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Yi - The Triumph of Hope Over Statistics

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Yi Jianlian, says ESPN's John Hollinger, is "terrible". Fans boo him and want him replaced in the starting lineup. His numbers have dropped faster than the Dow...and unlike the stock index, haven't had much of a bounce lately.

Still, the Nets have hope…and patience.

His coach says simply of his decision to keep him in the starting lineup, "Remember, we're trying to do two things," Lawrence Frank said recently. "He has a big upside, and we're giving him an opportunity. And, we're trying to win the game. We said it's not going to be easy."

Yi’s teammates believe he should play.

As Jarvis Hayes pointed out the other day, "I think it's good he's playing. He has to play. Because he's a talent, and if they consider him a building block for this franchise, he has to take his hits. It's trial by fire."

Keyon Dooling said something similar early last week to WFAN: "Yi’s a very unique player…the fact that he’s seven foot, can shoot the ball so well and is extremely athletic. The thing about it is that Yi is young. He doesn’t have a lot of playing experience. He doesn’t have a lot of experience playing at this level. So there’s going to be growing pains like there are with any other second year player in this league. What he has to do is continue to keep working, try to get better. I still think the sky’s the limit for Yi."

So is there really any hope that Yi can turn into a top notch NBA player—before his rookie contract is up, because that’s really all that matters.

There have been spurts, tantalizing to be sure but none turned into that breakout stretch that established him. The three games just before he went down in February were the biggest indicator of what he could be. He went for 20 points and 6 rebounds against the Grizzlies, 22 points and 13 rebounds against the Kings and 16 points and 4 rebounds in 25 minutes against the Bucks before he went down. As Dave D’Alessandro noted, he was also "playing with surprising poise despite being booed on his touches early in the [Bucks] game".

Even in November, he looked good over a short stretch. In four games, he averaged 9.5 rebounds, including one game of 13 boards and a double-double against the Heat where he scored 24 and grabbed 11 rebounds. He also did a nice second-half defensive job on Miami's Michael Beasley…just as he did against Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge in the first half of last week's game.

And in his last two outings, against the Knicks and Heat, Yi seems to have turned the slightest of corners, scoring 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds in 38 minutes…with only four fouls.

But that’s a long way from what was hoped for…at least by fans.

Last year, Yi supporters pointed to the similarity between Yi’s first year numbers with the Bucks and Dirk Nowitzki’s first year numbers with the Mavs. Problem is that Nowitzki had a big improvement his second year. Yi hasn’t.

Now, the comparison is to the Raptors’ Andrea Bargnani’s second year numbers. Like Yi, Bargnani was hammered by fans who saw his high pick, #1 overall, in a draft that also included Brandon Roy as a major mistake. Raptor fans saw him as a bust.

Indeed, there is little difference between Yi’s numbers this season and Bargnani’s last season. Bargnani averaged 10.2 ppg and 3.7 rpg on 38.6% shooting overall, and 34.5% from downtown. Even with his post-injury slump, Yi is still averaging 9.2 ppg and 5.7 rpg, shooting 40.0% overall and 35.2% from downtown. Bargnani played 24.5 minutes a game, Yi 23.9. If measured against Yi’s numbers before he broke his pinkie, Bargnani’s numbers last year were worse than Yi’s. (You can even make an argument that Yi has advanced more than Bargnani over the longer term. Bargnani was a proven deep shooter in Italy, shooting 59-for-154 or 38.3% in his three years before leaving for the NBA. Yi shot only 16-for-69 or 23.2% during his four years in China.)

The question is whether Yi will advance as much as Bargnani did from last year to this year. With the departure of Sam Mitchell, who never seemed to buy into the Bargnani Experiment, the 23-year-old is averaging 15.1 ppg and 5.4 rpg, shooting 45.0% overall and 41.3% from downtown. If Yi could find those numbers next season, the Nets would be more than happy. They would be thrilled.

