Yi failed to earn a new contract with 2011 NBA champions Dallas Mavericks, and he has returned to China to join former team Guangdong Tigers.
“It’s a huge pity to spend his prime years on the bench in the NBA without being trusted,” Guangdong general manager Liu Hongjiang said of Yi in a statement.
“He wants to play and we can provide an ideal stage.”
Yi carried the flag for China at the recent London 2012 Olympics, his third appearance at the Games.
His departure is a blow the league, which is looking to take advantage of the potentially lucrative Asian market.
Current NBA star Dwayne Wade, a champion with Miami Heat earlier this year, told CNN that basketball still trails football as the world’s favorite sport.
The popularity of the NBA in China skyrocketed when center Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002.
The first Chinese-born player to take to the court in the NBA was Wang Zhizhi, who made history by joining the Mavericks in 2001.
The NBA’s profile in Asia has been boosted by the emergence of Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese American who shot to global fame with a string of standout performances for the New York Knicks during the 2011-12 season.
Lin, 24, has since left the Knicks to join the Houston Rockets.