New Chinese center Yi, only a teenager, now starting on national team alongside Yao Ming

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro, AP

First there was Yao. Now there is Yi.

The next big thing to come out of China is Yi Jianlian, a teenager nearly 2.14-meters (7-feet) tall who has already worked his way into the national team’s starting lineup alongside Yao Ming.

“He’s better than me at 16. He can jump,” Yao said. “If he keeps working hard, he can make it big.”

That potential has already been recognized by China coach Del Harris, an assistant with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks who was hired by Chinese sports authorities to help turn the team into a medal contender for the Athens Olympics.

Immediately recognizing Yi’s potential, Harris decided that bringing him along slowly was not the way to go.

Yi did not start a single game last season for his Chinese Basketball Association team, the Guangdong Tigers, but he has been lining up alongside Yao — and even jumping center for the opening tip — in China’s pre-Olympic exhibition games.

Yi had five blocked shots and seven rebounds in 24 minutes Saturday during a 92-78 loss to Serbia Montenegro in the DiamondBall Tournament, a warm-up to the Olympics featuring six teams that will compete in Athens.

“He’s a great combo playing with Yao Ming. He’s very quick and fast, very aggressive crashing the boards. He’s unbelievable, and if he’s 16 he’s really unbelievable. I thought 21,” said Serbian assistant coach Igor Kokoskov, who was an assistant to Larry Brown with the NBA champion Detroit Pistons last season. “He likes to play the game, that’s obvious. I think he’s unique.”

Kokoskov and many of the Serbian players were shocked to hear that Yi is only 16, although his age is the subject of much global doubt and debate.

Many believe Yi (pronounced Ee) is actually older, and Yi has been sufficiently coy to fuel the skepticism.

“He’s not 16. He’s 17,” Yao said with a playful smile.

No matter his true age (Yi’s date of birth is listed as Oct. 27, 1987), Yi will not become eligible for the NBA draft until 2006 — or even later if NBA commissioner David Stern is successful during upcoming collective bargaining talks in his efforts to raise the minimum age requirement to 19 or 20.

But whenever Yi becomes eligible, he won’t last long on the draft board.

“First (overall) is an awfully big statement for anyone, but if he continues to improve at close to the rate that I’ve seen him improve in the three months I’ve been here, then he’s definitely a lottery pick in terms of ability,” Harris said. “When you’re 7 feet and can run and jump like he can, when his body catches up with the rest of him it could be a really exciting thing.”

Yi shot just 2-for-9 against Serbia-Montenegro, missing several wide-open jumpers. But his offensive shortcomings were easily overlooked by anyone with an appreciation for how active he was around the basket, fighting for rebounds and timing his shot-blocking attempts perfectly.

“There’s nobody that he’s exactly alike,” Harris said. “He’s got a similar athleticism as Stromile Swift, and he has some shot blocking ability somewhat like Marcus Camby. He’s got a thin body like both of them, but he’s got a big frame so that he could actually put on weight.”

Said Predrag Drobnjak of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats: “I don’t know how young he is, but he’s pretty good. This is just a first impression. If he is 16, you cannot talk about him strength-wise. You have to wait until he’s 20-something and has worked the weights.”

Harris smiles with almost a paternal affection when speaking of Yi, the son of postal clerk parents who were team handball players in China’s state-sponsored sports program.

The 64-year-old coach is in the process of circumnavigating the world with the Chinese team after being selected him from a list of 135 potential coaching candidates worldwide.

A long-standing relationship between the Mavericks and the Chinese basketball federation helped Harris get the job, and he has already picked up “a lot of words and phrases, particularly for basketball,” while visiting more Chinese cities than he can remember.

He is struck by the country’s confluence old and new, donkey-pulled carts sharing the roads with legions of cars and bicycles.

The infrastructure and architecture around Beijing is far beyond what he had imagined, and the treatment he has received leaves him gushing with appreciation.

“The kindness and goodness of the players, they won’t let me pick up a bag. If I try to pick up anything, forget it,” Harris said. “They have such respect for age, it puts me in a great position.”

Just like the position in which Harris has placed Yi, a prospect nearly 50 years younger than the coach who has thrust him into the spotlight — and the starting five — for one of the world’s most rapidly developing basketball programs.