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Yi Jianlian: Kind of a Big Deal

Yi torched the Bobs for 14/17 fg

We'd be remiss not to expound a little bit more on Yi Jianlian's 29 point, 10 rebound explosion in last night's 103-99 win over the Bobs, so if you missed the game check out his personal highlight reel above. Yi is on a nice roll at the moment: in his last six games, he's averaged 16.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, and 1.2 bpg while shooting a blistering 41/66 (.621) from the field and a perfect 17/17 from the line. That has upped his season averages to 11.0 ppg along with 6.0 rpg and 1.0 bpg while shooting a healthy .481 from the field and .817 from the line in 27 mpg. It's also bumped his PER to an above-average 15.42. And perhaps just as importantly, Yi is increasingly giving frustrated Bucks fans some hope for the future. Here's a brief look at where he stands and what we should look for from here on out:

The kid can shoot. If you show up early to a Bucks game you'll notice Yi practicing outside shooting drills, focusing on the 18-20 footers that he shoots most often. As a fan of basketball it's pretty enjoyable to watch, as his mechanics are extremely consistent and fluid. Heck, I even enjoy watching him shoot free throws. In many ways he's the anti-Bogut in that regard: while Bogut's offensive progress has been greatly retarded by poor free-throw shooting and an inability to develop the mid-range shot that he appeared to have in college, Yi has actually been better than advertised, showing remarkable touch for a player of his size and athleticism.

My guess coming into the season was that in spite of Yi's use as a post player at the club and national team levels he'd probably be more of a floater early on and develop into a post player in the coming years. On the one hand NBA teams who already have scorers don't force-feed rookies post looks, and aside from that shooting open jumpers in the NBA takes far less adjustment than trying to score against the world's biggest and best post defenders. That's largely been the case early on, as more than 2/3 of Yi's shots are jumpers. However, I really didn't expect his shot to be so consistent. Teams frequently give him open looks early in games, not realizing how automatic he is when open from up to 22 feet. Yet it's also worth noting that his two best games of the season have come against teams that had already seen him once before (Orlando and Charlotte), suggesting that he's not just sneaking up on teams.

He doesn't seem to practice the three point shot at all before games, so my guess is we'll have to wait until next year for that to become more a part of his game (he's 5/14 this season). If he does add that to his arsenal look out.

His inside game is a work in progress. Yi's been prone to fast starts and then not seeing the ball much in the second half, in part because the Bucks' offense often goes away from moving the ball and in part because defenses adjust during games to limit his open looks. We've seen him put the ball on the floor occasionally with limited success, and he's shown glimpses of post potential as well, mainly through spin moves and the turnaround jumper he used with great frequency in China. Still, he generally doesn't look as confident in the post, often struggling to establish position and having a tendency to get ripped or blocked when he does get the ball there. Not surprisingly, his teammates remain a bit hesitant to give him the ball down low.

The assistants work with him on post moves before games, so the Bucks are hoping he works that into his arsenal more as the season goes on. Fans will need to be patient though, as post offense and defense are probably the two most difficult things to adjust to in the NBA. Still, after frequently finding himself on the business end of blocked shots early this season, he's been a little more judicious in his attempts to go at defenders recently, instead staying active with putbacks and finding creases in the halfcourt and on the break. While he still seems to be adjusting to the athleticism of NBA bigs down low, his eFG% inside is creeping closer to 50% after spending most of the year below 40%.

You can tell from some of his recent aerial exploits that he's getting a better handle on what he can get away with  down low. While he reportedly has a 38" vertical leap, he occasionally takes long strides getting to the hoop, limiting his explosiveness a bit once he's actually there. He also needs to use his body a bit better to shield away defenders. As of now he hasn't really been creating his own shot, so as he matures he'll have to improve the little things in order to take the next step.

Defensively he's been better than advertised. One of the biggest concerns about Yi's game before the season was how he would fare defensively, but he's held his own for the most part thanks to quick feet, a long reach, consistent effort and a good sense of judgment. Craig Smith dropped 30 on him last week, illustrating how bowling ball PFs can cause him problems, and he does still miss the occasional assignment. That said, he consistently manages to be aggressive without being stupid, as evidenced by the fact that he hasn't picked up more than three fouls in any game in more than a month despite still blocking over a shot per game.

Yi has also benefited from Bogut's ability to guard opponent's best post player, freeing him to often play against more perimeter-oriented players. When teams do post him he often looks to front and overplay in order to deny the entry. The Bucks generally haven't fared well when they switch on defense, but Yi is better than most bigs at keeping smaller players in front of him.

It will be interesting to see how Yi's defense develops as he plays more minutes and takes on a larger scoring load. It's one thing to bring a lot of defensive energy when you're a rookie fighting to play 25 mpg, but if he establishes himself as a big-time scorer will he be able to maintain the same work rate?

Get stronger, big fella. The most consistently troubling part of Yi's game is his inability to tear the ball away from opponents; whether on the glass or down low, he gets the ball ripped out of his hands with an alarming frequency. As a result his rebounding rate is a below-average 12.8, despite his above average athleticism, height and lower body strength. And while his turnover rate isn't terrible (12.1), it's a little deceptive since many of his shots don't require him to put the ball on the floor at all. Other times he gets caught off-guard by passes that skip off his hands. His lack of a steady handle in general is another obstacle for him in his development as a go-to scorer, as he'll have a hard time creating his own shot if he's getting ripped all the time.

Yi's not exactly a beanpole--he weighed in at 246 pounds during camp (with just 3.4% body fat), so he carries more weight than his somewhat slender frame suggests, especially in his lower body. Yi has been lifting regularly during the season, so upper body strength is something he hopes to improve and should help him somewhat when he's battling around the hoop. He doesn't appear to have the sort of small hands that always gave Glenn Robinson problems, so hopefully adding strength allows him to come away with more rebounds and loose balls.

The future is Yi? All season long the Bucks have been struggling to establish a scoring hierarchy, with Mo Williams often taking on the role of #2 scorer as Bogut and Yi become after thoughts for long stretches. Unfortunately for the Bucks, Bogut still has his ups and downs in the post, while Yi's scoring remains more opportunistic--open jumpers off pick/rolls and sneaking behind the defense for easy dunks and putbacks. Mo Williams and Mike Redd don't always help the situation by looking for their own shots late in games, but it should be said that both are passing more this year than last year. Yi isn't likely to be a consistent number two guy yet, but with the defense's struggles it's been easy to overlook that the Bucks have been mediocre offensively as well. The Bucks desperately need someone else to step up, and the sooner Yi can start living up to his potential the better.

In general there's been a tremendous amount of pressure on Yi, but that's perhaps what's most encouraging about the start to his NBA career. Despite his billing as a possible basketball and marketing savior, he's shown remarkable focus and a steely professionalism as a rookie, something that many experts questioned heading into the draft. Who was this guy? How would he adjust? On the one hand he seems like many young players: he shows emotion after big plays, has his special handshakes during introductions, and smiles a lot around teammates. But it also seems that nothing really fazes him, as evidenced by his big night in the much-hyped Houston matchup and his recent penchant for making key shots late in games. There's nothing quite like the NBA in China, but you'll excuse Yi for not being too wide-eyed about it.

We'll take a look at Yi's long-term role for the Bucks and Milwaukee later this week.