Word broke late last night that the Lakers were on the verge of signing Yi Jianlian, who was the sixth overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2007 NBA Draft but has been out of the league since 2012. He never caught on in the NBA, bouncing between four different teams before ultimately returning to China.
Reports now say the Lakers and Yi have agreed on an $8 million one-year deal, so there is no long-term risk with him. With that being the case, let’s focus on breaking down the basketball merits of this move.
On the downside, Yi washed out of the NBA somewhat quickly for a lottery pick during his first NBA stint. He lacked the strength to handle the NBA’s more physical defenders and was assigned the stereotypical “soft” label that seems to be applied to most foreign-born bigs.
His field goal percentage was a disappointing 40 percent in his five seasons stateside, and he only hit 33 percent from downtown, which is poor for a player who was supposed to stretch the floor. Despite his skills, Yi just wasn’t ready to handle the physicality and athleticism present in the NBA and slinked back to China to work on his game.
Then there is the age issue. Rumors have persisted for years that Yi’s officially listed age is off by three years, which means that instead of 28, he’s really 31 right now. Given the low-risk nature of his deal this isn’t a huge issue in the here and now, but it’s something to consider should his performance merit a new contract next summer.
All that being said, this a solid move for the Lakers.
He has his faults, but Yi is a true seven-footer who possesses a 7’3.5” wingspan and the ability to shoot all the way out to the three-point line. While he was a power forward previously, the NBA has changed a lot in the last four years, and those changes appear to make his skill set more valuable. It would make all kinds of sense if the Lakers and Coach Luke Walton view Yi as more of a floor-spacing center than a power forward at this point.
After all, Los Angeles already has plenty of options at the four already with Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Luol Deng, so it’s unlikely that Yi would be brought in to attempt to win minutes there.
At first glance, the depth chart looks similarly packed at center, but rookie Ivica Zubac shouldn’t be counted on for major minutes in spite of his impressive Summer League. That leaves Timofey Mozgov and Tarik Black as the only true centers on the roster, and Mozgov is already dealing with a groin injury, so having a backup plan in place is probably a good idea.
Even if both Mozgov and Black are healthy, neither brings the outside shooting that Yi does. While it’s true that Walton may occasionally go small with someone like Nance at center, Yi at least gives him the option of having a true seven-footer on the floor without sacrificing shooting.
The Lakers want Walton to have as many arrows in his quiver as possible, and Yi gives him another one to fire off in situations where floor spacing is crucial.
Furthermore, there is reason to believe that Yi’s second attempt in the NBA will be more successful than his first.
The Yi that begrudgingly showed up on the Bucks’ doorstep in 2007 was scrawny and lacked confidence, but that isn’t the player that we saw with the Chinese team this summer.
Team USA played against Yi twice this summer leading up to and in the Olympics. He certainly turned some heads, including Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak’s, who got to see Yi in person when China took on the USA at the STAPLES Center.
Fresh off of averaging 26 points, 9 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and 1.3 blocks in the Chinese Basketball Association, Yi arrived in Los Angeles looking much more muscular and chiseled. He gave the USA some real problems on the offensive end, where he not only connected on his jumpers but also showed an ability to draw fouls by attacking the basket.
Here, he easily blows past Draymond Green for the basket:
It’s just one play, but Green is one of the best defenders in the league. Yi still struggles inside, but clearly, he has improved considerably since we saw him last.
After putting up 19 points and seven rebounds against the NBA All-Star-filled USA in an exhibition match, Yi dropped 25 and six on them in the Olympics, including two three-pointers and eight trips to the free throw line. He has talent, regardless of his prior reputation, and the Lakers love a reclamation project.
Over the past few years, Los Angeles has sifted through the bargain bin, looking for lottery picks that just didn’t pan out for one reason or another. They have brought in the likes of Nick Young, Ed Davis, Xavier Henry, and Wesley Johnson on value deals, figuring that they may have some talent that their previous team(s) missed. If not, the Lakers’ commitment was minimal, making it easy to cut bait if need be.
Yi fits that mold to a tee. If he pans out then Walton may have found an interesting floor-spacing option, and if not, all it cost the Lakers was a one-year deal and a roster spot.
Eventually, one of these moves will pay off, and the Lakers will unearth a diamond in the rough. Whether or not that ends up being Yi, you can’t fault the Lakers for giving it a shot.