Many Wizards fans are paying special attention to the performance of Yi Jianlian leading up to the FIBA World Championship. The goal is to get a sense of how his game has improved and how that might translate into helping the Washington Wizards this season. In the vein, a few in the press and blogosphere, have already begun to analyze his early performances in the tune-up games.
When analyzing Yi’s performance it is important to balance his on-court performance with a couple of key facts that impact each game:
New role: Alpha male versus role player
The 2010 Chinese National team is without its most famous player, Yao Ming, who retired from international play. As a result, Yi is being asked to step up from a role player and take on the leadership role with his team. Much to his credit, Yi has taken on the burden and responsibility for leading his team. However, it is important to point out that this is a role that he has never held at this level of play.
As the lead player, and his team’s most talented player, other teams will gear their defense towards stopping him. When times get tough, his teammates will look to him to hit the big shots. Yi will be put in positions to take shots that he has not been asked to take before – whether it is the game winning shot, hitting key free throws or creating an open shot for a teammate. This new attention and pressure often has an impact on a player who is stepping into this role for the first time. It is not uncommon for a player to need a season or two to adjust to this level of responsibility. Unfortunately for Yi, his team needs him to perform in that role now. Time will tell if that is a realistic expectation for this tournament.
While being thrust into this position puts added responsibility and pressure on Yi’s shoulders, it affords Wizards fans an opportunity to see him play in an unfamiliar role. This could result in either a more positive or more negative view of Yi given that this will not be his role with the Wizards. It will be important to account for his role with the Chinese National team and its affect on his performance when analyzing his play.
Team youth and inexperience
Yi has more to worry about than his new role with the team. Yi is playing on a team that is young and inexperienced. Only three players on China’s current roster have logged any minutes in the NBA – Yi, Wang ZhiZhi and Sun Yue. Yi is the only one who is currently on a NBA roster. And over Yi’s three year career, he has started more games (152) than the combined appearances (not starts) of Wang ZhiZhi (137) and Sun Yue (10). The majority of the Chinese National team plays in China’s top basketball league, the CBA.
In addition to a lack of NBA experience, the team is also relatively young, as compared to other teams in FIBA play. Yi is the third youngest player on a team whose average age is 26. And as Ted Leonsis reminds, he is only 22 years old. If we compare his age with those presently on Team USA’s roster, he would be the second youngest – six players are tied for the youngest on the team. Yi Jianlian is currently younger than Chauncey Billiups (34), Tyson Chandler (28), Danny Granger (27), Andre Iguodala (26), Lamar Odom (31), Rajon Rondo (24) and Rudy Gay (24). And Yi is only months older than Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook - all of which are currently 22. However, Team USA is slightly younger with an average age of 25.
China’s relative youth and inexperience in international play will translate into uneven performances by Yi and his teammates. It will also put additional pressure on Yi to perform and perform consistently. This pressure, while it may produce some ugly box scores, will likely benefit Yi for seasons to come.
This opportunity, and its pressures, can benefit Yi Jianlian in a few different ways. He will have spent the summer playing with and developing his game against some of the most talented basketball players in the world. Playing competitive basketball against superior talent will help him to develop his game. He will have been afforded a chance to grow as a player by being thrust into a leadership position. And even if he never develops into “the guy” on a NBA roster, the ‘leadership training’ that he receives this summer will be a value to him and the Wizards.
This experience will likely teach Yi, and the Wizards staff, even more about his strengths and weaknesses as a player. It affords the Wizards an opportunity to identify his areas of weakness that require additional development, in relation to the role that he will play with the Wizards, while getting a better sense of his strengths and how to incorporate them into the team. This role may also give the Wizards brass an opportunity to see how Yi performs in a role in which he is not accustomed, this can give them a better view of how he would perform in this role if the need, however unlikely, were ever to arise.
Before you evaluate Yi’s FIBA World Championship performance on the basis of the points he did or did not score or the rebounds he did or did not get, additionally consider the role that he was asked to play for the first time in his career. Take into account that his role and the makeup of his team have a direct impact on his performance. Also consider that the role that he is currently playing with the Chinese National team is not the role that he will be playing with the Washington Wizards this season. This means that his number of shots attempted, minutes played and event shot selection will be dramatically different. So while stats like points, rebounds, assists, and blocked shots are helpful for gauging how well he played in a given game but so are the more difficult to quantify effort, aggressiveness and basketball IQ. And in the end, the latter qualities are likely much more important when trying to assess what impact Yi will have on the Wizards this season.