Filling in the Blanks: Yi Jianlian

Filling in the Blanks: Yi Jianlian
Jun 26, 2007, 02:38 am
Emptying out our scouting notebook, we continue our series in examining under the radar prospects who are relatively unknown in American households. While virtually every draft fan knows the name Yi Jianlian, how many can actually describe his game? China’s next big thing has the talent of a top five pick in the draft, but will he land there due to his selective workout schedule and refusal to conduct a physical or travel to team facilities?

Yi Jianlian is a player who draft fans have been aware of for the last 4 year or so, ever since he burst on the scene as a basketball prodigy in the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association). He has put up outstanding numbers for Guangdong over the years, but there has constantly been an impeding issue following him around at all times. First issues of his age arose, with many debating if he was born in 1984 or 1987, since it is common policy for Chinese Government officials to falsify documents in order for their young players to compete in youth competitions for added years— something they now readily admit and have pledged to reform .

Then, the problem at hand was if the Chinese Government would actually allow him to come over and the control that they wanted to have over the situation that Yi would enter in the NBA. With the Olympics being hosted in China in 2008 and the goal having publicly been set already to medal in the tournament, the CBA did not want to see Yi drafted by a team where he would sit the bench, and desired to see him as a global marketing icon similar to his NBA predecessor Yao Ming. In fact, most NBA insiders believe that half of Jianlian’s earnings will have to be sent back to his team, Guangdong. The last, and most recent issue is the desire to control where he lands in this year’s NBA draft. Jianlian is only working out for select teams, and is making them come to L.A. to watch him, something that is unheard of for a player of any stature, much less one who might not even be drafted in the top five picks of this year’s draft.

Yi’s age has been in question for quite some time now, although the CBA claims they have verified that he truly is 1987 born, despite an “error” in the roster that they submitted to FIBA listing him as 1984 born a few years back. While it would be nice to believe that Yi truly is only 19 years old, even his own teammates have came out and questioned his age publicly. Guangdong center Jason Dixon, who started for the Tigers alongside Yi, told Chad Ford of that he felt Yi was “21 or 22 years old”. You know that something fishy is going on when one of Yi’s own teammates is coming out and questioning how old he truly is. Documents have surfaced that lead DraftExpress to believe that Yi is 22 years old, while sources from his camp have told us that “we go by what is on his passport—which is 1987.” Either way, this has not been as big of an issue as one might think with the NBA teams that we have spoken to, as they all feel that Yi has a considerable amount of upside no matter how old he may be.

The CBA’s reluctance to let Yi go over the years has been an issue that many felt would force him to enter the draft when he was automatically eligible at age 22, whenever that would have been given his actual age issues. Surprisingly, they announced in late 2006 that they would let their prized big man enter the 2007 NBA Draft. Since then however, they (along with Yi’s agent, Dan Fegan) have attempted to manipulate the draft process as much as possible so they can control where Jianlian eventually lands on draft night.

The workout process that Yi has went through has been puzzling, to say the least. It has been clear, but not vocally stated, that Yi’s camp wants him to land in a city that has a sizable Chinese population. He has worked out for Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Sacramento, both Los Angeles teams, and Golden State. The Phoenix Suns reportedly flew into Southern California on the 25th of June as well, just as trade talks linking them with a top 10 pick started really heating up.

The aforementioned nine teams that were able to see Yi work out were forced to travel to see him go at it in Los Angeles, as opposed to the prospect coming to the city of the prospective team that will be drafting him. Yi’s forcing teams to go watch him in L.A. is unheard of, as even Greg Oden and Kevin Durant both traveled to Portland and Seattle to meet with team officials. Just as interesting was Yi’s decision to skip the physical portion of the NBA Pre-Draft Camp, something that no other prospect has done in recent memory.

Scouting Report

Now that we have tackled all of the off the court issues surrounding the Yi Jianlian situation, it is time to finally break down his game. Synergy Sports Technology has allowed DraftExpress to take in 28 of Yi’s games from this past season with Guangdong, along with numerous games from the 2006 FIBA World Championships, in which Yi was playing with the Chinese National Team. That’s 610 offensive possessions from this past season, spliced into all the relative skill-sets an NBA General Manager would want to evaluate: offensive rebounds, cuts, pick & roll plays, isolations, spot-up jumpers, post-up moves and more. With the click of one button, and just 25 minutes of your time, you can watch every spot-up jumper Yi took in the Chinese league this year, or even evaluate the way he hedged screens defensively on the other side of the ball.

To start, the sheer physical traits that Yi offers are just as appealing as any power forward prospect that the 2007 NBA Draft has to offer. Standing 7’0 or more and nearly 250 lbs., he owns ideal size for a center prospect, let alone a power forward. Yi has a frame that could surely add more weight to it as well, as his massive lower body is combined with a relatively underdeveloped upper body. Length is not a problem for the Chinese big man, as he possesses a massive wingspan. He runs the floor like a gazelle and has an explosive vertical leap, often getting his head near rim level on his fantastic dunks.

