Yi Jianlian Pulls A John Starks In the Garden
China vs. Puerto Rico highlights – August 15, 2010
I woke up Sunday morning thinking I was going to see two Washington Wizards play in the Madison Square Garden World Basketball Festival exhibitions leading up to the FIBA tournament. Center JaVale McGee was going to go against France (after not playing in Saturday’s scrimmage against China), and Yi Jianlian was going to lead the Yao Ming-less Chinese team against Puerto Rico.
I may as well have went 0 for 2.
First, McGee announced via twitter that he had been cut from Team USA (for the second time) along with Oklahoma City Thunder forward, and former Georgetown Hoya, Jeff Green. Then, Yi channeled his inner John Starks, an shot 3-for-15 from the floor, en route to an 11 point, six rebound performance.
Since McGee’s last performance as a member of Team USA was broken down already by Kyle Weidie, we’ll focus on Yi.
In yesterday’s un-televised scrimmage against the USA, Yi scored 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting and pulled down seven rebounds. And while those numbers aren’t bad for a scrimmage, much more is expected out of Yi. Not only is China’s absolute best, Yao Ming, still rehabilitating an injured foot, but Yi is the only player on the China roster who is currently on an NBA roster. So, like it or not, he has been thrust into the role of go-to-guy, and his second official chance to prove this was against Puerto Rico in the legendary Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, he was not up to the test, and we’ll look at his performance quarter by quarter.
Yi did not have the best opening quarter from an offensive standpoint, but he did show some aggressiveness that can be viewed as promising for Wizards fans. He briefly tried to guard Puerto Rico center (and former Washington Wizard) Peter John Ramos, despite giving up three inches and about 30 lbs. Ramos scored on Yi with ease on a fast break the first time they squared off. On the other side of the floor, Ramos caught him with a forearm to the chest, but Yi displayed toughness and played right through it. Later in the quarter, Yi picked up a foul by trying to jump over Ramos’ back for a rebound. And while it was a blatant foul, the aggressiveness and hustle he displayed was promising, considering Yi is seen as a finesse player.
Yi did score on a dunk with 5:55 left in the quarter, but did not find his shooting stroke, despite being left wide open. On defense, there was one instance when he was a bit slow closing out on Puerto Rico (and Miami Heat) guard Carlos Arroyo. It felt like I was nitpicking when I noted it, but given that the 6’2″ Arroyo hit the shot over a slow-closing, seven-footer in Yi, I thought it was worth writing down.
Yi sat out the first half of this quarter, but when he came back in, he again showed his hustle and grit. First, he did a good job of closing out on Puerto Rican center Daniel Santiago’s wide open jump shot. Then, Yi dove on the floor, wrestled a loose ball away from Santiago, and made an impressive bounce pass from his knees. But he continued to struggle with his shot, and with about 25 seconds left in the period, he tried to lead a fast break and ended up getting his pocket picked from behind. Toward the end of half, the announcers kept mentioning that China had to figure out a way to get Yi on track. But from my vantage point on the couch, Yi was getting great looks and missing them all.
This was easily Yi’s worst quarter, and it looked like he flat-out lost confidence in his game during this stretch. The first time he got the ball, he drove strong, but was stripped. Just a few seconds later, he drove strong again, but lost the ball before he could get a good shot off. Then, around the 7:15 mark of the quarter, he fought for excellent post position, received a post pass, took two dribbles, and then air-balled a hook shot. Dennis Scott of NBATV observed that Yi did not look comfortable, and he was 100% correct. He was missing jump shots, hooks, and looks in the paint. Puerto Rico even started sagging off of him a bit defensively
On defense, Yi had a tendency to lose his man behind him. With 8:02 left in the third, Ricky Sanchez cut to the basket right behind Yi, but he could not convert the shot. With 4:30 left in the third, Yi was so focused on José Juan Barea driving to the basket that he did not look behind him to guard against the alley-oop that was thrown right over his head. David Thorpe, in his conversations with Weidie about Yi, mentioned that he needed to be better with help-side defense, so perhaps this is another case of me nitpicking. But Wizards coach Flip Saunders has demonstrated that he has little patience for defensive lapses, so this could very well mean quick hooks for Yi in the regular season if is not corrected.
To make matters worse, China went on an 11-0 run while Yi was on the bench for five minutes, and it was the best they played all evening. Yi re-entered the game with 90 seconds left an scored on a layup, but then Puerto Rico slowly began to come back.
This quarter was not quite as bad for Jianlian, but only because it was lighter version of what I had already seen in the third. He continued to lose his man on defense, and he had yet another airball while trying to score in the post. Yi did have six attempts from the foul line, and at one point, I thought this would lead to him finding some semblance of an offensive game, but it did not happen. With about five minutes left in the game, Yi got the ball at the elbow, jab stepped and faked, and unleashed a jumper with perfect form, but again failed to convert. That possession was the epitome of his dismal afternoon.
With 90 seconds left, Yi had a monster follow up slam, and it looked like he tried to take out some of the day’s frustrations out on the rim. But even with that thunderous dunk, China was still down 89-74, and they eventually lost 92-76. The announcers observed that if Yi had played even a mediocre game, instead of a horrible one, the other players on his team may have fed off of him and raised their level of game. No such luck.
Overall it was not a good weekend for China’s new Mr. Basketball. He shot a combined 8 for 31, and although these were just exhibitions and scrimmages, Yi neither led his team to victory, nor gave Wizards fans something to look forward to when the NBA season starts. To make matters worse, just an hour so after the game, Owner Ted Leonsis wrote a post on his blog entitled, “He’s Only 22 Years Old,” and basically told Wizards fans to be patient with their new Chinese acquisition. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but again, I suppose Yi has all summer to erase this performance from our memory banks. And if that fails, I guess we can watch this dunk over and over.
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