You can’t teach height. It’s an inconvenient and harsh truth that so many basketball players encounter during their youths as they advance through school and face bigger and better competition on indoor and outdoor courts. One can hit the gym seven days a week, eat right, practice for hours upon hours and face the best competition whenever possible. If his body and height betray him, he’s advancing only so far as an amateur basketball star before hurdles prevent him from even sniffing an NBA career.
Size isn’t everything in any sport, of course, basketball included. Plenty of 7-footers quickly vanished from memories during or quickly after their collegiate days. While Giannis Antetokounmpo benefits from his “Greek Freak” stature, that shouldn’t discount the amount of work and time he dedicated to becoming an NBA MVP before he celebrated his 25th birthday.
Three-point shooters are thriving in the NBA in the 2020s more than ever, but the league’s top stars remain skyscrapers compared to us mere mortals.
New York Knicks fans who booed when the club spent the fourth pick of the 2015 NBA Draft on 7-foot-3 forward Kristaps Porzingis were forced to eat those criticisms after the Unicorn averaged 14.3 PPG, 7.3 REB, and 1.9 BLK while also flashing impressive long-distance range for a man his size as a rookie. Lordzingis, as he affectionately became known, earned a spot on the 2018 All-Star squad, but he suffered a torn ACL in February of that year. He never again played for the Knicks, as he orchestrated a trade to the Dallas Mavericks in January 2019.
If you blinked or gave yourself an NBA vacation in the fall and early winter of the 2015-16 season, you may have missed Tibor Pleiss’ stint in the league. A 7-foot-3 center drafted in 2010, Pleiss spent years playing overseas before he debuted in the Association in October 2015 , and he averaged 2.0 PPG and 1.3 REB in 12 appearances with the Utah Jazz. His time in the league ended after the Philadelphia 76ers waived him in August 2016.
Per the San Diego Union-Tribune, Walter "Edy" Tavares made history in 2015 by becoming the first man born in Cape Verde to play in the NBA. Not bad for somebody who hadn't participated in or seen a game of basketball up through his 17th birthday. The 7-foot-3 center made 12 overall appearances with the Atlanta Hawks, and he was named the 2016-17 D-League Defensive Player of the Year. His career in the United States peaked with that achievement, as his final NBA run ended in October 2017. In the winter of 2020, Tavares was playing for Spanish side Real Madrid.
Aleksandar Radojevic, a 7-foot-3 center, played during two NBA seasons. If you don’t remember those periods, it’s because he appeared in only 15 total games. After featuring in three contests for the Toronto Raptors during the 1999-2000 season, he was out of the league up through the summer of 2004 before the Utah Jazz awarded him with an opportunity. By January 2005, Utah deemed Radojevic surplus to requirements. The 12th selection of the 1999 NBA Draft is viewed as one of the worst picks ever made by the Raptors.
As explained by FIBA.com, 7-foot-3 center Ha Seung-Jin emerged as an Asia Cup star even though his NBA career fizzled out almost as quickly as it started. The first person born in South Korea to play in the Association appeared in 46 games for the Portland Trail Blazers from the start of 2005 through the end of the 2005-06 season, and he averaged a minuscule 1.5 PPG and 1.5 REB. As of the 2019-20 campaign, Ha remained the only South Korean to ever tally minutes in the league.
As Matt Caputo wrote for Slam Online back in 2012, 7-foot-3 center Keith Closs set an NCAA record of 5.87 BLK per game during his time at Central Connecticut State. He failed to repeat that type of production in the NBA over three seasons, however, as he averaged 3.9 PPG, 2.9 REB and 1.3 BLK across 130 games with the Los Angeles Clippers from 1997 through 2000. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated documented how a drinking problem cost Closs a once-promising career. By the time that piece was published, Closs was nearly four years sober.
According to a piece penned by Scott Ball for the Oregon State Alumni Association, 7-foot-3 center Swede Halbrook once guided the Syracuse Nationals to a three-game winning streak over Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors. Per Ball and Sports Illustrated’s Gerald Astor, Halbrook was sadly haunted by apparent personal demons that once caused him to disappear from the Nationals during the 1961-62 campaign. That was his second and last season with the Nationals and in professional basketball. He returned to Portland, his hometown, following his career, and he died of an apparent heart attack in 1988.
With the second pick of the 2009 NBA Draft , the Memphis Grizzlies made 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet the first Tanzanian-born player to feature in the NBA. While Thabeet bounced around the Association through 2014, he never averaged even four PPG or four REB during any campaign. In January 2019, Reid Forgrave of CBS Sports cited Thabeet’s unwillingness to work as hard as possible to improve as a reason he flopped in the Association and also that Thabeet’s playing style made him a dinosaur of a big man in the 2010s.
