Yi settles into new home, Bucks settle into lower expectations
Had he had a bratwurst before?
“No, no, not yet,” Yi said in English after learning about the German sausage.
Yes, Yi has a lot to discover.
He’s 7,000 miles from home playing in Milwaukee, one of the league’s smallest markets that has never quite shaken that “Happy Days” image – despite 40 years of basketball with greats like Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Fine meats, Wisconsin cheese and ’70s sitcoms aside, the Bucks believe they’ve netted 1.3 billion new fans in China with their intriguing rookie, listed at 7-foot and selected sixth overall in the draft.
Yi, who remains mum on whether he’s 19 or much older as rumored, said he felt the pressure early in the preseason after being with the Bucks just a few days. But he says he’s “more or less” settled in and on the cusp of starting for the Bucks, who went 28-54 last season.
“You just assume he’s more comfortable coming in, just his body language,” said coach Larry Krystkowiak, also starting his first full season after taking over for Terry Stotts in March. “When he walked in before it was like, ’Where am I and what is this place?’ Now he carries himself with a smile on his face a lot of times and he’s interactive with teammates and stuff, so I think he’s getting through that learning curve.”
It’s been just as big of an adjustment for the rest of the Bucks, who made the playoffs in 2005 before injuries to four of five starters last season derailed them and cost Stotts his job.
Now, Michael Redd (knee) and former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut (foot) are healthy, along with Charlie Villanueva (shoulder), Bobby Simmons (foot and ankle) and Mo Williams (shoulder), who re-signed for six years and $51.5 million in the offseason after Miami tried to woo him away.
“We’re healthy this year,” Redd said. “It’s kind of like a fresh start for the guys who’ve been here. We’ll be alright.”
The Bucks also reacquired forward Desmond Mason, who called general manager Larry Harris a “snake in the grass” after he was dealt to New Orleans before the 2005-06 season.
Mason signed a two-year free agent deal to bring him back to a city his family grew to love, while Harris may be the next out the door, likely needing to make the playoffs in the final year of his contract.
“I think this team is a little bit more versatile and a little bit deeper,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of different characteristics about this team that we didn’t have with the last team.”
But the Bucks still may not be tough enough, and that starts with Yi (EE’) and fellow power forward Villanueva. Both players like to face up to the basket and neither have shown a strong penchant for rebounding.
But no one asks about Villanueva.
After all, he didn’t travel half way around the world towing a half-dozen Chinese reporters.
Or have 75 fans mob him in Chicago after a 15-hour flight from Shanghai.
Or have his face flash on electronic billboards as he arrived in Milwaukee.
“I was told the first year in the NBA is going to be tough,” Yi said. “On court, off court, I’ve got to work harder.”
Early in camp, all the Bucks were a little lost with all the questions about the one guy they didn’t know anything about. They’ve settled into Yi mania now.
“Talking about Yi, it’s a popular question,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s fine and for me, I didn’t realize we were going to have to answer 10 questions about a specific person because my focus is on the team. But certainly, you can sit back and understand what’s going on. So I’m figuring it out, and he’s figuring it out.”
The team is doing its part, too.
“We try to give less rookie pranks,” said Williams, in his quiet Southern drawl. “What helps him a lot is his knowledge of the game. He knows what’s going on, and he understand what I’m saying most of the time.”
Williams, Redd and Mason form a trio that played together for more than two seasons before Mason departed, and Bogut now enters his third season.
“It’s fun keeping the core together, and we can’t do nothing but get better,” Williams said. “We know each others’ strengths, we know where we like the ball and it just takes time playing together, which we have. This year, I feel like it’s going to be a good season for us.”
That’ll be contingent on injuries and the one rookie guaranteed to get loads of international attention no matter what happens with the rest of his teammates.
“It’s a process, and it’s a long season,” Yi said. “I’ve got to go slowly about it.”