Washington Wizards center Brendan Haywood said he isn't feeling any pressure to hold his own tonight against Yao Ming, the 7-foot-5 Houston Rockets center who was drafted first overall last summer. It's Yao who bears the burden to produce, he said.
Yao's the one with all the expectations of being the top pick and the hope of both his native China and the Rockets, a team with playoff hopes. All the 7-foot Haywood feels that he has to do is do what he has been doing, which is steadily getting better after a slow start.
"It's not really a big deal," Haywood said prior to Yao's 30-point, 16-rebound performance last night against Dallas. "It's another game we've go to win. It's not me versus Yao Ming. . . . It's not like he's their go-to guy. Steve Francis is still their go-to guy."
If Yao has a big game, Haywood will find himself on the wrong end of a lot of highlight footage. That said, if Haywood has a breakout game he could regain a measure of the respect he earned as a rookie last season.
"Things look like they are going better for me," said Haywood.
After a tough preseason, in which Haywood seemed to have stagnated after a summer of big man camps and a decent summer league, that's the only direction things could go. In training camp, Wizards Coach Doug Collins said he thought Haywood could develop into one of the better defensive centers in the league. Expectations grew as coaches and other observers figured Haywood would keep pace with the improvement of fellow big men Kwame Brown and Jared Jeffries.
However, Haywood failed to distinguish himself and did not start the season opener at Toronto. Instead, he played in reserve for just four minutes, failing to register a point, a rebound or a blocked shot. He has started ever since and over the past six games has found his footing, his shot, his knack for blocking shots and some much-needed toughness.
"He's played very well," Collins said of Haywood's performance of late.
The change began in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers, when Haywood, in 29 minutes, scored 9 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked 1 shot. Since then, he's averaged 6.8 points, six rebounds and a blocked shot, a far cry from the first five games when he averaged three points and 5.4 rebounds and .5 blocks. By contrast, Yao recently scored 20 points on 9-of-9 shooting against the defending NBA champions.
"I didn't start out strongly because I wasn't playing," Haywood said. "It was a situation where, as my minutes went up, everything else went up."
Haywood averaged 17 minutes in the first five games, as Collins often went to a smaller lineup to counter the opposition. With more big men in the middle of late, Haywood has averaged 25 minutes.
"When Brendan plays against a big center he's done a good job," Collins said. "Sometimes he struggles against guys who step out on the floor and are more mobile but against big guys he's been fine."
He will be going up against a really big guy in Yao -- only Dallas's Shawn Bradley (7-6) is taller -- but not early on. Houston has started Kelvin Cato and Jason Collier at center with Yao playing just 15.6 minutes a game. Yao's minutes have increased lately and going into last night's game, he was averaging 6.6 points, four rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots.
"He's starting to get acclimated and starting to fit in with that team," Collins said.
The timing of Haywood's turn in play coincides with a pregame ritual he and assistant coach Patrick Ewing, also a 7-footer, started a few weeks ago. Before games Ewing, playing defense, pounds on Haywood with a pad attached to his forearm, similar to a "shiver" pad that is a staple for football drills.
Haywood said the contact provides a spike in energy. He's learned to love the drill. The exercise "helps me because I can work on my post moves against somebody," Haywood said. "I can work against somebody's body and feel when somebody sets to go this way or that way instead of just working on moves with no one on me."
Besides that, the drill helps him stay more in tune with the flow of the game since he often doesn't get the desired early touches on offense because he is the fifth scoring option.
"No one really likes to run around and screen all day but it's something that has to be done," Haywood said.