Future generations will look back, with a mix of awe and horror, on August 17, 2016, as the day when everything changed. Yi Jianlian is (almost) back, heading to the Lakers for a reported $8 million, one-year deal.
You probably have a lot of questions.
Like: Why? Or, perhaps: WHYYYY? Or, maybe: Who? Because Yi hasn’t played in the NBA since 2012, meaning there are 10-year-old NBA fans with no memory of him.
Let’s take those in reverse order.
Yi, the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, is a (MAYBE) 28-year-old, 7-foot stretch forward/center from China with nice mobility and athleticism. He is awful at basketball. Or, to be fair, was awful. Again: He hasn’t played in the NBA since 2012, when he averaged 2.6 points on 38 percent shooting and 1.6 rebounds with the Mavericks. Which, to be fairer still, per-36 minutes, came out to a respectable 14 points and 8.7 rebounds. Except he played only 203 minutes in the big show and mostly plied his trade in the D-League. Again: awful.
But wait! Last season, Yi led the Guangdong Southern Tigers in scoring, averaging 26 points on 55 percent shooting. Toss in the nine rebounds, two assists, and one block per game, and it all seems pretty lit, until you remember that Chinese Basketball Association stats are like gravity on the moon and the Tigers’ second-leading scorer, at 20 per game, was Ike Diogu, who shot better than Yi from deep while taking just under six (!!!!!!!YO!!!!!!!) 3s per game. Diogu is a career six-point-per-game scorer in over six NBA seasons, during which he took two (TWO) 3-pointers. In China, he’s Steph Curry. Sidebar: I think I could average 12 and 8 in China.
Yi is probably most famous for the way his draft stock skyrocketed after video (now impossible to find) emerged of him mercilessly owning a chair during during a workout. This earned him the too-on-the-nose nickname “Chairman.” His NBA career was beset by a variety of nagging injuries — broken finger, shoulder, knee, knee again — that always seemed to rear up just when it seemed like he was figuring it out. Figuring it out on offense, at least.
My memories of Yi’s NBA career largely involve the way he went about defending pick-and-rolls with the intensity of a dude killing time on his phone while his significant other is in the shoe store. In his best statistical season, a 12-point, seven-rebound, 12.3 PER campaign with the 2009–10 Nets, Yi put up a minus-7.4 net rating.
Here’s what I’m excited about: With a roster including Yi, artisanal pig farmer Jose Calderon, Nick Young, Marcelo “Dystopian Steve Nash” Huertas, and Julius Randle (L.A. was 11 points per game better with him off the floor last season), the Lakers could potentially throw out lineups that actual chairs could score on. This is huge.
Truthfully, with the exception of Randle, no one else mentioned above is likely to get regular minutes under the Luke Walton regime. That said, $8 million (and let’s take a minute to remember Dion Waiters, late of Waiters Island, whose two-year $6 million deal is about to get dunked on by a contract for a bona fide draft bust who hasn’t played NBA ball in four years) seems like a lot to play Yi just to have him sit in the bench.
One year for Yi means the Lakers’ cap space for 2017, potentially as much as $23 million and change, will remain intact. In terms of on-court-fit theory, Yi’s size and stretch shooting skill set, in theory, provides Coach Luke with some small-ball lineup flexibility. I’ll believe it when I see it, but that’s in play.
There’s also the shadow NBA theory that, with Kobe gone, Yi could provide the Lakers the ancillary benefit of keeping Chinese currency flowing into the vaunted purple-and gold-coffers underneath Staples. Whatever the case, the Mavericks drafting Satnam Singh remains undefeated in terms of naked attempts to woo foreign marketing dollars.
Assuming this deal happens, I will do my part by purchasing a Yi Lakers jersey. I hope you’ll do the same.