College basketball is becoming an increasingly unnecessary stop for prospective pros. It's conceivable that the top picks in next June's draft will be 7'6" Chinese center Yao Ming and a pair of U.S. high school seniors, 6'11" Eddy Curry of Thornwood High in South Holland, Ill., and 7'1" Tyson Chandler of Dominguez High in Compton, Calif. If they are, it will be the first time in the 55-year history of the draft that a collegian wasn't among the first three choices.
Yao, who turns 21 next September, should know by February if he will enter the 2001 draft. "The chances are better than 50-50," says U.S. agent Bill Duffy, who visited China last month to continue delicate negotiations for Yao's release with local and team officials. "He is going to be the first Chinese player to come to the NBA, and it's important to them that he be successful."
Apart from a high salary—a portion of which Yao would have to return to his club, the Shanghai Sharks—Chinese officials want Yao to join a good organization in a city with a large, supportive Chinese population. One impetus for the Sharks to release Yao is the likelihood that the 2008 Summer Olympics will be held in Beijing. If Yao plays in the NBA and develops an international following, that would help soften the country's image in advance of those Games.
League sources hesitate to predict what impact Yao and other potential arrivals from China, such as 7-foot Wang Zhizhi, who was drafted by the Mavericks in 1999, will have. "The Chinese are developing a lot of big men, and we need big men," says an NBA general manager who is barred from speaking on the record about Yao until he declares for the draft. "But drafting Yao is not going to be the same as drafting a European player. We have a lot of experience with the Europeans—we know what the pitfalls will be with them. What if we have another international incident with China, like the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia? Would that make it harder to sign Yao? There's no telling how it's going to work out for him if he comes over here."