From the day that the Chinese basketball authorities announced it would (most likely) allow 7-5 Yao Ming to play in the NBA, his name has been written, next to the No. 1 pick in the upcoming June 26 draft. He had a workout in Chicago well before it was determined which team would be making that selection and even though those in the know preferred to point out his weaknesses over his strengths, Yao stayed atop the mock drafts.

You could pretty much write it in ink when the Rockets won the draft lottery, seeing as how they already have an All-Star point guard and are desperate for some size up front. And barring a trade with a team that already has a solid post presence, Houston will most likely follow the time-honored draft strategy of choosing size over security.


A vision of the future? Yao Ming with Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
This is all very well and good as long as they know what they are getting. What they're getting, first and foremost is a 7-5, 296-pound center with five years of international professional experience who averaged 32.4 ppg last season for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.

"His strengths are obvious. The fact that he is 7-5 is something you can't teach," said NBA senior vice-president of basketball operations Stu Jackson. "The fact that at that size, he runs, catches and shoots and passes the ball very well in this stage of his development. I think the fact that he is big and somewhat rangey is going to bode well for him in terms of his (future) development."

The x-factor lies in the word Jackson used twice: development. Which is to say that the Rockets have to be thinking more Kwame Brown than Shaquille O'Neal should they decide to select Yao with the top pick. A project with a high level of potential, rather than an immediate impact player.

Unlike Brown, the 2001 No. 1 draft choice by the Wizards and a high school product, Yao has at least faced NBA-caliber competition before, playing for the Chinese national team at the 2000 Olympic Games. He scored five points against Kevin Garnett, Alonzo Mourning and Team USA in China's opening round loss.

But like Brown, Yao doesn't really know what he's in for -- as the Grizzlies' new president of basketball operations, Jerry West put it, "he's like the Shaquille O'Neal of China, but against Shaquille O'Neal (in the NBA), he'd get beat around pretty good."

Like Brown, although four years older, Yao's physique needs some work, especially his upper body, but that's a natural progression for most players coming from college to the NBA as well, with the highly specialized weight training regimens found at this level.

Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe believes the chasm between what Yao has and what he would need in the NBA isn't as big as it appears.

"He obviously looks to be a lottery pick. He looks to be a very, very impressive NBA player someday," Vandeweghe said of Yao in Chicago. "Very impressive workout and it's something you had to be at. I think it's a testament to how far Chinese basketball has come. They've got three players who are good enough to be in the NBA."

The other two Chinese ballers being third-year player Wang Zhizhi, who has worked his way into the rotation as a reserve for the Mavericks and Mengke Bateer, who just finished his rookie season with the Nuggets and playing sparingly. Just as the accomplishments of a Kobe Bryant and a Kevin Garnett have inflated expectations for high school products like Brown, so has the emergence of Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic and this year, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker done for international players. Especially those that come with the hype of Yao.

The biggest challenge for Yao, again like Brown, will be the culture shock. Yao will also face the literal definition of the concept, having to live in a foreign country and master a new language, but there is also the adjustment to the NBA lifestyle, something that takes a while for all rookies. The amount of games, the travel, the down time, the media demands -- plus new cities, new customs, new currency, new food -- could all potentially impact Yao's concentration on learning the NBA game.

Knicks head coach Don Chaney says the international language of basketball will break down the barriers on the court, noting that Yao has a key trait that teams should be looking for first in all prospects.

"I think he really enjoys the game and to me, that's the most important thing," Chaney said after interviewing Yao. "A player coming into the league who enjoys playing. He understands the team concept. I think he really wants to win, just from the conversation we had."

Yao seems poised to take on the challenges that will be thrown his way next year as a rookie in the NBA, based on what he showed in Chicago. He put himself in a fishbowl, 13 hours off his body clock, in a foreign country, in front of some of the biggest names in basketball -- and he even was able to crack some jokes in his statement to the media.

"These workouts are intimidating enough when it's the coach, the GM and three assistant coaches in your practice facility," said former NBA coach PJ Carlissimo, who conducted the Chicago workout. "He comes into a media circus when he comes from China to the United States and gets all this attention and I think he handled it very, very well."