Ever hear of the winning Shanghai Oriental Sharks? Probably not. But as NBA playoffs hit their stride and as the NBA draft this June approaches, you may get an earful about their 7-ft., 6-in. center a 21-year-old phenom named Yao Ming, who could go as high as the No. 1 pick.
Yao is the last of the "great walking wall" of 7-footers China fielded in the 2000 Sydney Games. The other two, Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer, joined the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets in the past year. Along with being the first Asians in a league hunting talent from Lithuania to Turkey, they have boosted backyard hoop dreams in a country already so basketball-crazy that rice farmers in Wuhan know "Maike Qiao Dang," or Michael Jordan, who played for the Washington Wizards this year.
But in Yao, say scouts, China may have saved the best for last. It is not just Yao's rim-scraping size, which, in the Chinese league, makes him the only giraffe on the Serengeti.
A rare combination of agility, moves, intelligence, and a wicked outside shot could, in time, make him not just a franchise star, but a dominant force in the NBA. Drilled in Chinese team play, he actually likes defense. His forte, shot blocking, demoralizes opponents more than scoring, Yao says. Add to that, the giant can dribble.
"Yao has a chance to alter the way the game of basketball is played," Hall of Famer Bill Walton was quoted as saying after seeing Yao in the Olympics. "I left Sydney dizzy with the possibilities."
"He is definitely a new kind of player," says David Benoit, a former Utah Jazz small forward brought in by the Sharks. "He needs more upper-body strength, and to compete against big men. But, with coaching, he will pose a challenge in the NBA. In a year, he will give Shaq trouble. He catches on very quickly. When he starts hitting those 18-foot jump shots, that's going to surprise everybody."
Yao wanted to play in the NBA this season. His parents, friends, Chinese sportswriters, and most of Shanghai wanted him there, too since NBA games are now broadcast in China. But until the Sharks beat the Army Bayi Rockets last week in the Chinese championship, it was unclear if Yao would be released. After winning the title, including a game where Yao hit an unearthly 21 of 21 shots, Shark officials gave the nod.
"Yao is one of the top three picks," says Miami Heat scout David Pfund, after watching him play in Shanghai.
Nearly 50 overseas players are now on NBA rosters. Nor are these any longer just imported wide-body practice-team drones. Predrag Stojakovic of the Sacramento Kings and Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks are top scorers. Mr. Wang of the Mavericks is shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line.
Overseas talent is entering the NBA, say analysts, because the players are drilled in fundamentals. In the streetball culture in US cities, what turns heads is the open, leaping air game and the pyrotechnic dunk. But now disciplined foreign players who can hit "nothing but net" from the outside are also signing contracts.
"There's certainly a trend to look for big kids who can shoot the ball," says Dale Mock, who runs an international scouting service. Mr. Mock says foreign players are often taught to play away from the basket. "We encourage our big kids to stay close to the basket," he says, referring to US players.
Yao first caught broader American attention in Sydney when he rejected the shots of high-flying Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors and Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary Payton on the opening play of the US-China game. He has been a counselor at Michael Jordan's basketball camp, and at the foyer of the Sharks office in Shanghai, there's a huge photo of MJ giving Yao a pat on the back.
Still, whether the young giraffe can mix it up under the basket with the high-speed elephants in the NBA is a question. Yao does not have the upper body physique and absolute power of Mr. O'Neal, or the big-cat nimbleness of a Hakeem Olajuwon. He's a bit more of a Vlade Divac or a young Bill Walton.
In a brief interview in the Shanghai dormitory room he shares with another Sharks player a room strewn with size 18 sneakers that is tinier than the walk-in closet of an NBA salaried player Yao says he will work to develop his strength.
"I have determination like Charles Barkley," says Yao, referring to the former Sixers, Suns, and Rockets player whom Yao regards as his model NBA player. "Even if Barkley never won a championship, he never lost his fire to win one. I also like his slam-dunks."
Born in Shanghai to a mother and father who are both basketball players, and both more than six feet tall, Yao's prospects for the NBA and the additions of other Chinese to the league in some ways close a historical circle: Basketball was first introduced to China in the 1890s by YMCA missionaries in Shanghai.
Yao speaks passable English, is a computer-games addict, sometimes inviting reporters to his room, not for interviews, but to find competitors for his new Sony game machine. He loves the international food scene in Shanghai, has a contract with Adidas tennis shoes and carefully studies the fashions, music, and images of the West.
Friends also say Yao has a kind of critical distance on himself. When he was younger, he didn't even like basketball and felt forced to play due to his size. "He is clever, and would succeed in whatever he did," says a friend.
"He's a special kid," says Mr. Benoit. "Off the court, I haven't seen many like him."
Even Sharks fans seem to understand. Outside the locker room at one championship game, after Yao scored 26 points with 23 rebounds, one fan said: "Yao Ming belongs to the world!"
At the same time, Yao, with his square jaw, confident grin, open face, looks like a model for a Chinese Army recruiting poster. His own hero, someone he reads and talks about constantly, is the famed Chinese adviser to kings, General Zhu Geliang.
"Ge didn't use power," says Yao. "He used his head."
Yao's parents who sit in the most honorable front-court seats under the home basket, both say Yao is not only ready for the NBA, but that their son's "development requires it." Yao's mom, unable to play in the Olympics "due to special historical circumstances in our country" her words for the Cultural Revolution in China coaches him daily. They talk about his defense, his offense, and his attitude.