Yi Jianlian needs to take a step back

I'll be honest: I'm not that enthused about Yi Jianlian next year.  It's not his fault, and I understand the Wizards essentially got him for free, but I'm really not impressed by his game.  Thus far, he's demonstrated that he's an inefficient scorer (48% TS%, which is dreadful), a poor rebounder (7.9/36 minutes is bad for a power forward) and a confused defender.  His per-game numbers make it seem like he improved last year, but it's a mirage that had more to do with just getting more minutes -- his per-minute stats didn't get any better.  

So I'm not exactly holding my breath that he'll become a completely different player.  He hasn't even really shown flashes - he's just played consistently mediocre basketball.  

However, there is one way Yi can become a somewhat valuable player this year.  He just has to learn to take a few steps back on the court.

Specifically, Yi needs to start shooting more threes.  David Thorpe, who trained Yi for a bit this summer, has the right idea when he told Truth About It this:

"I think he should play a game like Rashard Lewis," said Thorpe, "Shoot the three, play a shot fake and attack game and spread the floor. He should be really, really effective in transition with John Wall because Yi is unbelievably fast."  

This really shouldn't be that hard of a transition.  Yi has a good-looking shot, from the naked eye.  It looks like he shoots with confidence, gets good balance, etc.  Once you see Yi shoot, it surprises you that he's so inefficient.

The problem is that it's pretty much impossible to be an efficient scorer when you shoot as many long two-pointers as Yi has in his NBA career.  And now, we see why he's inefficient.

Take a look at just how many of Yi's shots come from 16-23 feet, via HoopData.

Season Attempts Total shots Percentage
2008 264 520 50.7%
2009 167 500 33.4%
2010 232 563 41.2%

 

In his best year, one of every three shots Yi attempted was from the most inefficient spot on the floor.  And that's when he was most selective.  Meanwhile, Yi went from attempting 3.5 threes/36 minutes in 2009 to less than one/36 minutes in 2010.  He has the range; he just doesn't display it.

The thing is, Yi's percentages from 16-23 feet would be pretty decent if he was able to replicate them when he took a step back.  During his career, he's shot 44, 35 and 37 percent from 16-23 feet, respectively.  If he were to match that percentage from behind the three-point line, he'd be above the league average.  Add in the extra point you receive, and it's a tradeoff that's worth it for Yi's efficiency.  

For example, what if half of Yi's 16-23 footers over the last three years were threes?  What if we added those threes to the threes he already attempted and assumed he hit them all at the same clip he hit 16-23 footers.  Look at how that would affect his efficiency.

Year Old eFG% New eFG% Difference
2008 42.7% 48.9% +6.2%
2009 43% 45.8% +2.8%
2010 41.7% 45.6% +3.9%

 

Year Old TS% New TS% Difference
2008 48.5% 54% +5.5%
2009 47.4% 49.9% +2.5%
2010 48.1% 51.6% +3.5%

Okay, so he'd still be pretty inefficient, but at least he's closer to becoming somewhat useful.  Hopefully, more practice shooting behind the three-point line would improve his percentages even further and make him even more efficient.  

Combine that with (hopefully) more transition opportunities (Synergy ranked him as the 36th-best finisher in transition, but with a small sample size), and Yi has to realize he can become a smarter shooter that makes much more of a real contribution than he's made in his NBA career.  It will just require a change in mindset and some additional practice on taking threes rather than long twos.

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