This 7-foot-5 nice guy too good to finish last

OK, OK, we all were wrong. Yao Ming is going to be a lot better than we thought, and a lot faster than we thought. But let's not get carried away here. He is no Shaq, or Kareem or Wilt. Or Hakeem.

That should be clear Friday when Yao faces Shaquille O'Neal for the first time. But Jerry West told us that last spring in Chicago when Yao had his first American workout for NBA executives. It was true then, and although Yao has shown more than what most didn't imagine or certainly see in that exercise then, it is also true now.

Yao may well be the dominant center in the NBA in five years, which only might mean he's superior to Brad Miller.

This is not to take anything away from Yao, who is going to be a terrific NBA player. Heck, he's one right now. But we're talking more of your Rik Smits or David Robinson-type centers than your monstrous O'Neal or Chamberlain.

There probably is a proverb about getting a job done in all different ways, and Robinson will be in the Hall of Fame for doing just that. So it's hardly a shame to be compared with him. Of course, Robinson also was a guy who averaged 24.3 points and 12 rebounds as a rookie and almost single-handedly drove his team to the greatest turnaround in NBA history. The NBA is about numbers, and Yao's are nice: About 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game. But hold off on the wing in the Hall of Fame.

Just because many of us were wrong about the timing of Yao's impact doesn't mean we have to apologize and extoll him out of proportion. His team is hardly a lock yet to even make the playoffs, and it should be quite an education for him banging against O'Neal on Friday. However, he should do reasonably well because he can go outside and shoot, and he may very well choose to do so. O'Neal isn't what we'd call quite in playoff form yet, but his form of late has shown he's been playing a lot, though not always basketball.

And who knows how O'Neal, really a softie when it comes to personal relationships, will react to his public slap over insulting comments he made several months back on TV while mocking Yao's language. O'Neal might feel brutalizing Yao would make him look worse, and it's not like O'Neal has done that to many lately when he's tried. The Rockets will surround him and dare Samaki Walker, like all teams do, and the Rockets will do their best not to expose Yao to an embarrassing one-on-one confrontation. After all, it is just one game.

But the feeling is Yao will handle himself quite well, thank you.

This is not just a special player, but a special guy.

I've seen all the big galoots, the over 7-foot-4 guys, come into the NBA, and none has quite carried himself like Yao does. Most seemed somewhat embarrassed, perhaps ashamed, of their height. They slouched, they tried to hide behind teammates and they avoided media scrutiny and often eye contact. If Shawn Bradley could have curled up in his locker that first season in Philadelphia -- and he was no baby having returned from a two-year Mormon mission -- he would have.

Not so with Yao. His sense of pride and dignity is as impressive as his physical dimensions. He walks comfortably, and almost doesn't look 7-5 or 7-6 because of his ease around people. He smiles frequently, moves easily among teammates and friends, and is the only bilingual athlete I've ever encountered who could do standup in another language.

Americans, arguably, are the laziest people. No, we work hard. But we do so from a parochial perspective. Almost everyone in the world is fluent in another language. Americans rarely try. While Yao is quickly learning English, he seemed to inately understand the importance of humor in our culture. He is quick with a quip and defuses potentially embarrassing situations, like O'Neal's comments, with a clever retort or observation through his omnipresent translator. Some say Yao's English is good enough that he doesn't need the translator, but Yao has gotten so comfortable with his constant sidekick that he seems to enjoy having him around because of Yao's social nature.

None of which would have been good enough to make him a legitimate NBA All-Star, which he deserves to be and will be this season.

When Yao came to Chicago for that workout last spring, he shot jumpers, many from 3-point range. He ran the floor with a decent college player. He showed unusual shooting touch for a very large man and coordination. This is what we heard about Bradley. The difference is the basketball part, which Yao has shown in the NBA.

Yao can roll to the basket, catch the ball on the move and finish. That's a sophisticated basketball move, one unusually rare in a big man. It's almost unheard of in a giant. He seems not bothered at all by post play, like many of the tallest players, showing he can go into the post, take the first bump and go down farther. It's something Yao didn't show anyone until he got to the NBA.

We all saw Yao in the Olympics in 2000, and he couldn't do anything, even barely stay in the game. His team wasn't close to a medal. He looked better this summer in the World Championships in Indianapolis, but his team finished even below the miserable sixth-place showing of the U.S. and teams often took him out of the game. He was often seen stalking off the court in anger.

Who knew how much difference it would make playing with real talent. Yao is a brilliant passer. Despite averaging just over one assist per game, he makes passes that make Magic Johnson proud. He can direct a ball to a teammate with a touch. He doesn't have to catch and gather himself. He thinks ahead of the play, like the great ones do. It's that notion people try to explain of seeing the game in slow motion. The great ones can anticipate what should happen, and then make it so.

One big question for Yao is how mentally tough he'll be. It seems he will with the media blitz he has endured after playing constantly for his country before coming here late for training camp. And then there's that awful American food. No, it's not easy living in a foreign country, even one we know is so much better than his. Just ask anyone here. Yet, there was Yao after a mild knee sprain last week mocking injury to awaiting reporters before admitting to the scam. Bilingual practical joking. Who'd have thought of it?

It took Shaq years to allow us to see his playful side, to say nothing of getting rid of his translator, Dennis Scott.

But Shaq also came in at a time when there still were centers in the NBA, great ones at that. It may have been the greatest era for big men with Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Robinson and Alonzo Mourning. As a rookie, Shaq averaged 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds, and he never was a great rebounder. In his first season, Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds playing with Ralph Sampson. Ewing averaged 20 points and nine rebounds and Mourning averaged 21 points and 10.3 rebounds. And forget Chamberlain or Abdul-Jabbar, or even years ago when rookie Walt Bellamy averaged 31.6 points and 19 rebounds.

Yao is more skilled than powerful, more effective than dominant. Let's not get too carried away here. The face of basketball is not about to change. But with Yao around, it should have a nicer smile.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.