Yi Jianlian was on the verge of a return to the NBA as the Los Angeles Lakers were reportedly nearing an agreement with the Chinese big man. After spending five seasons in the NBA from 2007-12, Jianlian returned to China following the 2011-12 season.
Still just 28 years old, Jianlian has always been praised for his athleticism and scoring ability, something the American audience only got glimpses of during his NBA stint. In 272 career games split between the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards, and Dallas Mavericks, Jianlian averages 12.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.1 assists.
Starting in Milwaukee, Jianlian impressed fellow countryman Yao Ming after just a cup of coffee in the NBA.
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“If you compare us in our third NBA games, you will see that Yi's statistics are far better than mine,” Yao said.
After their first head-to-head matchup on November 9, 2007, Yao called Jianlian’s talent “unbelievable” and then Rockets All-Star Tracy McGrady added that he had “tremendous upside in this league.”
However, shoulder and knee injuries hampered Jianlian down the stretch and caused him to miss 16 games in his rookie campaign – and lone season in Milwaukee.
In the offseason, the Nets acquired Jianlian from the Bucks – along with Bobby Simmons – in exchange for Richard Jefferson. The expectation was that Jianlian would build on a solid rookie campaign and then-Nets president Rod Thorn said: “We feel strongly he’s going to be a real good player.” Jianlian, surprised by the trade, said it was an honor to join the team.
Before he signed with Milwaukee, a holdup was that Jianlian wanted to play in a big Chinese market in the United States. New Jersey, a part of the tristate area gave Jianlian the market base he wanted. The Nets’ chief executive Brett Yormark said: “it opens up a truly new fan base for us.”
Jianlian went on to spend the next two seasons of his career in New Jersey, posting nearly the exact same totals in each season. Combined, he averaged 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, and shot .392 percent from the field. However, injuries once again reared their ugly head as a broken right pinky, sprained medial collateral ligament, sprained ankle, and more. Jianlian missed 51 total games during his two seasons with the Nets.
New Jersey traded him to the Washington Wizards where he came off the bench for the 2010-11 season. After the NBA Lockout threatened the 2011-12 season, Jianlian actually signed with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association but then finished the year with the Dallas Mavericks.
Jianlian’s NBA stint showed that Yao wasn’t the only Chinese-born basketball player who could succeed in the NBA. And, like Yormark said, Jianlian opened a new fan base for the Nets, who have since relocated to Brooklyn. They signed Jeremy Lin this past offseason and the Chinese portion of NBA fans will now have another player to monitor this coming season.
Jianlian’s career has a lot of time remaining and he now joins a young, rebuilding Lakers squad. Jianlian, a four-time CBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, four-time Domestic MVP, and eight-time All-Star. He's always welcome in the CBA, it's the NBA where he wants to cement himself.
As ESPN reported, Jianlian stayed in touch with veteran NBA coach Del Harris, whom he first met 12 years ago when he was coaching the Chinese national team. Now, after a strong showing in Rio at the 2016 Olympics, Jianlian gets the chance he's wanted all along.