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Yi Jianlian, China Still Have a Long Way to Go

Yi Jianlian, China Still Have a Long Way to Go
Dec 26, 2005, 03:54 am
A few months before Yao Ming landed the top spot in the 2002 NBA draft, a 14 year-old standing 6 feet 11 inches tall enjoyed his coming-out party at the Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Mannheim, Germany. In this biannual unofficial junior world championship, he held his own against kids three years older than him while impressing everyone with his amazing potential.

To battle against older players on the court has been a regular occurrence for Yi Jianlian. Or has it not?

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We’ll deal with that later. Meanwhile, Yi again continued to show his intriguing package of skills in the real World Junior Championships in 2003 in Greece. Of course, with the NBA world so in love with trends, from the early going he was already labeled as the “next great thing coming from China,” after Yao Ming.

The hype machine began to grind into motion: shoe deals, commercials, 360 dunks, and an article in Time magazine titled “the Next Yao Ming.” A star was clearly born. Yi’s athleticism and attractive appearance made him an easily marketable player, who just so happened to come from the next great global market, China.

But is this hype legit? The only certainty is that Yi has been carrying this heavy load of pressure from a very young age.

It hasn’t died down, though; the Chinese pool is considered to enjoy immense potential on the verge to explode. Seven footers seem to grow on trees and the country is in love with basketball. Almost a paradise. Right?

Well, there’s certainly some truth in all of this, but the short-term and even mid-term potential of the Chinese basketball is vastly overrated. China still has a long way to go to be able to compete consistently at the international level both as a team and for its players on an individual level. This will require a significant improvement of the domestic league and/or the exportation of Chinese players to other stronger international competitions. Yao Ming is the exception, not the rule. For the majority of elite prospects, there needs to be a challenging environment to motivate and continue to help them improve. When these youngsters reach a certain stage of development, the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) fails to provide them with the required amount of competition to take their game to the next level.

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Let’s remember that in a very narrow and short-sighted approach, the CBA protects its investment by barring its basketball players from leaving for the NBA before they turn 22 years old. We do need to keep in mind that power changes hands quickly in the Chinese Basketball Association, so this rule could change any day potentially, especially if pressure in the right places is applied. However, that’s pointless for this matter, as the next logical step for the Chinese prospects shouldn’t be by any means the world’s toughest league. The jump is simply too dramatic to face with a fair chances of success, especially considering the radically different nature of both leagues, with the NBA putting a huge emphasis on physical attributes that the CBA severely lacks. So how will this affect their best prospect until he becomes “eligible” for the NBA draft in 2009?

DraftExpress was able to watch Yi Jianlian in action over the last summer with the Chinese National Team and this current season with the Guangdong Tigers in the CBA. What we learned is that Yi himself is already beginning to look like a victim of the CBA’s weakness. His excellent combination of size and athleticism as a 7-footer, plus his decent strength, is enough for him to get regular production at this level, but without having to display much skill at all, going up mostly against weak and unathletic defenses. He’s currently averaging 22.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Yi’s remarkable characteristics stand out, not as much in terms of his size and length--that’s far from being the main problem in the CBA-- but for his athleticism and excellent basketball frame. While he still has a long way to go to build his body, the foundations are certainly there. It’s a notorious contrast with the incredible lack of bulk that desolates this league. It’s so serious that a relatively strong big man with limited skills and virtually no athleticism such as Tang Zhengdong managed to earn MVP honors in a recent season. Basically, only the American imports and some domestic exceptions (for example, Mengke Bateer) evidence that Yi’s physical work is not done by any means.

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With these tools, Yi has little trouble to get points. He doesn’t need to battle too much to get good positioning in the low post, and despite his limited post-up skills, he still manages to get some regular production there. One of the very few somehow-polished abilities he enjoys is his shot. Besides the decent mid-range jumper that he puts in practice from time to time, he often resorts to a turnaround jump-shot in the low post with nice results. Otherwise, he tries to beat his matchup with his quickness and athleticism. Not too much of a ball-handler, Yi still can put the ball on the floor, while he likes to play above the rim, dunking it every time he has a chance.

That summarizes his gifts near the basket. Whenever he tries to perform something more complicated, his flaws arise in the form of poor footwork and limited touch around the rim, particularly not any kind of hook shot to score over his rivals and barely any left hand to speak of. This wouldn’t make the cut against stronger opposition, and indeed he gets exposed whenever he plays against quality teams in international competition, where he mostly limits his offensive display in the half-court offense to his mid-range game.

It becomes even more evident when we talk about dirty work. Yi enjoys perfect tools to develop into an excellent defender. He has the body (at least potentially, if we talk about the NBA), he displays very good lateral quickness even to contain perimeter rivals on certain mismatch situations, and he’s long, reactive and athletic enough to intimidate on a regular basis. But he lacks toughness and aggressiveness in his effort, full-time concentration as well. He gets exposed on defensive rotations, where he goes for the help with his arms instead of using his body to stop the rivals. When it comes to rebounding, he rarely worries about boxing out his matchup, relying on his superior physical profile to clean the boards. It doesn’t always work and his rebounding numbers suffer.

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However, both his defense and rebounding are good enough for CBA standards to keep his team Guangdong (which happens to be back-to-back champions in the last two seasons) winning games. So, where’s the challenge?

Let’s finish his game description with a sweet taste. It’s a pleasure to see Yi running the floor, but it’s even more stimulating watching him finish in transition, where he can elevate gracefully and dunk spectacularly with the greatest of ease. He really has privileged legs, impressive considering his size. He’s also a very nice passer from the high post or the three-point line, being aware of his teammates’ cuts. All in all, he looks rather smart on the court.

It’s interesting to note that while his athleticism could land him at the power forward position, his skill set seems to lead him to the center spot. He certainly has enough size and he could gain enough strength to play there.

At some point, watching or writing about Yi Jianlian, you have to stop and think that he’s just an 18 year-old kid, that you can’t be that hard on him. Well, on one hand, despite his age, you get the feeling that he could do a little bit more on the court, that he or the CBA might be wasting some of his vast potential. On the other, and we get to the delicate point, it’s not clear that Yi is actually 18 years old. It’s been rumored that he could be up to three years older. It’s hard to tell just by looking at him: contrary to what happens to other Chinese players, his face does look rather young. His body, though, is probably ahead of what we are used to seeing in athletes outside of the US or Africa at that age.

One way or another, Yi Jianlian likely won’t be the next international superstar in the NBA, although he has the tools and the potential to eventually play in the American League. Time will tell if he will be able to make it and succeed solely through the CBA.

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