Last June 26 was a day of big risks for the Nets–big risks with young players.
The team started the day by trading a popular player, Richard Jefferson, for Yi Jianlian, a 20-year-old who had started well, but finished poorly for the Bucks. Then that night, they took chances on two players who had fallen in the draft, Brook Lopez and Chris Douglas-Roberts, while making a reach for another player, Ryan Anderson. Anderson is 20. Yi and Lopez are 21 and CDR is now 22.
We’ve been providing occasional updates on the Gamble as the season progresses. This is the final update.
It wasn’t a debate, but the other day, two of ESPN’s analysts posted diametrically opposed views on Yi Jianlian’s prospects in separate items on the sports website. David Thorpe and John Hollinger often agree on NBA players, but not this time. Thorpe, who gains his expertise from training players, thinks there is still a lot of hope that Yi will succeed. Hollinger, the stats geek, dismisses that hope, wondering how much upside he has.
They even disagreed on the veracity of Yi’s birth certificate, with Thorpe saying pointedly that "he is just 21", and Hollinger quoting "reliable sources" that Yi is "two years older than his listed age of 21".
What they point up the division between the hope and reality that will ultimately determine if the June 26 Gamble turns out to be a clean sweep for the Nets.
"There was a time last season when I thought Atlanta might have been better off drafting Yi over Horford. At this point, it's clear I was dead wrong. Yi has lost all his confidence and looks lost out on the floor much of the time. He is shooting less than 40 percent from the field and is a poor defensive player as well.
"There is a silver lining, though, as Yi has shown abilities as a decent defensive rebounder and 3-point shooter. Plus, he is just 21 years old. Seeing him improve greatly next season would not be surprising at all."
"Lost in the shuffle this week, but worth mentioning: The string of DNP-CDs by the Nets' Yi Jianlian this week. New Jersey traded for him in the hope that he could emerge as a quality power forward, and I suppose there's still a chance that it happens. But he was awful during the second half of the season, and since reliable sources continue to insist that he's two years older than his listed age of 21, one has to wonder how much upside the Chinese 7-footer has left to explore."
Why is Yi so key to the outcome of the Gamble: the rest of the day’s moves have looked better and better as Yi’s season has looked worse and worse. At season’s end, it’s easy to argue that the Nets had the best draft of any NBA team in a draft that was the best in years.
That’s saying something.
Twice in the last two weeks of the season, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts put up 45 or more points in a game, 46 vs. the Bulls on April 4 and 52 vs. the Pistons on Friday. And there are still a few games to go.
Lawrence Frank is right to say the team has seen enough of the four young players acquired on June 26 to make judgments and to know what they need to do in the off-season. But the late season efforts of Anderson and Douglas-Roberts certainly have opened some eyes…particularly CDR.
Since he was inserted in the rotation against the Nuggets on March 16, the Memphis product averaged 8.8 ppg in 13 games on 46-for-84 shooting or 54.8%. He’s 2-for-5 from downtown. And with his gymnastic moves to the rim, he has been getting to line…and making his shots, shooting 77%. Beyond the numbers, though, CDR has shown an uncanny ability to find the seams and exploit them, occasionally showing surprising athleticism.
Since being inserted in the starting lineup, Anderson has had some ups-and-downs. In the last five games, however, he’s gotten into a nice groove. With the exception of a complete washout in the Sixer blowout, Anderson has played well. He’s averaged 12.2 ppg and 5.8 rebounds in 28 minutes, shooting 10-for-24 or 41.7% from downtown, 90% from the free throw line and 21-for-47 overall or 44.7%. He's got his confidence back.
Then, there’s Lopez, in the top ten in the NBA in blocked shots—seventh in total blocks, ninth in blocks per game—and seventh as well in dunks. He’s also 12th in field goal percentage and 11th in offensive rebounds. Here, again, there’s a beyond-the-numbers story. For the first time, the normally mild-mannered Lopez is showing a mean streak, hammering home a dunk Friday night on the Pistons’ Kwame Brown and talking of how he wanted the ball more so he could do it again and again. Lopez may not win the Rookie of the Year, in spite of votes of confidence from Hollinger and Thorpe, who are unanmous in their praise of him. But if there was a "Draft Steal of the Year", the Nets would walk away with the prize.
