Yao Ming might be a gentle giant, but he is slowly learning the rough-and-tumble ways of the NBA. Earlier this season, the 7-foot-6 Rockets center even engaged in a little friendly trash-talking with Bulls forward Tyson Chandler. "He told me he was going to make me swallow my mouthpiece," Chandler said.
If only Yao could do the same to his critics. Now in his third season, the former No. 1 overall pick still hears whispers that he hasn't lived up to the hype. Despite solid progress in many areas of the game and three All-Star trips, Yao still is scoffed at by many for being more Rik Smits than Shaquille O'Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon.
"All I can do is try to prove myself," he says. "I've learned that my method of playing basketball is a little different from how it's done over here."
As usual, Yao is being too nice. What he should say is something like: Get off my back! I'm only 24 years old! Can't you Americans ever wait for anything?!
The reality is that while Yao might not be dominating the NBA, he is doing just fine by most reasonable standards. As of Wednesday he was averaging a career-best 18.6 points to go with 8.3 rebounds while ranking third in the NBA in field goal percentage (55.0) and 11th in blocks (1.89). While he still has many areas to improve upon, including on the backboards and in his overall aggressiveness, the Chinese phenom is generally regarded as one of the top four true centers (along with Shaq, Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) in the league.
"He's going through that natural period where people want to nitpick the very few negatives he may have instead of extolling all his positives," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy says. "And in a little over 31 minutes a game he averages 18 and 8. He comes to work every day. He's totally selfless. Yet some want to badger the guy about whatever perceived shortcomings he has. I find that unfortunate because if they spent half the time looking at all his positives it would be a much better story."
Part of the problem for Yao is that other young NBA stars such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire have been able to come into the league and show more dramatic progress right away. It has made Yao's development seem almost snail-like in comparison, especially as those players fill the SportsCenter highlights on a nightly basis while Yao plods along in more of a supporting role to Tracy McGrady.
Even Yao recently came out and said he wasn't satisfied with his development. After his team's shootaround Tuesday in Chicago he marveled at the improvement shown by Stoudemire, who edged him for Rookie of the Year honors in '03. "He can really shoot easier now," Yao says. "He can shoot it from 17-18 feet. I don't know how he did it. ... When I played against him last year, on defense I just sagged back all the way to paint. This year you have to come out to contest his long-range jump shot and defend his penetration. It's much harder."