We’ll never know how good Arvydas Sabonis could’ve been in the NBA. As ESPN’s Ian Whittell and Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated wrote, the Portland Trail Blazers drafted the Lithuanian-born 7-foot-3 center in the first round of the 1986 NBA Draft, but the Soviet Union blocked his move to the United States. Multiple injuries slowed Sabonis during his time in Spain, but he was nevertheless still an all-time great passing big man when he debuted for Portland in 1995 and earned First-Team All-Rookie honors. In total, Sabonis appeared in 470 NBA games through the end of the 2002-03 season.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas never won a ring as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian-born center was one of the most popular players to feature for the Cavs from 1997 through 2010. In his 12 seasons with the club, Ilgauskas averaged 13.8 PPG, 7.7 REB, and 1.6 BLK. In March 2014, the Cavs retired Big Z’s No. 11 jersey. In the summer of 2019, fans voted for Ilgauskas to be featured on a bobblehead to represent the team’s “Gund Arena” era from 1994-2003.
For the bulk of an 11-season career, Randy Breuer was mostly a 7-foot-3 reserve who started in 285 of 681 pro contests. He spent nearly seven seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that drafted him in 1983, and he was thrice in the top-20 in blocked shots between 1985 and 1990. In March 2018, the two-time Class 1A state champion was inducted into the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
There may come a day when fans know Peter John Ramos more as a 7-foot-3 professional wrestling monster heel than a basketball player who enjoyed little more than a cup of coffee in the NBA. The Washington Wizards grabbed the center in the second round of the 2004 NBA Draft, and he made six appearances with the club before he was relegated to the Developmental League. He never returned to the Association. There was speculation the WWE had him on the company’s radar in the summer of 2018, and he made appearances for the World Wrestling Council in the winter of 2020.
Checking in at 7-foot-4 and over 320 pounds wasn’t enough for Priest Lauderdale to physically dominate NBA competition. Drafted 28th overall in 1996, Lauderdale appeared in 35 games for the Atlanta Hawks his rookie season before the team traded him to the Denver Nuggets in 1997. In 39 games with Denver, the center averaged 3.7 PPG and 2.6 REB, but his free-throw shooting and field goal percentage both declined. He never played in a regular-season contest past 1998. According to ExNBA.com, he played professionally in a handful of countries during the first decade of the 2000s.
Will Boban Marjanovic ever become an NBA All-Star? Probably not. From the fall of 2015 through January 2010, the 7-foot-4 center played for five different clubs, and he became a beloved internet sensation who repeatedly went viral each season due to his size, personality and passion for having fun. Fun fact: As Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight wrote, Marjanovic was a historically efficient scorer throughout the second half of the 2010s.
Arguments about whether 7-foot-4 college superstar Ralph Sampson deserved a spot in the Hall of Fame ended when he was enshrined in 2012. The three-time National Player of the Year won Rookie of the Year as a member of the Houston Rockets for 1983-84, and he was an All-Star every year from 1984 through 1987. Knee injuries and other physical issues halted his prime before he reached what should have been his ceiling, though, and he was a shell of his former self before the end of the decade. The first pick of the 1983 NBA Draft is one of the sport’s all-time “ what if” stories.
Rik Smits was more than just the big man who was lucky enough to play for the Indiana Pacers alongside Reggie Miller in the late 1980s and 1990s. The 7-foot-4 center out of the Netherlands averaged double-digit points in each of his 12 professional seasons, he was named to the 1988-89 All-Rookie First Team and the 1998 All-Star squad, and, per CBC Sports, he achieved all of this despite chronic pain in his knees and feet. Per Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated , Shaquille O'Neal once named Smits as a big man who “destroyed me every time.” “If it wasn't for his foot problems, I probably [never would] have been able to stop him,” Shaq told McCallum.
Was Mark Eaton the greatest shot blocker in NBA history? He deserves at least a mention in any conversation on the matter. The 7-foot-4 center who appeared in 875 games for the Utah Jazz from 1982 through 1993 twice won Defensive Player of the Year during the 1980s, and, as Aaron Falk of NBA.com explained, Eaton entered the 2020s holding the records for most blocks in a season (456 in 1984-85), the highest blocks per game average for a career (3.50) and the highest average for blocks per game in a season (5.56 in 1984-85). Younger fans probably recognize Eaton as the guy who held a basketball for Jeremy Evans during the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest.
Remember the story of Archie “Moonlight” Graham popularized in the iconic “Field of Dreams” movie? Dear readers, we give you Slavko Vranes. The 7-foot-5 center drafted by the New York Knicks in 2003 never played for the club after he dealt with right patella tendinitis as a rookie, as the team waived him in December of that year. On Jan. 8, 2004 , Vranes received nearly three minutes of playing time for the Portland Trail Blazers in a road loss vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves. He missed his one field goal attempt. He never played in the NBA again.
