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Can China make the grade at London 2012 without Yao?

China's Yao Ming (13) reacts to a score in the first half of play against New Zealand during their men's basketball game in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games August 17, 2004. At left is New Zealand's Kirk Penney and at right is China's Yi Jianlian. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Adrees Latif/Reuters

Yi Jianlian said China's national basketball team, becoming accustomed to life without the prodigious talents of the retired Yao Ming, could produce a surprise at this year's London Olympics.

China reached the quarter-finals on home soil with Yao in Beijing four years ago and came through a tricky transition to regain the Asia championship title in Wuhan last September and qualify for London.

"We are going to have a surprise for everybody," Yi told Reuters before his Dallas Mavericks team lost to the New York Knicks 104-97 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. "You'll see."

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Yi is struggling to make his mark with the NBA champion Mavericks after signing as a free agent this season.

The 24-year-old, who is battling back from an injured right knee, did not play Sunday and has only averaged about eight minutes a game with a 3.3 scoring average in 12 games this season for Dallas.

Yi, however, expects to play a significant role on the Chinese team in the 12-team Olympic tournament.

"It changes (without Yao)," explained Yi, who was the sixth player chosen in the NBA Draft in 2007 by the Milwaukee Bucks. "It has been changing since 2008.

"We played in the world championship without him but we played good. I think we're used to playing without Yao. It is a different style, playing together.

"It is a different kind of ball movement, running up and down more, because we have no real big guy inside," added Yi. "We got to run, do some more stuff on defense.

"The team and myself need to score and rebound. I need to do more for our team to do better and win the game."

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Yi was named Most Valuable Player of the 2011 Asia Championship that put China into the Olympic tournament, averaging 16.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

The slender 7-footer (2.13 m) said he was excited about the opportunity ahead of him.

"For me, the Olympics is about being proud, being part of my China national team," said Yi.

"To have China on your jersey and being on court is very exciting no matter what for me. It's a big chance. Four years of time. Not everyone can make it."

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