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 tire 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.