The new NBA season is on the horizon, and video game maker 2K released its annual player rankings, to be included in its 2015 basketball version. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis top this year’s list. “Let the debates begin,” 2K crowed.
— NBA 2K 2K16 (@NBA2K) September 22, 2015
Before the games begin on consoles, we wonder how players from history would be rated. Rounding up the usual suspects, like a virtual Michael Jordan or Bill Russell, is always interesting. Video games allow us to see every generation of basketball on one surface. But what about some of the best and most influential international players? How might they rank against today’s players, if rendered in pixels? Here are three today’s NBA fanatic ought to know.
Arvydas Sabonis. He helped win multiple medals in international competition. Meanwhile, Sabonis spent a brilliant career dominating European basketball. A cross between Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Bird, the 7-3 Lithuanian had handle, height, and heft like no other. With the NBA’s Trail Blazers in the 1990s, he showed flashes of former brilliance, making crowds gasp with precision passing.
Fans note his injuries with sadness, knowing that a great career was stunted. But Sabonis helped cement basketball’s legacy in the Baltic region and especially his home nation, influencing a new generation that includes at least one of his sons. Lithuania still produces consistent world-class talent. “By many accounts, the 1992-1996 period was the best thing that ever happened to international basketball,” wrote one sports historian. For that, we can partly thank Sabonis.
Oscar Schmidt. Known in basketball circles as the best player in the world never to play in the NBA, and even that qualifier could be an underestimation. Schmidt helped beat an American team studded with college talent in ’87, averaged better than forty points per game during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and is unofficially the all-time professional leading scorer at nearly 50,000 points.
“As big as Michael Jordan,” declared a Dominican coach. Schmidt’s jersey was retired with four different pro clubs. Thousands of basketball fanatics, including a young Kobe Bryant, idolized the Brazilian as he tore through international competition.
At 6-8, Oscar had a high shot release that was difficult to defend. His natural knack for scoring earned him the nickname “Mão Santa”, which translates to “Holy Hand”. Combined with a fierce will that seemed to surface when competing against the Americans, he has been described as a warrior. “There was always the talk that the best players were in the NBA but there was Schmidt to say otherwise,” one opponent said.
Yao Ming. Famously clowned by Shaq, the Chinese center eventually displayed enough skills on American soil to convince most of his critics. Yao dominated China’s CBA, averaging 39 and 20 and shooting 76.6% from the field during one memorable playoff run. That’s not a typo—he went 21-for-21 in one finals game. With the NBA’s Houston Rockets, Yao Ming was the best center in his age group, when not hobbled by a body that sometimes betrayed him. When healthy, he gave the basketball aficionado much to praise, like those soft-handed layups and rebounding tenacity. Like Sabonis, he was an amazing basketball talent plagued by injury for much of his prime.
But Yao’s real legacy was being a visible bridge between the NBA and China, advancing the league’s pursuit of one billion sets of eyes. Describing a Rocket preseason tour of China with Yao, a teammate said, “You understand what The Beatles felt like in Liverpool. It was hysteria.”