Consistently throughout the past 3 years, Yi has proven to be a reliable scorer, no matter who the competition may be against. Even in International competition in which Yao Ming is receiving the vast majority of touches, he always seems to find a way to put at least 10 points on the board in one way or another. Yi’s offensive game certainly has its limitations, but the things he does well on the offensive end allow him to be the player that he is today.

Jianlian scores the large majority of his points through drop-offs, offensive rebounds, spot-up jump shots, and turn-around jumpers out of the post. His great hands and explosive leaping ability have enabled him to be a very good finisher inside, dunking the ball at every available opportunity. Yi converts basically everything he touches inside of five feet from the rim, even initiating the contact at times and making his way to the foul line.

Despite Yi’s solid frame however, he does not absorb contact very well on the offensive end. It is a common occurrence to see him crumble with the slightest contact, an anomaly for a player weighing nearly 250 lbs. It is very rare that you will see Yi converting a basket on which he has been fouled, as the contact the he receives usually is enough to throw his shot off, and he lacks the toughness to fight through it.

In the post, Yi has two moves that he goes to virtually every time he touches the ball: A turnaround jumper and a right handed jump hook. You will very rarely see him go with anything else than these two moves, looking awfully awkward when trying to do so. Yi is able to turn to either shoulder with his turnaround jumper, with range out to about 14 feet from the basket. The right-handed jump hook that he possesses is not on display as much, but when he does go to it, he exhibits great extension and converts at a very high rate.

Facing the basket is where Jianlian ultimately seems to be most comfortable, however. He has already proven to be completely adapted to playing in a “pick and pop” type system, honing his jumpshot to the point that he is pretty much automatic from 19 feet and in. Although there seems to be this notion going around that Yi is an outstanding three point shooter, the Chinese big man shot just under 20% from the International three point line this past season, disproving that idea. He looks much more comfortable and is much more accurate when shooting the ball one step in from the three point line, around the 18 foot mark.

When Yi looks to put the ball on the floor, he dazzles scouts with his blinding first step for a seven footer. He has shown that he can blow past virtually any other player his size, both in International competition and in the CBA. Jianlian’s ball-handling skills are not great by any stretch of the imagination, though, as he primarily puts the ball on the floor one or two times to get to the rim, and relies more so on his athleticism then on his actual ability to handle the ball.

Decision making is an area that Yi certainly must improve upon, given the fact that he is incredibly turnover prone at the moment. He does not do a very good job reading the defense out of double teams, often forcing passes with little to no room at all. Yi just does not look too comfortable with the ball in his hands when pressured, something he must surely improve upon if he hopes to reach anywhere near his full potential in the NBA.

On the defensive end, Yi has all of the tools to eventually become an outstanding defender, but has yet to fully realize them. He has the length, athleticism, lateral quickness, and frame that many of the top defensive power forwards offer. Despite all of these tools, Yi remains an average defender at best in the low post, a marginal shot blocker, and a relatively poor rebounder.

Yi struggles quite a bit defensively on the low block, often giving up position far too deep to opposing post players. In a game that we recently observed versus former Xavier 6-9 big man Anthony Myles, he was abused guarding him both facing the basket and in the low post. Myles was able to get past Yi on the perimeter, while also using his strength and crafty play to score on him on the blocks through a series of up and under moves, fully utilizing his body to get shots up against his taller, more athletic counterpart.

While Jianlian exerts excellent leaping ability, his timing and inability to utilize his strength hurt him mightily as far as his shot blocking is concerned. When pegged against Myles (and also 6-7 former Auburn power forward Chris Porter for that matter), he was muscled under the basket to the point that he was unable to even contest the undersized post players’ shots. The blocks that Yi was able to get were only because he is so much longer and more athletic than the other players on the floor, a testament to how much of a freak show he truly is physically.

Rebounding is one area that Yi drastically needs improvement upon, on both ends of the floor. His effort crashing the offensive glass lapses quite frequently, as many times he just stands around the perimeter instead of attacking the rim. Defensively, Yi relies completely upon his athleticism to corral rebounds. He does a very poor job boxing out and often finds himself pushed underneath the basket, unable to even contest for rebounds. Yet again, not what you would expect out of a freak athlete standing seven feet tall and weighing nearly 250 lbs.

While we have went over many of the strengths and weaknesses present in Yi right now, the potential that he has is just as good, if not better than anyone in this draft not named Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. His offensive repertoire is very limited at the moment, and if Yi’s back to the basket game expands, he has the potential to truly become a special player down the road. Even though it has been evident that Yi did not exert maximum effort during stretches of games during the CBA season, there is some hope that he will find the motivation to give a better effort once he reaches the NBA.

It is up in the air as to where Yi will land on draft night, as he could seemingly go as high as number 3 or as low as number 12. It is certainly clear that Yi’s camp wants to control his destination as far as the NBA is concerned, but we find it awfully hard to believe that Sacramento will pass up on Yi once they are on the clock with the 10th pick of the 2007 NBA Draft given their dire need for a young, athletic big man.

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