The Shortest Centers in the NBA.

The Shortest Centers in the NBA

        The center is one of the most important positions on a basketball team. Typically, the center is the tallest player on the court for their respective team. Historically, centers have played close to the basket in the post area. On defense, the center’s role is to block or contest shot attempts and rebound missed shots. Offensively, the center is primarily tasked with setting screens, rebounding, and scoring around the rim. When the center is efficient on both ends of the floor, teams tend to be far more successful. Today, we will discuss the shortest centers in the NBA and its long history.

The Value of Height at the Center Position

        Coaches and scouts believe taller basketball players have a major advantage over shorter players. When a shorter player shoots the ball, it has to travel further than when a player who is taller shoots. Furthermore, larger players can cover more ground and close the distance quicker. A taller player can also rebound and block shots around the basket more effectively. In the low post, height is one of the most important factors during a basketball game.

        At the highest levels of competitive basketball, every inch of height and reach makes a difference. Greater Height and reach provide players with an edge in almost every facet of the game. With all else being equal, a taller player will have a higher chance of making it to the NBA. However, this is certainly not always the case. Some basketball players who lack exceptional height will continue to overcome the odds and make it to the NBA.

The Standard Height for an NBA Center

        Today’s NBA players are much taller on average than NBA (formerly NBL) players were in the 40s and 50s. In the NBA’s early years, it was fairly common for centers to be 6’7″ or even shorter. George Mikan was one of the NBA’s first star players. Standing 6’10”, Mikan was one of the tallest NBA centers when he played in the mid-20th Century. In the 21st Century, an NBA center standing below 6’10” is almost unheard of. In 2023, the average height of an NBA center is slightly over 7’0″. Additionally, the role of the center position has changed in the National Basketball Association’s modern era.

   How the Modern NBA Center Evolved

        It is common in today’s NBA for centers to have completely different styles of play from one another. In 2023, some NBA centers are efficient three-point shooters while others prefer to play in the paint. Nikola Jokic, the center for the 2022-23 World Champion Denver Nuggets, is one of the best passers in the NBA. Moreover, Jokic can create his own shot from anywhere on the floor. The role of the center position has changed drastically over the years. Even so, the center on every team will always be tasked with protecting the rim and rebounding.

        A decade or two ago, it was very rare for centers to attempt three-pointers. In 2023, centers are attempting more jump shots than ever before. NBA teams see value in being able to pull the opposing team’s center away from the basket. By occupying the opposing team’s best shot blocker, finishing at the rim and rebounding will be much easier. Ultimately, teams with a center that can shoot efficiently from long range have a major advantage.

Shortest Centers in the NBA (Early Years-Modern Era)

Wes Unseld (6’7″ 245 lbs)

        Wes Unseld was one of the shortest centers in the NBA’s long history. However, what Unseld lacked in height, he made up for with heart and will. Moreover, Wes Unseld was known for his strength, nicknamed “The Oak Tree.” He became the second player in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain was the first) to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP as a rookie. During his rookie season in 1968-69, Unseld averaged an astonishing 18.2 rebounds per game. Wes Unseld’s legacy was solidified when he helped lead the Bullets to an NBA Title and Finals MVP honors in 1978. After thirteen seasons with the Bullets (Baltimore/Washington), Unseld remains 13th all-time on the NBA rebounds list with 13,769.

Chuck Hayes (6’6″ 240 lbs)

        Chuck Hayes is one of the most highly regarded players to ever play college basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats. Despite earning several accolades at Kentucky, Hayes went undrafted in the 2005 NBA Draft. He was later picked up as a free agent by the Houston Rockets. Hayes played his best basketball in Houston, where he would become the Rockets everyday starting center from 2009-2011. Despite his shorter stature compared to other NBA centers, Hayes excelled on the defensive side of the ball. Chuck Hayes is the shortest center to start an NBA game in the 21st Century. This past summer, Chuck Hayes joined the Golden State Warriors front office. The same perseverance that Hayes displayed on the court has propelled him to great success off of the court.

Ed Sadowski (6’5″ 240 lbs)

        Ed Sadowski was born in 1917 when WW1 was still ongoing. At the NCAA level, Ed Sadowski led the Seton Hall Pirates Men’s Basketball team to its first and only undefeated season. Sadowski played for the NBL (National Basketball League) and BAA (Basketball Association of America). These leagues would merge to create the modern NBA in the mid-20th Century. During his time with the Boston Celtics, Sadowski was third in the BAA in scoring (19.4 ppg). Today, Ed Sadowski is remembered for his impact in the early days of the NBL and BAA. Most NBA historians consider Ed Sadowski, who stood 6’5″, the shortest center in NBA history.

   Challenges Faced by Undersized Centers in the NBA

        Undersized centers in the NBA face many challenges. They will normally not be able to close the distance, rebound, or defend as effectively as taller players. Moreover, it can be difficult for undersized players to shoot over taller defenders. These issues are usually amplified when playing around the basket. When you look at NBA centers that stand 6’8″ and below, there is a common denominator. The undersized NBA centers clearly played the game harder than the other centers in the league.

A Shift in the Center’s Role

        The National Basketball Association evolved into a more perimeter-based league in the 1980s. This would change the role that the center position held since the inception of the NBA. Moreover, this would create a ripple effect on all levels of competitive basketball. Since the NBA’s early years, centers have primarily played around the block or low post area. In today’s game, centers are expected to stretch the floor and adjust to a game based more around the perimeter. Additionally, centers are shooting more three-pointers than ever before.

How Advanced Analytics Changed the Center’s Role

        A few decades later, the emergence of advanced analytics redefined the role of the center once again. Today, nearly all of the choices that coaches make are based on advanced analytics. The most notable change caused by the rise of analytics is the increased three-point attempts. In past eras of the National Basketball Association, there were far fewer three-point attempts taken during games. Since it is a lower-percentage shot, most players chose to stay away from it. Due to analytics, NBA teams realized that taking more threes would usually result in them scoring more points. In the NBA’s modern era, a center that can shoot consistently from the outside is more valuable than ever.

How the Center Position in Basketball has Evolved

        Advanced analytics have had a major impact on the center position in basketball. The pace of play has increased and three-point attempts are at an all-time high. Instead of staying around the basket, centers in the modern NBA move around more on offense. Centers like Nikola Jokic even play similarly to a point guard. The center position will continue to evolve in the future based on the NBA landscape.

Advice for Young Centers

        It is crucial for big men to have the ability to adjust their game based on the given circumstances. The sport of basketball is constantly evolving. These changes trickle down to all levels of basketball from professional to youth. It is imperative for young big men to develop a dynamic and complete offensive game. This will allow you to better adjust to the ever-changing landscape of competitive basketball.

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