Skilled, potentially dominant big men are very difficult to find in basketball these days. Dwight Howard’s had years to develop something resembling an offensive repertoire, learning from one of the last talented inside scorers, Patrick Ewing. Shaquille O’Neal’s sheer physicality made up for any lack of moves, as defending him was much like posting up a CSX freight train.
It’s for this reason that the NBA is highly likely to miss Yao Ming. Listed at 7’6” and admitting to 7’3”, the NBA’s first Chinese star is still considered a better ambassador than player. This despite a career that saw averages of 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game. Should the numbers have been greater? Perhaps.
Still, why is the bar set that much higher for Yao than it is for, say, Bill Walton? Is it simply based on the extra four inches of height? Walton did produce more as a rebounder and shot-blocker despite being “only” 6’11, but otherwise, the two men possessed several similarities.
Both were very gifted passers for pivots and possessed better scoring range than most of the brutes that they guarded night in and night out. When it came to scoring, Yao was as skilled as any center since his Houston predecessor Hakeem Olajuwon.
His career free throw percentage is second only to Dirk Nowitzki among seven-footers. Yao’s 2006-07 season put him in fast company when he averaged 25 points per game. Only seven other seven-footers have recorded a 25-ppg season, and you may recognize some of the names: Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Ewing, Nowitzki, O’Neal, Olajuwon, Robinson. All of them are or one day will be Hall-of-Famers.
Yao’s decision to truncate his career rather than hang on as a spare part, as Walton did in backing up Robert Parish in Boston, is likely to be held against him, because he never got to wear a ring. Walton is still in the Hall of Fame despite the foot problems that ravaged his stat sheet even worse than Yao’s.
Walton is likely in the Hall even more for his dominance in college than for his all-too-brief moments of NBA glory. Yao proved capable of performing on the game’s biggest stage, and his impact in putting the NBA product in front of the world’s biggest consumer market should more than trump anything Walton did at UCLA. Perhaps Yao’s not bound for Springfield on the first ballot, but it’s absolutely possible, and advisable, that he get there.