Behold, A Giant

In the current Sports Illustrated (after the part in the letters where Matt Ufford of the blog With Leather gets a nice apology for a lifted John Amaechi quote), Chris Ballard checks in with an extended look at the continuing evolution of Yao Ming.

Yao MingFirst there's a little anecdote about Yao's first off-season, in 2003, before he understood what it would take for him to become a major force in the league. The Rockets sent their strength coach (who has since started working directly for Yao) to check up on him, and found his hotel room littered with beer cans, and his waistline carrying thirty extra pounds.

That was then, though. In the four years since? Jeff Van Gundy tells us that no player he has been around works harder.

We hear about a typical day for Yao, which starts way earlier than everyone else on the team, and ends way later. Tiring just to think about it, honestly. But there are results galore.

For instance, when Yao joined the league in 2002, Ballard tells us Yao worked the incline presses with 45-pound dumbells. This year, the team purchased 120-pound dumbells exclusively for Yao's use. Despite all the added strength, however, he still has gained just two pounds. And Yao can now bench press 310.

"Oh that's pretty good," Ballard quotes Dwight Howard saying. "My highest is 345."

Steady work at the free throw line has made Yao not only the best free-throw shooter on his team, but he's also the best free-throw shooting post-up big man in NBA history. That's huge at the end of close playoff games.
He also does an insane amount of film review, cardiovascular work, and shooting practice. Before games, he makes eight of ten jumpers from spots all over the floor, then hones a whole series of post moves. Ballard writes that you can see the difference.

When Yao gets good position and faces up, he is virtually unguardable, as is clear two hours later versus the Pacers. When Yao squares up in the first quarter, Foster doesn't even try to alter his shot. Later, against O'Neal, the leading shot blocker in the league, Yao only has to turn his shoulder to shoot uncontested jump hooks. Though his knee is still balky -- it is the first night he has worn a sleeve rather than a brace -- he makes 10 of 17 shots from the field (and 12 of 13 from the line), and finishes with 32 points and 14 rebounds in an 86-76 Rockets win.

Afterward an Eastern Conference scout stands outside the locker room and stares at the stat sheet. "Nobody could stop him," the scout says. "If he plays like that, they could do some damage in the playoffs. I would not want to play them in the first round."

It was imperceptible to most, but another element of Yao's evolution was on display. When he entered the league, he was criticized for being passive. Now, not only does Yao call for the ball, but he also occasionally breaks a play, as in the fourth quarter when, instead of setting a screen for McGrady, he posted up on the right side. (After the game he sheepishly admits he made the move because his shot was feeling so good.) "If it was up to me, I'd throw the ball to Yao every time down court," says McGrady. "The more his confidence grows, the better he gets."

Rockets coaches have noticed the change in attitude. Van Gundy says Yao has added the proper amount of stubbornness, and Thibodeau says, "His self-assurance now is as high as it's ever been."

Houston's not the team anyone wants to face. Tough coach. Tracy McGrady. Yao Ming. Dikembe Mutombo. Shane Battier. This is a real handful. Well worth reading the whole article.