Yao Ming checks in to discuss Jeremy Lin’s rise, and the disappearing NBA center

On Feb. 10, the Chinese New Year hits. And as part of his partnership with the NBA, former Houston Rockets All-Star Yao Ming will take part in a series of events that will start on Feb. 8, promoting 23 games that will be nationally televised in China as part of the celebrations. Yao’s role, as reported by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee, is “yet to be determined;” but what is getting out there in advance of his promotional duties is his charitable turn with agencies concerned with stopping animal poaching. Most notably elephant poaching, as documented by Dan Devine in these pages last summer.

Ming hasn’t played an NBA game since Nov. 10, 2010. He retired from the sport some eight months later, and has kept a rather low profile NBA-wise in the years since. With a shift in styles surrounding NBA centers, though, and a startling ascension from Taiwanese-descended point guard Jeremy Lin, Yao felt like opening up to the Post recently, discussing his guidance sent to the Houston Rockets star, from the (sadly) former Rockets star, among other topics:

Yao has formed a relationship with Lin — though he said he tries not to bother him during the season — and believes the 23-year-old guard who spawned Linsanity last season with the New York Knicks is in the perfect environment to develop in Houston.

“I was there, first 10 games, didn’t play well and they continued to encourage me and they tried to help me to fit into the NBA, instead of trying to judge me a good or bad player. I remember that,” Yao said of his time with the Rockets. “Jeremy, of course, people expect that he repeat what he did in New York last year. Under that circumstance, he still consistently helps the team and I’m very impressed with what he did.”

Yao added that Lin shouldn’t feel any added pressure. “He played in New York last year. What kind of pressure can compare to the Big Apple?”

In defense of Lee’s questioning, there was the idea that Lin was playing with found money last year in New York. Without expectation, he was allowed to thrive as a bench spark, then starter, then superstar before we all caught up to the whirlwind Lin created. It was a marvelous run. And though the Rockets have gone out of their way to temper expectations and allow Lin space to breathe as he takes to his next uniform, just being asked to lead a team as starting point guard from the outset of a season bring on quite a bit of stress.

Nothing that Yao hadn’t been through, of course. The “first 10 games” that he mentioned to Lee were quite the affair. Not only was every second of it nationally televised back home, but the eyes of the North American public were focused on a player that was in some quarters thought of as a 7-6 oddity, one that could be a bust of a first overall pick.

In his first five contests, Yao shot 6-16 (37.5 percent) and only averaged 2.6 points per game in 14 foul-plagued minutes per contest. In his next five, though, the rookie exploded for over 13 points per game in just over 20 minutes a night, while hitting 30 of his 35 shot attempts. Things can switch, instantly,

As was the case last fall, when the NBA announced it would be changing its All-Star ballot to exclude the center position, if not centers. Yao, who made the All-Star game eight different times, understands the change. From Lee’s feature:

“I feel sorry for the big guys,” Yao said, while mentioning Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez and former Georgetown star Roy Hibbert. “But if you’re looking through the history of basketball, the rule is always about limiting the power from the big man. Not the strongest survive, but the fittest. We have to make an adjustment to fit in those rules.”

Yao mentioned the three-point line and zone defenses, among other changes, for diminishing centers. He then asked: “What is a big man right now? Usually you talk a 7-footer or 6-10 and above around the paint. But now, all those 6-10, 6-11 guys like Kevin Durant, they play small forward; they play point guard.”

OK, maybe not point guard, but the point is well taken. Yao Ming’s size and game were an oddity in 2002 – all those jump hooks and short turnaround jumpers. In 2013? He’s a throwback’s throwback.

One that is doing fine work, in helping the NBA reach out to its growing and already sizeable international audience, to say nothing of his anti-poaching efforts.

We just wish we’d hear from the guy more often. Much less watch him play 82 games a year.