How playing in the NBA changed Yi Jianlian's life

The 2.13m (seven-foot) China basketball star received a reality check in the United States that made him mature physically and mentally.

By Andrew Binner

Growing up as a 2.13m (seven-foot) tall basketball player in China, it wasn't long before Yi Jianlian was being touted as 'The next Yao Ming'.

Despite having such big shoes to fill, Yi was not overawed by the challenge, just as he's taken competing at the FIBA World Cup 2019 on home soil in his giant stride.

After five years and several Chinese Basketball Association titles with Guangdong Southern Tigers, the power forward signed for the Milwaukee Bucks as the sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft.

In his first home match, Yi scored 16 points and eight boards to help the Bucks beat the Chicago Bulls, leading to Yao to remark: "If you compare us in our third NBA games, you will see that Yi's statistics are far better than mine."

The Game for a Billion People

In 2007, Yi's Milwaukee Bucks and Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets faced each other for the first time.

The match was unofficially dubbed 'The Chinese Super Bowl' and 'The Game for a Billion People', due to the star status of the two men in their native land.

Between 150-250 million people in China watched the match, meaning that, despite it being a regular season game, the TV broadcast had more viewers than the NFL Super Bowl!

The Rockets won the bumper match via a 28-point haul from Yao, while rookie Yi enhanced his own reputation with an athletic performance and 19 points.

Unfortunately for Yi's fans, a knee injury kept him from building on the momentum of an impressive start in the NBA.

"I've got a more mature mentality"

Over the next five years, Yi split his time in the NBA between the Bucks, the New Jersey Nets, the Washington Wizards, and the Dallas Mavericks, before returning to the Guangdong Southern Tigers in 2012.

He briefly re-launched his NBA career in 2016 with the Los Angeles Lakers, but requested to be released prior to the regular season due to a lack of playing time.

During his time with the Lakers, he told Tencent how the NBA humbled and then improved him as a player.

"The NBA is a super competitive stage, full of competition every night which obligates me to improve myself constantly, be more aggressive both on attack and defence.

"During the first five years of my NBA career, people can obviously see the difference in me compared to before. I've got a more mature mentality." - Yi Jianlian to Tencent.

"Before going to NBA, I always thought that I was more talented than most of the others, both in physical condition and skills.

"But after playing in the NBA, I found out that when I want to block the players who are shorter than me, they would jump higher than me and could block my shot easily. This motivated me to look for self-improvement."

Physical development

In the NBA, Yi was exposed to more advanced training, both on the court and in the gym.

"I was very thin at the beginning of my NBA career, which is not very ideal for basketball players," Yi said after his time with the Lakers.

"The physical contact during the games is based on physical condition. With the NBA training plan, I have improved my weight, muscle and physical confrontation.

As a power forward, Yi was coming up against more agile, nimble players than himself and this extra training helped to make up these deficiencies in his game.

Inspired by Kobe Bryant

As well as Chinese basketball legend Yao, Yi looked up to former Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.

Yi tried to model is own game off the American's desire to win, relentless work ethic and constant striving for self-improvement.

In fact, in 2012 Bryant even stated that he would like to play with the young Chinese.

"You know he is extremely talented, I just don’t think he’s had the opportunity to show what he can do, he hasn’t had the right system," Bryant told LakersNation.

"So if that day ever comes and people will see what he can do. Hopefully, he can come play with me and we can show everyone what he can do.”

Despite the American's huge compliments, the partnership never materialised.

Yi Jianlian was China's flag bearer at the London 2012 Olympics.

International impact of Yi Jianlian

After Yao's retirement, Yi became the leader of China's national team.

Despite being a naturally shy character, the four-time Olympic representative certainly led by example.

"If I can keep this form and provide help to the national team, I’d like to go on contributing to my country," the player, who is renowned for his fighting spirit, told Tencent.

"Being an athlete, playing in Olympic Games and representing your country is always the biggest honour, and this kind of experience will be unforgettable in all of your life."

At Rio 2016 he averaged a whopping 20.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

These points will be vital at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics if China are to stand a chance of winning a medal.


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