Yi Jianlian will carry China’s national flag in Olympic Opening Ceremonies

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They’ve got 1.3 billion people and they choose Yi Jianlian?

Yes. Apparently so. Reports out of China say that the washout NBA player will carry China’s national flag into the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics Friday night. (Thanks to Dan Devine at Ball Don’t Lie for finding this.)

This news leaks a day after a Chinese official said the flag bearer would be “tall, handsome and famous.” Yi certainly is tall (7’0”). Handsome is eye of the beholder stuff.

For NBA fans this is stunning because Yi has never lived up to his status as the No. 6 pick overall, or of being the next star out of China, even though he has shown flashes of talent. Last season he was playing on a minimum deal in Dallas and only got off the bench in garbage time. Right no he is an unrestricted free agent drawing little interest.

But his fame in China should not be questioned. A couple years back I had a long conversation with David Thorpe (Executive Director of the Pro Training Center and ESPN.com analyst) when he was working with Yi and he was stunned by the popularity Yi had, with Chinese media and fans following him. Thorpe also thought Yi was very athletic and talented, if he could just mold that into the NBA style of play.

He hasn’t. Which is why this still seems odd. Yao Ming carried the flag at the Beijing games and that made a lot of sense, he was an elite player and was wildly popular around the globe. Pau Gasol is carrying the Spanish flag and he is a two-time NBA champion, four-time NBA All-Star, Rookie of the Year, decorated international player and the best hoopster Spain has ever produced. And he’s leading a team with serious medal hopes heading into London.

Yi? Well, he’s got the gig, no matter if we all roll our eyes or not.