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You can't go wrong with Ming

The 7-5, 296-pound center from China is all but a Rocket.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002


The future of the NBA was just 17 when Dennis Lindsey first saw him four years ago, another skinny youngster at the Nike camp in Indianapolis.

Only this kid was 7 feet 3. This kid was Chinese. This kid, despite his towering size, youth and overseas training, could ball with the best -- the best Americans, that is.

He was not lumbering, but agile, blocking shots all over the court. He was not slow, but quick, gliding across the floor. He could drive and shoot -- from as far out as 18 feet. Yes, he could dunk, too. When the coaches forced him, that is. The scouts salivated.

Thus the West discovered the East phenomenon known as Yao Ming.

"I was overwhelmed at how big and how skilled he was at that age," said Lindsey, Houston's director of player personnel. "From that point on we've spent a lot of time and money scouting him."

An investment that will pay off Wednesday, when Houston is expected to make the 7-5, 296-pound Yao a Rocket with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft ... upon completion of the most complicated negotiations in NBA history, that is.

Yao, the Rockets and the NBA have to come to terms with Yao's team, the Shanghai Sharks, the China Basketball Association and his government. Yao moved a step closer to the NBA on Saturday when the Sharks (which blocked Yao's entry in the NBA for two years) agreed to let Yao go for an undisclosed share of his future earnings.

John Huizinga, Yao's agent, said he is confident the last roadblock, an agreement with the China Basketball Association, will be taken care of by the draft. But the Shanghai Morning Post has criticized the association and the Chinese government for hampering Yao's NBA aspirations.

Under new regulations, the China Basketball Association has mandated players overseas must hand over 30 percent of their earnings, both in salary and endorsements. The Chinese government gets 20 percent. Huizinga would not say from where the Sharks' chunk of Yao's projected three-year, $10.4-million contract will come.

Under the rules Yao must return to China at any time to play for the national team. The China Basketball Association won't even let Yao be in New York for the draft; he is training for a tournament.

"I've already had many frustrations," Yao told the newspaper. "A few more won't break me."

Nor has the NBA been put off; executives flocked to his private May 1 workout in Chicago.

"There aren't many centers out there," said Brad Greenberg, USF's director of basketball operations and a 22-year NBA front office veteran. "When a team has a chance to draft one, one who's 7-5, who has the chance to make anyone he plays react to him, you have to seriously consider that."

Forget those unfair comparisons with 7-6 journeyman Shawn Bradley. Yao, 22, is best compared with Rik Smits or Arvydas Sabonis, big men with small-forward skills -- but Yao has far more potential.

"He has some skills that would be extraordinary for someone who is 6-8," Lindsey said.

Born of Chinese basketball royalty -- mom, 6-3 Fang Fengdi, was an Olympic standout, and dad, 6-7 Yao Zhiyuan, played pro ball -- Yao is the most dominant player in the China Basketball Association's 20 years and this season led the Sharks to their first title.

"I think it's important to know that he's not just some kid who grew to 7-5 and basketball was thrown upon him," Lindsey said. "He has a pedigree, and his understanding of the game is very good."

Yet Yao has much to learn. He is unaccustomed to the speed and savvy the game requires, and despite his size he could be outmuscled inside by the league's weight-trained big men. Yao will have to bulk up and learn to survive in the paint, or risk being marginalized.

Yao's real value, however, will not be measured until years from now. Shaquille O'Neal, the league's most dominant center, is 30 and in his prime. But will he be 10 years from now, when Yao could hit his prime?

Said Greenberg: "Shaq can't last forever."

LAKERS: Point guard Lindsey Hunter will return next season, electing not to exercise an out in his contract. He could make $8.1-million over the next two years.

WNBA

UTAH 77, SACRAMENTO 61: Natalie Williams had season highs of 22 points and 20 rebounds for the visiting Starzz.

Marie Ferdinand had all 16 of her points in the second half, and Adrienne Goodson scored 15 for Utah (7-3), which has won three straight and is off to its best start.

Tangela Smith scored a season-high 27 for Sacramento (2-7), which played without All-Stars Ticha Penicheiro and Yolanda Griffith, who are injured.

The Monarchs had no answer for Williams, who was 6-for-14, hit 10 of 12 free throws and had 10 offensive rebounds.

"Natalie Williams came to life," Utah coach Candi Harvey said. "It started with her rebounding in the first half and the points just kept coming. We were reversing the ball and getting her some good looks."

CHARLOTTE 76, MIAMI 63: Allison Feaster tied her career high with 23 points for Charlotte, which won its 12th straight regular-season home game.

Tammy Sutton-Brown added 14 points and nine rebounds, and Andrea Stinson had 12 points and a season-high six assists for the Sting. Betty Lennox scored 13 of her season-high 18 in the first half to lead Miami (2-8), and Sandy Brondello added 12 points.

Charlotte led 57-56 with 7:12 to play when Feaster hit the fifth of her team record-tying five 3-pointers, starting a 13-2 run. Miami got no closer than eight points the rest of the way, losing its third straight game.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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