Washington Wizards' Yi Jianlian is settling in after recovering from injuries

The Washington Post's Michael Lee talks with the Wizards John Wall about the 108-101 win over the Utah Jazz.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:00 AM

Yi Jianlian has been on the wrong side of two nasty collisions this season, with John Wall falling on his right knee and costing him nine games with a hyperextension and then Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom falling on the same knee, costing him another nine games.

But Yi's third crash was hardly as gruesome, and he jokingly credited it for helping him have one of his better games of the season. Yi was working out with Washington Wizards assistant Gene Banks at the morning shoot-around before the team hosted Toronto on Saturday when he attempted a spin move and bumped heads with Banks.

The collision created a cut just above Yi's left eye - and a little wooziness - and forced him to wear a bandage during the game against the Raptors. But it was hardly a setback, as Yi scored 10 points and made all five of his field goal attempts.

"That's what make me go 5 for 5," Yi said with a laugh, as the game also produced a career first, when he leaped to intercept a pass from Raptors reserve Sundiata Gaines, dribbled the length of the court and dunked.

The 7-foot Yi said he had never gone coast-to-coast before in an NBA game, and the play represented the progress the reserve forward has made since returning from his latest knee ailment earlier this month.

"It hurts, but you know, luckily, it's not too bad. It was something on the court, I can't control what happens sometimes," Yi said of his knee injuries. "Knee felt great at the time of the dunk. It's getting better. Game shape, the knee, everything, playing time, confidence, getting better."

Yi was still easing his way back into the rotation in his first three games back, with Coach Flip Saunders relying more on newcomer Rashard Lewis and rookies Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin in his absence. But he provided some quality minutes in a loss to Minnesota, as he grabbed eight rebounds and scored eight points, including a two-handed dunk that gave the Wizards a short-lived fourth-quarter lead.

He followed up that performance with his game against the Raptors, and continued his improved play in the Wizards' 108-101 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday, when he came off the bench and scored 10 points again and played solid defense. "Yi especially was good for us," Saunders said after the game.

Saunders has started to lean more on him, with is ability to come off the bench to spell both Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. Yi also continues to develop more confidence in his game, with teammates Wall and Kirk Hinrich looking for him in pick-and-roll situations and Yi consistently knocking down open perimeter jumpers.

"Yi has a great set of skills," Blatche said. "He has been a big part of what's going down for us. He's coming off the bench and doing tremendous things as far as scoring and defending. We needed guys off the bench to step up, and him and Al [Thornton] have been great for us."

Yi has established a cult following at Verizon Center, where fans pronounce his surname for prolonged stretches, and has provided several opportunities to cheer in helping the Wizards win consecutive games for the first time this season. In his past three games, Yi is averaging nine points and shooting 56 percent (14 for 25) in slightly more than 20 minutes a game. He said his teammates have discovered his strengths and allowed him to play to them.

"We've been together for like a half season, we know each other. I set screens and for a big man, if you set a screen, you're going to be open. That's what I do," said Yi, who is averaging 6.4 points and 3.5 rebounds this season.

The Wizards (12-27) will make their 20th attempt to end their season-long road misery on Wednesday in Milwaukee, where Yi began his career after the Bucks drafted him sixth overall in 2007. Yi was traded to New Jersey after his lone season in Milwaukee and said he is focused more on helping the Wizards claim their first road win than getting payback against his former team.

"Don't mean as much as the first time I went back," Yi said. "Milwaukee almost traded their whole team, it's almost just Andrew Bogut still there, but everybody else, coaches, GM, it's all changed. It's the NBA. Everything is changing. It's nothing special."

Yi said he has come a long way from his time in Milwaukee, where he had a difficult adjustment. He spoke little English, relying mostly on an interpreter for interviews, and discovered the NBA was nothing like the style of basketball he played in China. "Language, culture, game-plan, travel. For me, it was tough. Especially in Milwaukee. My home town [Heshan, in southern China] was a warm city, there was no snow. In Milwaukee, it snows the whole year. So yeah, it was kind of different."

The transition to Washington has been a little smoother for Yi, except for the injuries that seemed to halt the progress he made on the court. But Yi is starting to settle in again, and hoping to avoid any more collisions the rest of the season. "Since [the knee] injury coming back, I've had more games, more time and more practice and I'm just feeling more comfortable. I just tell myself, 'Be ready, get upcourt, bring energy, focus on the court.' Just working hard, working myself and trying to get better."

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