Before he ever played a second of regular-season action with the Boston Celtics, Tacko Fall generated headlines in October 2019 when, as Cody Taylor of The Rookie Wire explained, the first-year pro was measured at 7-foot-5, instead of 7-foot-7, with shoes off. Despite a lack of playing time, Fall hilariously earned All-Star votes, and he showed his versatility when he served as a guest conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra during the 2019 holiday season.
Sixteen seconds. That’s all 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar required to make history in April 2015 when he checked into a game as a member of the Sacramento Kings and became the first player of Indian descent to feature in a regular-season NBA contest. Bhullar’s time in the Association lasted only a few minutes of in-game action, as he never earned a look from a different organization outside of the Developmental League. The same month Bhullar made his NBA debut, Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wondered if the Kings playing him was little more than a marketing stunt.
Pavel Podkolzin is yet another large NBA athlete lost to history, in part, because of injury woes. Per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), the 7-foot-5 center selected 21st overall in the 2004 NBA Draft was largely a non-factor as a rookie due to a broken foot, and he appeared in only six games before the Dallas Mavericks moved on from him in the summer of 2006. He returned to Russia to continue his professional career, and North American fans never saw him again.
Chuck Nevitt was a member of the 1984-85 title-winning Los Angeles Lakers squad, even if he did play in only 11 regular-season contests for the LakeShow that year, and the big man who entered the NBA in 1982 managed to remain in the league through 1993. He appeared in 155 career games and averaged a paltry 1.6 PPG and 1.5 REB. In 1994, Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated offered this anecdote about Nevitt: “Nevitt has more nicknames than most regulars: the Human Victory Cigar, for his occasional appearances at the end of winning games, and Chuck E. Cheese, for the mascot robot of a Texas-based pizza franchise.”
Numbers and statistics often only tell fractions of stories regarding sports figures, and that’s the case with the 7-foot-6 larger-than-life Yao Ming. Ming won Rookie of the Year for the 2002-03 campaign as a member of the Houston Rockets, and he was an All-Star for all eight of his active seasons. His work as a global ambassador of the game and his standing as an international superstar, along with his production, made him a sure-thing Hall of Fame player. He was elected as part of the 2016 class. As explained by The Associated Press (h/t NBA.com), Ming was one of the first Chinese pro athletes to become a worldwide phenomenon recognized by even casual followers of the sports world and the NBA. As controversial as the topic became in the fall of 2019, one can’t discuss the Association’s popularity in China without mentioning Ming. Had he not dealt with chronic injuries as an adult, he possibly could’ve become a top-10 or top-five, all-time great big man.
As overrated as Shawn Bradley may have been when the Philadelphia 76ers took him with the second pick of the 1993 NBA Draft ahead of players such as Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Vin Baker, the perception that the slender 7-foot-6 center was a punchline throughout his NBA tenure is inaccurate. Bradley earned a spot on the 1993-94 NBA All-Rookie Second Team, he led the league in blocks per game and block percentage for the 1996-97 season , he finished atop the total blocks (tied with Jermaine O'Neal) and block percentage categories for 2000-01, and he appeared in 832 career games. Thanks to online video services and an ESPN documentary, many mostly remember Bradley for being on the wrong end of famous dunks. Outside of basketball, Bradley attempted an ill-fated political career and also became involved with multiple charitable organizations.
Your first thought upon seeing the name Gheorghe Muresan is that he’s the 7-foot-7 Romanian who starred in the “My Giant” movie alongside Billy Crystal. While never an All-Star, Muresan was a fine center from 1993 through 1997 until ankle, back, and knee injuries derailed his career. He won the league’s Most Improved Player award for 1995-96, and he twice led the Association in field-goal percentage. In the 2000s, Muresan co-authored a pair of books related to fitness activities for young boys and girls.
The first 7-foot-7 man to play in the NBA, Manute Bol probably couldn’t hang in the 2020s NBA due to his offensive deficiencies. As Matt Schudel wrote for the Washington Post (h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) after Bol died in 2010, the center was the first NBA player to retire with more blocks (2,086) than points (1,599). Coincidentally, the Washington Wizards had both Bol and Muggsy Bogues, the latter being the shortest player in NBA history, on the team’s roster in 1987. Bol finished the 1985-86 and 1988-89 seasons as the league’s leading shot-blocker. In 2017, the man who recruited the Sudanese-born giant to play in the United States told Zagsblog’s Adam Zagoria Bol’s actual birthday was a mystery and that the center “was probably 40, 50 years old when he was playing in the NBA.” Bol’s age at the time of his death meant little to those he assisted as a humanitarian for the people of Sudan. Per the San Francisco Examiner and The Atlantic, Bol spent the bulk of his fortune attempting to help the less fortunate.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.