“Bob Donewald, the coach of China, is buoyant … Energy, Enthusiasm, and Effervescence could well be his middle names. He brings this chump Chinese team to the brink of advancing to that last 16, but only if he can overcome Dallas Mavericks’ Juan Barrea and his Puerto Rican compatriots.” — Nick Bent/Mick Dent/FIBA Commentator?
Coach Donewald wasn’t able to beat Puerto Rico this past Tuesday. Juan Barrea is by no means a stateside superstar, but his play-making skills and command of the offense in FIBA play proved to be too much for the “chump Chinese.”
No, guard play killed the Chinese on this night. As Kyle Weidie plainly pointed out on Twitter:
China’s guards are absolutely horrid. If they had someone halfway decent…. (and no, Sun Yue is not halfway decent).
The game should have been simple: give the ball to Yi. The commentator described him as, “One of the men in the tournament” and his skills were on display early and often, despite an inconsistent supply of basketball. China raced to a hot start, making seven of their first eight shots. Yi’s first points came on a great post up and baseline move, finishing with a quick hook shot. Yi then hit a sweet three on a rare pick and pop situation. His partner in crime, Wang Zhizhi, racked up ten points before driving and dumping to a cutting Yi on the baseline for the easy flush.
China 17 – Puerto Rico 7
Time Out P.R.
[The 7'0" Yi works for post position against the 6'6" Angel Vassallo (Va. Tech alum), and reverse pivots as the ball swings from the right wing to the top of the key and then into the post. It's hard to imagine NBA teams giving the same amount of time on such a size mismatch.]
And unfortunately for the team representing the Middle Kingdom, that time out signaled the beginning of the end.
Puerto Rico began to push the ball, setting a fast tempo. Barrea freed up teammates down low with jump passes and a A.D. Vasallo was virtually unstoppable, being hailed as Puerto Rico’s “cornerstone” en route to 22 points.
But what about Yi?
This summer, Yi worked diligently to improve his left-handed shots. Practice doesn’t always translate to games, so it was great to see that he was not only committed to using his left, but did so effectively.
He was willing to bump in the post, capitalizing on mismatches, and on many occasions giving defenders the runaround, bodying out the opposition to get right under the basket for easy points. Another nice thing to see was that in P&R situations, he didn’t jump out for long 2- or 3-point shots. Yi was determined to get into good position to beat his man down low.
[Side note: during one time out, the cheerleaders danced to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Bizarre.]
What most impressed me about Yi Jianlian versus Puerto Rico was his activity on the defensive end. His impact isn’t clearly seen in the box score, but he deflected a couple of passes, blocked a shot (ruled a goaltend), and played great team defense. He didn’t just zone in on his mark, but kept his head on a swivel and several times was seen pointing out defensive assignments. He was quick to support teammates and kept himself mentally involved off-the-ball.
One lingering issue is Yi’s positioning on rebounds. In the contest against the Ivory Coast:
“… Yi [was] 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.”
Part of the reason for this is that he is so eager to make an impact and grab a board that he’ll swim past grounded players to find open space on the court. The problem is that the open space he too often heads toward is under the basket or deep along the baseline. Yi is not the only one at fault, but the Chinese team got out-rebounded 26 to 44. Yi had seven of those (one offensive). Decent effort … if not lacking.
As the game went on, Yi was visibly tired. He hustled less and spent more and more time away from the basket. He resorted to New Jersey Dirk-mode, settling for a lot of pull-up jumpers and fadeaways, missing multiple shots at a time. Yi shot 9-19 from the field. When he can be bothered to operate in the post instead of relying on his erratic outside shot, he has a much greater impact.
Defensively, players started to use Yi’s leverage against him, pulling out the chair to lock up fantastic inside position.
Has Yi really improved? Or are his numbers a reflection of weaker international competition? It’s a bit of both. However, what will translate from the FIBA to the NBA is Yi’s approach to the game. He is confident — both physically and mentally — and he is eager to learn. That’s a big step to revitalizing his professional career. With further strength training and conditioning, and the addition of another low-post move, and a bit of time, he could be a super sixth-man. Our expectations for Yi have been tempered, but you can’t ever disagree with improvement.