In fifth season, Yao Ming becoming elite big man

Published November 20, 2006

Bill Walton first saw Yao Ming six years ago, at the Sydney Olympics. Like everyone else gaping at the 7-foot-5 prodigy, Walton said, "I was blown away by the potential."

In his fifth season, Yao is blowing people away more than ever.

He is 11th in the league with 26.4 points per game, the best among centers. With 10.4 rebounds per game and 1.6 blocks, Yao finally is entering the stratosphere of elite big men, at least statistically.

At a time when the center position is in serious decline in a sport that has given us Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao's only peer, Shaquille O'Neal, will be sidelined for 4-6 weeks after knee surgery Sunday.

O'Neal's slow start in defending the Miami Heat's championship, coupled with the inevitable breakdown of his 34-year-old, 315-pound body, have some projecting that Yao, 26, could overtake Shaq as the only dominant center.

Some say Yao's time is now.

When fans at Madison Square Garden get a glimpse of Yao tonight as the Houston Rockets play the New York Knicks, they will behold a dominant force and one of the inspiring talents that have made the NBA worth watching again.

But according to Walton, league executives, and scouts, they will not be watching the best center in the NBA.

Not yet. Not as long as Shaq is still employed.

"Yao's numbers already indicate that he is at the top," said Walton, a Hall of Fame center turned ESPN analyst. "But he has to learn how to turn statistics into impact and control of the game. Because even at this stage of Shaq's career, Shaq still has more stage presence than any player in the game. And the championships are always going to run through Shaq until he retires."

Around the league

WIZARDS: Guard Jarvis Hayes was out of the hospital and listed as day to day after bruising his back and banging his head in a collision during a game. X-rays showed he didn't do any structural damage, the team said. Hayes left the hospital Saturday night after being taken there for precautionary tests. He was removed from the court on a stretcher late in Washington's 111-99 victory over Cleveland after getting tangled up with Cavaliers guard Shannon Brown.