Is Yi Jianlian a Worthy Gamble for the Los Angeles Lakers?


According to ESPN, the Los Angeles Lakers have agreed to term with Yi Jianlian.

Jianlian was the star of the Chinese team in Olympic play and was the 6th overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. He played in the NBA for 5 seasons, but the most recent season was 2011-2012. Here is a highlight video from Jianlian’s NBA days to jog your memory (Sorry the video isn’t HD quality, goes to show you it has been awhile since Yi was on the NBA court).

Let us take a look at Yi Jianlian’s on court game and see if the Lakers made a wise decision signing Yi for $8 million this season.

Offensive Skills and Production

Yi Jianlian is a 7’0 and 238 pound Power Forward who turns 29 in October. He was 24 years old when he last played in the NBA, but he produced some interesting stats with playing stateside. He only played 272 games in 5 seasons, with 4 NBA teams, despite being a top pick.

Here is his stat line from 2009-2010: 40.3% from the field, 79.8% from the line, 0.3 3’s on 36.6%, 7.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 block, and 12.0 points in 31.8 minutes per game. I chose that season because it was the highest minutes total he received in his NBA career and I think it proves he can be a quality NBA player with strengths he can exploit against NBA competition.

Jianlian can clearly stretch the floor and is effective from 3 point range. For his NBA career, he shot 33.3% from distance on 225 attempts. If you look at his Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) statistics (courtesy of Real GM, he shot 37.4% on 91 attempts last season. This seems to be a particularly good fit with the Lakers given that new coach Luke Walton is going to want to run a similar offense to Golden State’s, and the current Power Forward tandem of Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. offer no 3 point production to speak of.

Yi will have to adjust to the NBA to be successful on offense, though. He is used to being the “Kobe Bryant” on his team in both the CBA and Chinese National Team. He will have to settle into being more of a role player for the Lakers, but at 29 years old I think he is suited to do that. That should raise his field goal percentage into the 45-47% range and make Yi an asset to the Lakers new look offense.

Defensive Skills and Production

Yi Jianlian has the length to be a plus defender in the NBA. In his previous stint, he averaged 4.9 rebounds, 0.5 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 22.2 minutes per game. Not great numbers for a seven-foot tall man.

His CBA stats look a lot stronger. Last season, Yi finished 12th in the CBA in steals with 1.9 per game and 15th in blocks with 1.3 per game. He also averaged 9.2 rebound per game which ranked tied for 19th in the CBA. I think the fact that he finished in the top 20 in all three categories portend a better picture than the actual numbers themselves. It shows he has the ability and basketball IQ to defend even if that does not make him one of the top defenders in the NBA.

Advanced Metrics

Let examine some advanced metrics to see how Yi rated during his NBA career. If you view through box score plus/minus the number are not pretty. In his best season, he had an offensive box score plus/minus of negative 3.4 and a defensive box score plus/minus of negative 0.4. His best value over replacement player (VORP) was negative 0.3 in 2011-2012, his final NBA season.

If you look at win shares, Yi earned 0.0 offensive and 1.3 defensive win shares in 2009-2010. That lead to his best win shares per 48 of .037 (.100 is league average). All advanced metrics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

The advanced metrics clearly show Yi as a below average NBA player, but for some saving grace, Real GM rated Yi very highly in the win shares categories last season in the CBA. He earned 3.8 offensive and 3.9 on defense for 7.7 win shares total, which ranked 7th in the CBA. It provides a little hope, but it still does not look promising for Yi to be an above average NBA player next season.

Injuries

Yi has been hampered by injuries throughout his basketball career. He topped out at 66 games played in his 5 NBA seasons and never played more than 45 of the CBA’s 50 game season.

The recent injuries from his time in the CBA are hard to come by. They often just list him out with an undisclosed injury or the report a knee injury, but no specifics. That makes it very hard to say if he has any injuries that will be problematic going forward, but the fact that he has never played a full season in 10 professional seasons leads me to believe the game played cap should be set at 70 or under in the NBA.

Olympics Basketball Career

Yi Jianlian is a 4-time Olympian and had a 30 point game in the 2012 London Olympics. He got the chance to lead a young Chinese Olympic team this time around in Rio and the numbers looked impressive. He started out against team USA and finished with 25 points, 6 rebounds, 2 3-pointers, and a block. A good showing in 30 minutes in a game the USA dominated. Below is a highlight video from an exhibition game against the USA just prior to the Olympics, so you can see his game in action against NBA talent.

Looking at his 5 games in Rio Olympic play as a whole, Yi averaged 20.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 1.4 steals, 1.0 block, and 1.4 3’s on 43.9% from the field and 74.2% from the line. This is a small sample size, but the fact that he scored 25 points and 2 3’s against NBA competition seems to show he can contribute on offense against NBA competition.

Summary

Yi Jianlian has not played in the NBA since 2011-2012 and he was not that successful in his last NBA stint. He did show the ability to hit 3 pointers for a Power Forward, but not much else. The stats in the CBA look much better, but nobody knows how that will really translate because they are two very different leagues.

Is Yi Jianlian a worthy gamble for the Los Angeles Lakers?

If this CBS Sports article is correct and it’s a non-guaranteed deal at the veteran minimum that could be worth up to $8 million, then, of course, Yi is.

Yi should fit nicely into Coach Walton’s new look Laker offense and give the Lakers a stretch Power Forward they currently do not have.

He does not possess great athleticism, but should be able to use his size and length to be an adequate to just below defender. If this all turns out to be not true, the Lakers can just cut him and move on. If he provides that value or potentially even more (he was one of the top players in CBA last season), the Lakers get a steal even at $8 million which in today’s NBA cap market is not a lot of money.

If given 25 minutes, a role I believe Yi can earn if he proves to be more the player we saw in the Olympics and in the CBA and not the player we saw in his NBA career to date, I envision a stat line of 46% from the field, 78% from the free throw line, one 3 pointer, 6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.9 blocks, and 11 points per game. That is the line of a solid role-playing Power Forward with a rebound deficiency, but the ability to stretch the floor and be a solid yet unspectacular defender. With his ability to score, he could throw up a 30 point game or two and really excite the Staples Center crowd. A worthy gamble by the Los Angeles Lakers in this observer’s book for certain.

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