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For Yi and Swat, a Year to Remember...if not Treasure

In March of last season, ESPN’s David Thorpe ran a little exercise in his Rookie Ranking column. He came up with established players for each of the league’s top rookies to emulate.

Each entry in "Which veteran should (this rookie) study?" contained a brief scouting report on the rookie and what they needed to do to get to the level of the comparable veteran.

Thorpe who runs a training program for NBA players has a certain fondness for both Yi Jianlian and Sean Williams, consistently ranking both in the top five during the early part of the season. So his scouting reports were quite complimentary.

Yi, he described as "a gifted player, maybe the second-purest talent in this class (after Kevin Durant)" but said "he could really be a rebounding threat right now if he chose to focus on that…" Time, he said, for Yi to look to Marcus Camby as a model, particularly Camby’s attitude.

Williams he called "a special talent and is better offensively than scouts initially thought." What he needed to learn was how "to beat defenders from the high post by using solid jabs and counters when they take his jump shot away." That way, he could become Chris Bosh.

There were similar comments and assessments about both players early last season from Dave McMenamin of NBA.com and Hugh Packham of Sports Illustrated, the two other reporters who did weekly rookie rankings.

Yi was compared to Dirk Nowitzki, Williams to Amare Stoudemire…both more than once. Indeed there is no doubt the two have the most potential of the Nets’ young big men. Brook Lopez may remind people of Brad Daugherty, Ryan Anderson of Keith Van Horn. Josh Boone, at 23 the senior member of the group, has established himself as a solid NBA big man, but Yi and Williams have that "ridiculous upside" GM’s love.

"With Yi we feel his upside is very up. We feel strongly he's going to be a very good player for us," said Rod Thorn in fact. "We think with his skill set, athleticism and size he can be a very good player. We obviously need size. One of our negatives is we're a very small team."

The problem is that for all their potential, their upside, both players hit the rookie wall well before the end of last season in very different ways. And no one knows yet if they can get over it this season. That’s not to say their rookie years were failures. Yi was Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December and Williams was one of the league’s best shot blockers. Both were in the top ten of minutes played by rookies.

Looked at one way, it’s as if Yi had played too many games before last season and Williams had played too few.

For Yi, it the long season began in China and then moved to Milwaukee but not before an international drama that had to be debilitating played out. Yi, his agent, and his government wanted him to play in a city with a larger Chinese population. In Milwaukee, that population is counted in the thousands--very, very low thousands. They reportedly told the Bucks Yi wouldn't play for them and asked he be traded. Ultimately, Team Yi relented and he played well for a while.

Bobby Simmons, who lived across the street from Yi in Milwaukee, described the multiple pressures Yi was facing and their consequences.

"Being a rookie, it was pretty tough. Plus, with him coming to the States for the first year to play basketball, that was big. And as a (first-round) pick, there's a lot of pressure. I experienced that with Kwame Brown in Washington and it's an adjustment. Yi hung in pretty well his first year."

Yi admitted to being "exhausted" by February. He also missed 16 games because of those nagging injuries...sprains to his right wrist and left ankle sprain, other problems with his right shoulder and right knee. None required surgery but all required recovery time.

His coach, Larry Krystowiak, said there were indeed problems related to the Chinese government’s demands on Yi. He called the pressure "insane".

There is an awful lot of pressure on Yi to perform," Krystowiak told HoopsWorld earlier this month. "Maybe more so than in a normal year when you're not trying to host the Olympics. I think [Yi] has got a terrific future, but he suffered a wrist injury, he had an ankle injury - it's a hard grind and I know that before he got to Milwaukee, he was doing an awful lot for China--I don't think there were many days off--he was one of the poster children for the Olympics... he really hit the wall is what happened in Milwaukee.

"I sense that once the Olympics are over and he has a chance to catch his breath and has a year under his belt his future is going to be real bright and some of that pressure will be relieved a little bit."

