Wednesday October 31st, 2007

Yi Jianlian got off to a rocky start in his introduction to Bucks fans. On his first offensive touch in the first quarter of Milwaukee's preseason home opener against the Utah Jazz, the celebrated rookie promptly slipped and traveled. On his second touch, he dribbled the ball off his foot, and followed up that miscue with an air ball on his first shot attempt.

Coach Larry Krystkowiak, however, stuck with Yi, and his patience was rewarded. Soon after the early shakiness, Yi had a sequence in which he feathered in an 18-foot jump shot, drew a foul when he powered his 6-foot-11, 238-pound frame into Utah center Mehmet Okur (he made both free throws) and snared a high pass underneath the basket and muscled it up and in.

In a way, the first quarter of his first game was a microcosm of the preseason for Yi: After a slow start, he came on strong. In fact, Krystkowiak has made him a starter at power forward in Wednesday's regular-season opener at Orlando.

"Really, he's better than I thought he would be," Krystkowiak said after the preseason game against the Jazz. "I'm pleasantly surprised."

Said Bucks guard Michael Redd: "That's my rook. So much potential."

"Potential" has been the buzzword around Milwaukee since Yi made his much-anticipated arrival in early October. While he's an immediate starter after averaging 10.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in the preseason, no one -- not Krystkowiak, not Bucks general manager Larry Harris, not even Yi himself -- expects Yi to step in and have the same impact his countryman Yao Ming had his first season with the Rockets. Not when Yi fouls out 16 minutes into his first preseason game. Not when the Bucks already have a capable power forward available in Charlie Villanueva. Not when they have a potential All-Star at center in Andrew Bogut. And not as long as the fledgling star -- all 19, 22 or 24 years of him -- still occasionally operates with the same deer-in-the-headlights look that plagues all rookies.

"I have a long way to go," Yi said. "I can play better. I know I can play better."

The speed of the game has been the biggest adjustment for Yi. Fast breaks are run faster in the NBA than they are in the Chinese Basketball Association. Plays are run quicker and require precision to be effective.

"Players are very fast," Yi said. "Really fast. And they are more physical."

Said Krystkowiak: "I respect the Chinese Basketball Association, but it is a different game here. It's a big adjustment for a kid like Yi to make."

Not that Yi's alone among fresh-faced rookies in having to get up to speed. In Chicago, for instance, a gangly newbie with two NCAA championships to his credit is struggling to make the same adjustments. In a recent game against Dallas, Bulls rookie forward Joakim Noah was frequently overwhelmed by Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, another former imported beanpole, who in nine years playing Stateside has transformed from a spindly, 230-pound forward hybrid to a powerful, 245-pound power forward and the NBA's reigning MVP.

"As a rookie, you've just got to learn from your experiences and get better," Noah said. "I know I have a lot of learning to do."

For now, size doesn't matter. It will come when the 15 weight-room sessions Yi voluntarily puts in per month (the rest of the team is required to do only 10) begin to pay dividends. It will come, Krystkowiak said, when Yi commits to a rigorous offseason program designed to add bulk to his upper body and make him better equipped to battle physical power forwards.

The mental stuff will come too. Like any rookie, Yi has struggled to pick up the NBA's complex terminology ("I have a hard time with that too," Noah said), designs and schemes that make playbooks look like physics exams. During a recent practice, Yi was pulled aside several times by Bucks coaches who patiently informed him -- without the use of a translator -- what he was doing wrong.

"I think the toughest part for him is [putting together] the colors and numbers of our plays," said Bucks assistant coach Jarinn Akana, who worked with Yi over the summer and is a close confidant. "He almost understands all of it, but it's difficult."

Said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan: "There is so much for guys to learn. Everyone expects [rookies] to come in the league and be smart. It's tough. There are some great players in this league. And there are some guys who you have never heard of who will come out and kick your rear end."

What's important with Yi is that, even with all the work ahead, there is an impressive skill set there.

"He's a nice young player," Sloan said. "He can shoot the ball and he can put the ball on the floor."

Added Okur: "He looks good out there. I didn't know anything about him before he came to the league, but after playing against him a couple of times, I know he is going to be a big help to Milwaukee."

**********

It's hard to find good Chinese food in Milwaukee, which is not exactly a revelation when you consider the city has about 1,200 Chinese residents. Why else would Yi be sitting at a table in a food court inside a Milwaukee mall wolfing down a plateful of beef and noodles from a Japanese joint?

