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June 25, 2002
The future is Yao
ESPN The Magazine

The Magazine named Yao Ming "Next" way back in December 2000. We asked Ric Bucher, who has reported on Yao's strengths and weaknesses, to reflect, on the eve of the draft: What is Yao, now?

It's tragic for Chinese basketball that Yao Ming will not be on the podium to receive the traditional David Stern handshake after he is selected the No. 1 pick in Wednesday's NBA draft. Pictures are sometimes not only worth a thousand words but millions of dollars, particularly when it comes to being the first foreign player ever to be the league's top pick.

Yao Ming
But if Yao's absence prompts NBA fans and media to tamp down their expectations when he does arrive, then something valuable could be extracted from an otherwise blown opportunity.

The first time anyone sees him now, outside of the World Championships in Indianapolis, will be in late October, which is when his national-team commitments will finally end. He will arrive exhausted from a heavy summer of competition and training -- long, punishing workouts followed a home loss to New Zealand, a source says -- and wholly unprepared for the NBA's unique brand of physical play around the basket.

Which means he could hit the infamous "rookie wall" the minute he steps off the plane.

All that said, if he does wind up with the Rockets, he'll be in the ideal incubator. With Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Eddie Griffin, this is not a team devoid of talent and expectations. Hopes still will ride on their shoulders as much as Yao's. Houston also is a one-newspaper town with a less-than-rabid basketball culture, which means his every turnover and missed dunk won't be micro-analyzed as they might in Chicago -- or draw screaming headlines as they might in New York.

He'll also have a coach in Rudy Tomjanovich who is one of the game's best communicators, a guy who allows players the freedom to do what they do best and never embarrasses them with public harangues or high-profile benchings. Rudy brought Griffin along slowly when he all too frequently got lost in the Rockets' offense -- without damaging the rookie's confidence. It takes a delicate touch to pull that off, and Rudy clearly has it.

Chances are Yao won't even be a starter at first and may be limited to 15 minutes a game. The Rockets understand that rushing Yao could have harmful long-term effects on both his confidence and basic development. For an example of what can happen to a highly-touted big man saddled with big expectations while wholly unfamiliar with the NBA culture, see Shawn Bradley and his introduction to the league with the 76ers.

Too bad Yao isn't here to truly take advantage of an extraordinary honor and accomplishment. He's still Next, but he's not yet Now.

AND ONES: Latest talk of a deal between the Sixers and Warriors has Derrick Coleman, Matt Harpring and the No. 16 pick -- once Philly uses it to take Dan Dickau -- going to Golden State for Erick Dampier, Larry Hughes and the No. 30 pick. Since it looks like a cost-cutting measure for the Warriors, it makes sense ... Latest talk concerning the Clippers' attempts to get Andre Miller has them offering the No. 8 and 12 picks, with Corey Maggette.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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