Yi Jianlian seems to play his best whenever he wears the Chinese national team jersey. He proved it again in the first day of men’s basketball competition at the London Olympics when he scored a game-high 30 points against Spain.
China hung tough against the second-best team in the world, according to the FIBA rankings, but the Spaniards — led by Pau Gasol’s 21 points and 11 rebounds — eventually imposed their power and strength in the game and coasted to a 97-81 victory. Juan Carlos Navarro, who once played for the Memphis Grizzlies, netted 14 points for Spain and Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon had 12.
Yi unleashed his full arsenal against the silver medalists from the Beijing Games, scoring on face-up jumpers, dribble drives, and put-backs. But his most impressive play came on a blow-by dunk against Spain center Marc Gasol. Yi got Gasol on a pump fake on the wing and then threw down a monster dunk that drew a billion cheers from China.
Since the retirement of Yao Ming, Yi has now become the unofficial face of China basketball. But the 24-year-old forward doesn’t seem to embrace that title as well, and as seriously, as Yao did. Yi remains an enigma because he has all the tools to be a star player in the NBA, but doesn’t seem to dedicate himself to be a big-time player. He has played for four NBA teams in five seasons and has a career scoring average of just 7.9. For a guy who is blessed with great athletic ability for a 7-footer, that is a mind-boggling statistic.
He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007, but averaged just 8.6 points his rookie season. He was traded to the New Jersey Nets the following season and enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2009-10 when he averaged 12 points and 7.2 rebounds in 52 games. In his last two seasons, Yi’s numbers and minutes have decreased significantly. He averaged just 5.6 points for the Washington Wizards in 2010-11 and a measly 2.6 points for the Dallas Mavericks in 2011-12.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was on hand to watch Yi drop 30 points on Spain in China’s Olympics opener, so the potential is there. Maybe Carlisle needs to have Yi wear the Chinese colors under the Mavs’ jersey to get him going.