The Los Angeles Lakers announced Monday what had been all but official since last week: Yi Jianlian, the star of China's national team, is coming back to the NBA. Yi has signed a one-year contract for $8 million, but only $1.2 million of that is fully guaranteed, according to ESPN's Marc Stein. Here's a picture of him putting pen to paper:
Nothing has changed since CBS Sports' Matt Moore described Yi as "sensational" at the Olympics and "the poster boy for why you shouldn't get excited over workouts if they don't operate in a game environment."
Yi was drafted No. 6 overall by the Milwaukee Bucks back in 2007 but never came close to meeting pre-draft expectations. Throughout his rookie season with the Bucks, two years in New Jersey, one season in Washington and cup of coffee in Dallas, he appeared to be a 7-footer who played more like a below-average shooting guard. He was not strong enough to be comfortable on the inside and did not shoot well or consistently enough on the perimeter.
If the Lakers are getting that version of Yi, this signing will be inconsequential. They are hoping, however, that they will get a different one. When he came into the NBA, his English was not good and he looked completely lost on defense. After a few years dominating in the Chinese Basketball Association, the 28-year-old Yi should come to Los Angeles a more confident player on both ends. That is what general manager Mitch Kupchak is betting on, anyway.
In theory, Yi fits better in the NBA now than when he left. Stretch-4s were popular in 2012, too, but now there is more value in being athletic and quick at his size. If he can make a few pick-and-pop jumpers, defend smaller players and stretch the floor, then he'll be more than worth the Lakers' investment. It is risky, though, to assume that he'll be able to hold his own defensively on the perimeter or keep up his 37.4 percent 3-point shooting when he's taking those 3s from farther away.
The good news: Los Angeles is precisely the sort of team that can afford to take that risk. Kobe Bryant is gone, and to any sane person, these next few years are about developing young players. There is space for Yi to get some minutes in the frontcourt so the front office can figure out of it is has found something. If it works out, then it's a nice comeback story. If it doesn't, then he can always go back to starring in the CBA.