Houston Rockets center Yao Ming of China (R) grabs a rebound1 in front of Detroit Pistons2 forward Rasheed Wallace (L) and Rockets forward Shane Battier (C) during the first half of their NBA game in Auburn Hills, Michigan, November 18, 2006. [Reuters]
Bill Walton first saw Yao Ming six years ago, at the Sydney Olympics. Like everyone else gaping3 at the 7-foot-5 prodigy4, Walton said, "I was blown away by the potential."
In his fifth season, Yao is blowing people away more than ever.
He is 11th in the league with 26.4 points per game, the best among centers. With 10.4 rebounds5 per game and 1.6 blocks, Yao finally is entering the stratosphere of elite6 big men.
At a time when the center position is in serious decline in a sport that has given us Bill Russell, Wilt7 Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon,, Yao's only peer, Shaquille O'Neal, will be sidelined for 4-6 weeks after knee surgery Sunday.
O'Neal's slow start in defending the Miami Heat's championship, coupled with the inevitable8 breakdown9 of his 34-year-old, 315-pound body, have some projecting that Yao, 26, could overtake Shaq as the only dominant10 center.
Some say Yao's time is now.
But according to Walton, league executives, and scouts11, Yao Ming is not the best center in the NBA.
Not yet. Not as long as Shaq is still employed.
"Yao's numbers already indicate that he is at the top," said Walton, a Hall of Fame center turned ESPN analyst12. "But he has to learn how to turn statistics into impact and control of the game. Because even at this stage of Shaq's career, Shaq still has more stage presence than any player in the game. "