In the land of the giants: does size really matter in the NBA? (2022)

When word began to circulate, there was great hope. What could this 7ft 7in giant from Sudan named Manute Bol do in the NBA? Could his defense and shot blocking make memories of the greatest defenders like Bill Russell vanish? In his book, Manute: The Center of Two Worlds, author Leigh Montville describes the efforts to bring Bol from Africa to the United States to find out what he was capable of. In the end, though, Bol didn’t have a legendary career. Yes, he was a fan favorite, known, strangely, as much for games in which he hit multiple three-pointers as he was for his blocked shots. But while Bol led the NBA in blocks twice, he averaged just 2.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per games across his career. Even his teammate, the much smaller Charles Barkley, would deride and prank Bol, not worried about retribution.

But Bol’s career – like that of many super-tall, super-short and even rather heavy players – raises a question. In a sport that is regularly defined by height, does size really matter in the NBA? This subject comes into focus again today with the frenzy over the potential of the 7ft 4in French prospect Victor Wembanyama, who plays as fluidly as All-Stars like the 6ft 8in Jayson Tatum and who can defend as well as giants like the 7ft 1in three-time NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.

‘I changed kids’ perspectives’: Muggsy Bogues, the 5ft 3in star who broke NBA normsRead more

While the NBA is mostly known for its skyscraper athletes, there are also the diminutive water bugs who have made their mark on the league. Familiar names include the Charlotte Hornets’ legendary point guard Muggsy Bogues (5ft 3in), the Atlanta Hawks’ slam dunk contest-winning scoring guard Spud Webb (5ft 6in) and Boston Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas (5ft 9in), who was even an MVP candidate in 2016-17, finishing fifth in the voting. Calvin Murphy (5ft 9in) also averaged nearly 20 points per game throughout the 1970s and Earl Boykins (5ft 5in) averaged double-digits four straight seasons in the early 2000s.

Heavier players have had their days in the sun, too. Forwards Oliver Miller, Mike Sweetney and Robert “Tractor” Traylor, all weighed close to (or above) 300lbs during their careers in a sport that’s often reliant on speed and quickness. Conversely, the rail-thin Chet Holmgren – who is 7ft 1in and 190lbs – was selected No 2 overall in this year’s draft. NBA legend and 6ft 7in sharpshooter Reggie Miller, who was listed at just 185lbs, recently became a top-75 honoree. And the slight Ja Morant is currently dominating in Memphis with the Grizzlies.

Size, though, can also negatively affect one’s health. There is a history of taller players who have passed away – including Bol – or been seriously injured while still young. Indeed, there were doubts about Holmgren’s durability leading up to the draft and he will reportedly miss the entire season with a foot injury. Both Sweetney and Traylor’s weight ended up hindering the longevity of their careers. Traylor died of a heart-attack in 2011 at just 34.

Beyond the tragic, taller players have suffered from other health issues because their bodies demand so much and take in a great deal of impact. Highly touted 7ft 4in prospect Ralph Sampson enjoyed four All-Star appearances in the 1970s before his knees went out on him and his scoring dropped dramatically. And the 7ft 7in Washington center Gheorghe Mureșan, who earned the league’s Most Improved Player award in 1996, boasted three-straight years of scoring in double-figures before his career was cut short due to injury. The 7ft center and former LA Laker Andrew Bynum left the league too early due to knee troubles as well.

But there have been All-Star-quality giants in the league, to be sure. The 7ft 3in Arvydas Sabonis is considered one of the best foreign players of all time. And the 7ft 2in Kareem-Abdul Jabbar may be the NBA’s best player ever. He still holds the all-time scoring mark in league history, though it’s soon to be broken by one LeBron James (who is ‘only’ 6ft 9in). The 7ft 4in Rik Smits, known as the “Dunking Dutchman,” was an All-Star in 1997-98 and averaged more than 17 points per game from 1994-95 through 1997-98. The 7ft 3in Kristaps Porziņģis was an All-Star with the New York Knicks in 2017-18 and is nicknamed “The Unicorn” for his unique ability to play inside and outside. He boasts a career average of 19 points per game, but KP did incur a massive injury, sidelining him for more than a year in 2018-2019, likely due to his big frame.

