Monday, July 16, 2007

The Trials and Tribulations of Yi Jianlian

Cross-posted at "Pretty Random Ramblings"

Non-Basketball Fans can stop reading this post now.

This is the type of post that I would usually make in a comment on a certified sports blog (and be shot down), but I feel like my blog is actually becoming a viable medium now with readership higher than it has ever been. Also, I was banned from commenting on Deadspin for reasons unbeknownst to me.

Here you will see my unabated and very biased opinion on Yi Jianlian's performance at this year's NBA Summer League. I have a lot invested in this kid, as I've followed him since he was 16 (and I was 15), and a lot of my credibility as a person hinges on how well he does in the league, since I have been hawking him for the last 3 years. He's even been my profile picture for the majority of this blog's existence.

So far, he's proven far below expectations and sports writers are not slow to label him as likely being the biggest bust of this year's draft. But I'm going to give a fairly in-depth analysis of how he's actually played beyond the stats, from what I've gathered after watching 3 of his 5 summer league games (7/6 vs MEM, 7/8 vs. CLE, 7/11 vs. BOS).

Disclaimer: I'm not a sports expert or analyst or even journalist, just a fan. So my arguments carry about as much weight as those from Bill Simmons. I kid, I love The Sports Guy.

Statistics:12.4 PPG, .255 FG%, .800 FT%, 4.4 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.4 BPG, 4.6 TO, 7 PF

Analysis: Looking at the stats alone brings a pretty sorry sight. His scoring rate, while decent, is far from superstar-like. As for peripherals, his Curry number [Turnovers - (Assists + Steals + Blocks)] is an whopping 1.6. On top of that, he's getting 7 fouls per game, which I'm going to venture out and say is among the league leaders.

So here's a point-by-point breakdown of what I've seen in those categories.

Scoring Rate and Shooting Percentage: This seems to be the biggest knock on him so far. As evidence, here is a transcript of that was said between me and Hank Worrell on his blog, Winning the Turnover Battle

Loren: Did you see the buzzer beater Yi hit today (Maybe like 20 minutes ago)? Double-teamed (close to triple), turnaround, about 8-foot bank shot... I'd call it even Duncan-esque. And possibly enough to push the Yi Meter at least slightly closer to Kukoc? Granted he shot 3-11 from the floor, so maybe his current placement is warranted.

Hank Worrell: Yeah, the fact that he has shot 30% from the floor in his three summer league games is a bit worrisome for a big man who was highly touted for his shooting touch. I watched the game tonight though, and he was pretty active on defense and made some nice passes and moves on the perimeter. His poor shooting justifies his place on the Yi Meter for now, IMO.

I agreed with that sentiment at the time, but now after watching more games, and footage from all of his Summer League games, I've changed my opinion. Yi's poor shooting percentage right now I think has as much to do with his own performance as that of his teammates and the style of his team.

Almost every single play I watched (probably about 75%), he was setting up a pick and roll at the top of the key. The pick was often poorly set or executed poorly, as Yi often not even make contact with the defender (also, sometimes the point guard didn't go towards the pick). In any case, when he rolled down to the block, he was usually able to establish position on his defender and call for the ball. But the ball never came to him, rather the ball handler would just dribble around some more and then pass it to a wing who would jack up a quick 3. There's no way Yi is going to get into a rhythm when he's only getting 5 or 6 shots a game while watching Wang Shipeng and Wang ZhiZhi get 10-15.

On the other hand, when he has gotten the ball, he hasn't been able to do much with it, save for some flashes of brilliance. He hasn't shown the array of post moves he had displayed in China and in workouts (against a chair). He hardly ever goes to his jump hook, which should be pretty effective, nor does he pull up on the baseline. Almost every time, when he catches the ball in the post, he dribbles twice and then tries to power through the defender or go for a quick up-and-under, which is usually unsuccessful. When he catches the ball along the baseline, he just drives toward the basket, whereas I'd enjoy if he employed a Yao Ming-esque baseline jumper, which I know is in his arsenal.

That said, Kevin Durant is shooting 25% from the field as well, and people just call it adjusting to the NBA physicality and pace.

Rebounding: Yi is getting a paltry 4.4 rebounds per game in summer league after pulling down 11+ in the CBA. Normally I'd say that this is unacceptable for a 7'1" guy who jumps through the roof, but after watching a few more games, I don't think he is the issue.

Yi is the only, no exaggeration, Chinese player who is boxing out on plays. He's not great at rebounding out of his area, but when the ball does come toward him, a weak-side player from the other team just soars in and takes it away.

The Chinese team as a whole doesn't even try to get offensive rebounds either, as they are already running back as soon as the shot is released. I don't know if this is just how things are coached in China or what, but they don't go for offensive rebounds, and as a result they are also passive on defensive rebounds. I think they expect the other team to just give up on offensive possessions as well when the shot is released, so they don't put a lot of effort into the rebounding. As a result, Yi's rebounding rate suffers.

Passing and Defense: As Hank said, despite having very few assists and steals, Yi's passing and defense are actually very solid. He seems to be one of the only Chinese players who makes a pass with a sense of purpose and urgency, instead of just lazily flipping it around (Zhizhi is good at this too). His post defense is impressive, though he does get beaten from time to time due to the opponent just being a lot stronger than he is.

Fouls: This is another big knock on the kid. A marquee player should not be getting forced to the bench by getting 7 fouls per game. But again, this is hardly Yi's fault. Every single one of (lone exception being Sun Yue, though he is often outquicked by the smaller point guards, e.g. Rajon Rondo) the Chinese guards plays Steve Nash defense. What that means, to people who don't know, is that they stand in a somewhat defensive position, but then when the offensive player starts to drive, they just get out of the way. This leads to a lot of plays where a guard is running full speed directly at Yi, at which point it is usually either basket or foul. Look at what happened to Ben Wallace's defensive prowess when they took away Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, and Sheed. He still got his fair share of blocks (though not nearly as many as he did at his peak), but he wasn't the game changer that he was. What makes Tim Duncan so great is how he can overcome the defensive shortcomings of Tony Parker, but he still has ballhawks, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen, impeding players' progress.

On the other hand, at this point, Yi's defensive timing and decision making aren't perfect. He jumps for the block too early, which is where a lot of his fouls come from, whereas he'd benefit from staying on the ground slightly longer and gauging what is happening before jumping to meet the ball, a la Marcus Camby. He has the athletic ability to not have to pre-empt the shot, so he doesn't need to be over-aggressive in that way. Also, he doesn't need to block every single shot that comes at him. I know it's against canon and the eternal maxim of "Make him earn it," but sometimes it isn't worth it. Take a charge like Varejao, or just don't go up with the him.

Miscellaneous Notes: One thing that isn't commented on that much is that Team China played 5 games in 6 days, which is more than any team at any level plays ever. Teams are notably tired on the second half of a back-to-back, but China had scheduled three in a row, then one day of rest and then another back-to back. It isn't surprising that Yi had his best game in the first game of Summer League, and his production declined from there.

Yi definitely has a lot he can work on. At this point in his career, he probably will not be able to beat out Charlie Villanueva for the starting spot unless V is still dealing with his injuries and general hairlessness. However, he's not as bad as his stats suggest, and moreover, it's summer league, give him a break.

Finally, as a comparison:

Kevin Durant Summer League stats: 18.0 PPG, .250 FG%, .882 FT%, 1.0 RPG, 0.0 APG, 0.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 1.5 TO

Greg Oden Summer League stats: 9.5 PPG, .600 FG%, .125 FT%, 3.5 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.0 SPG, 3.0 BPG, 4.0 TO, 9.5 PF