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Yao floundering under Van Gundy
by Dennis Hans / November 10, 2004

If Yao Ming is to realize his potential as an NBA center, either Jeff Van Gundy and Patrick Ewing need to change how they’re teaching Yao to defend, or Yao has to get away from or tune out the damaging duo. The only thing he seems to have learned under their tutelage, now into a second season, is how to lift weights and get himself into foul trouble.

Right now, I rate Yao the fifth best center. Not in the NBA – in Texas. Combo center-power forward Tim Duncan is Number 1 by a mile. The solid trio of Rasho Nesterovic, Erick Dampier and Dikembe Mutombo are so close to each other that you could put them in any order at 2 through 4. Yao brings up the rear. Granted, he’ll never be close to the player that Duncan is, but even at this early stage in his career he should be clearly better than his aging backup and the other two gents.

Having been around long enough to remember what great centers look like when they’re young and frisky, I’ve never considered Yao to be destined for all-around greatness. When I watch him labor as he runs up and down
the court and see his so-so reflexes and lateral mobility, I am not remotely reminded of a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton. Yao does not make me say “Wow!”

Back on April 26, in a column on players who were performing poorly in the opening round of the playoffs, I likened Yao to Rik Smits, albeit with slightly better passing skills and offensive court awareness. Like Smits, Yao is a giant with a sweet stroke, a feathery touch and an arsenal of shots in the post and from mid-range. Yao can indeed be a great offensive weapon, perhaps the equal of Bob Lanier before his knees went bad.

But like Smits before him, Yao is a mediocre, foul-prone defender. In Yao’s case, I wrote, it is “partly due to his own shortcomings, but partly because Jeff Van Gundy and Patrick Ewing seem to have persuaded him that the best way for a laterally-slow 7-5 guy to be a good help defender is to try to draw charges rather than block shots. He’s committing lots of dumb fouls because he’s playing like a Maurice Taylor, Kurt Thomas or Michael Doleac, rather than a Tim Duncan or Mark Eaton. I mention the former Jazz giant because, at a similar stage in his career, he was blocking 5.5 shots per game. Yao blocked 1.9 per game in the regular season, down to 0.75 in the playoffs. [A late rush brought that average up to 1.4.] He needs to take angles that avoid contact and give him the space to block and change shots without fouling. Right now, the absolute last thing on the mind of a Laker driver is ‘Where’s Yao?’”

This season, Yao has picked up where he left off. Two of the Rockets first three games were televised nationally, and there was Yao sliding over (usually late) or stepping toward a driver’s path, hoping the block/charge call would go his way. The problem with such a defensive style, aside from the fact that Yao’s is ill-suited for it, is that the whistle will definitely blow, so there’s always a chance for a Yao foul. And with the heavy volume of collisions Yao is causing, foul trouble is a near certainty. By contrast, Andrei Kirilenko blocked eight shots against the Lakers, changed others, and from those swat attempts did not draw a single foul.

Here’s my advice to Yao (who is nearly deaf in one ear): When you’re on the bench, sit with your bad ear next to Ewing. Just nod like you hear and understand what he’s saying, even though you can’t make out a word. As you sit, watch Old Man Mutombo. Watch his defensive footwork and spacing, how he keeps his distance from his prey, so that he can intimidate and/or reject while avoiding collisions and dumb fouls. When you’re on the court, quit whining about calls. In most games I see, the calls on you are correct, and you even get away with a few. Quit walking into guys while they are in their shooting motion. Instead, keep your knees flexed and your legs and hands alive so you can react and make basketball plays. The league has far too many bowling-pin impersonators already. Be a Mutombo instead. You’ll be more effective, you’ll pick up fewer fouls, and you’ll have fun.

There, I said it. The f-word: fun. The word that Van Gundy removed from the Rockets’ dictionary. But it’s a good word. Just ask Stevie Francis. He’s back to his old self, having wriggled out of his Houstonian straitjacket, and Francis and a few million Orlando Magic fans couldn’t be happier. He’s free to play freely, to seize the moment, to reconnect with his instincts. The positive far outweighs the negative, and I predict that as the season goes on the balance will be tilted even more in Francis’s favor, as he blends his skills and electrifying athleticism with steadily improving judgment.

For a 7-5 guy to have fun, he needs to play like he’s 7-5. That means flicking Rip Hamilton’s driving shot to T-Mac or Charlie Ward (and they need a perpetual green light to push the ball and take advantage of such happenings), not trying to slide over, like a slow-motion Jake Voskuhl, and hope to draw a charge. It’s demeaning, generally ineffective and boring.

Yao should be playing 38 free-and-easy minutes every night. Not a bruising, foul-plagued 19 one night, a timid 35 the next because two early fouls has him walking on egg shells all night long. Regular free-and-easy minutes will mean more blocks, lots more points and fewer fouls – and transform Yao into a reliable, game-in and game-out
producer. It won’t add up to Hakeem- or Kareem-style greatness. But consistent Yao goodness will serve the Rockets well, and it just might help Van Gundy and Ewing see the error of their teaching ways and start to loosen up.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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