Yi Jianlian isn’t sure he’ll return to the Wizards, but he isn’t worried about what his future may hold. At the least opportune time -- his contract year -- Yi had the worst statistical season of his career, averaging just 5.6 points and 4.0 rebounds in 63 games.
“Things happen. I can do nothing about injury. For me, it’s not like it’s the last year I play in my career,” Yi said with a laugh.
Yi will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and if the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t change too much, you can guarantee that the Wizards won’t tender the $5.4 million qualifying offer required to have first right of refusal on any offer sheet he may sign elsewhere. It’s never a good sign when several months after his arrival, the team sounded more excited that it virtually rented his services for free than with his production on the court. Yi made $4.1 million this season, but the New Jersey Nets dealt him, along with $3 million, and took back Quinton Ross’s $1.1 million salary. That doesn’t mean that Yi isn’t coming back, just certainly not at that price. When asked about Yi’s prospects for returning, Coach Flip Saunders said, “I think we do like him and he likes it here in DC.”
Yi became a bit of a fan favorite in his one season with the Wizards, with crowds at Verizon Center chanting his last name every time he elevated for a jumper or grabbed a rebound. The “Yiiiii!!!” chants held -- unless he missed, which happened more often than not and fans often reacted with the kind of disappointment reserved for a kid failing to connect on a swing while playing T-ball.
“DC is cool. Very nice city, international. A lot of people,” Yi said. “I would like to play here, but it’s a few things they have to figure out. Who knows?”
Yi was most competent while playing with John Wall, one the few players who was always willing to engage Yi on the offensive end and look for him in pick-and-pop situations. “I like playing with John. I know what kind of player he is, what he want to do. For a big man and point guard, he knows how to play together and play for each other.”
Yi has battled injuries in each of his four seasons in the NBA, but he never experienced being a backup, as he started no fewer than 49 games before arriving in Washington. Milwaukee and New Jersey perhaps felt obligated to take a chance on Yi and help him learn through experience, but the Wizards had better options in Andray Blatche, Lewis and later Booker. Yi had to earn every minute in Washington, and showed some flashes. In 11 starts, Yi averaged 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds.
“It was a tough situation for me, this year, my first year coming from the bench. Then, got hurt. Then I lost my time,” Yi said. “I finally … got some playing time at the end of the season, but I think I played pretty good at the end. I just do everything to help the team to win the games, do little things on the court.”
He came to training camp a few weeks removed from a solid showing for China at the world championships in Turkey. He played well for a few weeks, then Wall fell on his right knee in Chicago on Nov. 13 and Yi had to work his way back. He returned only to have Lamar Odom fall into the same knee. “His disappointment was the injuries set him back,” Saunders said. “When you’re hurt, you’re kind of out of sight, out of mind. When you’re not playing and somebody else is playing and they are getting opportunities. If they take advantage of those opportunities, when your time comes, sometimes you take a step back.”
Though he struggled, Yi said he never doubted his abilities. “For me, I didn’t have a lot of problem with my confidence. I got to work on my game every day, stay focused for every game.”
Yi was looking forward to heading back home to China, where he will spend time with family and friends. He will later work on getting better for next season, wherever he plays. He will also play for the Chinese national team again. “I know a lot of things I can do a lot better to improve myself. That’s my focus,” said Yi, adding that he has to work on “a lot. Footwork, body, in the post, hands.”