Ranking the 8 Most Freakishly Athletic Players in NBA History
Nearly every player in the NBA is a world-class athlete—very few who excel on the highest level of professional basketball can get away with merely average physical skills.
But while most high-level basketball players have (or have had) abilities that most of us can only dream of, there are still those who serve as outliers when compared to their peers.
In every era there has been a certain group of NBA stars who were stronger, faster, or jumped higher than the rest.
Perhaps the nature of the sport lends itself to attracting a special brand of talent, but a number of phenomenal athletes have blessed the game of basketball with their unique brand of artistry.
As the NBA embarks on yet another season, here's a look back at a few of the players throughout history whose physical gifts far surpassed the rest.
8. Shawn Kemp
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Those who think Blake Griffin is the most athletic power forward of all time clearly never saw former Seattle Supersonic great Shawn Kemp in his prime.
Long before Griffin ever jumped over a Kia Optima, Kemp brought the thunder to the Pacific Northwest, throwing down dunks with the power of a young Darryl Dawkins.
Few duos were more feared on the fast break than Kemp and Seattle point guard Gary Payton, and when the "Reign Man" went up for a slam dunk, you could literally hear the air being sucked out of the building as the crowd gasped in anticipation.
In his prime, Kemp might have been the most vicious dunker in the history of the NBA.
Don't think so? Just ask Alton Lister.
7. David Thompson
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David Thompson was known as "Skywalker," and could do things on the basketball court that most had never even considered attempting.
His performance in the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest is what most remember about Thompson, but he had made his name as a high-flyer long before he ever reached the pros.
Thompson was so athletically superior to his contemporaries while at N.C. State that his coach needed to invent unique ways for him to score without violating the NCAA's ban on dunking the basketball.
Wolfpack point guard Monte Towe would launch the ball high over the rim so that Thompson could catch it and throw it down—the precursor to what is now known as the "alley-oop."
Thompson served as something of a role model to a young Michael Jordan (who grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina). Jordan patterned his game after the former N.C. State star, and when his Airness was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, he asked Thompson to give his induction speech.
6. Dominique Wilkins
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If YouTube was around during Dominique Wilkins' career, the video-hosting service would have been flooded with clips of the man known as "The Human Highlight Film."
When it came to pure athleticism, Wilkins may have been on par with Michael Jordan.
Opposing coaches had their work cut out for them when the Atlanta Hawks were on the schedule, as Wilkins' rare combination of power and leaping ability made him difficult to game-plan against.
While many remember him as purely a dunker, Wilkins was an extremely talented, all-around player who averaged nearly 25 points per game for his career. His infamous duel with Larry Bird in the 1988 playoffs is the stuff of legend, as were his two meetings against Jordan in the Slam Dunk Contest.
5. Julius Erving
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Other players in the late 1960s and early 1970s were more athletic than Julius Erving, but the former UMass standout was one of the first who played the game of basketball above the rim.
Erving is more or less the "godfather" of the slam dunk, and all of the players who came after him owe Erving a sincere debt of gratitude.
The American Basketball Association wouldn't have been nearly as popular without Erving's theatrics, and once "Dr. J" brought his act to the NBA he took the league by storm with his electrifying acrobatics.
Dunks were obviously Erving's forte, but the most athletic feat that he ever pulled off was, in fact, a layup.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals, Erving drove the right baseline and somehow contorted his body underneath the basket and around a defender to flick a right-handed layup off the glass.
Words fail to accurately describe the sheer difficulty of the play, yet Erving pulled it off with ease.
4. Vince Carter
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Heading into the 2000 Summer Olympics, Frederic Weis was destined to be just another 7'2" French basketball player who would eventually fade away into anonymity.
And then Vince Carter jumped over him.
Despite eight All-Star nods and more than 21,000 career points, Carter will always be remembered for a singular play that didn't even occur in an NBA game.
The French media referred to it as "le dunk de la mort" ("the dunk of death") and it was a clear sign—perhaps even more so than his incredible performance at the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest—that Carter was one of most gifted athletes the world had ever seen.
Carter’s "Half-Man, Half-Amazing" nickname doesn't even begin to describe how awe-inspiring he was in his prime.
His leaping ability evoked comparisons to both Michael Jordan and Julius Erving, and there were few players in the late 1990s and early 2000s who excited crowds in the same manner that "Vinsanity" did.
3. LeBron James
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LeBron James is the best athlete in the NBA today. It's an undeniable truth. Not even Dan Gilbert is willing to argue the point.
On this year's version of NBA TV's "Open Court" special, Charles Barkley said that Miami's all-everything small forward has athletic gifts similar to those of Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan.
According to Barkley, what separates the two players is the fact that James "is just bigger, stronger, faster. That's the only difference."
At a macro level, players today are typically bigger, stronger and faster than they were 20 years ago, so while Barkley's point may be accurate, it doesn't necessarily mean much in the grand scheme of things.
Instead of always trying to compare Jordan and James, we should all just sit back and enjoy what the latter is capable of on the basketball court.
With the speed of a gazelle and the power of a rhinoceros, it's simply ridiculous what James is capable of on a nightly basis. James is one of the few athletes who could have been an All-Star in just about any sport that he chose, so NBA fans should all be thankful that he decided to embrace basketball as his full-time profession.
2. Michael Jordan
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After most nationally-televised Chicago Bulls games during Michael Jordan's prime, children all across the country would race to the nearest basketball hoop to try to replicate what they had just witnessed his Airness do on their TV screens.
Jordan was an athletic marvel, and his ability to seemingly float in the air still amazes to this day.
The 6'6" Jordan wasn't the fastest player on the court, nor was he the strongest or even the highest jumper. But his unparalleled blend of body control, strength, quickness and stamina made him virtually impossible to guard one-on-one.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
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Wilton Norman Chamberlain is quite possibly the greatest basketball player of all time.
He's also arguably the best volleyball star who ever lived.
But before he ever played either sport on the professional level, it should be noted that the 7'1" Chamberlain—who reportedly had a 50-inch vertical leap—was a track-and-field star who won the Big 8 high jump competition three years in a row.
Chamberlain's athletic feats are often dismissed because of his size, but the fact remains that the former Sixers star was one of the most unique physical specimens the world has ever seen.
Both the NCAA and the NBA were forced to change a number of rules due to Chamberlain's sheer dominance, and he is one of the few players who everyone agrees would dominate in any era of basketball.