As China entered the 2010 FIBA World Championships there were many who questioned if Yi Jianlian could step up in the absence of Yao Ming and lead the team. So far the answer is a resounding yes.
Through two games Yi has averaged 26 points and 11.5 rebounds. While his performance has been a delight to millions of Chinese basketball fans, Flip Saunders and the Washington Wizards have to be enjoying it even more.
The Wizards traded guard Quinton Ross to the New Jersey Nets for the rights to Yi in June. The Nets were trying to clear cap space to make a run at signing LeBron James.
In his three previous seasons, the 7'0" forward averaged 9.6 points and 5.8 assists. These are pretty underwhelming numbers for the sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Especially when you factor in that Yi is a career 40 percent shooter.
Milwaukee and New Jersey
Jianlian is not solely responsible for his career performance, as he has only been on teams that were experiencing some level of turmoil. The Milwaukee Bucks won just 26 games his first season and head coach Larry Krystkowiak was on the hot seat the entire time. He was traded at the end of the season along with Bobby Simmons to the Nets for Richard Jefferson.
Yi joined a Nets team that was in transition. They were just one season removed from the playoffs and not adjusting well to losing. He again had to deal with his coach, Lawrence Frank this time, being in danger of being fired. Playing alongside a shoot first player in Vince Carter, may have also hampered his development.
The Wizards could easily become Yi's third troubled team. How will Gilbert Arenas adjust to playing second fiddle to John Wall? Will he be the same player coming back from his suspension? Josh Howard is also always good for some locker room excitement and distraction.
The Wizards have a lot of young talent, but Yi could push Andray Blatche for the starting power forward position if he asserts himself like he is at FIBA World Championships.
Yi teamed with Arenas, Howard, and JaVale McGee could provide John Wall with some serious weapons. If he does not crack the starting lineup, Jianlian could team with Kirk Hinrich and Al Thornton to create one of the best young benches in the league.
No matter how Yi fits in Washington, Flip Saunders must be thrilled to see him in flourishing in a leadership role. A young team with several new faces will need leaders, which is part of the reason Kirk Hinrich was brought in. Additionally, if Arenas finds himself unable to coexist with the Wizards could use Yi's new found scoring talents.
It has just been two games, but they have been dominate performances by Yi. If he can carry over this success into the NBA season, Wizards' fans may need to send LeBron James a thank you card.