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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Yi Jianlian Signs With Milwaukee

Refuting critics who said that they could not pull it off, the Milwaukee Bucks signed first round pick Yi Jianlian to a contract. There had been some speculation that Yi would never set foot in Milwaukee, but it is good for the league--and will ultimately be good for Yi's development as a player--that Yi did not try to circumvent the NBA Draft. I'll be more honest than most people who are pontificating about what kind of player Yi will turn out to be: frankly, I don't know. I've only seen him play a couple times as a member of the Chinese National team (plus of course those nifty workout clips on ESPN). Yi seems to be more athletic and less physically imposing/dominant than Yao Ming. Keep in mind that it took Yao some time to adjust to the NBA--remember Charles Barkley and his infamous bet that Yao would not score 19 points in a game?

Based on Yi's poor summer league numbers and the possibility that he is actually 22 or 23 instead of 19, ESPN's John Hollinger suspects that Yi may join the ranks of Martell Webster, Dajuan Wagner, DerMarr Johnson and Tractor Traylor as sixth overall selections who did not meet high expectations. Hollinger may be 100% correct, but if we are going to use the summer league as the primary basis for projecting the arc of his entire career then what does that say about Kevin Durant? I think that as rookies Yi will struggle a lot and Durant will be up and down. Yi has the added challenge of adapting to a new country/culture in addition to getting acclimated to the NBA game. I don't think that the age factor is a huge deal, unless it turns out that Yi is 30 (which he's not). Even if Yi is 23 and it takes him three years to fully reach his potential he can still have a long and productive NBA career after that point.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM



At Thursday, August 30, 2007 5:51:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

OK, so you have me convinced on Team USA and their defense. But on the Yi stuff, specifically your last two sentences... argh.

Age is the SINGLE MOST important thing you look at when projecting a player.

It's why, throughout the history of sports, people have lied about their age. Even one year -- Phil Rizzuto, for example -- can make a difference; four years is pretty darn significant.

If Yi is 21-23, he has much less room to grow. He can, but he has already had some advancement and is closer to his prime.

Granted, it was only five games, but that Yi struggled against players who might have been his own age or younger -- many of whom are trying to crack the Association -- raises a huge red flag.

Kevin Durant, on the other hand, is still 18 and was among the youngest in the League. Most players were older and more experienced, including players like Daniel Gibson and Rudy Gay.

At Thursday, August 30, 2007 7:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The most important thing is talent; if a player has enough talent, then he has a chance to be successful, assuming that he is also driven and that he avoids injury.

I understand that on the surface Yi is a better prospect if he is 19 than if he is 23 but as someone coming to the NBA from a foreign country one can assume that, either way, it will be three years or so before we can tell if Yi will develop into an All-Star level player. If he has that kind of talent--and I have not seen enough of him to answer that--then he will blossom and, whether he is 22 or 25 at that point, he would have many productive years ahead of him. If Yi turns out to be too soft or not talented enough then it will not matter how old he is.

Bucks' GM Larry Harris admitted around the time of the draft that he had not seen Yi play and was solely interested in him because his father Del, who has coached in China, thinks highly of Yi. Since the guy who drafted Yi has hardly seen Yi play I am very skeptical of anyone who would make any kind of sweeping statements about Yi's NBA future.

The bias against 21-22 year old players, which in years past often led to college juniors or seniors being drafted later than high schoolers who had more "upside," does not make much sense to me. Carlos Boozer has turned out to be pretty good, hasn't he? Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler were supposed to have more potential than Elton Brand. How has that turned out?

I realize that players in various sports have lied about their ages but I think that is more because of the perception that this matters than anything else. Great NBA players who stay healthy can play until they are at least 35, so if Yi has enough talent I'm sure that Milwaukee would be happy with 10 or 12 All-Star seasons (assuming the "worst case" scenario that he is 23 now and takes three years to become an All-Star).

As for Durant, I agree that he has a lot of upside--but he also clearly must bulk up his physique and he looked very one dimensional in the summer league. Regardless of age, his main advantage over Yi right now is that he will not have to adjust to a new culture in addition to adjusting to the NBA game. Durant will score points this year--albeit with a low shooting percentage--while it is not clear whether or not Yi can have a similar impact in any one statistical area.

At Thursday, August 30, 2007 8:41:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

i keep seeing these comments on Yi's age being suspect, but never the reason why it is suspect

is it just be cause he looks older than 19?

everyone jokingly said the same things about Lebron and Oden, is it just because Yi is from China people think there may substance to the lies?

