Two days with Yi Jianlian, the lottery's mystery man

[Editor's note: This story originally ran on May 18]

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Five years ago, China's gentle giant, Yao Ming, came into the NBA surrounded by wonderment and mystery.

Fans on both sides of the Pacific couldn't get enough of Yao's smile, old-school charm and stereotype-smashing size.

He was unique -- we had never seen a ballplayer quite like this, a 7-5 center with refined skills. We had certainly never seen a player like this from China.

Even after watching Yao dominate in international competition, many NBA GMs and talent scouts weren't convinced. Yes, some thought Yao was the next Shaq. But others were thinking Michael Olowokandi.

Since then, Yao has gone on to become perhaps the best traditional center in the NBA. His game has improved steadily and remarkably every year. He is a cultural icon in both the U.S. and China.

With more than a billion people in the basketball-crazed nation of China, it seemed likely someone would follow in Yao's footsteps.

That time is now.

Yi Jianlian is here.

Yi is a top prospect and he's 7 feet tall, but he's not a center like Yao. In fact, as draft prospects go, he's more like Kevin Durant than he is like Greg Oden.

For the past few months, a number of NBA general managers and scouts who have followed Yi closely have said he's the third-best prospect in the draft. But for many others around the NBA, he remains a mystery.

Earlier this week, I spent two days with Yi, watching him in the gym and hanging out with him around town, to see for myself what had created such intrigue in NBA circles.

What did I find?

For better and for worse, but mostly for better, Yi represents a new generation of Chinese players more influenced by Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady than by Yao Ming.

Chinese guys can jump

Several top draft prospects are working out in Los Angeles, including Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer of Florida and homegrown star Nick Young of USC.

But for the past four days in L.A., as I traveled from gym to gym, the chatter wasn't about two Gators or a Trojan.