By Marty Burns
March 02, 2005

Yao Ming might be a gentle giant, but he is slowly learning the rough-and-tumble ways of the NBA. Earlier this season, the 7-foot-6 Rockets center even engaged in a little friendly trash-talking with Bulls forward Tyson Chandler. "He told me he was going to make me swallow my mouthpiece," Chandler said.

If only Yao could do the same to his critics. Now in his third season, the former No. 1 overall pick still hears whispers that he hasn't lived up to the hype. Despite solid progress in many areas of the game and three All-Star trips, Yao still is scoffed at by many for being more Rik Smits than Shaquille O'Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon.

"All I can do is try to prove myself," he says. "I've learned that my method of playing basketball is a little different from how it's done over here."

As usual, Yao is being too nice. What he should say is something like: Get off my back! I'm only 24 years old! Can't you Americans ever wait for anything?!

The reality is that while Yao might not be dominating the NBA, he is doing just fine by most reasonable standards. As of Wednesday he was averaging a career-best 18.6 points to go with 8.3 rebounds while ranking third in the NBA in field goal percentage (55.0) and 11th in blocks (1.89). While he still has many areas to improve upon, including on the backboards and in his overall aggressiveness, the Chinese phenom is generally regarded as one of the top four true centers (along with Shaq, Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) in the league.

"He's going through that natural period where people want to nitpick the very few negatives he may have instead of extolling all his positives," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy says. "And in a little over 31 minutes a game he averages 18 and 8. He comes to work every day. He's totally selfless. Yet some want to badger the guy about whatever perceived shortcomings he has. I find that unfortunate because if they spent half the time looking at all his positives it would be a much better story."

Part of the problem for Yao is that other young NBA stars such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire have been able to come into the league and show more dramatic progress right away. It has made Yao's development seem almost snail-like in comparison, especially as those players fill the SportsCenter highlights on a nightly basis while Yao plods along in more of a supporting role to Tracy McGrady.

Even Yao recently came out and said he wasn't satisfied with his development. After his team's shootaround Tuesday in Chicago he marveled at the improvement shown by Stoudemire, who edged him for Rookie of the Year honors in '03. "He can really shoot easier now," Yao says. "He can shoot it from 17-18 feet. I don't know how he did it. ... When I played against him last year, on defense I just sagged back all the way to paint. This year you have to come out to contest his long-range jump shot and defend his penetration. It's much harder."

Van Gundy, however, finds the mere insinuation that Yao somehow hasn't lived up to expectations to be a sad commentary on our society. He blames it on a media that, he says, builds prospects up so that they can tear them down. "I think those people have no idea about his game," Van Gundy says.

Yet Yao's limitations are real, as plain as the Great Wall back in his native land. He is slow in transition. He struggles to contain the pick-and-roll. He's foul-prone. He has a tendency to get stripped on rebounds. He doesn't use his strong leg base to post up enough. And he lacks a mean streak.

Van Gundy has heard them all. But while he admits some of the criticism is valid, he believes it's blown out of proportion for a player he believes is a force just by virtue of his presence on defense and his ability to draw double teams on offense. "His greatest strength is his ability to put the ball in the basket," Van Gundy said Tuesday before his team's game in Chicago. "He's great at it. He's not a natural rebounder, a Tyson Chandler-type rebounder, going out of his area. It's just not his greatest strength.

"He's improved defensively, but it is hard on him. Transition is hard on him, pick-and-roll defense against guys like [Kirk] Hinrich and [Ben] Gordon is hard on him. But he's worked on it and improved. Just because a guy has improvements to make doesn't mean he hasn't lived up to expectations. He's lived up to mine. If he doesn't think he's lived up to his own, I think that's unfortunate."

The Rockets say it's unfair to judge Yao's impact strictly on numbers anyway. In Tuesday's blowout win over the Bulls, for example, the center played just 11 minutes because of foul trouble but still contributed 14 points (on six-of-eight shooting) on a variety of shots that included a pull-up jumper, a spin move around Othella Harrington for a dunk and another short jumper off an Hakeem-like dream shake. After the game, both McGrady and Jon Barry credited Yao's early play in the post as a major factor in the victory. "I think the key was we established Yao early in the game," Barry said. "He had eight points in those first four or five minutes ... Maybe [the Bulls] got a little discouraged by it."

Though Yao won't say it publicly, one way he could take his game to an even higher level would be if he could get some offseason rest. He has spent the past three summers playing in international competitions for his Chinese national team, limiting his longest break away from the game to three weeks. Not only does it wear on him physically, but because those practices are geared more for upcoming competition, he loses out on a chance to hone various aspects of his game. "I played all summer long. I don't have a lot of time to practice," Yao admits. "I have some practice, but these practices are more like preparing for this game or the Olympics ... It's not like I get to work on technique."

Yao's handlers hope to convince Chinese authorities this year to give him a summer off.

It would be better for him, they argue, and for China since it would increase his stature as one of the NBA's top players. After all, Yao's rookie contract comes up in a couple years and high-profile teams like the Lakers and Knicks could target him as their franchise cornerstones if the Rockets don't lock him up with an extension before then.

As for his famous lack of a mean streak on the court, Yao seems to understand it's an area in which he could improve. Even McGrady noted in an SI article earlier that his easy-going teammate will "be better than [Rik Smits], once he learns to let the dog out every night." In some ways this has been the most difficult thing for Yao to master in the NBA. For one, it's not in his nature to be mean. For another, he entered the NBA as a 22-year-old playing in a brand new country in which he barely spoke the language. It's almost as if he's trying to learn how to play with the right amount of aggression without causing a conflict on the court.

"It's easy to understand but hard to implement," Yao says. "It has a lot to do with personality. Compared to when I first got to the NBA, it's changed a lot. [But it's] another reason why I haven't developed as fast. I can do it sometimes, but not always."

Even with the strides he's made it's important to remember Yao is still young and learning and adjusting to the nuances of the NBA. Still, the Rockets have overcome a slow start this season to put themselves in the top six of the West. Most of their key players, including McGrady, Bob Sura and Juwan Howard, are under contract for next season and should be back. Houston also might be able to go out and get a quicker, more athletic power forward to help Yao. Either way, with another year under Van Gundy's system, a little more time to develop chemistry with his teammates and maybe some rest this summer, Yao is liable to take a step forward next season. He might never be Shaq, but at 24, he's already as good as Smits in his prime.

Not that Yao will expect all his critics to go away in the meantime. When asked about his perceived lack of meanness Tuesday, Yao shrugged and responded with an answer that sounded like a Chinese proverb: "When a glass of water is full, it overflows," he said.

I'm still not sure what he meant. But I'm guessing it was a little gentle trash-talk.

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