Here and Yao
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

By now Yao Ming has been around the league twice and NBA insiders have been able to chart his every plus and minus. And since he's on his way to becoming the West's starting center in the forthcoming All-Star game, it's time to carefully scrutinize his game. And so, on to the definitive scouting report:

SIZE AND STRENGTH: At 7-foot-5 and 296 pounds, Yao is certainly a colossus. (Shawn Bradley is an inch taller, but 30 pounds lighter.) "Yao is far from being a weakling," says one NBA assistant coach, "but he's not nearly in the same class as the real powerhouse players, like Shaq and Sabonis. I think that Yao is in desperate need of some heavy-duty weight work, especially for his legs. That's because his center of gravity is so high that too many guys can get underneath him and move him off his spot."

SHOOTING: Don't be fooled by the fact that Yao leads the league in field goal percentage. (Wilt Chamberlain led the league in FG percentage nine times despite being one of the worst "pure" shooters ever.) Early in the season, Yao was plugging jumpers galore -- but then the scouts spotted something of a flaw in his release and made adjustments.

"He's got a little too much left hand on the ball when he sets up his shot," says another assistant, "which means his release is just a bit slow. Because he fades away on almost every jump shot, his shot is virtually unblockable -- although Golden State's Antawn Jamison did smack a TAJ in a game in Houston (on 1/4). At the same time, Yao isn't used to playing against guys who are big, long and quick enough to challenge his jumpers. The result is that he's now rushing a lot of shots, and his jump-shooting accuracy is taking a nosedive. Still, he gets plenty of dunks, which are always high-percentage shots."

Yao also has difficulty unloosing a viable shot when he catches the ball on the move in crowded quarters. The solution here is for Yao to improve his jump-hook technique, or even develop a sky-hook, thereby allowing him to use his off-arm to keep opponents away from his body.

Yao Ming
Seven-foot passers last a long time in this league. Right, Arvydas?
PASSING: This is the most highly evolved of his skills. He has extraordinary court sense, i.e., knowing where all the players are and where they're headed, and he's so big that most defenders are unable to block his vision. Yao's repertoire includes behind-the-back and over-the-head no-look passes, all delivered with a wonderful touch. He has also revived the long bounce-pass, a lost art in the NBA. (In many cases, bounce passes are more effective than "baseball" passes, because the ball comes up to the receiver and is easier to catch. Bounce passes are also generally more accurate and, because the ball is constantly moving through a vertical plane at ever-changing angles, more difficult to intercept. The trick is to throw the long bounce-pass hard and high enough so that the ball doesn't skid along the floor.)

But he's a rookie, of course, so his timing frequently gets upset by the speed of the game. The result is that many passes are delivered just a tick too late. This is especially true of his outlet passes.

However, the single most impressive aspect of Yao's passing game is his profound unselfishness.

LOW-POST MOVES: When he tries to settle into a low-post position, he frequently gets pushed a step or two off the box. But his big, powerful hands make him a great receiver. He favors a TAJ, an effective shot, although his fadeaway follow-through moves him away from the boards and eliminates the possibility of rebounding his own misses. He spins slowly but tightly to either baseline or the middle, and with his long arms can effectively use both sides of the basket. He's got a nice array of "cute" flips, one-dribble reverses, and even a few duck-under moves. He can dunk lefty, but does he have a lefty layup or baby hook?

In short, Yao has enough junk in his trunk to be a big-time low-post scorer.

HIGH-POST MOVES: Strictly catch and shoot, which is all he needs from here. With his feet set, Yao has a wonderful touch.

Yao Ming
Yao needs a few more tricks than just size to rebound in the NBA.
REBOUNDING: He has wonderfully sticky hands -- if he can touch the ball, it's his. However, his overall lack of lateral mobility does show up in his boardwork. "He's strictly a one-space rebounder," says one coach. "A phone-booth rebounder." And since he's very slow off the floor, he doesn't jump center to start a game because quick jumpers can sometimes beat him to the top.

