At 7'5" and 296 pounds, Yao Ming could have scored his 32.4
points per game last season in the Chinese basketball league the
easy way, dropping them into the bucket like an apple picker on a
ladder. So why did he often hoist jumpers from 18 feet instead?
"First of all, I'm not buff enough," he said through an
interpreter at the world championships in Indianapolis over the
summer. "I got pushed away from the basket. And even when I
didn't, I couldn't get anyone to throw me a pass."
Which raises another question (besides What is Mandarin for
buff?)--shouldn't your Shanghai Sharks teammates have simply
lobbed you the ball? Yao smiled. "You know that," he answered in
his basso profundo."But somebody doesn't know."
Frustrated by coaches and teammates who didn't have the first
idea about how to exploit his size, skill and agility, the
22-year-old Yao is eager to join the Houston Rockets, and the NBA
is even more eager to have him. The ranks of the league's big men
are undergoing sweeping changes. Most of the centers who spent
the last decade ruling the paint--Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson,
Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning--have retired or are on their way
out, taking with them the sort of strength and guile that have
long defined the position. Their towering, glowering dominance as
heirs to Mikan and Russell and Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar and
Malone is embodied by only one man among the 29 teams of today.
LCL is what 7'1", 345-pound Shaquille O'Neal has taken to calling
himself: Last Center Left.
It's not that 7-footers have stopped arriving in the NBA; it's
just that they seldom act like traditional pivots when they do.
Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves (by way of Farragut
Academy in Chicago), Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks (by
way of the Wurzburg X-Rays) and Pau Gasol of the Memphis
Grizzlies (by way of FC Barcelona), for instance, have made
unconventional entrances and indelible impressions. Fans who
can't imagine walking a mile in Shaq's size 22s see in this new
wave something closer to an Everyman Big Man, who creates his own
shots off the dribble, fires three-pointers in transition and
feels less comfortable with his back to the basket than facing
October 28, 2002
Now comes Yao, the No. 1 pick in the June draft, on whom the old
expectations fit as well as off-the-rack clothing. He takes more
pride in his fluid stroke from the free throw line than in his
dunks. In Indianapolis, where China finished 12th, he was voted
to the all-tournament team (an honor that eluded the members of
the sixth-place U.S.) for flicking in threes, bouncing
behind-the-back passes to back-door cutters and swatting away the
shots of Elton Brand and Paul Pierce. Yao follows Robinson and
Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs in the lithe, Russell
tradition, but those two were low-post players who gradually
moved outside. Like a football coach who sets up the run with the
pass, Yao developed his perimeter game first. To complement his
height--in the NBA, only the Mavericks' 7'6" Shawn Bradley is
taller--Yao has the thick rear and oak-trunk thighs that will help
him establish position alongside Shaq when he's ready to assert
himself in the low post.
Yao arrives just in time to exploit several emerging trends in
the NBA. Now that big men can be double-teamed before receiving
the ball, it is harder to feed the ones who do most of their
scoring in the low post. Another incentive to move outside is the
three-point line, and Yao has learned to take advantage of
that--he looked comfortable swishing threes last May during his
public workout for NBA teams in Chicago. "In the old days when
you received two points for any kind of basket, sure, you'd
rather have your big man trying to score from two feet than to
have someone else shooting from 17," says Boston Celtics coach
Jim O'Brien. "But that's changed now that you get that third
point. That's why you see Nowitzki and Garnett out there."
Yao is fortunate to be playing in Houston, where coach Rudy
Tomjanovich and general manager Carroll Dawson were serving as
assistant coaches when the modern movement toward versatile big
men was launched with the arrival of center Ralph Sampson, the
No. 1 pick by the Rockets in 1983. When Houston added Olajuwon
the following season, Sampson became a 7'4" power forward who was
ahead of his time: He averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds over
his first three seasons, or close to Garnett's production (22.0
and 11.8) with the Timberwolves over the last three years. Rather
than being celebrated for his perimeter skills, a la Garnett,
Sampson was perceived as a fainthearted anomaly unwilling to
muscle his way into the paint.
The complaints about Sampson today seem to be relics of a less
enlightened era. "Think about all you'd lose if you put Garnett
down in the block and made him stay there," Dawson says. "Of
course, if you could talk [T-Wolves coach] Flip Saunders into
doing it, I'd like that."
