Brook Lopez was impressed by a number of things the other day after facing off against Yi Jianlian at the Nets’ practice facility. Some new post moves, better upper body strength...and his stamina.
"Yi's been playing a lot stronger," Lopez said. "He looks like he's polished up a lot of stuff. He still looks like he's going well, even though he's playing basically year round. So he doesn't look withered (worn down) or anything like that. He looks like he's in pretty good shape."
Yi himself admitted Wednesday that his confidence, after being down "a little bit" at the end of last season, is up again, in part because his summer workout regimen is yielding results.
"That's what I focused on the past month, work on more post moves, some hand stuff, hook shot, left hand, right hand," said Yi, who's added five pounds (not ten) since the end of the season. "Just playing, (using) some post-moves, working on that, trying to get the feeling."
He admits that some of his summers have been grueling with his dual commitments to Team China and the Nets.
Yi’s "year-round" schedule has been a concern for the Nets since he was acquired from the Bucks on Draft Day 2007. How much can he take before getting worn down and/or burned out.
No Net has had the long "season" Yi has had in the past year and a half. He has been in training or playing almost non-stop (other than two injury rehabs) since he joined the Bucks in October 2007.
And other than a quick visit to see his parents in Guangdong the week after the season ended, he’s been training in one of three gyms…Joe Abunassar’s Impact Athletics facilities in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where he worked out from the last week in April til the last week in June and now, the Nets' training facility since.
He’s returning to China in mid-July to prepare for the FIBA Asia Games, which run August 6-16, in Tianjin, his latest turn with Team China. More significantly, Yi will be filling a temporary hole that could become permanent--the role of team leader long held by Yao Ming, now hobbled with a broken foot that's not healing. The extent of Yao’s foot injury is such that his career may be threatened, say Rockets’ doctors. That would vault Yi and, to a lesser degree, Sun Yue of the Lakers, into an even brighter spotlight…with all the accompanying pressure.
This summer’s schedule, while hectic, is nowhere near as tough as last summer’s. Yi played in 18 games for Team China last summer--12 exhibitions plus six Olympic games--training with them from his return in early May through the end of the Olympics in late August. When he flew 20,000 miles round trip to New Jersey for his introductory press conference in July, he spent only four days away from training camp.
He's been rewarded, of course, becoming one of China's leading celebrities--and receiving endorsement deals from companies like Nike and Coca-Cola. But his production with the Nets was inconsistent...at best. Part of it was due to his broken finger, but there was lingering concerns that he was burnt out as well.
It's hard to know how much of a toll the physical--and mental--stress of his schedule has affected him, but there's no doubt he's been busy. He signed with the Bucks later than most lottery picks, following a holdout engineered by his agent, Dan Fegan, hurt his wrist and knee during the season and missed 16 games. From then on, it was an intercontinental shuttle, with side trips around Asia thrown in.
Here's a summary:
April 4, 2008 – Yi shuts down for the season after spraining his knee in Milwaukee. Tells Chinese press that the NBA season, with twice as many games as the Chinese Basketball Association, has been a challenge. He has played in 66 out of 82 games.
April 18, 2008 – Yi completes first NBA season, leaves Milwaukee for China, where the rest of Team China has been practicing since March.
May 4, 2008 – Runs with Olympic torch in Hainan Province in south China.
May 6, 2008 – Participates in Torch Relay Celebration in Beijing.
June 13-25, 2008 - Pre-Olympic Friendly Series – Plays in five exhibition games in 12 days vs. Croatia, Czech Republic and Lithuanian teams after recuperating from sprained knee.
June 27 – Yi is photographed celebrating his trade to the Nets with his girlfriend at karaoke bar, causing a "media frenzy". State media expresses shock that Yi would break his Beijing Olympic Games training regime to attend night spots, and widely report that sports officials were about to punish the star player. They didn’t.
July 4-6, 2008 - Team China vs. Australian All-Stars, Ningpo, China. Yi plays in a two-game exhibition series against a team of all-Stars from the Australian National Basketball League.
July 6-10, 2008 – Yi Heads to New Jersey. Immediately after the tournament, he flies non-stop from Shanghai to JFK for Nets' press conference three days later. The day after the press conference, he has to return to Beijing to resume Olympic training.
July 17-21, 2008 - Stankovic Cup, Huangzhou, China. Yi plays three games in five days vs. Angola, Russia and Serbia.
