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.