While Sampson spent four high-profile seasons at Virginia before
coming to Houston, Yao enters the league as an unknown quantity,
surrounded by more misconceptions than any previous top pick. For
starters, some NBA executives believed he would balk at suiting
up for the Rockets because they weren't on his list of favored
teams (the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls, the Lakers and the
Golden State Warriors). Yao's agent, Bill Duffy, who was
unofficially providing advice to Yao before the draft, admits
that he drew up that list to let small-market franchises like the
Grizzlies, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets know
that Yao wouldn't want to go there. In reality, says Duffy, the
hype and buzz that followed Yao throughout his workout in Chicago
persuaded him that he didn't want to play in a major media
center. With the less frenetic lifestyle of Houston,
Tomjanovich's championship experience and the prospect of
building a contender around Steve Francis and Yao--point guard and
center being the two most difficult positions to fill--Houston
Another misunderstanding concerned Yao's attitude. Perhaps
grasping at straws, some NBA team executives speculated that
because he had not indicated that he would defect, he wasn't
strong-minded, and that would be reflected on the floor. Instead,
he used his recent tour of North America to exhibit not only
toughness but a healthy nastiness as well. During China's 94-66
exhibition loss to Canada, on Aug. 16 in Vancouver, he broke the
wrist of 6'8" forward Andrew Kwiatkowski during a rebounding
skirmish. Then, with a wave of his long fingers, he dared 6'7"
guard Prosper Karangwa to attack the basket during a two-on-one
break--whereupon Yao hip-checked Karangwa a good 10 feet, bruising
the Canadian's ribs so badly that he required a flak jacket
throughout the worlds. Make no mistake, Yao is not a gentle
Then there was the lingering sense--resulting largely from Yao's
workout in Chicago, where he demonstrated a subpar vertical leap
and showed a relatively undeveloped upper body--that he is an
unathletic plodder along the lines of former 7'4" Indiana Pacers
center Rik Smits. At this point Yao may not be spectacular, but
he is clearly athletic: He stays under control and plays close to
the floor, yet he gets where he needs to be to score, rebound and
stifle shooters. Those with doubts about Yao were more
enthusiastic after watching him in Indianapolis, where he
combined agility with a shooting touch and highly developed
basketball instincts. "Yao wasn't born with those basketball
skills," one scout said. "He had to earn them with hours and
hours of practice. If he loves the game as much as it looks like
he does, then he should be much better than Smits."
Eventually Yao is going to learn to play on the blocks. But until
then he won't settle in the post as much as he will dart inside,
take a quick pass and score before the double team can arrive.
Tomjanovich says Yao can already throw a good fake and then
stands up to mimic him, moving one way, then changing direction
to move to the open spot. If Magic Johnson had an advantage in
seeing the court as a 6'9" point guard, imagine how it will be
for Yao as a 7'5" passer from the foul line. Dawson remembers
watching Yao beat a double team at the worlds by snapping a long
assist to the far corner. "Usually it takes a team two passes to
swing the ball because most people can't see over there," says
Dawson, who was seated next to Tomjanovich. "Rudy said, 'Did you
see that?' and I said, 'Why do you think I hit you?'"
How did Yao develop so sophisticated a game in China, more than
7,000 miles and 13 time zones away from his new NBA home? It
didn't hurt that he was the only child of a 6'3" mother and a
6'7" father, both former national team players. At the age of 12,
Yao was sent to a basketball school at the provincial sports
academy in Shanghai, where he trained several hours daily
without, apparently, losing his passion for the game. At the
academy he lived in a studio dorm room with a king-sized bed and
a private bath; his only form of transportation was an undersized
bike. Yao has spent the last eight years studying the footwork of
Olajuwon, whose games were televised in China during the Rockets'
championship seasons of 1994-95 and '95-96. He also admired the
Portland Trail Blazers' savvy Lithuanian center, 7'3", 292-pound
Arvydas Sabonis, a superb passer and excellent outside shooter.
The absence of talented home-grown big men will only make Yao's
skills seem more precious. As the U.S. dragged its tail through
the worlds, Antonio Maceiras, the G.M. of FC Barcelona,
criticized the American big men for being proficient in only one
or two aspects of the game. He argued that the U.S. would have
been better off recruiting Americans from the pro leagues in
Europe, where expats have learned to shoot, pass, rebound and
defend. "Rashard Griffith [of Kinder Bologna] and Nate Huffman [a
former Maccabi-Tel Aviv star who signed with the Toronto Raptors]
are better international centers than any of the centers the U.S.
has in this tournament," said Maceiras.
No doubt, Yao won't be ready to take on Shaq for some time. (The
teams' first meeting is Nov. 17, in L.A.) After training
year-round for China and not joining the Rockets until Monday,
Yao is bound to experience periods of exhaustion during his
rookie year. At a minimum, however, he should give Houston a shot
blocker as well as a high-post presence who can score and pass.
Yao has rarely played with the world's elite players. The best
guess here is that he will spend the next couple of years
learning from the league's diversified big men, then spend the
rest of his career taking them to school.
Yao hip-checked the Canadian a good 10 feet, bruising his ribs.
Make no mistake, he is not a gentle giant.
"Yao wasn't born with those basketball skills," says one scout. "He had to earn them with hours of practice."