Despite Team China falling short in the finals against Iran in the FIBA Asian Championship this past weekend, Yi Jianlian turned some heads with his strong play during the tournament, where he averaged 18.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. The Nets have more or less declared that Yi will be the starting PF this coming season despite his disappointing finish last year, where he was eventually benched during the final month.
To get more insight into Yi's performance in Asia this summer, and whether are not Nets fans should get excited about his potential this year, NAS talked with Wang Meng, a reporter from Titansports, the biggest sports newspaper in China. Wang has covered the NBA and the Houston Rockets for the past five seasons and was following Team China during the FIBA games.
NAS: Much has been made about the amount of muscle Yi has added during the off-season. What are your impressions of his physical condition right now? Does it look like he has more strength on the court?
Yi looks bigger than before. You can tell the difference when you and other Nets fans see him this season. His arms are bigger and he played more aggressively on the court. Maybe because these were the Asian games, and compared with other inside players in the tournament, Yi's physical talent was the best. If you are familiar with Ha Seung-Jin from Korea who played in the NBA with Portland before and Hamed Ehadadi who is playing for Memphis right now, you will understand Yi's physical advantage here. He was very aggressive this time, really taking advantage of his body. He knew he could jump higher, his strength was better and he could win under the basket.
NAS: How do you think the absence of Yao, who was injured for the tournament, affected Yi's role on the Chinese team? Was he the clear leader out there?
I think without Yao leading the team, Yi realized this was his chance. His was the biggest star on the team and the only NBA player as well. Sun Yue was waived by Lakers half a month ago. I think that's one of the reasons why Yi looked so aggressive. He wanted this opportunity, wanted to approve his ability, and wanted to become leader of the team.
But I don't think he was the clear leader out there, though he is the center, and the coach saw him as the go-to guy on the court. The offense went through him first, and most of the time he was the finisher. But the top scorer does not equal leader. He still has a long way to go. He should learn how to read the defense and create opportunities for the whole team, and also lead the team mentally.
NAS: A major criticism from Nets fans last year was that Yi seemed to settle for long jumpers rather than trying to score inside. From looking at the box scores, it looked like Yi was shooting fewer three-pointers. Do you think this was a conscious effort on Yi's part to try and score closer to the basket or more of a byproduct of how team China's offense was set up?
I don't know what role the Nets want him to play, so I can't say anything about this. But when Yi is on the Chinese team, he likes playing inside. Of course, it is much easier for him to play inside here, because he has the physical advantage. To me, whether he can have success under the basket is the key of whether he can have success in NBA. As a big man , if you can't defend inside, can't get the rebound, can't play phycially inside, you are not doing your job.
NAS: On a national level, what is China's expectations for Yi in the NBA this year? Were the fans disappointed by his 2008-2009 season?
Yi has played in NBA for two years and both have been affected by injuries. Of course the fans want to see him play better, no matter how good or how bad he really is. Like Yao, who is already the leader of the Houston Rockes, there are still some Chinese fans think he plays like (crap).
People here want to see Yi play better this year. Yao will be out for the whole season because, so there will be more fans that care about Yi's game. More people will follow him through TV and the Internet everyday.This is his opportunity, but also he will face more pressure.
Posted by Mark Ginocchio