"It's OK," Yi said between mouthfuls. Finding good cuisine isn't Yi's biggest problem. In America, just moving from state to state is a traumatic experience. Now imagine doing it across the Pacific Ocean. Imagine moving from a swelteringly hot city to one where the temperature regularly drops below freezing.

"I have some warm clothes," Yi said with a smile. "But not enough."

Up is down. Down is up. What was considered acceptable on one continent might not be on another. Just ask those who have done it.

"It was tough for me, sure," said Nowitzki, who moved to the United States from Germany in 1998. "Moving away from your family, your country, there is no question it's difficult to adjust to. I could speak the language, but I would imagine if you can't, it makes the adjustment that much harder."

"Going to the DMV, finding your favorite food, getting a social security number -- all that is difficult," said Bulls forward Viktor Khryapa, a 2004 first-round pick from Russia. "The days of the week are different. And when you ask questions, it feels like everybody is yelling at you."

Said Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko: "It's a different mentality, different everything. For example, I had an electrician come to my house and say he couldn't put a cabinet in front of a plug. If he did, he would lose his license. In Russia, I could just say I don't care and do it."

Smiling, Kirilenko thinks of another difference. "In Russia, when you are stopped by the police," he said, reaching over to Okur and patting him on his breast pocket, "you can pay the fine right away."

Having a support system can facilitate the adjustment period. Khryapa and Kirilenko were both married when they moved to the United States. Nowitzki was single when he moved to Dallas but was accompanied by his longtime coach, Holger Geschwinder, and was quickly befriended by teammate Steve Nash.

"Having them," Nowitzki said, "made the transition a lot easier."

Yi, however, is alone. He was alone his first two weeks when he called the Residence Inn, a $190-per-night hotel in downtown Milwaukee, his home. And now he lives alone in the two-bedroom townhouse that he rents on the outskirts of Lake Michigan, just a short ride to the Bucks' practice facility in St. Francis.

"I've been away from my family for a long time, [from] when I was with the national teams and playing professionally," Yi said. "I'm used to it."

The silence and the solitude can be therapeutic. For the better part of his life, Yi has been a rock star, dating to his days on the Chinese junior national team and including the five years he spent with the Guangdong Tigers, a team he helped lead to three consecutive CBA titles. In Milwaukee, it is no different. Fans of all nationalities have embraced him. They clamor for him when he is on the bench and shout his name when he enters games. A half-dozen journalists representing a variety of Chinese media outlets are a constant presence, dutifully recording Yi's every movement. He gives interviews before games. He gives interviews after them. He gives interviews in the parking lot. He can't walk down a hallway without a cameraman nipping at his heels.

"But in a way, it's better here," Akana said. "In China, the media is allowed to just run out onto the court after games. Here there are rules."

Media members, Chinese and otherwise, are barred from training rooms and shower areas in NBA locker rooms, which gives Yi periodic moments of tranquility. Before a recent game, a horde of journalists buzzed around Yi as he moved through the Bucks' locker room, only to stop short when Yi walked toward the bathroom.

"The media is all over you, Yi," Bucks guard Charlie Bell said. "They follow you wherever you go." The reporters are interested in everything that is said about Yi. "Go ask him about the whooping I put on him in practice," forward Samaki Walker shouted as the pens scribble wildly. "He doesn't want any more of that!"

The constant attention explains why Yi is so eager to find some semblance of peace in his home life. "It's quiet out there," Yi said. Silence can beget loneliness, however, though despite having not developed a closeness with any of his teammates the way Nowitzki did with Nash -- or even how Yao did with Steve Francis -- Yi's quiet demeanor has endeared him to many of his teammates.

"I'm in Chinese training camp," Bucks guard Mo Williams said. "I'm trying to pick up the language a little bit, and I'm teaching him a little bit of American slang."

Said Redd: "We all genuinely like him. He's a good guy to be around, and we know how important he is to this team."

How important Yi is to the future of the franchise might not be apparent right away -- even with his presence in the opening-night starting lineup.

"We have to be patient with him," Krystkowiak said. "It's going to take time, maybe a couple of years. To expect big things right away is a little beyond expectations."

Translation: Don't expect Yi to be great right away. But no one -- not Krystkowiak, not Harris, not even Yi himself -- is saying don't expect him to be great.

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