As we approach the halfway point of the Age of Shaq, the search for a successor has extended to the least likely of places: China. Why? If you watched the Olympics, you know. I was there, and after watching Yao Ming compete against the best players in the world, I left Sydney dizzy with the possibilities. Simply put, the 20-year-old Yao has a chance to alter the way the game of basketball is played.
I've seen hundreds of talented prospects look promising in tryouts, only to disappoint once they got on the court against polished performers. I'm sure that won't be the case with the 7'6" Yao. This guy has skills, competitiveness and basketball intelligence that far exceed his limited background. As I watched his crisp and imaginative passes, felt the energy surge when he'd whip an outlet to launch a fast break and noted his decisionmaking and great court demeanor, I knew I was peering into the future.
The first thing that struck me about Yao in Sydney was the way he combines grace with size. He carried a beautifully sculpted physique (he weighs 265 pounds) despite only recently committing to formal weight training and conditioning programs. His base is solid -- size 18 feet under a powerfully muscled lower body -- yet he's amazingly nimble. The mechanics of his jump and hook shots, while not classic, are most certainly sound. And consistent. His jumper is dangerous out to 20 feet, and he can hook you to death with either hand.
The two best young players I've ever seen were Lew Alcindor (before he was Kareem) and Arvydas Sabonis. At this stage, Yao is not the equal of either. But his upside is so unlimited that when he does enter the NBA draft, I can't conceive of any other player being chosen before him.
It usually takes a foreign player at least two years to adjust to American culture and perform at his best. The language barrier is always the initial hurdle, though that should be a lesser concern for Yao. Three years ago he spoke no English. Since then, he has been to the U.S. as a guest of Nike and been a participant in Michael Jordan's summer youth basketball camp, and he's learned enough English to communicate adequately with coaches and teammates. Yao will have more of a challenge adjusting to the NBA lifestyle: rich restaurant food instead of the Chinese staples of fish and rice, a different hotel room every other night, the constant trips in and out of airports. His life will be quite different from the one he leads now.
Yao was recruited to play for the Sharks' junior team seven years ago, but it's an enormous stretch to compare the Chinese developmental process to ours. The facilities in China do not measure up to our standards either. Nor does the equipment. It's ironic that much of the world's sporting equipment is now produced in China, but that equipment is available to its own athletes on only a limited basis.
The poor quality of coaching in China and the multiple levels of bureaucracy are also hurdles for Yao. Basketball innovation and creativity are absent in China, where longer, harder and faster practices are thought to be the true path to success. And while the Chinese are aware of the need to upgrade the level of coaching, the extreme nationalism in China and noncompetitive salaries prevent the much needed influx of U.S. coaches. There's only one American now coaching in China. Former NBA player Mike McGee coaches a team in the league Yao plays in, and his impact is severely limited since he isn't associated with the all-important national team.
I think the quality of international competition, especially in China, holds back Yao as well. The international game is slow-paced and almost contact-free, and you face a top opponent no more than a few times a year. The speed, intensity and physical nature of every possession in the NBA makes Chinese basketball look like it's in slow motion.
Despite these hurdles, the people who run basketball in this country continue to dream of a truly international NBA. Why not? If you can find a Larry Bird in French Lick, Ind., a Kevin McHale in Hibbing, Minn., or a John Stockton in Spokane, Wash., why can't you find a future star in Russia, Brazil or China? A year ago, the Mavericks used a second-round pick to draft 7'1" Wang Zhi-Zhi, the first Chinese national selected by an NBA team. Wang is a good player, more along the lines of a Toni Kukoc, and the Mavericks are still working to get him under contract. But it's Yao who has the NBA truly excited.
Granted, I can't predict Yao's continued good health. Or how hard and long he'll work to develop his game. Or how he'll stand up to playing 100 NBA games a year. Or whether he'll be able to overcome his relatively short arms, suspect explosiveness and less-than-great lateral mobility.
Yes, Yao is unquestionably a work-in-progress. But if I were an NBA coach, I'd like him to be my work-in-progress. He's 7'6" and incredibly graceful and coordinated. Over the past 15 years, the NBA has put a higher premium on physical talent than on skill. The international game favors the opposite, skill without the physical prowess. Yao Ming has the chance to be the bridge that spans both worlds.This article appeared in the December 25, 2000, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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