Given his deficiencies and the demands of his handlers, Yao Ming
is a risky proposition
China's 7'5" center Yao Ming will go high in the first round of
the June 26 NBA draft, possibly at No. 1 or 2, but the team that
selects him is sure to do so with trepidation. Several NBA team
executives (all of whom requested anonymity, in order to avoid
upsetting the Chinese) say they are concerned with policies
announced last month by the Chinese Basketball Association to
deal with Yao's long-anticipated move to the U.S.
While much has been made of the association's requirement that
the 21-year-old Yao pay at least half his pretax NBA earnings to
the association and several Chinese government agencies, team
executives consider that a personal matter for Yao to deal with.
More worrisome to them is the association's assertion that it has
the right to recall Yao at any time for any reason. The Chinese
would exercise that right almost immediately; they have already
said that Yao must spend this summer training in China with the
national team for the FIBA world championships, to be held in
Indianapolis from Aug. 22 to Sept. 9. Yao will then play for his
country at the Asian Games in Korea from Sept. 29 to Oct. 14,
which would cause him to miss more valuable time.
"If we draft him, we almost have to expect that we're not going
to get this kid in our training camp for three of the next four
years," says an executive of a lottery team who has looked at the
Chinese national team's schedule. "That's a really big deal,
because he's going to need a lot of off-season work under our
supervision if he wants to be a good player in our league."
Yao's workout last week in Chicago revealed as much to the 25 NBA
teams that were represented. He has a feel for the game and a
shooter's touch usually found in players a foot shorter. But
while scouts have never seen a man his size run with such grace,
they note that he doesn't know how to use his height. "As tall as
he is, he plays below the rim," a team executive said.
Yao is a finesse player who must bulk up his upper body for the
NBA. At the outset he would probably be more imposing as a
perimeter jump shooter than as a low-post defender. When the U.S.
beat China 119-72 at the 2000 Olympics, Alonzo Mourning and Kevin
Garnett had no problems fouling out Yao, who had five points and
three rebounds in 15.8 minutes.
Most discomforting of all to NBA teams is the threat of losing
Yao during the season. The Dallas Mavericks were without 7'1"
Chinese center Wang Zhizhi for one month this season after he was
summoned in November to play in the Chinese National Games. If
Wang--a second-round pick--is handled that way, imagine how many
demands the Chinese would place on Yao.
NBA executives are cautiously optimistic that an understanding
can be reached with officials in China but know that negotiations
won't be simple. Yao's rights are claimed by a quintet of Chinese
groups that are competing against one another to profit from him.
This Gang of Five is made up of the Chinese Basketball
Association, the national sports ministry, the Shanghai Sharks
(Yao's team for the past five years), the OTV network and the
sports ministry in Shanghai.
People who know Yao doubt that he would defect, and Chinese
authorities have made it clear they would punish Yao (and
possibly challenge his NBA contract through FIBA, the arbitration
governing body) if he were to refuse any of their demands.
Further complicating the decision of NBA suitors is the
declaration by the Chinese that they would prefer Yao to play for
the Knicks, Bulls, Lakers or Warriors--all teams based in big
markets with large Chinese populations.
A U.S. source with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations to clear
the way for Yao to join the NBA says that the Gang of Five may
soften its demands. NBA insiders say a key question is whether
the Chinese will permit Yao to sign with an American agent, who
would presumably be sympathetic to the needs of an NBA team to
develop Yao. If the Chinese stick to their demand that Yao retain
a Chinese agent, then the team that drafts him should anticipate
an adversarial relationship with China.
Spurs' Second-Round Steal
Ginobili May Be Next Great Find
With the exception of Duke point guard Jason Williams, the top
Americans in the upcoming draft appear to be long-term projects.
The search for rookies who can offer immediate help has led NBA
teams to Europe, where players spend their teen years practicing
twice a day with professional clubs. That's why a gaggle of NBA
executives--including Phoenix owner Jerry Colangelo, Houston coach
Rudy Tomjanovich and general managers Ernie Grunfeld of Milwaukee
and Glen Grunwald of Toronto--attended the Euroleague final four
last weekend in Bologna, Italy.
While the members of the contingent came mainly to see potential
first-round selections, such as forwards Nickoloz Tskitshvili and
Bostjan Nachbar of the Italian club Benetton Treviso, they were
also looking for young players on the verge of blossoming--players
on whom they might gamble second-round picks. In other words,
they were hoping to find the next Emanuel Ginobili.
Ginobili, a 6'5" forward from Argentina, was a virtual unknown
when the Spurs claimed him with the 57th pick in the 1999 draft.
"I didn't expect to be drafted," Ginobili said on Sunday night
after scoring a game-high 29 points for Kinder Bologna in its
89-83 upset loss to the Greek club Panathinaikos in the
Euroleague final. "I was playing with the Argentinean national
team in Brazil, and I didn't find out until the day after the
Ginobili did not sign with San Antonio because the team wanted
him to keep developing in Europe. Since then the 23-year-old has
become arguably the best talent in Europe--a well-rounded
left-hander with blinding quickness, three-point range and a nose
for the ball that resulted in 2.5 steals per game this season.
Ginobili improved immediately after leaping last season from the
small Italian team Reggio Calabria to Kinder, the leading club of
Europe, for whom he became a star. He expects to take another
quantum leap when he joins the NBA. "If I'm practicing and
playing with great players, it's easier for me to improve," he
The Spurs hope he makes that leap this summer, when they are
expected to offer the $1 million exception. Ginobili's agent,
Luciano Capicchioni, says his client could earn more in Europe
next season. "I don't know what the Spurs want to do with me,"
says Ginobili, "but the money is an important part. The amount
they offer shows how much they really want you."
New Grizzlies President
Jerry West Meets East
As Yao Ming walked onto the gym floor for his 45-minute workout
in Chicago last week, he pulled off his T-shirt to reveal a
practice jersey bearing the familiar NBA logo of a player
dribbling. Little did Yao know that 10 yards away, sitting in a
folding chair behind the basket, was the man depicted in the
logo, Jerry West.
The visit to Chicago was West's first formal scouting trip on
behalf of the Grizzlies, whom he had joined as team president the
day before. If Memphis wins the first pick or, in some scenarios,
even the second pick in the May 19 lottery, West must decide
whether he wants to build his team around Yao. The guess is that
West wants to build a championship team, and his decades of
experience in the company of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain,
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal have taught him that to
do so, he will need a physical center. By drafting Yao, West
would be committing the franchise to a finesse center who needs
years of training to become an inside force. "Why are the Lakers
the best team?" West asks. "Because of Shaquille O'Neal. There's
just no matchup for him."
On Nets power forward Keith Van Horn, who's averaging 14.0 points
per game on 30-of-75 shooting in the playoffs:
People get down on Van Horn because he's inconsistent shooting
the ball, but I give him credit for trying to fit into an offense
that isn't really suited to him. Here's a 6'10" power forward who
can shoot the three, occasionally beat his man off the dribble or
post up inside. But the Princeton offense that the Nets run isn't
based on developing his scoring; it's based on reads and cuts,
which means they don't run the usual pick-and-rolls or post-ups
or isolations that would allow Van Horn to establish himself in
every game. But there's no question they'll need his scoring if
they hope to make it to the Finals.