|Wednesday, May 1
Updated: May 2, 5:15 PM ET
Yao plays, but how his future plays out is uncertain
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- The custodian looked to be about 55 years old, and as he pulled up the fluorescent green tape that had been a makeshift NBA three-point line, I wondered if he would hold onto it and try to move it on eBay or something. If chewed gum could fetch a price, surely the tape around which Yao Ming shot a basketball would be worth something.
It was that kind of surreal day here Wednesday at Loyola University, which has its own place in basketball lore. The Texas Western team that won the NCAA national championship in 1966 has been rightly celebrated as the first college team to start five African-American players, but three years earlier, Loyola started four. It was just as startling to folks at the time, and Loyola won its own hardware. Nearly four decades later, an Asian man came to this campus and held the NBA spellbound for an afternoon.
"He needs guys that can score a few more points," Jerry West said, explaining the Tanned One's appearance.
So, you want to know -- can Yao play?
The short answer? Yeah, he can.
First, Yao can score. His hour or so on the Alumni Gym floor proved that pretty well. It was a light workout -- very light, too light, probably -- on intensity, but heavy on showing an ability to make shots. And Yao made them all over the floor. From the baseline, at the top of the key, behind the fluorescent green tape. And he knocked down all but two of two dozen or so free throws. He runs the floor very well for someone his size (the NBA is officially listing him at 7-5). And he passes the Muresan Test: he doesn't move like the Tin Man out there.
P.J. Carlesimo put Ming and Oregon center Chris Christofferson through some paces - around-the-world shooting, post-ups, screen and rolls, pick and pops, flares to the corner -- but even P.J. acknowledged it "wasn't a killer intensity workout."
Defensively, they guarded one another, and trapped the screen rolls provided by former Marquette guard Cordell Henry and Northwestern University assistant coach Mitch Henderson, who played four years at Princeton. I felt bad for the 7-2 Christofferson, who clearly should have never left the paint and struggled to touch the rim the further he went out. On the other hand, Ming stroked it time and time again.
"Any exposure is good exposure for me," the good-natured Christofferson said afterward.
Second, Yao can pass. The best move he had during the entire workout was a sweet drop down to the rolling Henry for a layup. In the NBA's new era of 28 teams without a center, and the Lakers, a big man who can move and pass and shoot is as valuable as a top-flight point guard these days.
Yao, as advertised, didn't say anything afterward, but his "statement" given to the media must have been crafted by a whole team of comedy writers. Yao's writers put the following words in his mouth:
"Proper credit is also due to the members of media. The game of Cat 'n Mouse is stressful, but your resourcefulness and work ethic are something I think we players should emulate. Journalism is a profession I respect a great deal. Just give me some time to warm up. I look forward to taking each and every one of you to dinner sometimes in the future. But the check is on you if your reporting makes me look bad."
I could not possibly make that up.
On the court, Yao's body is unusual. He has a good lower base, with strong calves. But his upper body is Reggie Milleresque. He's got definition, but he's not big. Offensively, I think he'll struggle to finish when he gets contact in the paint. And when the 300-pound Christofferson dropped his left shoulder into Yao's chest on a post-up, Yao gave way. Quickly. He will have big trouble guarding power forwards, much less centers, during his first few years in the league. Or, as the Clippers' Quentin Richardson, home for the summer and in attendance, put it, "Shaq will go bang, bang, and dunk on him. And then talk bad about him."
But personnel guys look for different things. And most of them liked Yao enough to not consider the trip a waste.
"You can tell about his athletic ability and his skill level," said Rob Babcock, Minnesota's director of player personnel. "The things you really want to know about and can't see are his court sense and his mental toughness. Or his endurance. He was already getting tired out there … if I'm in a position to draft him, I would want to have him for a day and a half to really work him. But he's a legitimate big, a guy who can shoot."
"The one thing you can say is that you had to be here," Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe said. "And you had to watch and you had to see. And you obviously saw things that were very impressive … He's got what you can't teach. I was with him in Dallas for two weeks last summer, and had been over in China before. So I knew he was a very, very good player. And it was good. You saw the same things out here."
I wonder, though, if any team would bother putting a slower, less mobile center on Ming. Even with his Kevin Willis-like arms and relative lack of wingspan, he'll be able to shoot over everyone in the league. So why bother trying to check him with a center when a Kenyon Martin-type power forward might be able to push him away from his favorite spots?
Because, Carlesimo said, Yao would just go down on the block and clean up with "Shawn Bradley-type rebounds" and score at will.
"The entry pass would be so easy for him," Carlesimo said. "What's scary is if you put him inside, you have a guy that appears to have great hand skills and an ability to put it down with the right hand or the left hand, and if he catches it that near the basket, it's lights out."
Yao compares with Rik Smits, though personnel folk pointed out that Smits was equally comfortable with his back to the basket while Yao appears to prefer facing it. Yao reminded me a little of Ralph Sampson; though Yao's not as athletic, he has that same kind of perimeter-based, more finesse game that was ahead of Ralph's time.
So who will take him? The Warriors are playing poker, though GM Garry St. Jean said after the workout Golden State did not know that Ming would be available for the kind of special workout he had for the Knicks here Tuesday. Neither did the Grizzlies, and several teams were furious at what they considered blatant special treatment for Gotham.
But West, whose new team has the third-most chances at the top pick in the May 19 lottery, is already playing a different brand of ball than that franchise has known in its brief existence. Three years ago, Steve Francis pouted and bullied his way out of Vancouver. That's not going to happen in Memphis' new West Wing.
"I definitely think there's a couple of markets they would like him to go," West said. "But for a team in this league, if you feel like that's the best player, draft him. I don't think teams should be blackmailed, and we've had that before in the NBA. Agents saying, 'Well, this player's not going to play there.' The damn guy would sit if the right owner's there and the right people are in place, he would sit before he would play. You cannot do that. It destroys the structure of what you're trying to do internally. And more importantly, I think it destroys the integrity of the draft."
West said that Memphis asked the league if it could have a private audience with Yao.
"They said he didn't have time to do that," West said. "And the two teams that it seemed like there was enough time to do that were, I believe, New York and Golden State, and I heard Chicago (the Bulls will have a meeting with Yao on Thursday). And it's not coincidental that, I think they have large Chinese populations. There's not a lot of Chinese (Chinese population .72 percent, according to the 2000 Census), I think, in Memphis … if he were available and that's who we wanted to draft, we would draft him."
I'd like to be a fly on the wall when the Commish gets that phone call!
This is where the real intrigue will be in the weeks leading up to the draft. Not what percentage Yao's handlers will take before he steps foot on an NBA court, or who will be his agent. What will the NBA do if another team -- one other than the ones Yao's people clearly want him playing for -- wins the lottery? Like, for example, Milwaukee? (Yes, the Bucks had representatives here, as did every team but Boston, Charlotte and Orlando.)
Will the league sit idly by and watch a potential billion-dollar investment turn right back around and play for the Shanghai Sharks for five more years? Or will somebody do something funny with those ping-pong balls?
David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.