Yao Ming, however, is the best of all the biggest big men. The 7ft 6in player was an eight-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA player with career averages of 19 points and nine rebounds in his time with the Houston Rockets, which was, yes, sadly cut short due to leg injuries.

Victor Wembanyama: the 7ft 4in ‘once-in-a-millennium’ prodigy coming to the NBARead more

Jack Ransone, an athletic trainer with the US Air Force Academy, says physical impact plays a major role in the injuries a basketball player – especially a larger one – suffers. Ransone, who authored a paper on the physiologic profile of basketball athletes, says that those who are bigger, from Bol to Shaq, can be more negatively affected, particularly as they already have a long amateur career behind them before they even reach the NBA.

“It is common for a player to compete in 200-plus AAU, All-Star and high school games in a year proceeding the NBA draft,” Ransone tells the Guardian. “[And it has been] demonstrated that the knee was the joint most frequently affected by sports injuries … The excessive load placed on these young players opens the window to accelerate a normal level of joint degeneration and musculoskeletal abnormalities.”

In the land of the giants: does size really matter in the NBA? (1)

While Ransone notes that players of all sizes have suffered knee pain and degeneration, it is also obvious that if a player is heavier, his body will more likely have increased issues. Further, Ransone says, massively tall players like Bol sometimes suffer from rare health issues, like Marfan Syndrome. “Marfan Syndrome presents in individuals with disproportionately long arms, legs, fingers and abnormally curved spine,” Ransone says. Along with Bol, one former Baylor University basketball standout, the 7ft 1in Isaiah Austin, suffered from Marfan Syndrome. Unfortunately, it kept him from even being drafted, despite strong collegiate numbers.

During the league’s history, there have been dozens of solid seven-footers, but as heights creep above 7ft to 7ft 2in and beyond, the impact on the court doesn’t often increase proportionally. Height, then, is likely not quite the cheat code to the game many may think it is. On the other side of that coin, the lack of height may also not be the death knell many might consider it to be. If you ask Bogues, who is the shortest player in NBA history (though not the shortest in NCAA history) and who continuously touts “heart over height,” size is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all for a career. The floor general, who enjoyed a 14-year career, averaged nearly 10 points and 10 assists from 1989-90 through 1994-95. Bogues even garnered nearly 40 blocks in his career, once swatting a shot from 11-time All-Star seven-footer Patrick Ewing.

When asked if size matters to Bogues when it comes to the league, he’s concise, “No,” he tells the Guardian. “Not to me, it doesn’t matter.” To thwart any worry about the issue, Bogues says that he simply relied on his “skillset” to perform in the NBA, often turning what some might consider to be deficiencies into strengths. For instance, he notes, the basketball and the players are more often on the ground than they are in the air. And while Bogues could jump 4ft in the air when he wished (see: the Ewing block), he was more than capable when the game was on the floor too. He simply waited for opponents to dribble or turn before poking the ball loose and taking it for a layup or a dishing it out to a teammate.

Bogues, who was a teammate of Bol’s on Washington during the 1987-88 season, says the two didn’t have “conversations about the height issue.” A student of the game, Bogues says he’s seen the clips of Wembanyama and thinks he has a bright future. Height will be a factor, he says, but more than that, the Frenchman has talent in abundance. “His skillset is off the chart,” says Bogues.

Throughout the history of the NBA, many of the best players (read: James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and others) are tall compared to the average person. But they are not the tallest in the NBA. Bryant was listed at 6ft 6in as was Jordan. Johnson, Bird and James were all listed at 6in 9in. While some all-timers like John Stockton and Chris Paul were all around 6ft, the sweet spot seems to be between 6ft 4in and 6ft 10in, providing a combination of height, agility, durability and quickness. Any taller, and players are more likely to be less mobile and more susceptible to injury. Though, of course, there are exceptions to every rule, as anyone who faced Abdul-Jabbar or Yao Ming will tell you.

And maybe – just maybe – Wembanyama will mark a new evolution when it comes to how the league views the combination of size, talent and the likelihood of a long career.

“He’s a skilled individual,” says Bogues of the Frenchman, who is more than two-feet taller than him. “To be so big, it’s impressive. I’ll be interested to see what he does at the next level.”

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