pete Newell told USA Today this week.
"He has much more body control than Yao, and he's a much better jumper. I'm real high on him, and I think I'm right."
Yi, who, despite attending film premieres in Los Angeles and speaking English during media interviews in recent weeks, remains somewhat of an enigma.
Although rated a certainty to become China's fourth NBA export after Houston Rockets center Yao, Wang Zhizhi and Menk Bateer, draft pundits place him anywhere from number three to well outside the top 10.
Yi's handlers have kept him under wraps, inviting only select teams to appraise him in private training sessions.
Coaches have been excited by Yi's pace, his natural leap and soft hands, but less convinced about his upper body strength and toughness against hardened NBA competitors.
Yi shot an average 24.9 points against lumbering Chinese Basketball League defenders in his final season with Guangdong, but has largely failed to impress in national team appearances.
Born the son of two professional handball players in Heshan, a light industrial town in southern Guangdong province's booming Pearl River delta, Yi idolized Michael Jordan as a boy and made his first slam dunk as a 1.95-meter "13 or 14-year-old."
In years since, the hip-hop loving Yi has helped Guangdong to three domestic league championships and was a member of China's Olympic team at Athens in 2004.
He will join forces with Yao again next year to go for national glory in the 2008 Olympic basketball competition, which is already proving one of the hottest tickets of the Beijing Games.
Whether he ends up eclipsing Yao or not, Yi's arrival in the North American big league can only deepen China's passionate love affair with basketball and the NBA.