- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

There is irony in Yao Ming's nickname, the "Little Giant." The 7-foot-6 center of the Houston Rockets is one of nine players in NBA history to stand at least 7-4.
Yet there are those who believe that Yao, the top pick in the 2002 draft and the first foreigner to be drafted No.1 overall, may have little impact on the league.
"Yao Ming makes Shawn Bradley look like Bill Russell," TNT analyst and future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. "He might be a good player someday, but he is not ready."
Indeed, Yao is not ready to dominate despite last night's 30 points against Dallas. If he never does, he will join a long list of extremely tall players from Manute Bol (7-7) to Gheorghe Muresan (7-7) to Bradley (7-6) to Priest Lauderdale (7-4) whose performances never matched their height.
But unlike those players, much is expected of Yao, at whom the Wizards will get their first look tonight when they visit Houston. Yao is not a shot-blocking former shepherd from the Sudan like Bol. Nor is he a giant toothpick once viewed as potentially having a huge NBA upside, as Bradley was at Brigham Young because, among other things, he excelled at baseball and golf while in high school.
Considering the NBA's present infatuation with foreign players, the stakes are highest with Yao, a star on the international circuit. In his last season with the Shanghai Sharks of the China Basketball Association, Yao averaged a career-high 32.4 points (with a shooting percentage of .721 from the floor), plus 19.0 rebounds and 4.8 blocked shots.
But he is still somewhat of a mystery, because, despite his homeland numbers, there have been times in his rookie season when he has seemed light years away from the franchise player Houston hopes he will become.
Although the 296-pound Yao, then just 20, averaged 10.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in the 2000 Olympics, Alonzo Mourning, a member of the gold medal-winning American team, thought Wang Zhizhi was China's best player. And Wang has been marginal at best in the NBA. In his third year in the league, Wang was released by the Dallas Mavericks last summer and has appeared in five games with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Yao also didn't inspire any comparisons to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he was held scoreless in his NBA debut. Against the Los Angeles Lakers without Shaquille O'Neal, he was 9-for-9 from the floor, scored 20 points, and grabbed six rebounds.
However, Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about where Yao is on the learning curve.
Asked how Yao might have fared against O'Neal, the league's most dominant force, Jackson replied, "[ONeal would] break him in two. It wouldn't be fair for this kid to go against Shaquille, who's such a dramatic force, such a dynamic amount of energy."
Despite Yao's inconsistency, some insight into how much teams factor Yao into their game plan reveals where he is right now as a player.
"I've heard the hype, but I don't know much about him other than what I've read," Wizards forward Jerry Stackhouse said. "With [the Rockets], your concerns begin with [Steve] Francis and Cuttino [Mobley]" two Houston guards who are more than a foot shorter than Yao.
Wizards coach Doug Collins was the top pick by the Philadelphia 76ers 29 years ago, joining a team that had won a record-low nine games the season before. Collins said that there is no comparison between the scrutiny he faced and what Yao will encounter.
"I got a phone call," Collins said, telling how the league notified him of his selection out of Illinois State. "I hadn't even been on national television yet. With this young man everything he's done has been scrutinized his every step chatted about on the Internet. People know about him. He's had some rough times, but as he learns the game he'll get better. Where he'll wind up I have no idea."
Barkley, on the other hand, does not want to hear anything about Yao, who spent four years playing for the Chinese national team, needing more time.
"Learn the game?" said Barkley, who was a 21-year-old rookie with Philadelphia in 1984. "He has been playing the game all these years. You know what he said when he got over here? 'Whoa! These brothers are different over here.' He's never seen a brother in China. They are big and strong and they run and jump. Whoa! Even white guys can play over here.' The black guys and white guys they aren't like those China guys, they're a little bit different over here."
But Yao will be given every opportunity to succeed in the NBA if for no other reason than his success will open an entirely new market to the league, which now has an office in Beijing. Thirty Rockets games will be televised in China. When Yao made his regular-season debut, the game was available to 287million homes in China. Compare that with the 106.6million TV households in the United States.
But in order for the marketing campaign to succeed, Yao can't become the next Chuck Nevitt.
"There's a lot riding on him becoming a real basketball player, perhaps even a star," Collins said.


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