Editor's note: This article appears in the June 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Yi Jianlian strolls into PACE, one of those hip restaurants nestled in an LA canyon. Dressed in Sean John jeans, a suede coat and black Jumpman shirt and shoes, he looks every bit the rock star, projecting much more native Angeleno than Chinese export. Fitting the image, he laughs as one of his agents regales the table with stories about 14-year-old girls who cry when they spot him in public. And he's already walked the red carpet at the premieres of the Spider-Man and Shrek threequels, and hobnobbed with Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz.
Just a couple of months ago, the 19-year-old was leading the Guangdong Tigers to the Chinese Basketball Association finals, averaging 24.8 ppg and 11.4 rpg while shooting 57%. Today, he has a luxurious pad footsteps from the UCLA campus, and he tools around Sunset Boulevard in an off-white Chrysler Aspen. That is, when he's not prepping to be an NBA star.
Yi, a seven-foot, 246-pound power forward, is regarded as one of the best prospects in this year's rich draft, a definite high lottery pick. So, naturally, many want to make the comparison to Yao. But while Yi and Yao are both tall and fundamentally sound, their games couldn't be more different. Yao is a traditional center who uses his size, strength and touch around the basket to dominate opponents. Yi flies up and down the floor, as likely to explode to the hoop as to let it fly. In other words, he seems a better fit for Mike D'Antoni's offense than, say, the recently axed Jeff Van Gundy's. One Western Conference GM views him as a bigger version of Sonic Rashard Lewis.
And unlike Yao when he first came to America, Yi, who has been taking English classes in China and LA, can conduct a dinner interview without a translator -- complete with witty comebacks and anecdotes. He talks about how delicious the snake is in Guangdong in one sentence and extols the merits of a good rib eye in the next.
Differences in their personalities haven't prevented Yi and Yao from developing a great relationship, though. They talk regularly, the old pro giving his young pal advice about NBA life. Yi says Yao has told him again and again how tough the game is, both physically and mentally. "I have to get stronger," Yi says. "I also have to prepare for lots of attention."
Starting on June 28.
Chad Ford covers the NBA draft for ESPN Insider.