|Wednesday, May 1
Updated: May 2, 5:17 PM ET
Yao Ming shows solid skills, remarkable size
By Andy Katz
CHICAGO -- The NBA called this a private workout for the 7-foot-5 Yao Ming, but the most unique individual session in the history of the league was anything but secretive.
Dozens of NBA personnel, from Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley on down to a Bulls strength coach, as well as media from China to New York, packed Loyola University of Chicago's Alumni Gym on Wednesday for a rare glimpse at China's national treasure.
"This isn't a typical crowd at a workout," new Grizzlies president Jerry West said Wednesday of the representatives of at least 24 of the 29 NBA teams. "A lot of the big boys are here today, and the news media is enormous. This isn't just a big story for the NBA, it's a big story about the direction the NBA is taking."
P.J. Carlesimo, the former Seton Hall, Blazers and Warriors coach, who worked out Yao, said he hadn't seen this much interest in an organized practice since he was an assistant with the 1992 Dream Team, and they practiced in San Diego and Monte Carlo before arriving in Barcelona for the Olympics.
"Other than that, I've never seen anything like this," Carlesimo said, "especially for a 45-minute workout for one kid."
And what the workout confirmed was that Yao is the real deal, a work in progress who could become the first-ever No. 1 pick to have previously played professionally overseas.
"I thought he had a wonderful workout," Knicks general manager Scott Layden said. "The workout was very complete. We had an opportunity to see him run the floor, see his footwork, pass the ball and shoot. He's going to be a willing worker and he'll put in the time to have a fine career."
And it's one that might end up with him being in New York or Chicago if this week is any indication of the Knicks' and Bulls' interest.
Despite an attempt to appear as though there was no preferential treatment, sources said the Knicks held a private workout with Yao on Tuesday at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, less than 24 hours after he arrived from Shanghai. They apparently even took him out to dinner.
The Knicks are one of the natural fits for Yao, given New York's Chinese population. But the odds of the Knicks getting the top pick are slim (the lottery order will be announced May 19), although No. 2 isn't out of the question, nor is a trade. Yao would be an initial hit with New Yorkers, but it could wear off if he doesn't lead the Knicks back to the playoffs or at the very least isn't demonstrative on the court.
The Bulls will take advantage of Yao's presence in Chicago on Thursday, according to sources. A private workout with Chicago is scheduled before Yao departs Friday for China to work out with the Chinese National Team.
The Bulls are in a precarious situation, because if they get the No. 1 pick -- and they and the Warriors have the most chances -- then they could go with a front line of Yao, and preps-to-pros players Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. The lineup would be mammoth but inexperienced. But the more pressing need for the Bulls is a point guard, and Duke's Jason Williams is more of the obvious choice.
There was no scheduled workout for the Warriors or the Grizzlies, the team with the third-best chance to land the top pick.
Yao isn't expected back in the United States until July, when China's national team returns in preparation for the World Championships in Indianapolis. That's why Wednesday's workout -- in which the whole league got a chance to see him go one-on-one with another big man, Oregon's Chris Christoffersen, and run through NBA-structured drills -- was so unique.
The NBA will step up a campaign to get Yao at the June 26 draft to shake David Stern's hand and make history for the league.
"It's certainly something we would like to do," said Stu Jackson, the NBA's director of operations. "(The NBA draft) is a show seen around the world and to have a player of his caliber to showcase that evening is significant. We hope it comes to bear."
If he does strut up to the podium to tower over Stern, Yao shouldn't look too awkward. He certainly wasn't on the court Wednesday. His lower body, notably his legs, were stronger than advertised. His overall base gave him the strength needed to post up. He was originally listed at 236 pounds by a bio sent out by the NBA, but that can't be true after sources said his weight in physicals was closer to 260 or possibly as high as 280 pounds.
Yao didn't look much lighter than Oregon's Christoffersen, listed at 300 pounds. He needs to tone and add bulk to his upper body to prevent him from getting pushed off the block.
And he didn't struggle shooting over Christoffersen from at least the college 3-point line. He even put the ball on the floor, driving around him for a layup. Yao did show some defensive deficiencies, such as when he failed to put up his arms to block or alter Christoffersen's shots on occassion.
"He's a great player who will have an impact," said Christoffersen, who had nothing to lose by working out with Yao, and if fact ensured he was at least a second-round pick, according to sources.
"I've never seen anybody that size or my size shoot the ball like that," Christoffersen said. "He looked like Dirk Nowitzki shooting. For being that big he moves really well."
Atlanta Hawks GM Pete Babcock said he liked Yao's ability to bounce passes, his lob passes and his overall fundamentals.
"He's pretty nimble out on the court, but he's not someone who feels as comfortable with his back to the basket," West said. "His shooting touch is excellent and he's 80 percent from the free-throw line. Most centers shoot in the 60s, and you're pretty happy. He's got the touch from 18 feet, and that was the most impressive part that I liked."
Like many NBA GMs, West saw Yao in the Olympics against the United States in Australia.
"Then, I was most concerned about whether or not he could stay in the game defensively," West said. "How would he handle foul problems and the physical nature of the game were questions. But he plays an intelligent game."
Yao's English is apparently better than advertised and he produced a thought-out, concise statement that thanked the NBA and Chicago, and told the media to be patient. He even promised dinner with journalists.
But it was hard to tell how well versed he was in English, because an interpreter traveling with Yao was on the court a number of times, almost getting in the way of a few drills.
"He has a better understanding of English then people realize," said Carlesimo, who replaced former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy as the director of the workout, which also included outgoing Marquette guard Cordell Henry and former Princeton guard and present Northwestern grad assistant coach Mitch Henderson. "We just wanted to make sure because we threw different things at him. None of it was brain surgery, but nine times out of 10 my impression was he understood it before the interpreter relayed the information."
The NBA and, ultimately the Chinese Basketball Association, clearly want Yao to be in the league next season. They wouldn't have gone through such trouble to bring him here under such scrutiny if they didn't intend on him playing in the NBA.
The contract situation is more of an issue for Yao -- as much as half of his salary could be divided among the Chinese government of sport, the CBA and the Shanghai Sharks.
Sure, the NBA has two Chinese players in Wang Zhizhi of Dallas and Mengke Bateer of Denver, but getting Yao to play in the league would be a coup. It's a major step in the league's influence in the Far East -- a relationship Heisley said opens up a few billion people to the NBA.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.