[Note: This is the second installment of "Player Lock", where we at Truth About It focus on one player for an entire game. The first installment focused on Gilbert Arenas.]
Yi Jianlian had to be feeling the pressure Wednesday night.
It was Asian Heritage Night at the Verizon Center, which meant there was an increased number of Asian fans and media watching his every move. Across the floor, there was a man from his native country in Yao Ming, who already draws his fair share of Asian fans wherever he goes, let alone in Washington D.C. on Asian Heritage Night. To make things even more interesting, there were going to be millions of basketball fans back home in China, watching the country’s biggest basketball stars go head-to-head.
So I chose to dedicate this version of the “Player Lock” series to Yi, because I wanted to see if he crumbled under pressure, rose to the challenge, or was just indifferent to it all. I got my first indication of how Yi was feeling about 35 minutes before game time when I saw him holding court in front of several members of the Chinese media.
He was relaxed, he was smiling, and he did not look like he felt one iota of pressure. As it turns out, that was a good omen for his performance on the court.
Yi entered the game with 4:16 left in the first quarter, and the crowd gave him a rousing round of applause. He immediately found himself defending Houston’s Luis Scola. Scola attempted to body Yi and back him down, but he stood his ground and forced Scola to give up the ball. This may not sound like anything significant, but JaVale McGee, who Yi replaced when he entered the game, frequently leaves his feet and finds himself in bad positions defensively. This was a refreshing change.
About a minute later, Yi took a pass from Gilbert Arenas, and drained a 19-foot jump shot. He ended the quarter by rotating away from Jordan Hill (who replaced the injured Yao Ming), and blocking a shot by Kyle Lowry. It was yet another picture perfect defensive play, and clear to me at that point that Yi was motivated to play at both ends of the floor.
In the second quarter, Yi had every aspect of his versatile game on display. He had a pretty assist to Andray Blatche, he blocked the shot of Chase Buddinger, he drove strong to the basket (even when he missed), and he grabbed rebounds. He also had a goal-tending violation called against him, but that was highly questionable so he gets a pass there.
My favorite play of the period came with about 5:48 left in the second, when Yi took a pass from John Wall and nailed a 19-foot jumper. Instead of just running down the court after he hit the big shot, Yi held his follow-thru hand up a bit longer than usual. For a man who rarely shows emotion on the court, it was quite a demonstrative gesture. He was subbed out of the game (not because of the gesture though) at the 4:38 mark to yet another standing ovation.
Yi only played about five minutes in the third quarter, but he continued to do little, but necessary things on the defensive end. He played physical defense on Scola, he blocked Kevin Martin’s shot, and he grabbed a couple rebounds as well. His aggressive defense seemed to boost his confidence on the offensive end as well. He went 3-for-5 in the third, which was highlighted by a strong dunk on an assist from Wall.
Yi’s play on both ends of the floor was so stellar, Flip Saunders decided to play him the entire fourth quarter, leaving McGee relegated to the bench. He didn’t score from the field in the fourth, and his defense slipped a bit as Scola became more assertive on offense. Yi did grab three rebounds and blocked a shot for the fourth consecutive quarter. As he ran out of gas a bit, I kept expecting to see McGee by the scorer’s table, but it never happened.
Yi scored the last basket of the night for the Wizards (a free throw), and when the game ended, he had achieved season highs in points, rebounds and blocks, finishing with 13 points, seven and four. After the game, Saunders and Andray Blatche both had nothing but high praise for Yi.
“I thought that Yi was huge tonight. He made big shots. You know he made big blocks. Unfortunately Yao couldn’t play most of the game, but Yi was the best player from China tonight.” -Saunders
“Yi is a great player… He gave us some key shots that we needed and got some great rebounds so he played a solid game for us tonight.” - Blatche
Toward the end of his press conference, I asked John Wall about Yi’s play:
Yi not only performed well on what could have been a difficult, pressure-filled night, but he seems to have earned the trust of his head coach going forward. Given the average play from the Wizards front line so far this season, that can only be a plus.