I can readily admit that I was encouraged by the way the Washington Wizards played over the last 10 games of the season. They went 6-4 during that span, a new big three of Jordan Crawford, John Wall and Andray Blatche emerged, and the team–led by D-Leaguer Othyus Jeffers–seemed to play with a sense of urgency that had been lacking earlier in the season. I wasn’t ready to declare the Wizards a playoff-bound team next season like John Wall so boldly did, but I definitely saw the improvement.
Then the 2011 playoffs started and I saw brilliant performances by underdogs like the Memphis Grizzlies, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Indiana Pacers. I also saw teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Boston Celtics advance by stepping up their play. Then I thought back to the 10-game flash of brilliance the Wizards showed and I realized that as good as they looked at certain points, they clearly have a long way to go before they can compete under the hot lights of playoff basketball. The same type of comparison can be made to Yi Jianlian and his 2010-2011 season with Washington.
Last summer at the FIBA Championships held in Turkey, Yi displayed the type of aggression that had been lacking during his three-year NBA career with the Milwaukee Bucks and the New Jersey Nets. He averaged 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, unveiled a quality drop-step move, and emerged as the leader of the Yao Ming-less Chinese National team. After that FIBA performance, Michael Lee of the Washington Post wrote:
“It’s hard to tell how Yi’s performance will translate to the upcoming season, since he will not be featured with the Wizards as he was with China, which was not good enough to survive a sub-par performance from Yi. But if Yi arrives at training camp healthy, as expected, he should also come with much more confidence in his abilities. There are still flaws that he will have to overcome, and his defense still leaves much to be desired, but the Wizards shouldn’t have any regrets about basically renting Yi’s services for free for a year.”
Lee’s words proved to be prophetic once the season started, because Yi retained none of the brilliance he played with during the FIBA Championships. Instead of being the focus on offense like he was in China, Yi was often the second or third man off the bench, and his appearances lacked consistency and aggression. To make matters worse, Yi had recurring knee injuries that further hindered his ability to play effective, even in limited minutes. A typical Yi appearance would go as follows:
1) Play solid physical defense
2) Get the ball in the post, dribble a bit too much, force a tough shot
3) Abandon the post play, take an elbow jumper. If it hits, force another one the next time down the floor, if it misses, go back to post briefly, then go back to that jumper
In fact, according to 82games.com, most of Yi’s shots were from the perimeter, and not in the paint where his services as a 7-footer were sorely needed:
Part of Yi’s decision to shoot from the elbow so often probably to do with his ability to successfully run with the high pick-and-roll/fade/pop, specifically with John Wall. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Yi was much more effective in scoring off that pick and roll than he was when he spotted up or was in the post. This doesn’t totally let Yi off the hook for falling in love with that jumper, but it definitely explains a lot:
P&R Roll Man
% of his offensive plays that ended in FGA, TO or FTs (%Time) = 22.7%
Points Per Possession = 0.82
NBA Rank = 109
% Score = 40.2%
%Time = 21.3%
PPP = 0.68
NBA Rank = 337
%Score = 35.2%
%Time = 11.7%
PPP = 0.70
NBA Rank = 155
%Score = 36%
Yi did manage to show flashes of what he had previously done for China. There was a four-game stretch in February when the Wizards played Denver, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Dallas (all playoff teams and all losses for the Wizards) where Yi averaged the following numbers per 36 minutes:
15.9 — Points
11.2 — Rebounds (3.4 offensive)
2.2 — Steals
1.3 - Blocks
.464 — Field Goal Percentage
Then on March 10th, Rashard Lewis went to Houston to get a second opinion on his injured knee, which meant Yi was to be inserted in the starting lineup. Before the first of that nine-game stretch, Coach Flip Saunders had this to say about Yi’s year up to that point:
“He’s had a rough year because he played so well in training camp. Then he got hurt, and he just hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm. By the time he was able to come back after about his third injury, we had Rashard and so he was on the outside looking in, and Book has played well. The minutes he had were kind of taken away because of somebody else taking advantage.”
Yi chimed in and basically agreed:
“For myself, it’s tough. I think it was pretty good in the beginning of the season. After I got hurt and then got hurt again, I’ve been trying to get better and got out of the rotation. There hasn’t been too much playing time so it’s tough for me. But I’m telling myself every day to work hard, so that I can play for my future.”
During that nine-game stretch as a starter, Yi averaged a respectable 9.1 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 minutes of play. Although Yi had a 18-point game in a loss to the Blake Griffin and the Clippers, and he grabbed 10 rebounds in a loss to Golden State, the highlight in his brief stint as a starter came against the New Jersey Nets–his former team. Yi had nine points, nine rebounds and a season-high three steals, but his shining moment came towards the end of the game when he showed defensive tenacity and some rare emotion:
Yi’s stint in the starting lineup ended with the return of Andray Blatche, although he did average a double-double as a reserve in the Wizards’ last three meaningless games. Going into the uncertain summer of 2011, Yi is a restricted free agent, and the Wizards have an interesting dilemma. Do they keep Yi and chalk his uneven season up to injuries and the lack of consistent playing time? Or do they decided that last summer was a mirage, and Yi has peaked as a player at the alleged age of 23? What position do advertising relationships with Chinese-based companies Peak Sports Apparel and Voit Sports Apparel have in potentially picking up the $5.4 million qualifying one-year offer the team holds on Yi? Or the fact that John Wall’s agent, Dan Fegan, has a business relationship with the Yi camp?
Coming off a summer under the tutelage of Team China head coach Bob Donewald and David Thorpe, executive director of the Pro Training Center in Florida and ESPN.com contributor, Yi mentally improved in coachable areas–moving his feet, seeing the ball on defense, running the floor in transition. However, his numbers from a per 36 minutes perspective didn’t greatly improve, and more times than not he didn’t display the hard-nosed toughness that’s part of Ted Leonsis’ plan.
We hardly knew Yi, but part of that reason is that he still seems to be finding himself, his game, and where it all fits. A return to Washington would show a big step in hope and confidence from the team, which might not seem reasonable at this point. Otherwise, lockout or not, Yi will have to find vast continued improvement for his next NBA chance to be meaningful.
[photos: Kyle Weidie, Truth About It.net]
[The author of this post: Rashad Mobley is from the Washington, D.C. area and has been covering the Washington Wizards with credentials for three years. To learn more about him click here. To follow him on Twitter: @Rashad20.]