[Editor's note: While I was out in Las Vegas for the summer league, I caught up with David Thorpe to discuss Yi Jianlian, who Thorpe trained earlier this summer in Florida. Below is what I gathered from my initial discussion with him. Unfortunately, the second part of the discussion was nowhere to be found on my recorder, evidently replaced by around 42 minutes of summer league gym sounds instead. Oh well, I'll try to catch up with Coach Thorpe for a follow-up at some point, but I can't thank him enough for what he has already provided. -Kyle]
His friends back in China call him “Lian,” says David Thorpe, NBA analyst for ESPN’s Scouts Inc. and executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida. Thorpe has worked with countless NBA stars, college prospects and overseas basketball talents. And for five weeks earlier this summer, he worked with new Washington Wizard Yi Jianlian.
Back in February, when things were beginning to meltdown for Jianlian in New Jersey — his minutes per game stayed high at 30.8 over 13 games, but his averages dropped to 9.2 points on 34.1% shooting and 7.5 rebounds; this was down from 33.2 minutes, 15.4 points on 42.9% shooting and 6.7 rebounds per over 18 total games in December and January — the player’s group of advisers, including agency Lagardère and agent Dan Fegan, started talking with Thorpe.
“I think he was looking for more help in understanding the game,” Thorpe told me when I spoke with him during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “He’s almost been like a stray dog … no one’s really hugged him to say ‘you’re mine’,” he said, indicating that the instability of coaching and team changes has caused a lot of strife in Jianlian’s basketball career. He was drafted, relatively unwillingly on Yi’s part, by the Milwaukee Bucks with the sixth overall pick in 2007 and traded to the New Jersey Nets, along with Bobby Simmons, in exchange for Richard Jefferson after one season. After two uninspiring seasons in the New Jersey, Jianlian was traded to the Wizards in late June for essentially nothing (apologies to Quinton Ross).
Thorpe said he felt that Lian simply has not been embraced as a basketball player during his time in America. So, spawning from those February talks, Jianlian signed up to put in work at the Pro Training Center. “Nothing was positive for him as it related to basketball, and he wanted to change that. That’s why he committed to me in June to come for five weeks. It’s hot in Florida in June and he could’ve done anything else,” said Thorpe.
I asked Thorpe, him having limited previous interaction with Yi, about his impressions of Yi’s game before they started working out together. “I thought that he really had no idea how to play,” Thorpe said. “I thought that he was a guy who thought he could really shoot the ball, and that became kind of the center of his universe. And he really had no understanding of a way to impact the game other than 19-foot jumpers.”
So, after those initial talks, Thorpe began to more closely observe and consult upon Jianlian’s game, and said that during the 2009-10 season, he noticed that Yi had the potential to be a really good athlete. “He used to run the floor, we talked to him about the idea of racing the floor and what a benefit that would be for him,” said Thorpe.
“We talked a lot about rebounding out of the area and valuing rebounds, and being more aware of help-side responsibilities defensively.”
“On the jumpers, we noticed that he was constantly stepping out to shoot them, and he was never getting the weight transferred from the heels of his feet back to the balls of his feet … so that’s why he was missing short a lot.”
“The bigger picture was to be in the paint more, be more of a slasher, a poster, make plays inside and show athleticism,” Thorpe concluded.
April, the coach says, was arguably one of the best month’s of Yi’s career. At least in comparison to what he previously did during the 2009-10 season, Thorpe would be right. In 45 games at 31.3 minutes per leading up to the final month of the season, Yi averaged 11.8 points, on 39.5% FGs, 6.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 0.9 blocks per game.
In seven April games, where Yi averaged 35.1 minutes per, he upped his numbers to 13 points, on 45.3% FGs, 9.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.9 blocks per game.
But then it was time to get down to some real work with Thorpe in the gym.
“In our gym he blew us away,” the coach said. “We were told by his agent, Fegan, that we would be shocked by how athletic he was and we were. All my players in the gym were shocked. All the coaches were shocked. And I think he shocked himself.”
“He was dunking everything, and beating guards down the floor, and stripping guards, and making plays full-court in transition with the ball in his hands. His strength coach, who is with him full-time, said he’s never seen him do that kind of stuff before.”
Thorpe said he wanted to make Yi comfortable, so he told his other players, including Kevin Martin of the Houston Rockets and Corey Brewer of the Minnesota Timberwolves, to treat Yi like family. And it didn’t take long for Yi to become close with several of his fellow trainees.
