Young China side open campaign for gold medal in basketball with comfortable victory Yao Ming might be missing but Yi Jianlian, also known as 'Little Yao Ming', more than compensated for his absence as China began their campaign for a gold medal with a sedate 94-43 victory over Macau as competition got underway in earnest on the opening day of the East Asian Games. 'We only played at half-power. Macau are our brothers,' commented Yi after the game. The 2.1-metre tall Chinese centre, who many say will be the next big Chinese star in the NBA, scored 15 points. He sat out the second and last quarters, and it was no coincidence that it was during these periods that Macau were able to score freely. China have brought along a very young side. Only three players in this squad played at the recent Asian Championship in Doha which China won easily - Yi, Wang Shipeng, a three-point sharpshooter, and Sun Yue. Like every other Olympic sport, the Chinese are looking ahead to 2008 Beijing. 'This is a very young team and it is hard to judge on first impressions. But they are definitely one of the favourites to win the gold medal here,' said Japan's head coach Zelko Pavlicevic, an interested spectator at the Tap Seac pavilion yesterday. China are not only Asian champions, but they also were the best team from the region at last year's Athens Olympics, when spearheaded by Yao, they reached the quarter-finals. Yao, who vowed that he would not shave if China failed to reach the quarter-finals, carried the team in a miraculous 67-66 victory over reigning world champions Serbia & Montenegro which revived their campaign after early losses to Spain, Argentina and Italy. Yi also played at the Olympics, impressing everyone and raising the juicy prospect of becoming the next big thing to Yao. Yesterday, he showed little signs of his prodigious talent which has had NBA scouts salivating and looking to sign him on as soon as he turns 22 - the age when the Chinese Basketball Association releases its players. 'He can become as good as Yao. He has good technique, is smart on court, is well-co-ordinated, is a good jumper and of course he is tall. He can become a great player,' is Croatian Zelko's view. Just imagine Yi and Yao at the 2008 Games. In the next three years, Yi can only get better. Already armed with a sound defensive game - his blocking was cast-iron while he stole loads of rebounds - Yi knows he will have to work on his offence, which needs to be polished. But he has time on his side and soon Yi and Yao could complement each other like Yin and Yang. 'In the next few years to come, and hopefully at the Beijing Olympics, these two could be the force that sees China win a medal. Last year in Athens, was our best ever Olympic result. We now hope to go one step further when playing in front of our home fans in 2008,' said a Chinese official. Yi wears size 18 shoes just like Yao. But while Yao is 2.29 metres tall, Yi is 19 centimetres shorter. But he is still growing. By 2008, 'Little Yao Ming' could well be 'Big Yao Ming'. Like Yi said, China played in spurts yesterday. They would have a run of about 10 unanswered points before they took their foot off the pedal. But tiny Macau never shirked from the Goliath-like task they faced, especially the hard-working point-guard Cheong Tong-fai, who scored a high of 14 points while Lei Chin-pang also excelled with 13 points. But Macau were unable to stop their 'big brothers' from winning. 'All credit to Macau for trying gamely. But physically they are no match for China and that was plain to see,' was Zelko's verdict. Unlike other top mainland stars, hurdler Liu Xiang and diver Guo Jingjing, who have turned up in Macau, basketball's Yao is absent, unable to get time off from his duties with the Houston Rockets. Anyway, the Chinese authorities were not looking for him, as their priority is to groom the potential young athletes into stars. These East Asian Games are being used for that purpose by China. And with Yi in the side, the Chinese feel that have enough firepower to win the basketball gold medal without breaking into too much of a sweat. The men's competition comprises seven teams - China, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and Hong Kong. The teams will play a round-robin format with the top four qualifying for the semi-finals. Hong Kong began their campaign on a losing note yesterday, going down 88-59 to Japan. In another game, Taiwan defeated South Korea 75-56.