The Yi Jianlian debacle: There’s plenty of blame to go around, Milwaukee Bucks draft Yi Jianlian

The Yi Jianlian debacle: There’s plenty of blame to go around

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If you visit our sister site,, you’ll see a poll asking the question, “Who’s most at fault in the Yi Jianlian/Milwaukee Bucks debacle?” Of course, there is no one correct answer to this question, but it’s interesting to take a look at the public’s perception of the current situation.

The truth is that there is enough blame to go around.

For those NBA fans who have been more interested in the Tim Donaghy scandal, here’s a recap of what has transpired with Yi Jianlian (pronounced E JEE-an-LEE-an):

Prior to the draft, the Bucks spoke with Yi’s agent, Dan Fegan, in an effort to watch the 7-foot forward workout in Los Angeles. Fegan rejected the Bucks request, and it was clear that he did not want the Bucks to draft Yi. Larry Harris, the Bucks’ GM, said prior to the draft that all options were open concerning Yi and that they wouldn’t let the lack of an in-person workout dissuade the team from drafting him if he were available at #6. (Contrary to statements made by Yi after the draft, members of the Bucks’ personnel department had seen him play in person a number of times.)

The night of the draft, after Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley and Jeff Green were selected, the Bucks were finally on the clock. The consensus seemed to be that the three best players available were Corey Brewer, Brandan Wright and Yi. The Bucks’ biggest need heading into the offseason was at power forward. There is a perception that the team is set with Charlie Villanueva, but he is not a particularly strong rebounder or defender and is better suited to play small forward. The team also has Bobby Simmons returning from injury, so it would be understandable if the Bucks felt that power forward was a greater need, motivating them to pass on Brewer (viewing him as a small forward or even a shooting guard). This narrowed the decision to Wright and Yi.

Once the college season ended, Wright was a popular pick for Atlanta at #3 in many mock drafts. He was considered to be unpolished, but was thought to have superior athleticism and the biggest upside of any player in the draft outside of Oden or Durant. Leading up to the draft, it seemed that his stock fell. It turned out that the Hawks were not convinced he was the right pick at #3 and he didn’t perform as well as expected at the Orlando combine.

However, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that the versatile Wright had a very good workout for the Bucks. To outsiders, it appeared that the team would draft him if he were available at #6, assuming Al Horford and Mike Conley were already gone.

The Bucks decided to draft Yi, a move that shocked more than a few people, including yours truly.

Why pass on the potential of Wright? Why draft a player that obviously doesn’t want to play for you? If you can get Yi to report to Milwaukee, what are the chances that he’ll re-sign after his rookie contract is up? And finally, is he 19 or really 22? (There is some doubt that Yi is actually 19.)

Needless to say, Yi was a risky pick. However, I have to hand it to Harris and the Bucks’ brass. They obviously felt that he was (by far, apparently) the best player available and that it was worth the risk to try to get him to Milwaukee. I’m not sure about the brains part, but that move definitely took a lot of balls.

For his part, immediately after he was picked, Yi said through an interpreter that he was surprised but that he was “happy to play with the team” and was “happy to play in the NBA.”

Those good feelings were short-lived. Immediately after the draft, a standoff ensued. Yi would not report to Milwaukee for a post-draft press conference (as is the norm) and there were reports flying that his camp was trying to force a trade. The Bucks met with Yi in Las Vegas and Harris told him (in no uncertain terms) that the team wasn’t going to trade him. A lot of people started to blame Fegan for the standoff, saying that he’s the one that wants Yi in a big market so that he can make more dough off Yi’s potential endorsements. Unwisely, Yi disputed the claim, saying that “Fegan is a responsible agent, and I have a lot of fun working with him. So far we have cooperated really well and our relationship is not as bad as media and fans speculate." He went on to say, “I don't think he has made too many decisions for me. It's clear that he works for me, so everything he is doing is based on my ideas.”

By doing so, Yi put the focus (and criticism) squarely on himself.

Interestingly, the same article refers to a poll (of Chinese fans) that “found that 82 percent of more than 20,000 respondents want Yi to remain a Buck. Added to this, 71 percent think the Bucks are a suitable team for Yi to begin his NBA career with.” It’s clear that Yi’s power play is not going over well with his fans in China. Americans are far more used to players pulling stunts like this. Subsequently, most NBA fans in the U.S. blame the Bucks for making the pick.

So where do we go from here? Fortunately, even in today’s “me-first” sports culture, the team holds most of the cards. If Yi wants to re-enter the draft, he must sit out this season and not play professionally...anywhere. This doesn’t appear to be a viable option as the Chinese national team wants him to get NBA experience before the ’08 Olympics. If this drags on for the rest of the summer, it’s likely that China will put considerable pressure on Yi to report to Milwaukee. The Bucks owner, U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, should use his political influence to sell Milwaukee as a viable home for the youngster.

If Yi does report, and if he’s as good as advertised, he will get a ton of minutes at power forward. Of all the teams in the league, the Bucks are one of the most capable of giving him the minutes that he wants and needs.

But I wonder what kind of effect this is having on the franchise. This situation has become a three-ring circus. The Bucks are a team that should be focused on getting healthy and preparing for the 2007-08 season. With their talent, they could certainly break into the top five or six in the East.

I hope Yi comes to his senses. Milwaukee is a great fit for him. He’ll get lots of playing time and fare better against the weaker competition in the East, setting him up for a nice payday once his rookie contract is up. Then he can choose where he wants to play. If it’s somewhere other than Milwaukee, then so be it. Right now he needs to report to the team that drafted him. That’s how a draft works, after all.

Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but that’s how things should go.

However, I have to wonder, if you’re Larry Harris – how good is Brandan Wright looking right now?

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