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Is There a Second Chance at NBA Stardom for Yi Jianlian?

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A week has passed since the Guangdong Southern Tigers captured their eighth Chinese Basketball Association title with a 4-0 series win over the upstart Shandong Gold Lions to place themselves alongside the Bayi Rockets with the most titles in the CBA’s short history.

After a stunning loss to the Beijing Ducks in the 2011/12 CBA Finals, the Tigers made sure that their next trip would assure them of victory. And one of the reasons behind this season’s success was because of Yi Jianlian.

Following another unsuccessful stint in the National Basketball Association with the Dallas Mavericks, the former sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft made a return to the CBA and picked up where left off the last time he was in the league. After averaging 24.6 points and 10.5 rebounds over the season, it can be said that the seven-footer provided a great impact to his team’s pursuit in regaining the CBA crown.

With the season now over and respective provincial and regional teams preparing for the upcoming National Games in Liaoning province as well as the country’s various national teams gearing up for their summer schedules, one question that will consume many basketball enthusiasts’ minds in the coming months is whether Yi’s performance this season could secure him a contract with an NBA team next season.

One player that was in the same situation as the former Milwaukee Bucks’ rookie was Russian baller Andrei Kirilenko. After ten years with the Utah Jazz where his role had slowly diminished due to injuries and the emergences of Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur, the 2004 NBA All-Star returned to Russia in 2011-12 where he played for CSKA Moscow during the NBA lockout.

Kirilenko would guide the capital club to titles in the VTB United League the Russian Professional Basketball League while also making it to the finals of the Euroleague. He also earned personal accolades by winning MVP honors in the VTB league and the EuroLeague respectively.

His stellar season out of the NBA earned him a return to the league when he signed a two-year deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Could Yi’s performance over the just concluded CBA season and during the summer games with Chinese national team help him secure a contract with an NBA team?

It is anyone’s guess what could happen, but one person that does have some insight on the player is his former coach with the Chinese national team, Del Harris.

Harris, who currently works as general manager of the Texas Legends in the NBA Developmental League, knows quite a bit about this season’s CBA MVP. As head coach of the Chinese National Team, Harris coached him during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and later with the New Jersey Nets as an assistant. Most recently, Harris got up close with Yi for a few games in the D-League last season when Yi played a brief stint with the Legends before eventually playing with the Dallas Mavericks.

Harris, talking to NiuBBall via email, expressed no doubt as to whether he is good enough to play again in the NBA.

“Yi played very well in the games when I was there in New Jersey with him and he had his best games of the year when I was there,” said Harris. “He also had 50 total points in the two games when he was here at the Legends last year with me, so I am not a very good person to ask if he can make it because I know he can.”

While Yi put up solid numbers this season, Harris believes his stats in the CBA do not translate well with NBA GMs. Therefore, he suggested that Yi try his luck in the summer league where they can get a better look at him and see how he has progressed since his last stint. But if Yi opts not to go that route, Harris sees another option to get back into the league.

“Any smart GM who needs a four who can shoot would be willing to bring him to veteran camp,” he said, adding that if Yi tried out for possibly between six to eight teams in the league, he would most likely make it and restart his career.

One of the biggest problems the Guangdong native has had to face throughout his career the comparisons to Yao Ming. This is something that Harris believes was unfairly put on Yi as he and Yao are two entirely different players.

“Yao is a superstar at 7’5” with all the skills of a 6’10” player, great hands, great touch, incredible strength and a heart as big as his body,” he explained. “Yi has the shooting touch, outstanding running and athletic ability and shot blocking. He does not have the strength of Yao, but has more agility, quickness and speed. Yao developed a wonderful feel for the game and his competitive nature was uniquely special. He was tough, as we say here.”

“The problem with Yi is that he did not exhibit as much strength, toughness or competitiveness as Yao.  He had a tendency to give up at times when things were not going well instead of accepting the challenge and making them work for him.  He did not assert himself as a rebounder on a consistent basis and that was a negative.  He spent too much time on the perimeter for most of the teams he played for and relied too much on his shooting touch,” Harris added.

Another problem that Yi seems to have battled against during his time in the NBA is playing in systems that did not suit his game. In the CBA he has been able to show a mix of his inside and mid-range game with some glimpses of his long-range ability when needed, while in the NBA he was primarily seen shooting from the perimeter and taking more three-pointers than normal.

Coach Harris believes that if Yi does decide to return to the NBA, he needs to be in a system that complements his skill set.

“Yi needs to play for a coach who will use his great running skills in an up-tempo game and who will force him to mix up his game — very few threes, although using some; more one or two-bounce jumpers or catch-and-shoot jumpers in the high post area; a few post ups; some good cutting/slashing through the paint for catches for quick jumpers, hook shots or a bounce and a dunk. He has those skills.”

Without a doubt, Yi’s career has come at a crossroad. He has found success in the CBA being a multiple-time champion with Guangdong and has won many personal accolades. However, in order for him to be considered one of the great players in Chinese basketball he has got to get out of his comfort zone and play in an environment that will test his skills and resolve.

This is a sentiment that Harris also expresses. “Yi needs to play in a positive environment where his unique skills of speed, quickness, athleticism and shooting touch can be utilized and rewarded.  It is not important that he be a starter on a team.  He could be a fine asset to a good NBA team as a 7th or 8th man and make a great contribution and have a good run here.”

“He may or may not see himself in that light and may not want to be less than a starter.  That approach would not be of help.  In time he could possibly become a starter again, but it would take some proving for him to do that.  As I said, if I were a GM I would take a shot at him, but would have to make it fit in the salary cap and would be ready to increase it, if he proved me to be correct.”

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4 Responses to “Is There a Second Chance at NBA Stardom for Yi Jianlian?”

  1. Zane Says:

    I think the comparision between Yi and Kiri is way off the mark. AK47 decided to leave the NBA due to the lock-out. At the time, he was still a very well sought after commodity. That is also why he was able to command 10mio dollars a year from the Twolves. Yi returned to the CBA not because of his own choosing.

    Reply

  2. Kenya Says:

    Zane, you are right that Kirilenko and Yi had different reasons for being out of league. I was just mentioning that with AK47 spending that year out of the NBA during the lockout-shortened season he was able to play on a regular basis and played well, which led him to getting the contract he has now with the T-Wolves. If you also remember a few seasons back he actually wanted out of Utah (he wanted to return to CSKA) because his role had diminished and he had several spats with Jerry Sloan.

    While Yi pretty much had no options after the lockout season, he still is pretty much in the same situation as Kirilenko as he can choose to try his luck back in the NBA, remain in the CBA or head to the Euroleague. However, his options might be very limited should he choose to go the Euroleague route.

    Reply

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