By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 12:29 AM
As John Wall awaited the outlet pass from Trevor Booker, Yi Jianlian dropped his head and sprinted down the middle of the court. By the time Wall received the ball near half court, the 7-foot Yi had already outrun every player down the floor, so Wall rewarded the hard-charging big man.
Yi moved so quickly that his momentum nearly carried him beyond the basket, but he gathered himself and dunked with two hands while getting fouled. Teammate Al Thornton rushed to Yi and greeted him with a celebratory forearm to the chest.
The Washington Wizards' textbook fast break against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday - two passes, no dribbles and a dunk, in less than five seconds - served as evidence of the evolving Yi, who is looking to finish strong near the basket more often and "race the floor," not simply run it.
"Race the floor," Yi said with a grin. "That is the term."
Yi picked up that phrase while working for six weeks last summer with David Thorpe, the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla. In one of their early conversations, Thorpe asked Yi if he runs the floor. When Yi told him yes, Thorpe retorted, "The best players race."
The message was sent early to Yi that being a special NBA player requires maximum effort in every facet of his game. Yi displayed that focus as he carried the Chinese national team at the world championship in Istanbul, averaging 20.2 points and a tournament-best 10.6 rebounds.
After recovering from a sore left Achilles' tendon that slowed him late in the tournament, Yi is starting to show the Wizards that he is more than the miscast jump shooter that he tried to be in his first three seasons with Milwaukee and New Jersey. He is playing with aggression on defense, setting solid screens for shooters, looking to dunk, and being accurate in hitting midrange jumpers in pick-and-pop situations.
"I thought he'd be good," Coach Flip Saunders said of Yi, the sixth overall pick of the 2007 NBA draft. "He's better than what I thought he would be."
Through the first three games of the preseason, Yi is leading the team in rebounding (6.7) and ranks fourth in scoring at 11.7 points per game, despite playing just more than 23 minutes per game. He had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds in the preseason-opening win in Dallas, then had a team-best 16 points in the win over Cleveland.
"He had skills, but he didn't know how to play. I think he knows how to play now," Thorpe said in a telephone interview. Thorpe worked with Yi six days a week last summer and claims that Yi never missed a workout.
Before connecting with Thorpe, Yi thought he could make it in the league simply by being a big man who can spread the floor and hit jumpers. "I thought for a 7-foot, agile, long, coordinated athlete like him, it was a huge mistake," Thorpe said of Yi, who made 36.6 percent of his three-point attempts last season. "We just kind of rearranged his thinking of himself. Instead of [his shooting ability] being a defining part of his game, it's now one of the tools in his toolbox."
Yi's representatives, Dan Fegan and Jarrin Akana, connected their client last February with Thorpe, an ESPN.com contributor who has worked with Chicago's Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, Miami's Udonis Haslem and Houston's Kevin Martin. Thorpe had an immediate influence on Yi after their first phone conversation. Thorpe told Yi that he was capable of a 20-rebound game. Yi, who had never grabbed more than 12 in a game, laughed at him. But Yi went out and grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds in his next game - against the Wizards, a performance that stood out when the team acquired him last June from the Nets.
It was an opportunistic deal for the Wizards, who sacrificed only Quinton Ross and also received $3 million from the Nets, meaning that they were able to rent Yi's services for a year for practically nothing.
Yi will be a restricted free agent next summer, but Fegan has not spoken to the Wizards about signing an extension before Nov. 1. And, according to multiple league sources, neither side is interested in getting anything done at this point.
Yi is playing with much more confidence, mostly because he was desperately seeking a fresh start after enduring a 12-win season in New Jersey, where one of his greatest allies in the front office, Kiki Vandeweghe, was forced into coaching without any prior experience and later pushed out of the organization. "It was a tough season," he said.
The Wizards organization has also helped Yi feel welcome. After Yi was introduced last July, Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards' vice president of basketball administration, flew back to Florida to spend a day with Yi and watch him train with Thorpe.
And since arriving back from China, Yi is practicing at an arena located in Chinatown, and playing with a group of unselfish teammates, including Wall. "I'm comfortable," Yi said. "They know the kind of play like I like. They really look for me when I get open. We're moving the ball, letting guys have a chance to score.
"Right now, I have a chance because I have a pretty good point guard who is looking for me," Yi said. "If I race the floor, he will get the ball to me."