The NBA draft is over, and the Milwaukee Bucks have placed themselves in the unenviable position of having drafted China’s Yi Jianlian at No. 7. Unenviable, because prior to the draft Yi and his handlers notified the Bucks and several other interested teams that he was only interested in playing in a city with a sizable Chinese population – like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. And just to prove the point, they refused to do the traditional pre-draft workouts for teams which didn’t interest Yi.
Now, I will be the first to praise Yi’s game. He’s a wonderful talent: a seven footer who runs like a deer and moves with a point guard’s agility. But let’s not forget that he’s been playing in the Chinese Basketball Association, where competition isn’t exactly stiff, and even generous scouts – like ESPN’s – suggest that he’s not going to be much better than Toni Kukoc, the fragile Croatian forward who never looked better than when he was playing alongside Michael Jordan during the second Chicago three-peat of the late 90s. After that, Kukoc faded into being a utility player – in Milwaukee.
Maybe Yi will be better. Maybe not. But what’s not in dispute is that there were several far superior players in this draft, and none of them refused to workout or be drafted by teams that didn’t meet their demographic criteria. As an elite Chinese athlete, Yi has long been coddled by the Chinese athletic authorities and – quite likely – authorities who have no interest beyond watching him on television. If he expects the NBA to treat him similarly, he’s in for a tough run. Commissioner David Stern is a consistent enforcer of the NBA’s rules, and he is not likely to take kindly to an upstart international star with designs on re-engineering the NBA draft.
A second factor in all of this that Yi and his handlers might want to consider before they do any more bad-mouthing of Milwaukee: Herb Kohl, the sole owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, also happens to be a four-term US Senator. Obviously, this situation isn’t going to become an international incident. But, then again, how eager is Yi to be in the position of bad-mouthing a senior US Senator’s hometown? How eager are Yi’s government handlers in China to see him do it?
Or, put another way: imagine how the Chinese government would react if a US basketball player publicly refused to play for a Chinese franchise in a city with a small number of expatriates. Now, imagine if that team were owned by a member of the Chinese Politburo.