Yi Jianlian, China, ousted from FIBA world championships
There really wasn't much doubt that Yi Jianlian would take the floor for what likely was going to be China's last game in the FIBA world championships. His left Achilles' injury had improved after a few days' rest, he felt good after a light practice on Monday, and his team -- his nation -- needed its best player when it went against Lithuania, one of just three undefeated teams remaining in the tournament.
Yi scored 11 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 35 minutes during China's 78-67 loss on Tuesday and lowered his head as he walked off the court. He was understandably disappointed, after he was held to just two field goal attempts in the second half, with Lithuania focused on shutting him down. China finished with just one victory in six games as Yi was unable to match the dominant performance of Linas Kleiza, a former All-Met player of the year from Montrose Christian, who led all scorers with 30 points and made several clutch baskets -- including one over Yi -- to secure the victory.
Yi had a block and a steal, and made a long jumper as China took an early 16-5 lead against Lithuania, and he also had a nifty spin move and dunk early in the second period. Lithuania took a 66-51 lead in the fourth quarter, but Yi helped his team rally back with a dunk and a critical rebound and dump off to Wang Zhizhi to cap an 11-1 run to bring China within five with five minutes remaining. But that's where the highlights ended for Yi.
"We tried to fight today," Yi said after the game. "That game was tough, between a very good team. We played very good in the beginning, but Lithuania played with emotion, played hard defense, very high quality offense. We made some mistakes, you know. With a good team, when you make some mistakes, it's tough to win."
China coach Bob Donewald told ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan after the game that another flareup in Yi's Achilles' limited his effectiveness in the second half.
But Yi could leave with a sense of accomplishment as he put together one of the better individual performances in Turkey, as he finished as the only player to average at least 20 points (20.2) and 10 rebounds (10.6). Yi heads back home to China on Wednesday to rest and recuperate for a week before coming to Washington.
This was a new role for Yi, who had to assume responsibility as a leader for a very young and inexperienced team that is still adjusting to life without Yao Ming. Donewald explained Yi's challenge in an interview with Kyle Weidie of Truth About It. Yi actually relished the role, taking the entire team out for dinner at a steakhouse in New York when the team trained there during the World Basketball Festival.
He proved to be up for the challenge, as he scored at least 24 points in each of the first three games of the tournament, playing with a confidence and aggression that he has rarely shown during an undistinguished NBA career. Yi played with anger and aggression and I confirmed that there was something behind his menacing glare toward the Greece bench after a dunk in China's opening loss. Greece is led by Jonas Kazlauskas, a Lithuanian who coached China through the 2008 Olympics and rode the team pretty hard with a hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach that grated on some.
Donewald, an American, gave his players much more freedom to express themselves on the floor, and that was apparent as the usually stoic Chinese celebrated dunks and big shots with chest-bumps and chest-thumps. Yi was partly behind the change in demeanor, as he represents the newer generation of Chinese players who have been influenced greatly by the American game and its often flashy stars.
It's hard to tell how Yi's performance will translate to the upcoming season, since he will not be featured with the Wizards as he was with China, which was not good enough to survive a sub-par performance from Yi. But if Yi arrives at training camp healthy, as expected, he should also come with much more confidence in his abilities. There are still flaws that he will have to overcome, and his defense still leaves much to be desired, but the Wizards shouldn't have any regrets about basically renting Yi's services for free for a year.
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