July 23, 2008 - Visit from China President Hu. On its return to Beijing Olympic Training Site, Team China is greeted by China’s President Hu Jintao. He tells Yi and the rest of the Chinese team, "We Chinese people pay lots of attention to basketball and expect your superb performance in matches. I hope you can show your best at the Games," Yi later says it's the most pressure he’s ever felt.
July 29-August 1, 2008 - FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament, Nanjing, China. Yi is part of the host nation’s team in this two-game tourney. China plays Australia and Iran.
August 10-24, 2008 - Olympics, Beijing, China. Yi plays six games vs. USA, Spain, Angola, Germany, Greece and Lithuania, is the Olympic's fourth leading rebounder. After miserable game vs. Team USA, he redeems himself vs. Germany, hitting "the biggest shot in Chinese basketball history", an 18-footer that gets China into the medal round for the first time.
September 8, 2008 – Workouts in New Jersey. Yi arrives in New Jersey two weeks after end of the Olympics. He tells Sina.com three weeks later, "I’ve been working out to try to regain my strength. I hope to do that before the competition. Right now I’m working on my whole body. I’ve also been busy looking for a place to live and settle in so I can focus on upping my game."
October 1, 2008 – Nets Training Camp Begins. Having suffered mild ankle sprain September 25, his training is limited for a week.
January 8, 2009 – After a near month-long slump, Yi puts together back-to-back-to-back strong performances, with games of 22 and 13, 20 and 6 and then 16 and 4 through three quarters in Milwaukee before breaking the fifth metacarpal in his shooting hand. He's out 37 days.
February 17, 2009 – Yi returns but never regains his confidence. Over the next 24 games, he scores in double figures three times, never exceeding 12 points or 7 rebounds. His confidence is hurt by his fading shot and fans’ booing. He loses his spot in the rotation to Ryan Anderson. Later, team officials concede he may have come back too soon.
April 12, 2009 – Yi’s agent defends his client in an end-of-the-season interview with the Star-Ledger. Fegan tells Dave D’Alessandro that Yi didn’t get the minutes he deserved, "What happened, and who's accountable?" He notes the Nets were 18-18 when Yi went down.
April 16, 2009 – Yi returns home at season’s end for a week to visit his parents. At one point, Rod Thorn said he expected Yi would have to play in the CBA Finals for his old team, the Guangdong Southern Dragons, but that never materializes. In his blog, Yi admits, "I have to do my best to rest and train myself. I need to improve everything and prepare for the third season."
and says he understands fans' disappointment.
April 23, 2009 – Yi sets up house in LA to work out at Impact Athletics, where he trained before the 2007 draft. Fegan had demanded Yi have his choice of trainers. He later moves to Las Vegas, where Impact Athletics has another facility to work on different things.
June 27, 2009 – Yi lands back in New Jersey for more training with Kiki Vandeweghe who pushed to acquire Yi. He's working out daily with Lopez and Sean Williams.
The Nets have lauded Yi in the days since the draft and Vince Carter trade, saying he is the "incumbent" at the power forward position and that they continue to have high hopes for him, surprising reporters and fans alike.
In his conference call with season ticket holders, Thorn explained, "Yi has been working out since a week after the season with one of the top trainers in America, trying to get stronger upper body wise. I saw him in the gym today. He's 10 pounds bigger, MUCH more definition in his chest and arms. Our feeling is that as he gets stronger, particularly in his upper body, it will help him defend his position better and it will also help his offense, make it much more difficult to knock him off balance.
"Yi has terrific athletic ability. There's no reason if he gets stronger and continues to have that same GREAT attitude that he shouldn’t be a viable NBA player."
Yi understands the pressure on him from the Nets' end of things.
"I still have a long career. It was my second season. Take your time and don't think about it. Just work hard, do the best I can," he said.
What was left unsaid was the other pressure, from China, and how the Nets have played a delicate game with the CBA to get him more training time in the US. They have argued, as did the Rockets with Yao, that NBA-level training is a winner for both sides, that a stronger, more skilled--and more rested-- Yi is more likely to help China win in international competition.
Yi is not so sure Yao is done, saying: "A lot of people are saying a lot of stuff." He adds that Yao himself isn't sure. Nothing is conclusive.
Yi has always deferred to Yao. Now, he'll be forced to be a leader, if not THE leader, for Team China in Tianjin, a chance perhaps to work his way out of Yao’s giant shadow and boost his confidence even more for the NBA season. Yi is always going to be more Chinese than anything else, more than being a basketball player. His dual commitment need not be burdensome. As Yao has proved it can also being an opportunity.