How Big a Deal is Yi's Development?

Yi Jianlian’s development has the potential to change everything. An exaggeration? Probably. A hope? No doubt. The addition of a legitimate fourth building block, beyond Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and Courtney Lee, could effect the draft, free agency, and the Nets' long-term finances, as well as the rest of a forlorn season.

Everyone seems to be acting with restraint when discussing what Yi’s done since returning. It’s all conditional: IF he continues his good play…IF he continues to be aggressive…IF his confidence continues to grow…IF he stays healthy. And Dave D’Alessandro reported Friday that even in the "highest levels" of the Nets' front office (code for Rod Thorn?) there remain doubts that he is "starting quality".

He certainly regressed Saturday when he went 2-for-13, including 0-6 on his strength, the mid range game. He couldn’t complete a single successful drive to the rim either. Ultimately, he did reach double figures with 11 points and fell two short of double figures in rebounds. On a positive note, he blocked three shots, giving him five in the past two games.

"The shots did not feel good," Yi said after the game. ""They did not allow me to drive to the basket, and (were) just very good at making me think about it. They always have two bigs inside. That makes it hard to get to the basket."

Still he’s averaging 20.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and a block per in the five games since returning from injury and in spite of Saturday’s miserable performance, he’s shooting 47% overall over that same period.

So now everyone waits to see if he’s the old Yi, the "eternal tease" as one fantasy expert called him, or the new one, the guy Nets broadcaster Tim Capstraw gushed was looking "looking like a potential all-star" in recent games. He’s played well in stretches before, but not at this level. So, it’s worth discussing: what would an aggressive, confident, productive Yi mean for the Nets?

First off, it would pay immediate dividends. The Nets may be 3-30, but the team’s top eight players have missed as total of 75 games. They are no doubt a bad team, but they’re not 3-30 bad. With some experience in spacing the floor, Yi and Lopez can be effective.

"A guy that talented can make my life so much easier," Lopez said before the Knicks game. "He’s just another player the defense has to respect." And in fact, the undersized Knicks even double teamed Yi on occasion.

Yi says he has changed his game, admitting he needed to be more aggressive.

"Since I came back from the injury I just try to play hard on the court," he says. "When I was sitting at home every night I’d watch the game and think about the games I played before. Some were good. Some were bad. I’d think about how I can do better, (then decided to) come back and change my game, (leave) everything on the court."

His coach, probably his biggest supporter in basketball, thinks a lot of it has to do with the confidence that comes with enjoying the game.

"I want guys to enjoy playing basketball," Kiki Vandeweghe told Hoopsworld. "That's important. You have to be passionate. You've got to enjoy it. Nobody enjoys getting beat, clearly, but during the game, you know, competing, feeling good about yourself, and enjoying basketball, I think that's a big part of this whole thing. I want him to experience that too."

So far, so good.

But the real payoff to the Yi experiment could come starting in June when the Nets should have one of the top four picks in the draft. If they get the overall #1, it’s a no-brainer. John Wall will be holding up a Nets uniform jersey with the number 1 and his name on the back. But if the ping pong balls fall another way, things could get interesting. The Nets’ philosophy has always been, pick the "best player available" no matter what the position. Without a productive power forward, the Nets would certainly be tempted to throw aside that BPA philosophy and go for a big man. If Yi is "for real", the Nets will have the luxury of assessing all the players on an equal basis. Cole Aldrich, Derrick Favors or Evan Turner? They could even take a more long-term risk, like Lithuanian seven-footer Donatas Motiejunas, who reminds people of Toni Kukoc.

Free agency is a different issue. It’s about attraction. No matter what fans, beat writers and columnists think or write, none of it means a thing. The only thinking that matters is what each free agent thinks about the core he’d be joining—can he help them win a championship? Are they good enough? How many other pieces do they need? There are other issues as well, including the owner’s commitment to winning, management’s savvy, who’s his coach and where he’ll be playing. And the only writing that matters is the signature on a contract.

You don’t think Lebron James is looking at the potential of the Nets’ young core? He said as much Saturday, "I think Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, Courtney Lee and some of those guys—CDR—are really talented players." He didn’t mention Yi. But then, as Al Iannazzone points out, he hasn't seen the "new" Yi.

