China's NBA prospect Yi Jianlian will enter the 2007 Draft amid high expectations, but Team USA big man Dwight Howard has warned it will take mental toughness - and cartoons - for him to prosper as a rookie.
The Orlando Magic center, in Beijing promoting October's China Games in Shanghai and Macao, said Yi needs to stay focused to overcome the huge challenges ahead.
"Yi is definitely a great player, he is talented and quick, and he is one of the best hopefuls coming out in the draft this year. But a first round pick doesn't guarantee you anything in your career," Howard told China Daily yesterday. "For me, the rookie year is extremely tough, it's so long and the size of the players you face every night is incredible.
As the first overall selection in the 2004 Draft, the 22-year-old All-Star forward offers a good example of how a rookie can adjust to life in the NBA. He was named to the 2004-05 NBA All-Rookie First Team and averaged 12.0 points and finished eighth in the NBA in rebounding (10.0 rpg) in his first season.
More major improvements were seen this season as Howard powered the Magic into the Playoffs for the first time since 2003 with a team-leading 17.6 ppt. He also played for Team USA at the World Championships in Japan last year.
"I am just staying focused," he said. "I just try to worry about what I need to accomplish on the court and off the court, and try not to get caught up in the media and all the hype or anything.
"I know it is tough because there is a lot of stuff that you want to do as rookies coming in, and knowing that first we have to settle down and learn our roles before we can talk to a superstar or anything like that. One thing is work ethic, in order to become a great player, you have to really, really work at it in this league."
Howard added that Yi would be better off joining a team that really wants to give him time on court, rather than just trying to climb as high up the draft as possible.
"Finding the right team is important for him, this is also a big challenge for international players," he said. "Darko (Milicic) is a good example that what a right team means to you, he is improving very fast with us, but I know his days in Detroit were not sweet at all."
The second overall pick behind Lebron James but ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in 2003, Milicic was a major disappointment with a miserable 1.1 ppts with the Detroit Pistons. He was traded to the Magic last season and increased minutes greatly benefited his game, demonstrated when he averaged a personal best 12.6 ppt in the Playoffs last month.
According to Howard, mental toughness won't just come from time in the gym and on the practice court.
A big fan of cartoons and especially "Finding Nemo", Howard said exposure to American culture was needed to help Yi avoid feeling like a fish out of water.
"I like watching cartoons, I had a lot of fun doing this," he said. "It makes my season not so boring and this is a good way to deal with the NBA's tough schedule.
"It takes some time for international players to melt into American culture, but it is really fun when you get into it, and it is very helpful for them."
Off the court, however, Yi does not appear to be having many problems adapting to his new life. He conducts interviews and conversations in English and takes English classes every night to improve.
Yi is already independent: He drives on his own in Los Angeles where he is based, finds his own restaurants and even hit the red carpet at the movie premieres of "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek 3." He listens to hip-hop, plays video games and dresses in the requisite Sean John jeans and Jumpman shirt.
In addition, he is expected to save a lot of energy on business affairs after teaming up with Dan Fegan, a longtime NBA agent whose clients include Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Nene.
Yi is now in Orlando for pre-draft training camp. In a poll conducted by Sohu.com, 43 per cent of the participants believe Yi will be a top three selection in the draft, while 20 per cent say he will be at No 4 to 7.
He is highly rated by US scouts, with respected ESPN.com draft analyst Chad Ford believing he is the 3rd best player in the draft behind Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.
Along with Yi, Chinese point guard Sun Yue has also announced he will enter the draft. The 2.06m point guard was ranked No 14 among international players in the draft and some experts predict he could land a late second round slot.