A swarm of cameramen fought for positioning around the Lakers’ player. For the first time in 20 years, the hubbub did not involve Kobe Bryant.
Instead, plenty of Chinese media members wanted to catch every glimpse of Lakers forward/center Yi Jianlian, who has starred for both the Chinese national team and professional team (Guangdong) for the past four years.
Yi’s stature hardly comes close toward Bryant, who won five NBA titles with the Lakers and became the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer. Yi also brushed off any comparisons to former Houston Rockets center and Chinese star Yao Ming, who recently earned an induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But after spending five NBA seasons with four different teams from 2007 to 2012, Yi reported feeling prepared for his second NBA stint.
“I feel pressure,” Yi said after an informal workout on Friday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. “But I feel excited about that.”
The reasons seem obvious. The Lakers attract a large following in China both because of Bryant’s popularity and the franchise’s historical success. After dabbling in Milwaukee (2007), New Jersey (2008-10), Washington (2010-11) and Dallas (2011-12), Yi has not played in the NBA for the past four years. Yi has caught buzz for his stellar play in the 2016 Rio Olympics. There, he averaged. Last season, Yi also averaged 20.4 points and 6.6 rebounds in China with Guangdong and shot 46.7% from three-point range.
“I think I can still shoot the 3’s, space the floor,” said the 6-foot-11, 243-pound Yi, who averaged 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in his five-year NBA career. “I’m cool with playing the four or five.”
Yi said he and the Lakers coach Luke Walton have not discussed his role. But after the Lakers signed Yi to one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum this summer, Yi walked away encouraged with his conversations with Walton. Yi could help the Lakers’ frontcourt depth with his size at center and with his outside shooting at power forward.
“I think I can really fit on the team and his system,” Yi said. “I think I can play over here.”
That’s because Yi predicted it will not take long to adapt to the NBA’s superior speed and physical play. He also envisioned meshing well with the Lakers’ young roster, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
“There’s a lot of talent there,” Yi said. “They will be great players and they are all working hard. Everyone is trying to win for the team. For myself, I’m ready and confident.”
Yi maintained he stayed confident he would return to the NBA even when he did not land on a roster for the past four years. He also had high expectations for himself after the Milwaukee Bucks selected him sixth overall in the 2007 NBA Draft. But instead of becoming frustrated, Yi told himself “to play hard and keep working hard everyday.”
Since then, Yi reported improvements in his physical presence and bolstering China’s standing in international basketball. The Lakers scouted him in August when China played Team USA in an exhibition game at Staples Center.
“With the future, I would always try to help all the young guys and young players,” Yi said of the Chinese national team. “I think that’s the way to get China basketball. Get more players overseas to play.”
The Lakers got Yi to leave partly by also offering incentives to bolster his contract if he stays on the roster. Yi played coy on whether Guangdong allowed him to earn all of his contract after leaving.
“What do you think?” Yi said, smiling.
There’s another obvious reason Yi smiled as he proudly wore his Lakers’ No. 11 jersey.
“For me,” Yi said, “I feel like it’s a good opportunity and good timing.”