There’s another issue as well when assessing Yi’s ability to attract free agents. He’s one of China’s top celebrities, one of the most recognized faces and names in a country of 1.3 billion. As Devin Harris learned during his two trips to China last summer, Yi is huge over there. His picture adorns everything from Nike billboards to wrappers on corn ice cream (we’ll pass, but thanks). There are also rumors the Nets will be playing preseason games in China next fall. Players like James understand the power of China within global marketing. The better Yi plays, the bigger Yi becomes. Yi’s handlers, primarily Nike, have always tried to market Yi as the hip-hop Yao Ming, more athletic, more street savvy. And do note: Nike opened a Lebron James Museum in Shanghai in 2008.

As John Schuhmann of NBA.com astutely wrote the day Yi was traded to the Nets, "If LeBron envisions himself as a global icon, he might see the opportunity to team with Yi, in addition to moving to a larger market, as a wise business move."

Brett Yormark said basically the same thing recently, telling an interviewer from the American Chamber of Commerce in China that Yi has made the Nets "China’s Home Team in the NBA". Yormark added the team aims to become a "platform" for Chinese companies entering the US market, noting how Yi has made the Nets a popular brand in China.

The Nets’ finances could also be affected by Yi the star. The Nets are negotiating with Haier, the big Chinese electronics manufacturer, to become a founding sponsor at Barclays Center. At one point, it was reported that Haier would open an electronics store inside the Brooklyn arena. Because of Yi, the Nets have already signed some of China’s biggest names to sponsorship deals: Nike China, Sina.com, PEAK, etc. The Nets are seen regularly on Chinese television—55 games last season, 49 this season. The team doesn’t get any money from foreign TV deals—the NBA does, but the Nets do sell advertising on the banner space below the scorers’ table to Chinese companies. The more successful and popular Yi becomes, the better the ratings in China, the more money the Nets can charge.

Yormark knows his plan to make the Brooklyn Nets a "global brand" rests on two pillars: Yi and new owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

All that will affect contract negotiations. Yi’s value to the team is not just on the court and no doubt, his agent Dan Fegan will let the Nets know that. They have to decide before October 31 how much they want to give Yi and for how long. He won’t get paid on that new contract until the 2011-12 season so it won’t cut into cap space this summer.

It’s not surprising there is only conditional love for Yi and a lot of doubts, among fans. He’s been a polarizing figure among Nets fans from day one, largely through no fault of his own. For those who remain unconvinced, the Cavs game was an "I-told-you-so" moment. No surprise. Yi has been been, as one pundit noted, one of the more polarizing figures in the Nets rebuilding process. The list of reasons why is long.

He was traded for Richard Jefferson, a popular player who while never an all-Star would often play like one. Many believed the trade was all about marketing…that he was traded not for his basketball abilities but because he would lure Chinese—and other Asian—fans to the team as it planned its move to Brooklyn. New York, after all, is home to the largest concentration of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in North America. The Nets decision to set up two Chinese language websites added to that suspicion.

Then, in spite of all the hype, he played inconsistently early. After injuring his hand trying to guard Michael Redd and never fully recovering, he was simply awful and benched by Lawrence Frank. After the season, the team traded Ryan Anderson, a popular young player, to the Magic in the Vince Carter deal. Vandeweghe admitted Anderson was included in part because there was a "bit of duplication" between the young power forwards. The trade looked lop-sided as Yi and Lee were injured and Anderson surged early in Orlando.

To make matters worse, after a lot of off-season stories about how he gained strength, he sprained his knee in the fourth game. Then when he was a day away from his first action in six weeks he needed 50 stitches to close a lip wound caused by an Sean Williams' errant elbow during a post-practice scrimmage.

There were other, internal, issues as well: Some in the front office blamed Vandeweghe for pushing too hard for Yi and not getting as much as he could have for Jefferson. Fegan complained privately and then publicly about Yi’s playing time, implying that Frank was hurting his development. Team insiders say Frank and Vandeweghe feuded over Yi. Vandeweghe, they say, had demanded Yi start even after his effectiveness waned. Frank refused to let Yi’s trainer into the PNY Center. Ultimately, Vandeweghe won out and then after he reluctantly became head coach, got the Nets to hire Del Harris. Harris and Vandeweghe had worked together in Dallas, but at least as importantly, Harris was the first coach to show confidence in Yi. In 2004, as coach of Team China, Harris started the 16-year-old in the Athens Olympics.

Now, Yi’s healthy, happy with the change in coaches, and playing well, if still somewhat inconsistently.

IF…there’s that word again…things have in fact changed, a lot of conventional wisdom about Yi goes out the window, which some fans are having a hard time giving up. Fans who didn’t care if Yi ever returned…and there were no small number of them…now are wondering what to think.

Is this the start of something big? A lot of people in the front office hope so. Fans, for the most part, are not so sure.

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