Yi Jianlian returned to China in 2012 after a lackluster five-year stint in the NBA, but he has kept in touch with his longtime mentor and veteran NBA coach Del Harris. Yi and Harris first met 12 years ago while Harris was coaching the Chinese national team.
On Tuesday, Yi agreed to a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. With Yi's impending return to the league, Harris, who led the Chinese team to an eighth-place finish at the 2004 Olympics as China's first-ever foreign-born head coach, is optimistic of Yi's future as a Laker under new head coach Luke Walton.
"I think that is the right team for him," said Harris, who also coached former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming back in 2004. "He should be able to play for them and will really fit the style Luke employed so well last year [with the Warriors]."
On the 2004 Chinese Olympic team, Yi -- just 17 at the time -- made an immediate impression on Harris, with his raw athleticism, ability to hit jump shots and stretch the floor. Even after Harris left China and returned to coaching in the NBA, he remained close with Yi, who was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Yi's 272 NBA games with four teams featured short bursts of high-scoring performances, but were cut short by frequent injuries. His lack of consistency and physicality was part of the reason he averaged just 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
A shortage of trust and tailored coaching around him hurt too, according to Harris.
"I can tell you he plays better when he feels the coach and the team believes in him," Harris said. "He has needed that confidence."
As evidence, Harris pointed to Yi's average of nearly 15 points and seven rebounds per game in January 2010 with the New Jersey Nets when Harris was the team's assistant coach.
In the two games Yi played in 2012 under Harris at the Texas Legends -- the NBA Development League team of the Dallas Mavericks -- he averaged 23 points and 12 rebounds a game, earning him a spot with the Mavericks.
Harris said Yi wasn't given enough encouragement during the last leg of his NBA career, nor was he used to his best advantage.
"He can't just sit out on the perimeter and set screens and pop to shoot 3s or long 2s," Harris said. "He has to run the court, move into high-low options and mix his pops with rolls as well as some post-ups with his 3s."
Harris said Yi's ability to play both center and power forward positions could flourish under Walton, who was formerly with the Golden State Warriors, the NBA's poster boys for today's small-ball style.
"His versatility will serve him well, and Luke will know how to mix with his outside-inside skill combination," Harris said. "They need what he is capable of doing -- great runner, excellent mix on offense and the potential to be a defensive factor. And Yi is still young himself for a 7-footer."
Harris said the current trend of NBA play is also favorable to Yi's future, as foreign-born big men who can pass and attack from the perimeter have become increasingly popular.
"The talent of these big players actually changed the complexion of the game due to these unique talents," he said. "Teams seek this type of player even more than the tall inside players, unless that player can truly dominate inside as a defender or consistent low-post scorer or passer."