The New Mr. Big

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At 2.26 m and 134 kg, yao ming could have scored his 32.4 points per game last season in the Chinese Basketball Association 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 past 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 George Mikan and Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone is embodied by only one man among the 29 teams of today. "LCL" is what 2.28-m, 156-kg Shaquille O'Neal has taken to calling himself—as in Last Center Left.

It's not that seven-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 it.

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' 2.28-m 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 in 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 [away] 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 2.23-m power forward who was ahead of his time: he averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds over his first three seasons, close to Garnett's production (22.0 and 11.8) with the Timberwolves over the past 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 [Timberwolves coach] Flip Saunders into doing it, I'd like that."

While Sampson spent four high-profile seasons at the University of Virginia before coming to Houston, Yao enters the league as an unknown quantity, surrounded by more misconceptions than for 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 proved ideal.

Another misunderstanding concerned Yao's attitude. Perhaps grasping at straws, some NBA team executives speculated that because he had not indicated 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 2.03-m forward Andrew Kwiatkowski during a rebounding skirmish. Then, with a wave of his long fingers, he dared 2-m 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 rest of the worlds. Make no mistake, Yao is not a gentle giant.

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 2.23-m Indiana Pacers center Rik Smits. At this point Yao might 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," a 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 2.06-m point guard, imagine how it will be for Yao as a 2.26-m 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 11,200 km and 13 time zones away from his new NBA home? It didn't hurt that he was the only child of a 1.91-m mother and a 2.01-m 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-size bed and a private bath; his only form of transportation was an undersized bike. Yao has spent the past 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, 2.21-m, 132-kg Arvydas Sabonis, a superb passer and excellent outside shooter.

The absence of talented U.S. homegrown big men will only make Yao's skills seem more precious. As the U.S. dragged its tail through the worlds, Antonio Maceiras, general manager 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 Los Angeles.) The Rockets are going as slow as they can, bringing Yao off the bench and restricting his minutes. Though he looked tentative and overmatched in his scoreless regular-season debut against the Pacers Oct. 30, after a few games Yao seemed to be finding his feet in the NBA, putting up a respectable eight points and wowing the Houston crowd with an Olajuwon-like spin move in a Nov. 2 win against the Raptors. After training all year round for China and not joining the Rockets until Oct. 21, Yao is bound to experience periods of exhaustion during his rookie year. At a minimum, however, he gives 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 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.