As far as draft busts go, Yi Jianlian is right up there. Prior to being selected in 2007, several reputable pundits were suggesting the big man was going to make a sizeable impact when he moved from China to the NBA.
But reality soon followed. Yi posted up chairs in his infamous draft workout video, initially refused to move to Wisconsin after being selected by the Milwaukee Bucks, and became dogged by allegations that he had lied about his age. Within five years, the man pegged as the Chinese Kevin Garnett was out of the NBA and back in his home country.
According to Wang Yiqiong of the People’s Daily, one of China’s best-selling newspapers, the Lakers reached out to Yi in the offseason only for the player to veto the move because the offer was too low.
Though the rumor seems unlikely from a western perspective, Wang has not retracted his claim and the rest of China’s media is treating it seriously. David Yang, editor of the respected China Sports Review website, certainly feels the story is true: “I wouldn't be surprised if there was an offer for Yi as he can help the Lakers both athletically and commercially.”
The move would’ve also made some sense from Yi’s perspective. This offseason, the player was the biggest free agent in China after his contract with the Guangdong Tigers expired. At the time, the Tigers—who had won eleven CBA titles in the previous fourteen years—appeared to be falling apart. The team, coached by legendary former Guangdong player and Yi’s one-time teammate, Du Feng, had lost in the playoff semi-finals for the second year in a row. This came despite finishing the regular season as the top overall seed and setting a record for most consecutive wins. Besides an aging roster, another big concern was Du’s tactical acumen and Guangdong’s elimination was certainly hastened by several odd decisions involving the team’s foreign players.
With many feeling that Yi’s window was starting to close, Chinese media spent the summer openly speculating that the player might leave the Tigers, either to another CBA team or even the NBA. But eventually, Yi re-signed in Guangdong on a three-year, $16.1 million deal; a contract that shattered the previous record salary in the CBA. The Tigers also brought in Brian Goorjian, a former Australian national team coach, as lead assistant coach and the presumed tactical safety blanket for Du.
However, the Lakers rumor continues a popular offseason tradition in the world’s largest and most basketball-crazed nation. Despite his embarrassing exit from the NBA, Yi is widely popular in China and remains one of the CBA’s best players. On top of this, the player has also carried his country’s flag in the Olympics opening ceremony, one of the biggest honors within the country’s sports program.
So it goes without saying that China wants to see their best active player back in the NBA. As recently as last week, one Chinese website published a purported list of requirements from Yi for a potential NBA return, namely a team with a good point guard, a suitable living environment, and a front office that was willing to believe in him.
But because this summer was also perhaps his best opportunity to leave China, Yi’s decision to stay has been met with anger from some fans. Some feel Yi ran from the challenge, whilst others called the player’s decision not to play for the Lakers—who themselves are hugely popular in China—a wasted opportunity. Yet Yang, who has covered Chinese sport for several years, is sympathetic to the player’s situation. “It's not hard to come to the conclusion that staying in China suits Yi best. The same can be said of soccer players like Chen Zhizhao and Zhang Xizhe [both of whom have resisted overtures to play overseas]. These players are already well-paid in domestic leagues so a move abroad would sometimes prove to be economically and athletically costly for Chinese athletes.”
By re-upping with Guangdong, Yi has likely killed off any talk of returning to America. By the next time he is a free agent, Yi will be almost 35 and would not have played in the NBA for six years. The sight of Kobe Bryant passing the ball to Yi would have generated unprecedented interest for the Lakers in China, but now the only way that is going to happen is on NBA 2K. Depending on your opinion of Yi Jianlian, that scenario is either the best or worst possible outcome from this piece of free agency drama.