Last season, the center position was one of the Los Angeles Lakers’ biggest weaknesses. Roy Hibbert played poorly on both ends of the court, and in particular, he did not protect the paint as the team had expected. Hibbert is gone now, and to shore up the position this summer the front office signed Timofey Mozgov in free agency, re-signed Tarik Black, and drafted Ivica Zubac. After Zubac made a strong impression in Summer League, the Lakers seemed set at center for the 2016-17 season.
However, shortly before training camp started, the Lakers unexpectedly signed center Yi Jianlian, who in recent years has been playing in China. It was a puzzling move because the team already had three centers under contract and there would not appear to be a need for four. Yet, the front office signed Jianlian anyway.
Jianlian is listed at 7’0,” 250 pounds. He will reportedly turn 29 later this month, although there is considerable mystery surrounding his actual age since there is some evidence that he will actually turn 32. He was selected No. 6 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks where he was named a starter when the season began. In his first home game, he scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a game that was televised in China where it was watched by more than 100 million people. A short time later, he went head-to-head with Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets for the first time in a game watched by more than 200 million television viewers in China.
In December 2007, Jianlian was NBA rookie of the month. In a game against Charlotte that month, he scored 29 points on 14-of-17 shooting. At that time, he was highly praised by NBA observers who proclaimed that he had a bright future. Unfortunately, he was plagued by injuries the second half of his rookie season and suffered a season-ending knee injury.
In a surprising move, Jianlian was traded in June 2008 to the New Jersey Nets. Again, he started the season strong but suffered another string of injuries which caused him to miss 30 games that season. The coaching staff began to lose confidence and while he returned to the Nets in 2009, his playing time diminished though he averaged a career-high 12 points and 7.2 rebounds per game that season. He was traded to the Washington Wizards in 2010, and in 2012 he had his last NBA stint with the Dallas Mavericks where he played mostly for their D-League affiliate.
Even during his time in the NBA, Jianlian frequently played for the Chinese National Team in international competitions during the offseason including the Olympics in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. It was during the Olympics this past summer that he was reportedly scouted by the Lakers where it is said that general manager Mitch Kupchak and head coach Luke Walton saw him play and were impressed. He averaged 20.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while making 46 percent of his three-point shots. Against the United States, Jianlian scored 25 points which no doubt made an impression on the Lakers.
Jianlian was reportedly signed to an incentive-laden contract for the 2016-17 season, and Kupchak has said that he will have to earn his spot on the final roster. Based on reports that have emerged from training camp, that should not be a problem.
Players and coaches have been effusive in their praise of Jianlian thus far. In a recent interview, Jordan Clarkson was asked who in his opinion has been the biggest surprise, and he quickly responded that it was Jianlian, whose shooting and athleticism have stood out. Walton has also signaled out Jianlian for praise and is especially excited about his three-point shooting ability.
It is fair to say that at this point, Jianlian is not only going to be on the roster when the season starts, but he is also making a strong push be the first center off the bench to relieve Mozgov. Of course, he will have to prove what he can do in preseason games, but there is reason to believe he will continue to make a strong argument for serious playing time when the regular season begins.
Mozgov has never averaged more than 25 minutes per game during his career, and it may be unrealistic to expect more from him this season. That leaves significant minutes for the other centers, and Jianlian may have the upper hand because of his ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting. Indeed, a seven-foot center who can make a high percentage of his outside shots is a coveted commodity in the NBA. Tarik Black does not have many offensive tools and Ivica Zubac is very young.
Jianlian has been the Lakers’ biggest surprise in training camp so far. If he can show the same strong skill-set under game conditions, he is going to be an important part of the rotation this year. He will have his first opportunity to show what he can do when the preseason starts for the Lakers Tuesday night.