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Yao Ming retired last week after nine seasons with the Houston Rockets. Yao was a force both on and off the court, revolutionizing the game of basketball, and yet many hall of fame voters are merely on the fence about him getting in.
Yao came into the league as the tallest player ever to grace an NBA court, standing an uncanny 7-foot-6. This alone was going to make opposing teams create a specific game-plan to guard him, but it didn’t stop there.
He influenced an entire country to become fans of such an American-driven sport. Chinese culture had never been strongly tied to basketball, but now we see more and more Chinese players growing up playing, and trying to get into the NBA to follow in Yao’s gigantic footsteps. He is a true ambassador.
Though these two facets of his game indeed made him an incredibly popular player, and very important to the Houston Rockets for having so much economic value, his on the court game was nothing to ignore.
When he first came into the league, he was somewhat feared because of his height, and yet wasn’t expected to be as much of a force as other centers because of his scrawny build. The word soft was thrown around in his presence. But that was 2002, and this is 2011.
Yao was an incredibly intelligent player, knowing how to use his height to the best of his advantages. He had an extremely efficient post game, throwing up unblockable hook shots with both hands whenever he wanted. If somebody let him get position on the block, there wasn’t much they could do to protect the goal (unless you’re Nate Robinson).
He also had a great face-up game for his size. Yao’s mid-range jumper was up there with the best in the game, even out to 20 feet, not to mention the occasional thee point attempt. He also was known to put the ball on the floor from the elbow, and with his unmatched size, one dribble would get him right by a defender and to the rim for an easy bucket. It was never easy to guard Yao.
To be fair, every hall of fame player has to perform well on both sides of the ball. The same reasons that top teams were afraid to take Jimmer Fredette too early were why Yao was often not respected as much as he should have been: defense.
Any player with his height should be able to block shots. No doubt about that, so let’s look at the stats.
As far as blocks per game went over his career, Yao landed at a respectable 1.9. For comparison, one of the greatest centers of all time, Shaquille O’ Neal, had a career average of only 2.3. Granted, Yao had 5 inches on Shaq, but the difference in jumping ability surely made up for that. Maybe people just expected too much, but that doesn’t mean his game lacked a defensive element.
Speaking of Shaq, the two gargantuan centers had countless Western Conference battles that were some of the most watched games of the time. These games were run through both giant men, each of which getting the ball in the post nearly every possession for isolation offense on one another. It will surely be a long time until fans get to see another match-up like those. Yao surely held his own, and though nobody is saying he is as good as “the diesel,” respect should surely be given.
Yao also averaged 9.2 rebounds for his career. Still think he should have grabbed more boards because of his height? Take a look at Shawn Bradley’s career numbers. He was 7-foot-5 and yet only grabbed 6.2 total rebounds per game over his twelve seasons. Too bad we never got to see those giants duke it out.
The points barely need to be talked about, everybody knows that his offensive game is surely hall quality. Even though he landed at an average of 19.0 points per game, when you factor in some of the tragic injuries that plagued him, he surely would have been a career 20-10 guy.
Hey, we also can throw in 1.6 assists per game while we’re looking. His passing was probably the most underrated part of his game.
This might be one of the tougher decisions that the hall of fame committee will have to make in the coming years. In all probability, if he never had to deal with his injuries he should have been a lock to be there, but for that matter we may have been able to say the same thing about Sam Bowie (check out the 1984 draft if you’re not familiar).
Once you throw in his intangibles, and what he meant to the game both on and off the court, this gentle giant deserves to be given his due credit one way or another. It was definitely fun to watch him play.
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