At Thursday, August 30, 2007 10:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My recollection of Yi's summer league team was that is was staffed and coached in a way fundamentally different than the rest of the summer league teams. Sun Yue was the only other NBA caliber player on the team and the feed-the-post offense really didn't demonstrate what the Chinese players could do in a NBA type offense.

At Thursday, August 30, 2007 5:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

When people say it about LeBron or Oden they are clearly just joking based on those guys looking older than their actual ages; there is no real dispute about how old they are.

The actual ages of athletes who are from countries other than the United States are not always easy to verify. I'm not sure of the specifics in Yi's case but, to cite two veterans in different sports, there have frequently been suspicions that Dikembe Mutombo and Julio Franco are even older than their officially listed ages.

At Thursday, August 30, 2007 9:13:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

it will be three years or so before we can tell if Yi will develop into an All-Star level player.

But if he's 23 years old now, in three years, he'll be 26 and in his prime and much, much closer to 30.

If he's 19, he'll be 22 in three years and a team will get eight more years out of him before he noticeably starts to decline.

It's a significant difference and shouldn't be tossed aside like it's meaningless.

All of your other points, like Chandler/Curry over Brand, are sort of non-sequiturs. I wasn't arguing high school vs. college; I'm saying it's a significant, significant difference if Yi struggled during the Summer League games and he was 22, not 19.

None of the big college players, such as Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer or Dwyane Wade, struggled in their first few years in the league. You immediately knew whether they could play.

A raw 21- to 23-year-old is a significantly bigger risk than a raw 19-year-old, and there's much less upside. Hollinger's main point is that at 19, Yi will improve quickly. At 22 or 23, he's already near his peak.

i keep seeing these comments on Yi's age being suspect, but never the reason why it is suspect

Because it was thought the Chinese lied about his age in order to get him into junior tournaments.

He was also listed as being born in 1984 on one roster, but Chinese officials called it a typo.


At Friday, August 31, 2007 12:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I stand by what I said: if the worst case scenario is that Yi is already 22 and it takes him three years to develop then I am sure that Milwaukee will be happy to have an All-Star for a decade or so, because he will be able to play until he is at least 35 if he does not get hurt. If it turns out that he can't play in three years, it won't matter how old he is. Harris drafted him and he apparently had not seen him play prior to the draft, so all that Hollinger, you or I can do at this point is speculate about how good Yi will be--nobody really knows. I agree that it would be preferable if Yi is 19 instead of 22 but I don't think that in that age range it is that big of a deal. David Robinson and Roger Staubach started their careers late due to military commitments and I don't think that they were poor draft risks.

It is easy to say in retrospect that Brand, Boozer and Wade can all play but go back and look at what the "experts" said at the time those players were drafted: questions surrounded all three of them because of height and various other factors. Didn't Detroit take young Darko due to his "upside"? That is precisely why I brought up Chandler and Curry and why Chicago choosing to build around them instead of Brand is a very relevant analogy to your point about ages: the Bulls liked Chandler and Curry's "upside" more than Brand's precisely because of the reasoning that you are invoking--they were fresh out of high school and supposedly had a lot of room to improve, while Brand was considered a finished product. Chandler has become a solid rebounder and shot blocker but he will never be as good as Brand. Curry is a very good low post scorer but he is a poor rebounder and defender and I doubt that too many people would take him over Brand (I'm assuming that Brand fully recovers from his Achilles injury).

I don't know what kind of player Yi will turn out to be but the numbers that will interest me about him once the season begins are ppg, rpg, fg% and so forth, not his birth year. As I said, he needs to be given some time to adjust to the NBA--like Dirk and Kobe and other players who came into the NBA at a young age and/or without U.S. college experience. We will then find out what his skill level is.

I don't disagree that, in theory, it would be better if Yi is 19 instead of 22--I mean, that is obvious. What I disagree with is the idea that if Yi is 22 then that should have been some kind of deal breaker for Milwaukee. Yi is a lottery pick, so if he is not an All-Star--or close to it--in three years or so, then this was a bad pick, no matter how old he is. I would actually be more inclined to agree with your reasoning if you applied it to players 9-12 on the roster as opposed to someone who is supposed to become a key rotation guy. At the end of the bench it makes more sense to have younger guys who have more time to develop into players who can become solid rotation guys (players 6-8). Younger guys also usually come cheaper, which is good for the team's salary cap, but that is another story.


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