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Bargnani and Yi...When The Light Came On

Andreas Bargnani and Yi Jianlian

Both seven footers? Check and check.

Both international stars? Check and check.

Both compared to Dirk Nowitzki? Check and check.

Both known more for their perimeter game? Check and check.

Both seen as poor defenders? Check and check. Poor passers? Check and check.

Both high draft choices? Check and check.

Both disappointing in their first two years in the league? Check and check.

Both broke out midway through their third year? Check and…it sure seems that way.

With Yi Jianlian now back 11 games, it looks like he's following the arc followed by Bargnani, his seven-foot counterpart in Toronto.

An analysis of their third years shows it, although Bargnani’s moment came after a string of poor performances and Yi’s after a long layoff due to knee and mouth injuries.

Take a look.

In his rookie and sophomore years, Bargnani had two disappointing seasons…not dreadful, but considering he was the overall #1 pick, not what Toronto had expected. In his rookie year, he averaged 11.6 ppg and 3.9 rpg, shooting only 42.7% overall 37.3% from deep. In his second year, he regressed, dropping to 10.2 and a measly 3.1 rpg. His shooting dropped as well, to 38.3% and 34.5%. The word most used to describe him was no longer "promising" but "bust".

Same with Yi. He was drafted lower, at #6, but had the "bust" label hung on him as well. In fact, Milwaukee gave up on Yi and traded him to the Nets. With a bigger cultural burden, Yi didn’t do as well as Bargnani. He averaged 8.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg in his rookie year, dropping off as the season went on and he wore down. He shot 42.1% overall and 28.6% from deep. By year two, his scoring average didn’t budge, His overall shooting percentage dropped down to 38.2%, although his three point shooting jumped in both percentage--up to 34.3%, and in volume--going from six three’s all season in Milwaukee to 48 in New Jersey. For Yi, the problem may have been exacerbated by where he was playing…in the New York media market, not the chilly but comfortable confines of southern Ontario.

Then, at almost the very same point in their third season, during the holiday season, a light seemed to go on. Before that, the two were being written off.

In the 31 games prior to New Year's Eve 2008, Bargnani was averaging even less than he had his first two seasons: 9.5 ppg. His rebounding was up to 7.0 a game, but his deep shooting had surely regressed. He was hitting less than a third of his attempts and boos were getting louder as the Raptors disappointing season looked lost.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, he seemed to have an epiphany. He exploded for 26 points, on 9-for-19 shooting including 3-for-6 from downtown. Jermaine O’Neal was hurting and Bargnani made the most of his opportunity. Over the remainder of the season, he took off, averaging 19.3 ppg and 5.5 rpg, even shooting 43.5% from deep, ten percentage points higher than before December 31. Over the next month, he had nine more 20+ point games, including a 31-and-10 night vs. the Bulls.

In January, he averaged 19.8, in February 17.9, in March 20.3 and in an injury-slowed April, 16.3.

Yi’s situation this year is different. He didn’t suffer a particularly poor start. Opening Night, he went for 17 and 12. By Game 4, however, he went down, with a sprained knee. As he missed the next seven weeks, Yi said he spent a lot of time watching games and promising himself he would "leave it all on the floor" when he returned.

So far so good. On his first game back, vs. the Timberwolves, he wound up with 22 points, then 17, 29, and 22 again, the last one a win over the Knicks where Brook Lopez hit for 21. In December, Yi averaged an electrifying 22.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg and shooting 54.1% overall, 40% from deep and 80% from the line. He showed off deep shooting stroke, left-handed hooks, flashing moves in the paint and a willingness to drive the lane. Things have slumped off a bit in the shooting department in January…16.0 ppg, 37.3% overall and 33.3% from deep. But he’s going to the line more…at much higher rates than Bargnani, who remains on the perimeter. In the last 10 days, he’s gone to the line 10 times twice, making seven and eight shots. In that same 10-day period, he’s gotten 10 or more rebounds three times, something he’s never done before…and something Bargnani has never done. The Nets, of course, are still losing and he’s still playing mostly matador defense, although he has shown some shot blocking ability.

Bottom line, it could mean a lot to the Nets’ bottom line. The Raptors quickly signed Bargnani is a big contract last summer, something the Nets could so with Yi next summer. The payout is delayed until their fifth year, but still the numbers for Bargnani are pretty staggering: five seasons and $50 million. How much will Yi want…and how much will he get? He is more injury-prone than Bargnani, so that hurts him. But the Nets make a lot more money off Yi’s connection to China than the Raptors do off Bargnani’s connection to China. Of course, that assumes Yi continues to develop at the same pace Bargnani has. The big Italian has followed through on last year’s development. Now, 24 years old, he’s averaging 17.2, 6.5 and 1.4 blocks so far this season and he keeps getting better. Over the last five, he’s putting up 20, 10 and 2.

The Nets of course don’t have to do a deal with Yi next summer. They could wait til 2011, and might if they want to see what he can do…and see what the new collective bargaining agreement looks like. But no matter when, if Yi is still a Net, expect his agent, Dan Fegan, to make those same comparisons with Bargnani we just did.