The day after the trade, The Star-Ledger's Dave D’Alessandro explained that the pressure could apply to the team as well. "The Chinese Basketball Association can be a major pain in the caboose," he wrote. "They would call their player's NBA team and wonder why he didn't play more after a victory. They'd call with suggestions of how many minutes would be best from week to week…Yi's a great kid with a lot of pressure on him. He's going to need a lot of help from his NBA family. But we doubt his new family fully understands what kind of marriage they've just entered into."

Thorn doesn’t see all that pressure hurting Yi. Just before the Olympics, Yi flew to New Jersey for two days (because of the demands of Team China’s training schedule). Thorn described the seven-footer as being "in good spirits" mentally and adding, "Our doctors said he was one of the best physical specimens of anybody on our team. He’s young so I don’t think (it will be a problem)."

Yi himself promised a lot of hard work with the Nets.

"I have high expectations to play for New Jersey," he told CCTV, Chinese national television. "It will be a new team, a new atmosphere, and a new beginning for me. , the Nets worked hard to get me and I feel honored.

"They play a fast tempo and are younger. I think I can be part of the rotation in no time."

"Swat" had a different problem, almost the opposite problem. His sometimes lackadaisical attitude hurt him. He lost the confidence of his coach—and to some degree, his teammates, who thought he lacked the maturity needed for the NBA.

"It's just challenging everybody on our team, making everybody understand that each game is important, you only have so many left," said Vince Carter last March 19 after a win over Atlanta. "That’s something [Richard Jefferson] and I tried to do with Sean at halftime. Constructive criticism, nothing like yelling. It was like, ‘Look, you’re a good player. Play like it. Be the person that you are.’ And it was a different Sean Williams in the second half."

Jefferson expressed similar, even harsher sentiments that night, although he didn’t cite Williams by name.

"I’ve been blessed to be in the playoffs every year, but some of the younger guys have to understand that this is an opportunity you have to seize because nothing is guaranteed," Jefferson said. "That means you have to make sure you’re getting extra work in, you got to know the game plan, you’ve got to do all the things you need to do.

Around the same time, Lawrence Frank told WFAN, "big picture it’s how much of a basketball feel he can continue to develop", adding "he’s a little bit small to be a 4 man in the NBA and yet he doesn’t have the perimeter skills or feel to be a 3 man". He needs strength and weight, Frank added.

Thorn was more philosophical about Williams’ ups and downs: "Sean’s year was like a lot of rookies: he had some early success, fell back a little, and then had some more success around the all-star break. Then after the all-star break did not have much success so I think he played more games this year than he has every played by far. I’m sure he got a little tired as the season wore on. I heard him saying several times that his legs felt heavy."

Even Williams admitted to some faults after the season.

"Specifically I want to work at my aggressiveness on the boards and just knowledge of the game. Every time I play I learn something about the game. I just want to keep playing so I can learn and get better at the game. I’m still young at this game and I feel my ceiling is very high. I still can’t even touch it with as much height as I have."

So can they turn it all around, can they get up that upside slope?

Reviews were mixed this summer. Both showed just how good they can be. Williams’ defense against Michael Beasley in the Orlando Summer League was jaw-dropping. Yi hit the biggest shot in the history of Chinese basketball and played solid defense himself, against the guy who people think he can play like…Dirk Nowitzki.

Then again, both played poorly a lot of the other games, looking "out of it" in Orlando, Salt Lake City and Beijing. Commentators raved about their potential, but…

Kiki Vandeweghe is banking a lot of his future on the success of the Yi-for-Jefferson trade. And if you think this was a salary dump, think again, Vandeweghe has long been in love with Yi.

"They just don't build guys like this, not very often anyway," Vandeweghe said just before the 2007 Draft when he was working as an ESPN analyst. "He reminded me very much of Dirk Nowitzki when I first started working with Dirk. He's a little more athletic, certainly at the same age. Talent-wise, it is all there. He's as good as anybody in the draft."

Thorn says similar things about Williams now.

"Athletically, he’s certainly in the top 10 percent of the league athletically and has an upside and it’s up to us and to him to make sure that he does what he needs to do in order to get better."

They may need different approaches. The Nets may need to limit the pressures on Yi and add to them for Williams. At age 20 (Yi) and 21 (Williams), they're young enough to develop and could be very special. The question is, really, do they know it?