It all seemed so controversial last summer. Bucks management trapsing all over the world to track down their 1st round draft pick, Yi Jianlian, whose handlers would have prefered he play on the West Coast, or anywhere but here.
Yi was promised a starting position, ESPN reported. No he wasn’t Bucks GM Larry Harris lied – I mean replied. Bucks fans worried that the team had wasted the #6 pick on a guy that didn’t want to play.
The season started with Yi in the starting lineup, playing 30 minutes a game. Charlie Villanueva was relegated to reserve role and did a spectacularly bad job of it. By the end of December, Seattle’s Kevin Durant, the rookie of the year and #2 pick, was the only rookie scoring more than Yi, and only #3 pick, Atlanta center Al Horford, was rebounding more. Yi was leading them all with a .503 shooting percentage. Yi was named T-Mobile Rookie of the Month in the Eastern Conference for December, and had filled it up for 29 against Charlotte (a win) on the 22nd.
But there was a problem: The Bucks were 18-30 with Yi as a starter. On Feb. 9 — Game 49 — Larry Krystkowiak moved Yi to the bench and started Charlie V.
But there was a problem: The Bucks lost at an even faster rate, going 8-25 in games that Yi did not start or did not play (he missed half of them) the rest of the way. (Yi did start one more game in February, a loss).
This week, the NBA coaches left Yi off the 1st and 2nd team All-NBA rookie teams, though Yi did receive 13 votes in the process. (A first team selection gets 2 points; a second team selection gets one point). That means that nearly half of the 29 voting coaches (coaches can’t vote for their own players) thought Yi was good enough for second team, assuming no one voted Yi on the first team. That’s nearly not half bad.
Watching a 6’11” guy run the floor better than Tracy McGrady and shoot jumpers with Ray-Allen-perfect form wasn’t half bad either. Watching Yi get pushed around as he tried to box out for rebounds was not so good. Even worse was Yi flashing to open spots and being routinely ignored by Michael Redd and Mo Williams. There was a mean chill on this Bucks team; you had to be at the games to see it.
I was impressed with Yi — and I admit, I was hoping to be impressed. He wanted to run the floor. Yet no one on the Bucks was ready to run except Mo Williams. (Dez Mason was out the first few games I attended; Yi was out the last couple). On offense, the ball didn’t move — Redd held it, waited, palmed it, waited for everyone to stop, then drove into traffic. As a team, they couldn’t get uncontested shots. Mo could, easily enough, but only for himself. In a game against New Jersey, at halftime Yi and Bogut had six points combined.
After a few trips to the BC, it stopped mattering to me whether the Bucks should have drafted Jeff Green or one of the Florida players, Noah or Brewer, instead of Yi. After Greg Oden, Durant and Al Horford, it didn’t matter. The way the Bucks were playing, it didn’t matter. So the kid from China didn’t want to play in Milwaukee. Who in their right mind would want to suffer on the 2007-08 Bucks? Scola? No. Carl Landry, who grew up here and went to Vincent? Alright, Landry would probably love to play for the Bucks, no matter the circumstances.
I did come to the conclusion that Yi should have been coming off the bench. If the Bucks couldn’t do anything else well, at least Krystkowiak should have commited the team to rebounding. Charlie V last season was better help for Bogut under the boards, and should have been the starter at power forward. Both big forwards could have played 30 minutes, with Yi playing about ten minutes at small forward, posting up his defender.
But it didn’t matter. The Bucks lost more when Charlie was starting. Sometimes Charlie felt like rebounding, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he played as though all he cared about was proving that he could score just as much, if not more, than “Michael” and look better doing it. Call it the Mo Williams syndrome. By April, Yi, Mo and Charlie all seemed perfectly happy sitting in their tailor-made suits, riding out the bad vibes of the season on the end of the bench.
GM John Hammond has enthusiastically called Yi “a keeper” an “asset” and in a lengthy interview in the Racine Journal Times Sunday, said Bogut and Yi are: “two, very good young pieces … that you can build around. Bigs are so hard to find. The Boguts and the Yis … it would be awfully hard to move guys like that.”
Bogut said this about Yi in his most recent interview with Journal Sentinel:
“To have him at the 4 (power forward) and shoot the ball the way he does, that’s his main role, and I think he’s done a great job with it,” Bogut said. “I think he can spread the defense. But once he gets more aggressive, I think he needs to work on putting the ball on the floor and trying to get to the basket.
“He’s as athletic as anybody I’ve seen. Ballhandling will be a key factor for him, working in the off-season. If he gets that down, he’ll be a much more productive guy. Guys are scouting him and trying to make him put the ball on the floor.
“It’s kind of tough, adjusting to NBA guys who are much quicker than you’re used to. It’s just getting strong hands, and I think he’ll be fine. His work ethic is unbelievable, and he’ll be in the gym every day this summer.”
Sounds good to me. The NBA season is sometimes just a snapshot of basketball in time that doesn’t carry over into the playoffs or the next season. The All-Rookie team presents one of these snapshots for the league; it’s camera failed to capture the ups and downs of Yi’s first season, just as it failed to capture how well Detroit’s Rodney Stuckey played in Game 5 against Orlando last night (Stuckey missed the All-Rookie 1st team but made the 2nd).
There’s no real controvers-Yi to find here. And no reason to doubt the hope that Yi will be much-improved next season.