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Published: Thursday, 5/2/2002

7-5 center from China could be No. 1 pick in draft


CHICAGO - Yao Ming arrived in a black stretch limousine, a crowd of people waiting to catch a glimpse. A collective "ooh" went up when he walked into the gym, ducking his head so he wouldn't bump into the doorway.

Inside, 65 NBA scouts, coaches and team officials were waiting. Another 200 people were up in the balcony, hanging over the railing to get a better look at the 7-foot-5 center from China.

It was not exactly a typical pre-draft workout yesterday, but Yao is not a typical draft pick, either.

He is a once-in-a-generation player, a huge man with the skills of a smaller player, a giant with an air of mystery to him, a player who has been raved about since the 2000 Olympics but rarely seen outside of Asia.

"For a guy this size, he can shoot the ball. He has a wonderful feel for the game," said Jerry West, the Memphis Grizzlies' new president of basketball operations.

Yao, who turns 22 in September, is widely viewed as the best player in China. Though the competition there isn't close to what he'll face in the NBA, he's seen as a franchise player who could be the top overall pick in the June 26 draft.

"Somebody with that kind of size and the basketball skills he has, is impressive," said former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo, who ran the workout.

Yao looked serious at first, but was soon joking with the three practice players: Oregon center Chris Christoffersen, Marquette guard Cordell Henry and Mitch Henderson, an assistant coach at Northwestern who played at Princeton.

Carlesimo put the players through almost an hour of shooting and running drills - just about everything except playing a game. They took 15-footers and jump hooks. There were full-court layups with and without a defender. There were pick-and-rolls and post-ups.

Yao dunked and blocked a few shots, swatting one of Christoffersen's layups into the corner of the gym. He moved well, and had a smooth, outside shot that looked more fitting of a shooting guard.

The consensus was that Yao looked a little slow and his defense was shaky. He needs to improve his upper-body strength. But his footwork is good, and he can pass, shoot and dribble better than most big men.

Though he was accompanied by a translator, Yao didn't talk to the media after his workout.

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