Will Yao pay off?

Will Golden State ever make a good choice? And other burning questions raised by the NBA draft.

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By the time the Houston Rockets took Yao Ming with the first pick in the draft Wednesday, so many words had been written speculating about whether the 7-foot-5, 260-pound center can succeed in the NBA that if they were strung together they’d reach around the world twice, or around Yao once.

I don’t want to say that Yao is big, folks, but when he walks into the Compaq Center, the Rockets’ home arena, next season, people are going to say, “Hey, that guy’s really big.”

But seriously, ladies and germs, why does most, if not all, of the speculation about Yao fall along the lines of “Yao will be the next Hakeem Olajuwon,” the former Rockets great, or “Yao will be the next Shawn Bradley,” the 7-6 lurch who in nine seasons in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Dallas has never done anything to advance the idea that guys 7 and 1/2 feet tall are an asset to a basketball team?

Couldn’t it be possible that he’ll be somewhere in between? By all accounts, he’s got pretty good skills, but we just don’t know yet how he’ll stack up against the banging of other NBA centers. My guess, based on pretty much nothing other than reading between the lines of the reports of those who have seen him, is that he will fall somewhere in the middle of that Olajuwon-Bradley spectrum. I don’t think he’ll be the franchise player the Rockets are hoping for, but I do think he’ll be a good player.

I also think his ties to the Chinese national team will become a problem at some point, despite this week’s everything’s A-OK reports by the Rockets that they’ve reached an agreement with the Chinese Federation. The person to listen to here is Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who is portrayed as a lunatic by the media but who has a tendency to make a lot of sense when he’s serious. Speaking before the Rockets reached an agreement with the Chinese Federation, Cuban, who employs backup center Wang Zhizhi, also a member of the Chinese national team, said, “The best advice I can give is that just when you thought you had all your bases covered, you never do.”



So I think the Rockets will eventually be sorry they used the first pick on Yao, that he’ll be more Michael Olowokandi than Tim Duncan — serviceable, not great. But once they expressed an interest in him, the Rockets were stuck — their fans got excited, they got heavily into negotiations with the Chinese — and it’s certainly worth the gamble that Yao will turn into something special, which would mean an Ichiro-like figure and a lot of fan interest for what has been, except for the two years in the mid-’90s when Olajuwon led them to titles in a Jordan-less NBA, a pretty run-of-the-mill franchise in recent years.

A few other thoughts about draft night:

  • The NBA draft sure is a more entertaining show than the NFL draft, which every year is the most ponderous 467 hours of television imaginable. The NFL draft is two days’ worth of guys you never heard of and will never hear of again unless you’re a football junkie who mainlines Dr. Z. At least casual fans have heard of most of the guys who go in the first round of the NBA draft, and at least a good number of these guys are going to be playing and maybe even having an impact next season.

    Besides, it just moves faster. The first round takes about two hours, instead of all day. And you have Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith trading entertaining insults rather than all those NFL guys acting like they’re analyzing the invasion of Normandy.

  • One complaint about the annual draft show: It was in New York again this year. Why? I know the NBA offices are in New York, but so what? The league has branch offices in 26 other cities. Why not keep moving the draft around, let fans of teams other than the Knicks and, to a lesser extent, the Nets, have a chance to yell and boo and act like yahoos? New York and New Jersey should each host it once every three decades or so.
  • A prediction: The Golden State Warriors made a mistake taking small forward Mike Dunleavy of Duke with the third pick. Nothing against Dunleavy, but the Warriors always make some kind of mistake with their lottery pick, and there’s no reason to believe they’re going to stop now.

    Dunleavy seems like a nice enough guy, so here’s hoping for his sake that the Warriors’ error will be along the lines of the one they made with Chris Webber, whom they stupidly traded away, rather than the one they made with — oh, who should I pick here? How about the granddaddy of them all — Joe Barry Carroll, whom they drafted with a first pick they’d obtained from Boston in a trade. For Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick, which became Kevin McHale! McHale and Parish anchored a dynasty in Boston with Larry Bird. Carroll earned the nickname “Joe Barely Cares” during his undistinguished career.

    Even if he hadn’t been taken by the Warriors, I’d be weighing in against Dunleavy going with the third pick. NBA types love his poise and smarts, not to mention the fact that his dad, a longtime coach, is an NBA type, but he looks to me like one of those guys who look great in college but never quite live up to their supposed potential in the pros.

    I would say the same thing about Kansas power forward Drew Gooden, but he got drafted No. 4 by Jerry West and the Memphis Grizzlies, and I don’t think I want to put my basketball smarts up against West’s. Cleverly, though, no matter how well Gooden plays, I can point back to that last sentence and say, “I told you so.”

  • I predict that the two big “slips” in this draft, the guys who will turn out to be bargains for having been drafted so low, will be power forward Chris Wilcox of Maryland, taken eighth by the Los Angeles Clippers, and small forward Caron Butler of Connecticut, picked 10th by the Miami Heat. Onstage, Butler, who overcame some teenage legal problems, wiped away his tears of joy at being drafted and said, “I went 10 in this draft and I felt like I was one of the top two players in this draft, so I’m gonna make ‘em pay for passing on me.”
  • I think he’s right, at least about that last part. Butler seemed like a pro player playing college ball. I think he’ll be even better in the NBA than he seemed to be at UConn, and he seemed pretty damn good at UConn. Wilcox is a superb athlete who was only a sophomore last year when he helped lead Maryland to the national championship, and he seemed to be improving by the minute.

    And speaking of that national championship, here’s another guy I think got drafted too low: Juan Dixon, the Terrapins point guard, who went to the Washington Wizards with the 17th pick. NBA types marked him down because he’s too “frail” at 6-3, 165 pounds and, I gather, because he stayed in college for four years, which only mediocrities do, you see.

    The 76ers have a 165-pound guard who’s not half bad. Dixon won’t be another Allen Iverson, but he’ll end up being better than the 17th best player who was drafted Wednesday.

    This story has been corrected since it was first published.

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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