After Yi Jianlian’s dreadful performance in Madison Square Garden two weeks ago, there were legitimate reasons to be concerned about his ability to lead Team China. He missed open shots, he was unable to get comfortable in the post, and his lack of aggressiveness on both ends of the floor seemed to affect the way his teammates played. Luckily for Yi and China, the games were only exhibitions or “international friendlies”.
Saturday morning was China’s opening game in the FIBA tournament against Greece, and Yi demonstrated that he possessed a higher level of play for the games that counted. His first step was explosive and confident, he seemingly grabbed every rebound there was to be had (14 total, 10 defensive), and he played with an attitude that had been missing in his previous performances. In fact, after more than a few baskets, he defiantly glared at Greece’s coach (and former China coach) Jonas Kazlauskas.
Unfortunately, Yi’s 26 points and 14 rebounds were not enough to overcome China’s sloth-footed zone defense, and his team fell to a more experienced Greece, 89-81.
Sunday, Yi and his Chinese teammates took on a feisty Ivory Coast team in the second round, and while he didn’t look as aggressive and explosive as he had the day before, he still put up effective numbers (26 points, nine rebounds, two steals and one block). That performance was enough to lead China to an 83-73 victory, and it also gave me the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into this new version of Yi’s game.
- During China’s exhibition games, Yi did not have any sort of rhythm in the paint. He often received the ball out of position, and he took a number of off-balance, fade away shots. Considering his teammate, Wang Zhi-Zhi, already has the market cornered on that type of move, it’s counterproductive for Yi to do the same. But against the Ivory Coast, he established a clear rhythm in the post. He’d take two or three powerful dribbles, and then pivot towards the basket for mini-hook shots. The Ivory Coast big men did not really have a player who could put up sufficient opposition to Yi, so that also played a role in his supreme confidence.
- The few times Yi shot and missed in the post, he would immediately crash the boards and attempt to follow up his attempt. There were at least three occasions where he’d miss, then sprint toward the ball to follow up his shot with a dunk. Since Yao is not with the team, and Wang is primarily a finesse player, Yi’s aggressiveness on the offensive boards will be important as the competition progresses.
- Since Team China relies on Yi for his strong post play, he doesn’t have as many opportunities to show off his perimeter game as he probably will have with the Wizards (or at least to the extent that he’ll need to be a threat from deep for Washington). However, with 1:44 left in the third quarter, Yi did show a glimpse of what he could do. He got in a triple-threat stance at the three-point line at the top of the key, took one power dribble past the Ivory Coast defender, took another one big step toward the basket, and slammed the ball home for a two-handed dunk — a salute was all that was missing..
- For reasons I still don’t understand, the Ivory Coast refused to double team Yi in the post for most of the game. Yi is not known as a particularly good passer, and double-teaming him would have exploited that weakness, also forcing less experienced teammates to hit big shots. Toward the end of the third quarter, the Ivory Coast finally got smart and double-teamed Yi, and he responded with the correct basketball play. Yi found teammate Liu Wei cutting to the basket, and hit him with the perfect pass for the easy score. It is worth noting that in his three years in the NBA, and even dating back to his five years in the Chinese Basketball Association, Yi has never averaged more than 1.4 assists per game.
- The stat sheet will show that Yi pulled down nine rebounds, but it does not show he should have had double that amount. The Ivory Coast front court made a point to be physical with Yi in the first half, and the result was Yi being pushed under the basket, or away from the ball altogether. The announcer for the game even noticed that Yi was constantly out of position and off-balance when the ball came off the rim. As aggressive as Yi seems to be in the post with the ball, he doesn’t seem to retain that same attitude away from of it.
- China spent most of the game in their god-awful zone, and Yi was basically playing the free safety position, which meant he really wasn’t tested too much defensively (although the Ivory Coast’s lack of skilled big men helped him as well). The few times an Ivory Coast player did make it in the lane, Yi did a good job of contesting the shot without fouling. Still, it will be interesting to see how Yi does against a team with a more formidable front court.
During the 2008 Olympics, this Chinese team went through Yao with varying degrees of success. They knew they could dump the ball inside to him, and Yao would score, get fouled or make the correct pass. While Yi has more than done his job in the scoring department, I’ve never seen a stretch where he takes over a game and does the cliched, but necessary task of putting the team on his back. In the third quarter against the Ivory Coast, he did just that. Finally.
During a four minute stretch in the third, Yi scored seven straight points, earned four foul shots, had a brilliant assist and a monster dunk. He didn’t look at all like a player who was still adjusting to being “The Man”, but he looked like a veteran who knew his team depended on him. China stretched their lead from 11 to 16 points during that time, and Yi was the main reason. With John Wall, Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche on the Washington Wizards roster, it is unlikely that Yi will get that kind of leeway once the NBA season starts — but if he retains the confidence he seems to be building, it will only help his game.
Overall, it’s awfully hard to make sweeping generalizations about Yi after just two games. But if you’re looking for some indication of how Yi will perform this fall, there are some encouraging trends. Next up for Yi: a Tuesday morning matchup with Puerto Rico, the team that held him to a 3-of-15 shooting performance just two weeks ago.