HOUSTON - Elton Brand has an appreciation for the business side of the NBA. He understands the world of instant messaging, chat sessions and the sort of speculation that always surfaces as the trade deadline draws near.

That's how the 76ers' comebacking power forward is dealing with an ESPN.com chat-session comment by Chad Ford, saying sources have told him Brand is available.

"The question is, given how poorly he's played this year and his huge contract, does anybody want him?" Ford asked.

The real question is, whether the initial premise has any legs.

Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski said he does not comment on rumors, but a source familiar with the Sixers' situation insisted that Stefanski had made no trade-related calls involving Brand and that he had no interest in dealing the player he signed to a 5-year, $79.8 million contract during the summer.

Brand confirmed that Stefanski had spoken to him. He seemed comfortable and at ease last night as he approached the third game of his return after missing 16 games with a dislocated right shoulder suffered Dec. 17.

"Anytime there's speculation, and as you get close to the [deadline], that's when you know it's a business," Brand said. "I'm just here to win, to play my heart out. I haven't been in a lot of [rumors], and I know that if we were 30-10, this wouldn't be the case. I understand where it would come from, even if it's from a fan, a chat session, e-mail."

Brand knows the Sixers signed him to be a difference-maker.

"It's a little frustrating, because that's what I was brought here for, and it hasn't come to fruition yet," he said. "But we're playing pretty well and I want to continue that, whatever it takes. There's no doubt in my mind that I can get back to that level, to be a difference-maker. We know the way they played last year. We already know they can get to the first round [of the playoffs]. We're trying to get further and hopefully we can do that."

Young a sophomore star

It's one thing to say Thaddeus Young has been, far and away, the 76ers' most improved player from last season. It's another thing to see him recognized for his rapid development.

The recognition came yesterday when the NBA, via voting by the league's assistant coaches, named Young to the nine-man sophomore team for the Rookie Challenge game to be played Feb. 13 in Phoenix as part of All-Star Weekend.

"I thought it was great," Sixers coach Tony DiLeo said. "He works hard, he wants to be great. This is a first step for him. He'll have bigger and brighter things in the future."

Young was very careful to thank the assistant coaches, and termed it "a very big achievement."

"I'm happy I'm in," he said. "It shows I've improved greatly, and it shows I'm one of the top sophomores and one of the best forwards."

The sophomores will face a nine-man rookie squad in the game in which Allen Iverson and Andre Iguodala have been previous MVPs, in 1997 and 2006, respectively. Young, who started his rise too late last season to make the rookie team, is the Sixers' first representative since '06. The Sixers coaches had been hoping that Marreese Speights might be named to the rookie team, but that didn't happen.

"I think I would put him up against any of the players who made that team," DiLeo said.

Working with Yao

Brett Gunning, the former Villanova assistant, is the Rockets' director of player development. He spent a chunk of time after yesterday's shootaround working on drills with Yao Ming, then went through a similar session in the early warmups before the game. *