Is Yi Jianlian Misunderstood?

Photo by Wootang01 on Flickr

So this is David Thorpe on Yi Jianlian:

He’s perhaps the most misunderstood player I’ve ever encountered, someone who was not remotely “Americanized”, yet absolutely looked the part. Last year was probably the first season that he actually understood more than 25 percent of what his coaches were saying. This is why he had such a huge summer in the World Championships (China’s national team has an American coach), then played very solid defense in Washington for the first time in his NBA career. He’s still a freak athlete with great shooting range, and now that he can be a plus defender, he’s a sure bet to find solid rotation minutes for a playoff team that needs shooters and defenders.

Via Risers And Fallers In Player Rankings, 9/22/11

Have to admit, I did a double-take. I know Coach Thorpe is higher than most on Yi, but wow. Sure bet? Misunderstood? I know he’s different in the international game, but my understanding of Yi the NBA player is as follows: he’s a highly-skilled 7-footer but doesn’t play like a big man — he struggles to finish around the rim and doesn’t try to as often as you’d hope. After being told he was a shooter his entire life before arriving in the NBA, it’s understandable that he was initially about a thousand more times comfortable on the perimeter than he was on the inside. His problem as a rookie was that he wasn’t a consistent enough outside shooter to warrant staying perimeter-bound. And after four seasons, he still hasn’t improved his offensive production and hasn’t shown aggression like this against NBA competition.

When the lockout ends, Yi will be an unrestricted free agent. Based on his NBA numbers, he can likely be had for a fairly low price. A couple of weeks ago, I’d have said, “STAY AWAY!” but maybe just looking at his past production is giving us the wrong idea about his future. Perhaps we’ve all underestimated the culture shock, language barrier, and the pressure he’s felt from back home:

In past conversations with ESPN’s David Thorpe about Yi, who has also worked with Yi at his Pro Training Center in Florida, he likened the player to being the LeBron James of China… if the U.S. were four times in size. And the comparison works past both simply being supreme physical specimens for their countries. Like LeBron, and highlighted by Weijia’s piece [link added], both receive heavy doses of criticism, just or not, for failing to live up to great expectations.

Via China Still Searching For Yi, Basketball Success, 9/30/11

I’m thinking it was never the best idea to call Yi “the next Yao Ming.” Perhaps the large Chinese-American population in Washington isn’t great for him, either. He always had talent; perhaps explaining his struggles in the NBA is more complicated than “not consistent enough to play outside, not strong enough to play inside.” Maybe he’ll be more confident with a fresh start on a team that really wants to maximize his abilities. Maybe he’d look way better on defense if he had good defenders protecting him. Hell, maybe he was ready to break out last season if it wasn’t for the injury trouble. My instinct is to never bet on a huge improvement in a player’s fifth season, but Yi is a unique case. This is the kind of low-risk, high-reward signing that good teams should consider when they’re finally allowed to start talking to free agents.

Seth Carstens