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.