Some complain that Yi hasn’t advanced at all from his rookie year to this, and indeed it’s hard to argue that Yi’s last month has been anything other than "terrible", as Hollinger put it. But he has shown some improvement over last season. His rebounding rate has gone from 8.3 per 40 minutes with the Bucks to 9.3 per 40 minutes with the Nets. That’s not far behind Brook Lopez’s 10.3 and Ryan Anderson’s 9.7. But his offensive rebounding is off by better than 25% on a 40-minute basis since last season.

His three-point shooting is his biggest improvement. Last season, he made only six three’s all season and shot less than 29%. This year, he already has 44 and is shooting 35.2%. In other areas, though, improvement is marginal at best. He is scoring 15.1 per 40 minutes, compared to 14.2 last season. His turnovers have dropped slightly, from 2.2 per 40 minutes to 1.9. Worse is that in some categories, his numbers have dropped. His overall shooting percentage, one of the worst among rookie 7-footers in NBA history, has actually fallen off this season. Free throw attempts, on a 40 minute basis, have dipped slightly. His personal fouls are up, dramatically. He's gone from a rookie number of 3.7 per 40 minutes to 4.4. That's a nearly 20 per cent rise, when one would think the rate would be dropping.

Nets brass think they see sparks, even on defense, and so remain hopeful, even encouraged. Rod Thorn praised Yi’s defense against Aldridge in Portland.

"I felt in the first half, Yi played as well defensively as he had all year," Thorn told the Star-Ledger recently. "They go to Aldridge a lot, but Yi was terrific. When he came back midway in the game in the fourth, he didn't play as well. But I was encouraged by the way he guarded, and the intensity level he played with.

"That's the kind of focus he has to come with every night. It shows he can do it. He contested every shot that guy (Aldridge) took. So that was encouraging, because it shows he can do it. Now if he can guard without fouling, you're halfway there. Because you know he can make an open jump shot. So I was encouraged."

Can the Nets afford to be patient? Of course they can and have given every indication they will. His rookie contract still has two years to run. His biggest competition, Anderson, is viewed as "rotation player," according to Thorn, not a starter. Of course, if the Nets get an opportunity for a more traditional power forward in the June draft...

"Yi has had some games that are maybe a little ahead of schedule," said Kiki Vandeweghe, Yi’s biggest supporter, after his first spurt in November. "He hasn't played a lot of U.S. basketball."

There’s no indication that’s changed and it implies that Nets are prepared to wait for Yi to develop. In fact, Vandeweghe's latest comments, made a little more than a week ago, reinforce that.

"He's really young and has not played a lot of basketball. So for me – because last year he got hurt and missed almost half the year – he's a rookie," Vandeweghe told HoopsWorld. "I think he is sort of growing into his role with the team."

He told WFAN essentially the same thing, also last week: "Yi was playing extremely good basketball before he broke his finger."

One thing to expect in the off-season is a tug-of-war for Yi's time between the Nets on one side and the Chinese Basketball Association on the other. China will be playing in the FIBA Asian Games in September and if history is any judge, they'll want him home practicing with the national team. The Nets will want him in New Jersey, working on his game--and his strength and conditioning with Rich D'Altri. The Nets couldn't get Yi into much of a regimen last summer after the Bucks' trade because Yi was training for the Olympics in Beijing. They don't want to miss another opportunity and have been lobbying the Chinese to let him spend more time with them, hoping the CBA will realize that a stronger Yi will help China in the 2012 London Olympics as well as the Nets in 2009-10.

The Nets knew what they were getting into when they traded Richard Jefferson for Yi (and Bobby Simmons). They knew it would take some time and, again, patience. But as long ago as June 2007, Vandeweghe let people know what he thought Yi's long-term potential is.

Then an ESPN analyst, Vandeweghe, said he was "blown away" by the Yi workouts he saw in California.

"What I didn't realize was how athletic he is," Vandeweghe said then. "I've worked out big players for more than 20 years, and I compare Yi very favorably to when I first worked out with Dirk Nowitzki."

Nets fans can only hope he's right.