Others might have, but Yi Jianlian never doubted he’d get a second act in the NBA.
Friday morning, the 6-foot-11, 243-pound forward/center began it, standing on the Lakers practice court amid a crowd of a few dozen reporters from English- and Chinese-language outlets. He expressed the confidence he has in himself. It’s a confidence that crystallized during his four years away from the NBA.
“Always expected it,” Yi said, about his NBA return. “[Was] always getting ready.”
The opportunity came last month, when the Lakers signed Yi to a one-year deal at the veteran minimum of $1.139 million that could be worth up to $8 million, pending incentives. For the past four years, the one-time NBA lottery pick starred in China, both on the national team and with the Guandong Southern Tigers from 2012-16. He returns a little bit different, he says, and excited about the chance before him.
“I think I played a lot of games in China, in Asia, Olympics,” Yi said. “It’s a lot of experience. For me I probably got stronger and more confidence.”
His NBA career began as the sixth overall pick for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007. He averaged 8.6 points per game that season, starting 49 games with a field-goal percentage of 42.1. A year later the Bucks traded him to the New Jersey Nets and two years later the Nets traded him to the Washington Wizards. Once his contract expired, Yi signed with the Dallas Mavericks during the 2011-12 season.
From 2012-16, Yi played for the Chinese Basketball Assn.’s Guandong Southern Tigers. He excelled there, and again this summer in the Olympics, averaging 20.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 46.7% from three-point range in Brazil.
Through his discussions with Lakers coach Luke Walton this summer, Yi is confident he’ll fit well in the Lakers system. He added, though, that they hadn’t yet discussed what position he would play.
“I think I can still shoot the threes, space the floor, but I’m cool with playing four or five,” Yi said.
For the past two weeks, Yi has started getting to know his teammates, having joined several of them for informal practices at the team’s facility.
“A lot of talent,” Yi said. “I think they’ll be great players.”
His own future with the team remains uncertain, but his enthusiasm to prove himself isn’t.
“For Lakers it’s different, mostly for the history, the team, the fans,” Yi said. “The people all over the world [follow the Lakers], even China. So for me really, I feel pressure but I feel very excited for that.”