NBA: Number 11 strikes a chord with both Yi Jianlian and Yao Ming

Chinese basketball player Yi Jianlian wears the Los Angeles Lakers jersey during his introduction as a member of the team on Sept 16, 2016.
Chinese basketball player Yi Jianlian wears the Los Angeles Lakers jersey during his introduction as a member of the team on Sept 16, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Los Angeles (AFP) - Yi Jianlian may not like being compared to Yao Ming but he is not shy about wearing his No. 11 jersey this season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Speaking during the Lakers' practice on Friday in suburban El Segundo, the 28-year-old forward-centre said the two agreed that Yi would wear Yao's former number with his new National Basketball Association team.

"Yao asked me. We talked about it," said Yi.

Hall-of-Famer Yao wore No. 11 during his eight seasons with the Houston Rockets, averaging 19.0 points and 9.2 rebounds.

Yi was once dubbed "the next Yao Ming" but says he is a different player with his own unique skill set.

"To me it is different. Yao is Yao. The biggest player in China," Yi told a packed scrum of English- and Chinese-language reporters on the practice court.

"I learned a lot from him. I talk to him a lot. We have a different mindset about basketball."

The struggling Lakers signed Yi, of He Shan, Guangdong, to a one-year deal last month at US$1.14 million (S$1.56 million) that could be worth up to US$8 million with incentives and bonuses.

The 2.11m-tall Yi is back in the NBA after a four-year hiatus.

The native Cantonese-speaking Yi played in China with the Guangdong Southern Tigers from 2012 to 2016 and was the cornerstone for the Chinese national team at last month's Rio Olympics.

Yi says his stellar performance in his fourth trip to the Olympics likely boosted his worth for the Lakers.

"I had success for sure in the Olympics," said Yi, who averaged 20.4 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting 46 per cent from three-point range. "Team China was a young team. For myself, I just tried to play hard and try to get a win."

Yao and Yi know each other well both on and off the court. They were Olympic team-mates and squared off against each other in Yao's final NBA game on November 10, 2010 between the Rockets and the Wizards in Washington.

Yi said on Friday he never lost hope he would one day return to the NBA.

"I always expected it. I was always getting ready. I kept my confidence," he said. "I am excited, for sure. I have been out for four years. To come back and play for the Lakers is very exciting."