The impact of the eight-year NBA veteran cannot be stated by statistics alone, but those are awfully impressive. Injuries shortened the Houston Rockets' center's career, but he has career averages of 19 points on 52.4 percent from the field shooting (one of the better shooting bigs as he made 83.3 percent of his free-throws), 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He was an all-star in all eight of his NBA seasons, despite playing in under three-quarters of the games in four of those seasons. But Yao's biggest contributions have come to the game of basketball off the court for who he represents- the country of China and their 1.3 billion people.
Because of his success on the floor of the Rockets, Yao is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, but he also had a five year career with the Shanghai Sharks (23.4 points and 15.4 rebounds per game), which clearly elevated his status amongst the Chinese population.
As the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Yao began his career slowly, but his integration into the game was a huge step in the NBA's quest into moving into a largely market overseas. That season, the NBA published its All-Star ballots in three languages, including, for the first-time ever, a Chinese-version. Yao's popularity was most evident when he was voted in to start for the Western Conference All-Stars to oust three consecutive starts by Shaquille O'Neal by nearly a quarter-million more votes.
His impact on the game was further magnified by increased telecasts and immeasurable popularity in China. When Yao played against fellow-Chinese NBA and Milwaukee Bucks forward Yi Jianlian, the game was broadcast on 19 networks in China and watched by 200 million people in the country alone. Capitalizing on the heavy media presence from Chinese markets, the Rockets announced a partnership with Chinese shoe company Anta (who has since signed Yao's Houston teammate Luis Scola and NBA superstar Kevin Garnett).
Reacting to Yao's retirement from basketball just a few weeks ago, commissioner David Stern has said that Yao was "a bridge between Chinese and American fans". His popularity amongst all fans worldwide will never be diminished by his injury-shortened career.