“All of a sudden, his personality came out, and he became a fun guy to be around. He brought spirit to practice. He was just a different guy,” said Thorpe, also indicating that he hopes Yi doesn’t loose his overt passion while training with the Chinese national team in preparation for the 2010 FIBA World Championships in Turkey.
Aside from a couple days spent in New York for a photo shoot for Team China, where he also found time to work out, Thorpe said Jianlian didn’t miss a day during his five weeks of training in Florida. “He absolutely killed it. Never missed a workout, never missed a drill. He just gave himself to us in a way that a lot of players in his position wouldn’t necessarily do.”
OK, training is great and all, but where does Yi go from here, and how will he fit in with this rebuilding Wizards team?
“I think there are threes he can guard, but I don’t think it’s a smart thing to play him at the three,” said Thorpe when I asked him about Jianlian’s positional versatility between the three, four and five spots. “I think he’s a face up four that can bang it down low a little bit. He’s very skilled with either hand.” Thorpe said that around a third, half on some days, of the shots Yi practiced in Florida were left-handed shots.
“I think he should play a game like Rashard Lewis,” said Thorpe, “Shoot the three, play a shot fake and attack game and spread the floor. He should be really, really effective in transition with John Wall because Yi is unbelievably fast.”
We’ll just have to take the coach’s word regarding Yi’s speed. Draft Express doesn’t have his 3/4 court sprint time in its database, so we have no current way to directly relate Yi to the speed of Trevor Booker, who’s evidently faster than Wall.
“With John Wall, I would think they’ll really go up-tempo and spread the floor,” speculated Thorpe on the game plan of Flip Saunders. “That’s exactly what Lian needs because he’s so fast, he’s so agile and he’s so skilled. You can throw it to him running full speed at the top of the key and he can put the ball down once and make a move and score.”
Thorpe said that Tommy Sheppard, current Wizards vice-president of basketball administration, visited the Pro Training Center for one Jianlian workout, and believes that Sheppard also came away “shocked” by what Yi could do athletically.
But not all is roses. It’s doesn’t take a basketball insider to see that the defensive combo of JaVale McGee at the five spot and Yi Jianlian at the four spot, where he could potentially begin the season as the starter while Andray Blatche recovers from a broken foot, is far from ideal. Just check Jianlian’s stats, courtesy of John Townsend.
“I don’t think it’s an ideal combo in the short term because Lian has not proved to be a great rebounder yet, and I think the team needs help on the boards,” said Thorpe regarding a McGee/Jianlian front line. “I think he can rebound, but he hasn’t done it long-term. He’s only done it for stretches.”
Both Milwaukee Bucks and New Jersey Nets fans will likely roll their eyes at mention of Yi Jianlian. Actually, Nets fans rejoiced when they traded Yi away for cap room in anticipation of LeBron … probably not so much now that their free-agent crop is Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro and Sean May.
Wizards fans? They mostly reacted to Ernie Grunfeld’s acquisition of Yi with a “Meh, who cares?” … but were tamed because it was essentially free (the Nets actually sent the Wizards about $3 million cash) with no long-term commitment. Basically, no one expects Yi to do a damn thing next season.
Thorpe certainly has his own reasons to tout the merits of Jianlian after tutelage under his watch. However, all parties know that off-season action doesn’t mean much. It’s all about what Yi will do on a team chock full of opportunity. And Thorpe is earnest in his belief that Lian loves the game of basketball and now has increased motivation, fueled by the pride to prove that he’s not a basketball bust.
“He’s unselfish and he wants his team to do well,” expressed Thorpe, also highlighting that he had both Solomon Alabi, measured in a tie with Jerome Jordan as the tallest players drafted in 2010 (6’11.5″ without shoes according to Draft Express), and Yi training with him in Florida and that Jianlian was taller.
Yi can, unquestionably, do a lot of things you don’t see out of seven footers … cue the phrase, “You can’t teach that.” The Wizards hope it translates into a Yi Jianlian many of those stateside haven’t seen before. And if Thorpe’s words and work are any indication, Wiz fans should be somewhat encouraged, if not very intrigued. In any case, you’ve been warned … so in the future, don’t say you’re surprised should Yi impress beyond a reasonable doubt.
[Stats via Basketball-Reference.com]