Tall basketball players are better than short ones, right? Height is always considered to be advantage in basketball. Being able to block shots, grab rebounds, and post up for shots are all made easier by height. It’s the reason the average NBA player is about 6’7”. But what about the few super tall basketball players that have come through the NBA? Does height reach a point of diminishing returns? We explored the stats on super tall basketball players to find out.
In the history of the NBA there have been a handful of really tall players, guys that are not just 7 feet, but several inches beyond 7 feet. Here is the list of players over 7 feet 3 inches (does not include active players, or players that appeared in less than 5 games):
These are very big men. If you need some perspective, here it is:
With such a huge height advantage, some might expect these guys to be completely dominant on the court. To explore that, we looked at the career stats from this group and compared them to the average stats of centers in the game today. First, let’s look at scoring. Our measure of scoring effectiveness will be points per game:
We see a few prolific scorers in our tallest players group, with Yao Ming, Rik Smits, Ralph Sampson (great name for a big man) and “Big Z” himself, Žydrūnas Ilgauskas standing out. Most of the rest of these super tall basketball players are nothing special in the scoring department. We’ll discuss why that might be later on. Overall, the average points per game for the super tall players is less than the average for NBA centers in the league this year, indicating that being very tall is perhaps not the advantage it’s cracked up to be.
Rebounding would be an area of the game where height would be expected to have the most direct advantage. The ball is up in the air, when it comes back down, are you the first one able to reach it? Here’s how our historically tall players fared:
Turns out most of these guys were mediocre rebounders at best when compared to the performance of just an average center. Playing time might be a big reason for that. Rebounds are largely a product of opportunity; you can’t get boards if you aren’t out on the court. Many of these super tall players had to limit their playing time simply due to the physical toll of running up and down the court.
Blocking shots seems like another obvious aspect of the game where the big guys would excel. Can you imagine trying to drive the lane on this guy?
It turns out this is one area of the game where the super tall players did outperform the average, slightly. Though some individual players like Manute Bol and Mark Eaton were prolific shot blockers. In fact, Bol is the only player in NBA history to have more blocked shots than points scored. And Eaton still holds the record for blocks per game for a season and career. This seems to be an area of the game where the extra height pays off more.
So if being tall is an advantage for basketball players, why aren’t the absolute tallest players to have played the game also the best? Of all these big men, only 3 are in the hall of fame, and they have very few championships among them. There are a variety of reasons why supersized players are not usually the most dominant: First, many of these guys were so big they didn’t have a lot of athleticism. Basketball is not just about being tall. To be a truly dynamic player you need a diverse skillset. It’s the reason why small guys can still be great basketball players and the greatest centers of all-time are tall, but not super tall. The second reason is related to the first in many ways. Being super tall comes with health a durability issues more often than not. Joint problems are extremely common for people of this size, and those issues (or fear of them beginning) can keep big guys playing limited minutes. That reduces their ability to contribute to the team and can leave some of these tall guys as just specialty players. Which is a shame, because they are a true spectacle to watch. The last contributing factor worth mentioning is that many of these guys did not grow up playing basketball and were relatively new to the game compared to their NBA peers. You can imagine how this played out for many of these guys:
A boy grows up in (insert less developed country, usually in Africa or Eastern Europe). He winds up being exceptionally tall. NBA scouts find out about him. They sign him before another team can, and then try to teach him basketball.
And that’s a big reason why many of these guys were busts despite incredible physical gifts. In some ways it is a validation to the sport of basketball, even the outrageously tall have to be skilled to leave a real mark on the game.