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The Life


Who is Yao Ming?
ESPN The Magazine

Everybody always wants a comparison -- the natural human need to label, stamp and pigeonhole is too strong to resist. "Whoís he like?" they ask when it comes to a budding NBA player. Such comparisons are never fair, nor particularly accurate, but despite all that they are often indelible. Which is why theyíre dangerous.

No one has inspired that question, of course, more than 7'5" center Yao Ming, largely because so few people on this side of the Pacific have seen him play. By now he has been cast as someone akin to Nellie doghouse dweller Shawn Bradley and the incredibly shrinking ex-Pacer Rik Smits. The reasons are obvious -- all three are unusually tall (Smits is 7'4", Bradley is 7'6"), all played against weak competition (Smits at Marist, Bradley for one year at BYU) and all are from foreign countries (Smits is Dutch, Bradley is from Castle Dale, Utah).

Having seen Yao play both in his Chicago workout and with the Shanghai Sharks in China, Iíd like to offer a few more names -- Kevin Willis, Michael Olowokandi and Patrick Ewing. Letís throw in Kevin Duckworth, too. Does that confuse the issue? Good. Now letís look at what Yao has and doesnít have at the present time before deciding who he is and isnít:

Yao Ming
The jury is still out on how Yao Ming will perform in the NBA.

Offense: By now you know all about his jump shot, which he can take out to NBA three-point range comfortably. That is what has inspired the comparisons to Smits, who was deadly from 18 feet. Even when he posted up, Smits looked to turn and hit a step-back J. Yao has more post moves than that, and is comfortable finishing with either hand, even though he didnít get to show it against Chris Christoffersen in Chicago.

What he doesnít do is finish strong, which has inspired the comparisons to Bradley. Several NBA talent scouts were dismayed to see Yao in Chicago finger-rolling off the glass and attempting reverse layups. I saw the same tendency in Shanghai, where he missed from close range going up soft when he couldíve dunked.

Defense: The narrowness of his shoulders and his relatively short arms were noticeable in Shanghai, but they seemed more pronounced against Christoffersen and Cordell Henry, the former Marquette guard who floated a couple of runners high off the glass over Yao in the Chicago workout. Hence the comparison to the gator-armed Willis, who has barely averaged more than half a block per game over his 18-year career.

Yao's lack of reach and awful timing on his leap allowed Christoffersen to face up and shoot and let Cordell, at 5'10", nearly get his shot off from the paint. The timing can be corrected, but the limited wingspan promises to make him a better one-on-one than help defender.

Intangibles: Despite his lackadaisical Chicago workout -- mainly because Chinese officials gave him no time to prepare for it in lieu of celebrating the Sharksí championship -- Yao has far more competitive fire than either Smits or Bradley. Smitsí tragic flaw was failing to be assertive in playoff series where he posed the Pacersí biggest mismatch and drawing incredibly boneheaded fouls at crunchtime. Bradley, in turn, simply hasnít worked very hard to improve his game or physique.

Even in light of the inferior talent in the Chinese Basketball Association, itís impressive that Yao went 21 for 21 with 21 rebounds and seven blocked shots in the championship game. He has passing and ballhandling instincts that Smits never developed. He reminds me of Duckworth in that he has a tremendously strong trunk but not much upper-body strength.

Yao, however, has had no weight training of any kind and his parents, both ex-Chinese national hoopsters, both asked if heíd have that available to him in the NBA. Yao has done squats on his own, but his routine actually reduced his vertical leap by four inches, which is easily correctable.

It remains to be seen how he responds when Shaq drops a shoulder and dunks on his head, or when Dikembe Mutombo nails his sternum with one of those dagger-sharp elbows, and heís likely to be a dunkfest target the same way Bradley was. The biggest concern among teams, particularly now that it appears Wang Zhi Zhiís career could be over, is that the Chinese will have him playing and training with their national team rather than taking part in summer workouts and training camp. He might even miss regular-season games, all of which seriously undermines his and Chinese officials' desire to see him be the No. 1 pick.

That said, Yao is well aware of how much Chinese pride is riding on him and I donít think he sees caving in as an option. He could look like a mistake at first, as Olowokandi did, and he may ultimately be remembered more for his failure than his success, as Ewing will. But as a skilled big man in a league desperate for some, he is sure to have an impact.

And, if nothing else, heíll give us one more prototype to use as a comparison.

AND ONES: Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe participated in Sundayís draft lottery by satellite from Naples, Italy, and is conducting clinics in both Italy and Turkey. Why? Vandeweghe, whose father was an Air Force physician, was born on a base in Wiesbaden, Germany, and donates four floor seats to every Nuggets home game to the armed forces. Itís being billed as a goodwill tour in light of 9/11, but itís also a wise move for Denverís rebuilding efforts. Teams -- the Spurs, Kings and Mavs are three -- that have made the biggest grass-roots effort abroad have the best grasp of the talent pool ... Grizzlies president Jerry West is already at work, attempting to swing a deal that would send Stromile Swift and Nick Anderson to the Heat for Eddie Jones.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ric.bucher@espnmag.com.



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