Eight Years Later, Harris and Yi Ride Again

By Kevin Scheitrum, NBADLeague.com

Think of it as more of a language shield.

For all the things Del Harris couldn’t communicate to his Chinese national team in 2004, that English-to-Chinese language barrier also helped to insulate him as he systematically wound back a half-century of tradition.

“I wasn’t reading a lot of Chinese newspapers,” Harris said. “But my interpreter said that there was a good bit of questioning going on. ... They were thinking I was trying to change their culture.”

Yi, shown here competing against American stars during 2006's China Basketball Challenge, debuted internationally for China under head coach Del Harris.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

When Harris, now the head coach of the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends after 12 years as an NBA head coach, became the first foreigner to take over China’s basketball team, he had one mission: get them ready for 2008. For Beijing.

What he did was modernize a basketball program that was still pinned to a military tradition. A basketball program stuck in the 1950’s. Which is to say, a basketball program good at calisthenics and better at losing.

“They said I was trying to bring NBA culture to China,” China said. “And I said ‘no, that’s not it at all. I’m trying to bring international basketball culture to China.

“I told them the reason that they hadn’t done well in the past in FIBA basketball is that they’re not in line with what the rest of the FIBA countries are doing,” he said. “Whether in Europe or South America, none of them were doing the same things the Chinese people were doing.”

So Harris cut down the team’s usual marathon practices (some would go six to seven hours) to the usual two. He instituted more strength training, so the Chinese players could bang inside against the bigger Westerners. And by the time he brought the team to Texas for summer training, his coaching staff had re-taught the entire group how to sprint.

But Harris’ biggest coup came when he scrapped the list of 20 prospective players that the Chinese Basketball Association had given him and gave a tall 16-year-old a tryout. The teenager, Yi Jianlian, wasn’t even a starter for his club team in Guangdong. But right away, Harris saw something.

“You could look at him and project that in four years, this guy was gonna be an incredible player for them,” Harris said. “It didn’t take any particular genius.”

Jianlian ended up starting for that 2004 team – the one that upset defending FIBA champs Serbia and Montenegro in the early rounds and sold Chinese officials on Westernizing the team – and three years later, went to the Milwaukee Bucks as the sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

“I tried my best, and I tried to learn from him,” Jianlian said of playing for Harris during the 2004 Olympics, his first appearance with the National Team. “I’ll never forget that.”

On Friday, Harris and Jianlian – who also worked together on the historically bad New Jersey Nets team in 2008 – were reunited, when the 6-11 Chinese big man signed with the Dallas Mavericks and was immediately assigned to the Texas Legends, the Mavs’ NBA D-League affiliate.

After taking MVP honors in the FIBA Asian Championships in September, Jianlian’s NBA season got off to a late start after he injured his knee playing ball in China in November. So, to let their big man get fully back up to speed, the Mavericks found it best to start his season in Frisco. In doing so, they’ll also give Yi the opportunity to recover fully from another injury in a long line of them over the 24-year-old’s short career.

“The good thing is with all the injuries I’ve had, none of them were big things,” Jianlian said.

The move also marks the first time ever that an NBA club has assigned a veteran to a rehab assignment in the NBA D-League. Before this year, NBA teams couldn’t send down players with more than two years of experience, no matter what. Now, thanks to provisions in the new collective bargaining agreement, big league teams can give their veterans the option to rehab in the NBA D-League before coming back to the NBA.

So, when Jianlian plays his first basketball game in the U.S. since last April, he’ll be doing so in Austin, Tex., where the Legends take on the Austin Toros on Friday night – and not a moment too soon for the struggling Legends, Harris said.

“He’s got great athleticism,” Harris said. “I don’t think there’s any 7-footer in the league that can beat him end-to-end in running the court. He’s a great jumper with timing. He has a sweet touch. He makes free throws and he’s a better rebounder than people think.

“He has the qualities of Dirk, in that he’s seven feet and he can shoot the ball,” Harris continued. “I’m not saying he’s Dirk Nowitzki, because he’s an all-time great, but Yi has similar strengths.”

And in a Mavericks organization desperate for frontcourt depth after Tyson Chandler’s departure, Yi shouldn’t have to wait too long to soak up some lessons from Nowitzki.

“I am totally excited,” Jianlian said. “This will be the best team I’ve played for so far, with them winning a championship last year. It’s great to be playing with them, with Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and those great players. It’s very exciting to be on this team.”