Which brings us back to Yi. He will probably get some time in the Nets' last few games, and some may have thought they saw some glimmers of hope a few games back when after losing his starting job to Anderson, he put together back-to-back 10-point games. But here the back story is easy to read. He was playing mostly garbage minutes in what could be considered the two worst losses of the year, against the Bucks and Timberwolves. He shot just 5-for-14 in those two games, although he did go 3-for-7 from downtown. Such are the limits of hopeful signs when a player loses his confidence.
The Nets are unlikely to dump Yi…and there’s unlikely to be a big market either. He is still on his rookie contract and makes a reasonable risk-to-reward $3.2 million next season. But he’ll have a hard time winning back that power forward position. Anderson already has moved ahead of him…and judging by what Rod Thorn said Friday about the team’s needs, there’ll be more competition come October.
"A guy who can defend, a guy who can rebound, a guy who does all the little dirty work out on the floor, sets screens," Thorn said when asked about team priorities in the off-season. "A guy like that is invaluable."
Beyond that, there's Yi's summer schedule. It's uncertain how much time he'll be able to spend in New Jersey, working on his strength and shooting. Team China and his old team, the Guangdong Southern Tigers both have claims on his time that take precedence over training in East Rutherford. Of course, things change in the off-season and maybe they think Yi’s better suited to the small forward position, another problem spot this season.
Yi's agent, Dan Fegan, let everyone know this weekend how he feels about the Nets' development of Yi. To him, and presumably Yi, it's on the Nets...and, the implication is, Lawrence Frank.
"In the 10 games Yi has played 30-plus minutes and taken 10 or more shots, he has averaged 17.5 points, shot 47 percent, 40 from 3-point line, and 7.3 rebounds," Fegan said to the Star-Ledger's Dave D'Alessandro. "You can't just fake that. Those are strong numbers for any player -- let alone a second-year player."
Fegan, who normally is reluctant to talk publicly about his clients' problems with management, asked a coupel of other pointed questions.
"To me, the question isn't Yi's performance or upside. The real question is this: How can a team go from 18-18 and sixth place in the Eastern Conference before he gets hurt to seven games out of playoff contention now?
"It begs the question," Fegan concluded. "What happened, and who's accountable?"
Yi was Kiki Vandeweghe’s project, still is. He doesn't blame anyone, at least publicly, other than a twist of fate and pinkie.
"You had a guy who looked like he was turning the corner, looked like he was playing pretty well," the GM told D'Alessandro. "Then he broke a finger on his shooting hand. He seemed to be getting it before then -- consistently in the high teens, seven to nine rebounds per game.
"But the injury to his shooting hand really turned him off. I've had a hand injury, but it takes a while to get back in there and get confidence. I'm not giving excuses, but that's my take."
The rest of the moves made that night also seem to bear Kiki's stamp. Vandeweghe spoke that night and the next day about how important good shooting big men can be. He also told reporters at the time that he thought Douglas-Roberts had the best workout of any player to show up in East Rutherford. All told, you have to be happy with the draft, obviously less so with Yi.
This isn’t the first time Vandeweghe had a split decision on a big night. Like the June 26, 2008 gamble, that one took place on Draft Night and involved both draft picks and a trade…and a young seven-footer from overseas. On June 27, 2002, while Nuggets GM, he traded forward Antonio McDyess and the draft rights to guard Frank Williams to the Knicks for center Marcus Camby, guard Mark Jackson and the draft rights to Nenê. McDyess spent most of his Knick career on the disabled list. Williams never amounted to much. Camby became a defensive anchor for Denver and Nene’ has finally, after a battle with injury and illness, become a solid power forward. No one ever made a mistake trading for Mark Jackson. But that same night, he drafted Nikoloz Tskitishvili from the Republic of Georgia, like Yi supposedly the next Dirk Nowitzki, with the fifth overall pick, passing on Amar’e Stoudemire, taken at #9 by the Suns.
One of the criticisms of the "Skita" pick was that Kiki was drafting someone in his own image and likeness…a big, sweet-shooting, and yes, a little soft, forward. The same could be said of the trade for Yi. Whether the two players are different is a long way from being known.