Houston Rockets center Yao Ming of China (R) grabs a rebound in front of Detroit Pistons 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 gaping at the 7-foot-5 prodigy, Walton said, "I wasblown awayby 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 rebounds per game and 1.6blocks, Yao finally is entering the stratosphere of elite big men.
At a time when the center position is in serious decline in a sport that has given us Bill Russell, Wilt 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 inevitable breakdown of his 34-year-old, 315-pound body, have some projecting that Yao, 26, could overtake Shaq as the only dominant center.
Some say Yao's time is now.
But according to Walton, league executives, and scouts, 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 analyst. "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. "