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 Timber-wolves (by way of Farragut Academy in Chicago), Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks (by way of the W�rzburg 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 backdoor 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 mat 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 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 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 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."