The Lakers and the NBA are taking another chance on Yi Jianlian

Yi hit for 25 points and six rebounds against Team USA. (Getty Images)
Yi hit for 25 points and six rebounds against Team USA. (Getty Images)

After a few frustrating free agent chase-downs with Kobe Bryant around, and a 2016 offseason without Bryant on board, the Los Angeles Lakers have mostly committed to the idea of a full-on rebuilding project. New, “rookie” head coach Luke Walton is the team’s biggest free agent signing, there won’t be any agent-favoring vet acquisitions like Carlos Boozer and Roy Hibbert to help fill out the roster, and the team seems fully bent on working with the young prospects it has alongside the 2017 NBA draft pick it will hopefully get to keep next spring.

[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]

Stuck somewhere in the middle of the favors for representatives, the raw prospects to suss out, and the vets to fill out the roster is the curious case of Yi Jianlian. The Chinese forward was Milwaukee’s lottery pick all the way back in 2007, he put up disappointing if not outright terrible numbers for four different NBA teams in five years in the seasons that followed prior to leaving the NBA in 2012 to head back to the Chinese Basketball Association.

On Monday, the Lakers made what was long suspected official. They signed Yi:

… and touted some modest goals for the forward:

“We’re excited to have a player of his worldwide accomplishments,” said Kupchak. “We look forward to bringing him to training camp and hopefully having him make an impact on our team.”

It would seem a no-brainer to tirelessly chase after a player who managed 20.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 combined steals/blocks and over 43 percent shooting from long range during a five-game Olympic stint, much less one that will turn 29 during training camp (we think), working in his physical prime. Yi averaged 26 points and nine rebounds last year with Guangdong Southern Tigers, and has averaged over 23 a game since returning to the CBA after a stint with the Dallas Mavericks in 2012.

Still, even the Lakers’ own website – via scribe Joey Ramirez – threw a little needed cold water on those sorts of numbers:

However, the CBA is known for a lack of defense and inflated statistics, so it remains to be seen exactly how much he has developed overseas.

Yi never found an NBA home during his first turn. He and his representatives were against the Bucks drafting him in the first place in 2007 (ahead of Joakim Noah, Spencer Hawes and Acie Law IV), and he only lasted an injury-crossed season in Milwaukee before being dealt in a win-now move to the then-New Jersey Nets, mostly for Richard Jefferson. After a pair of underwhelming years with the post-Jason Kidd Nets, still working in their East Rutherford purgatory, Yi became a bench player for Washington and a bit player (after a stint with the team’s D-League squad) in Dallas.

It’s understandable that after such a dispiriting turn, he would prefer heading back to the CBA to spend his 20s putting up big stats in his home country. It’s also understandable that NBA squads weren’t exactly ruing his departure.

This isn’t to say, at whatever age, he cannot contribute this season. Yi’s defense remains atrocious at the NBA level, and his in-between scoring game might seem an anachronism in today’s league (Austin Croshere, for instance, would have a hard time finding the 7-year, $51 million deal he signed 16 years ago in the modern NBA), but there is room for pick and pop scorers off everyone’s bench. He’s athletic and strong and, if interested in the proceedings, can contribute.

Three-point shooting will be the key.

Yi made a third of his looks from long range during his initial NBA run, only taking 1.3 per 36 minutes in a league that was starting to turn over to the idea of a stretch power forward. He hit 37 percent in the CBA last year, working behind the shortened FIBA-style three-point line, which hardly portends for some lights-out work at the NBA level. Worse, asking Yi to stand in the corner offensively while action works on the other side of the floor could lead to the sort of indifference that plagued his first stint in the NBA.

He has talent, he just didn’t appear to want anything to do with consistently showcasing it on the NBA stage from 2007 on, and the 2012 parting seemed like the best move for both Yi and the league the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him into nearly a decade ago.

Perhaps his star turn in the CBA and, to a lesser extent, during three different Olympic bouts, will have Yi Jianlian ready to make right with his clear NBA potential. The Lakers, in flux, are right to take a minimal chance on him.

– – – – – – –

Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!