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Rockets Ready to Strike Where Yao Takes Them
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Yao Ming seeks to establish himself as the National Basketball Association's premier big man and as long as he stays healthy this season could very well be his coming-out party.

Yao was one of the league's best players after the all-star break last season and then he got sideswiped by a broken foot.

"He is the best regular-season centre in basketball. And the reason is he comes to play every night," said Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy.

Houston had high hopes for the giant Chinese centre when they chose him first overall in the 2002 entry draft and he hasn't disappointed.

Now in his fifth NBA season, the 26-year-old from Shanghai has increased his power and production each year, going from 13.5 points per game average in his rookie season to 22.3 last season.

He now rates among the best centres in the league but Van Gundy believes he can take that further and really put his stamp on the position.

"He has gotten better from his first game in the NBA through now," Van Gundy said. "And he is one of the few guys who does not need any outside motivation to be a motivated player.

"Those are the guys that have chances to be great because they care to put in the extraordinary work that Yao puts in. Every athlete would maximize their potential if they did what Yao did, but they don't."

Yao has never been afraid to challenge his critics.

When they said he wasn't aggressive enough, he went nose-to-nose with Shaquille O'Neal, who has four NBA championship rings and is considered one of the greatest centres of all time.

They said he couldn't play defence, but Yao has consistently held star opponents to lower than their average points per game.

In a recent pre-season matchup with O'Neal, Yao had a double, double.

Yao hopes to repay the Rockets faith in him by once again boosting his totals.

"He (Van Gundy) wants me to score, score, score," said the personable Yao, who keeps his teammates laughing with his unique sense of humour.

"If I score five times in a row, I don't think about passing the sixth time. I need to learn this.

"I feel like I am a better player. But it doesn't matter what I think. I can say I am better but I need to show it."

The Rockets have one of the best one-two punches in basketball with Yao and Tracy McGrady

Both players see plenty of double teams and they feed off each when they get a chance to play together. McGrady missed 34 games last season and Yao missed 22 games because of a left big toe infection and surgery. He and McGrady played in just 31 games together.

Yao still managed to average 25.9 points and 11.1 rebounds in 25 games late last season when McGrady was out.

How do you say unstoppable in Chinese?

"I believe he was the league's best centre last year," McGrady said. "Especially with what he did when I was out. In the second half of the season he was the best in the league.

"I know Shaquille O'Neal won a championship last year, but from an individual standpoint and putting up numbers, Yao was definitely the best centre in the league."

Obviously Yao still has a soft spot in his heart for his native China but he is very much a mega North American sports star now with endorsement deals from Apple Computer, Gatorade, McDonalds, Reebok and Visa.

But the focus will be entirely on basketball when Houston opens their regular season in Utah on Wednesday.

"It will be great to see him re-establish that dominance now that he has tasted it and knows how good it feels to have that sort of presence," said Rockets forward Shane Battier.

(AFP October 30, 2006)

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