Yi Jianlian was supposed to the NBA’s next Chinese sensation, the second star from the world’s most populous country in the pipeline following Yao Ming. Teams didn’t have substantial game film on him from his time in the Chinese Basketball Association and he avoided pre-draft workouts with other players, but standing 7-feet tall with a jump shot and some ball-handling skills was enough to entice the Milwaukee Bucks to select him sixth overall in the 2007 draft.
Nearly eight years later – as Corey Brewer, Brandan Wright, Joakim Noah and Spencer Hawes, all players chosen directly after him, make an impact in the NBA – Yi is three years removed from his last stint stateside with his Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 12 points per game for the New Jersey Nets in 2009-10 before joining the Washington Wizards for a season the following year, yet around these parts his names spurs images of him posting up a chair in a pre-draft workout.
But new Wizards guard Will Bynum, who signed a 10-day contract with Washington last Friday, was the 27-year-old Yi’s teammate in China on the Guangdong Southern Tigers for three months earlier this year and emphasized Yi is capable of an NBA comeback.
“Yi’s [expletive] good,” Bynum said after Wizards practice Thursday. “I played against him when he was here too, when he was in Milwaukee and Jersey. He got a whole lot better. He’s physical now. He always could shoot the basketball. He’s rolling. Yi’s tough, man. He’s a matchup nightmare over there.”
CBA statistics should be taken with a few grains of salt – Errick McCollum, an undrafted guard out of Goshen in 2011, led the league in scoring at 39.6 points per game this season and the game is much less physical than in the NBA – but Yi averaged 27.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game while shooting 57.5 percent from the field. Guangdong finished with the league’s best regular season record (33-4), but lost in the semifinals.
Bynum is certain Yi would have success in the NBA if he does decide to return and said Yi discussed the possibility with him. It’s just a matter of finding a worthy opportunity.
“He said he would but it has to be the right situation with the right point guard where they believe in him,” Bynum said. “But Yi can definitely be a force over here.”