Balance is another problem, especially when he's trying to "box out" an opponent. Because the defensive player is (hopefully) positioned between the offensive player and the basket, this technique requires the defender to face the hoop and staunchly hold his ground. Lunging to initiate contact with the offensive player puts the defender off-balance, and the boxee can easily bull his way past the boxer's lead foot. Houston is hosting New Orleans (12/29/02) and there's Yao looking to seal Jamaal Magloire off the Hornets' offensive boards. Yao successfully places his body between Magloire and the basket, but keeps trying to push the Hornets' center farther out. Magloire responds by "pulling the chair" -- simply sidestepping and suddenly removing any resistance to Yao's backward thrust. The result is that Yao tumbles to the floor and Magloire has a clear shot at the glass. (Against the Warriors, Jamison turns the same trick and causes Yao to stumble.)

At the other end of the court, Yao is almost totally passive when he's boxed out.

DEFENSE: He's an incredible shot-blocker when the ball comes to him. Because he can't move laterally with his hands raised, Yao can't come out and challenge jump shooters. Opposing bigs try to drive into Yao's body and then spin around him, a maneuver that "shortens" his arms and makes a foul more likely than a blocked shot. Blame his high center of gravity again for Yao's inability to push post-up centers off the block. Back-picks are also difficult for Yao to handle. When the Minnesota Timberwolves repeatedly used this tactic against Yao in their 1/7 game in Houston, the Rockets' big center was thoroughly confused and ran great-circle routes around the come-from-behind contact. Also, Yao is adept at leaving his man and "showing" when a teammate gets beaten off the dribble, but he can't "recover" in time to challenge the resulting shot when the ball is kicked out to his man.

However, Yao was born to play zone defense. "Put Yao at the bottom of, say, a one-three-one zone," says an Eastern Conference assistant, "then funnel all penetration toward him, and he'll be hellacious."

TOUGHNESS: During a rebounding scrum against the Timberwolves, Joe Smith shoulders Yao off-balance, then knocks him to the floor with the elbow of experience. Later that same game, Yao is about to put back a missed shot when 6-10, 270-pound Marc Jackson fouls him hard across the face. Yao's response is to ignore the hit and calmly convert both free throws.

Yao Ming
Vin can't eat anymore, he's stuffed.
So far Yao's taken his rookie beatings in stoic fashion. But someday somebody's really going to ring the big man's gong --then we'll see what's what.

HOUSTON'S GAME PLAN: Over the years, Rudy Tomjanovich's basketball intelligence has been disrespected by most of his peers. "His teams made few adjustments," says one veteran coach, "and the ones they did make were usually ineffectual. Rudy's offenses were wild and woolly, and his scorers played with almost no restraints. For the most part, this is still the case. The big difference in Rudy, though, is his attitude on the bench. Where he used to be very emotional -- too emotional -- to the point where he'd often embarrass his players, he's now much more detached and he never gets into their faces in public. Even his adjustments are getting better."

Perhaps, but coaches around the league still believe that Yao isn't being utilized properly. "What do they run for him?" asks a veteran assistant. "He sets a pick at the high post, then rolls into the pivot. Or else he'll just set up on the left box. That's about it. Yao simply isn't getting enough touches."

Another assistant blames this shortcoming on the selfishness of Yao's teammates: "Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Moochie Norris are all about pumping up as many shots as possible. I call them the machine gunners. Stevie Franchise, especially, has got to realize that the Rockets aren't going anywhere unless the big guy is more involved in the offense. I think they're going to have to lose before they can win."

PROGNOSIS: Yao's upside is unlimited. He's already an extremely efficient player -- he catches the ball and then quickly moves it. Nor does he have any "look-at-me-everybody" playground habits to eradicate. Also, his teammates seem to genuinely like the big fellow -- and, more importantly, the refs are already protecting him.

Yao Ming
Bottom line, Shaq isn't the "Last Center Left."
It's axiomatic that big men need three years to fully comprehend the pro game. In time, Yao will undoubtedly learn to take up more space and become a better rebounder. He'll also learn the angles and pressure points of pivot position. In general, the action will "slow down" and Yao's comfort areas will likewise expand.

Given his inevitable improvement, and the increasing "finessement" of the league's young centers, just how good can Yao become? Nothing less than the most dominating big man of his generation -- at least as forceful as Shaq.

Where is Yao right now? An informal poll of the league's coaching staffs reveals that among the NBA's low-post players, Yao is second only to the Shaq-man, who is still way ahead of Yao in those aspects of the game that involve power, quick reactions, experience and the ability to peak at the right times. So when the Lakers and the Rockets meet for the first time this season tonight, Rudy T should be careful not to let Shaq operate one-on-one against his rookie center.

My advice to Shaq is this: Enjoy it while you can, big fella.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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