(Photo courtesy of ESPN)
When Yi Jianlian was just a 19 year old prospect preparing to go through the poke and prodding exercises for NBA teams which took place prior to the 2007 NBA Draft the scouting reports pointed out weaknesses in his game that focused on skills that were common for a big man at the time such as lack of a back to the basket game, upper body strength and questions about what position he could play effectively.
The questions asked by NBA teams regarding Yi were is he strong enough and have the right skill set to play the power forward or center position and is he fast enough to play small forward in order to defend the position.
The concerns with his weaknesses were ultimately not outweighed by his strengths as Yi went on to be drafted 6th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks; however, Yi went on to have a lackluster and very short NBA career, playing for 4 teams in 5 years before returning home to China to play in their professional basketball league in 2012.
Yi has spent the last four years flourishing in China’s CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) and international play for the Chinese National Team.
Since his time in the NBA Yi has developed into a potent and diverse scorer. Yi gets his points today by overpowering opponents on the inside, knocking down jumpers that extend as far out as the 3 point line – although the mass majority of his outside shots are of the mid-range variety, taking players off the dribble, finishing around the basket or getting to the free throw line. These are all abilities that were seen by scouts when being evaluated at 19 years old prior the NBA draft but never materialized until the start of his professional basketball career in China.
Of course the competition in the Chinese CBA is not at the level of the NBA so we do have to take the proper prospective when looking at Yi’s numbers, but it shouldn’t be completely dismissed either. The CBA is China’s top professional basketball league and it is filled with many former and current NBA players each season. to name a few, Emmanuel Mudiay, Micheal Beasley, Metta World Peace were all on NBA rosters this past season and played in China’s CBA.
Other former NBA players of note who are dominating the CBA include Jordan Crawford who last season led the league in scoring (43.1 ppg) and Hamed Haddadi who led in rebounding (15.8).
A better gauge of Yi’s much improved play is his performance in the 2016 Olympics where he matched up against much tougher competition. Yi averaged 20.4 points (ranked 3rd overall), 6.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.2 blocks and shot 46.7 percent from the 3 point line. The most impressive part of his stat line in Rio is his 6.2 free throw attempts per game which he knocked down at 74.2 percent rate.
The strength of an opponent doesn’t get much stronger than that of the U.S. Olympic squad and Yi performed well in both of his showings against them this year.
In 30 minutes of the first game of the group phase of the Rio Olympics, matching up against the U.S. Yi scored 25 points on 8 for 19 from the field and 7 for 8 from the free throw line. Yi added 6 rebounds and shot 2 for 4 from the 3 point line.
In a exhibition game against the U.S. at Staples Center on July 24th Yi was not as equally efficient in scoring his 18 points on 4 for 14 from the field but still very effective overall. Yi again showed his ability to get to the line by earning 8 trips to the free throw line to which he converted all of them. Yi added 7 rebounds and shot 2 for 6 from deep.
Shifting from Yi’s performance in non-NBA game and focusing more on what Yi does on the court, he’s a legitimate 7 footer who is athletic for a player that size, he can put the ball on the floor and has a significantly improved outside shot since his days in the NBA. These abilities which were not heavily sought after in a big back in 2007 are almost necessary for the type of play in the NBA today that stresses heavy ball movement, player movement and increased emphasis on spacing by having as many players on the floor that can stretch the floor.
Today Yi’s multifaceted skill set, 7 feet tall frame with nearly 7’4 wingspan, shooting touch and mobility is now marked high in the strength column of his evaluation. It is for this reason that reports are out there that the Los Angeles Lakers feel it was worth taking a flyer on Yi for a low risk one year veteran’s minimum contract.
While it would be hard to imagine Yi having anywhere near the success he’s had internationally, coming in on a minimum deal and on a roster that is pretty much set and have no realistic expectations of making the playoffs he gets to simply play without the pressures of matching that success or of a high lottery pick as in his time in Milwaukee.
What is expected is seeing a vast improvement from his last stint in the NBA and potentially becoming a viable rotation player on a good team. The league has changed to the point that it is now more suited for what Yi can do and the Lakers might be the beneficiaries of impeccable timing.