Ranking NBA Big Men with Best Guard Skills
A lot of NBA big men think they have guard skills, but only a select few truly possess the talents of their backcourt counterparts. Marc Gasol, for example, essentially runs the Memphis Grizzlies offense with his pinpoint passing. Plenty of other bigs, like Dirk Nowitzki, have used some of the league’s best perimeter strokes to mimic the play of sharpshooting guards.
Before ranking the NBA big men with the best guard skills, it’s important that we set some parameters.
The primary tenet here is that the player must actually be a power forward or center. That means guys like Kevin Durant and Danilo Gallinari, who are both over 6’10”, don’t qualify as “big men” for our purposes because they’re just wing players who happen to have big-man height. We all know they’re really just oversized guards.
The second rule in our rankings is that we’re emphasizing the word “skills.” Lots of bigs try to impersonate guards, but most such attempts result in awkward plays or turnovers. Blake Griffin, for one, is a big fan of putting on ball-handling displays that get him nowhere. And Andray Blatche loves to operate off the dribble in the mid-range area. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really work for him—he made less than 30 percent of his two-pointers from outside of 10 feet last year.
We’re looking for NBA big men who are actually effective when using their guard skills. All of the following bigs are (or in some cases, were) terrific shooters, ball-handlers and passers.
These guys represent a truly rare breed: big men with real guard skills.
*All stats accurate through games played Dec. 2
Honorable Mention: Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Clippers
It’s easy to forget with the way he’s playing these days, but there was a time not long ago when Lamar Odom was one of the NBA’s most skilled big men.
Often operating as his team’s primary ball-handler, Odom used to rack up the assists. Reduced minutes, conditioning issues and age have all factored into the recent decline in his overall game, but we shouldn’t ever forget that he has averaged more than four dimes per game in six different seasons.
At 6’10”, Odom displayed a smooth handle, a terrific ability to penetrate (as long as he got to his strong left hand) and deft passing skills.
In the past two seasons, Odom’s guard skills have largely left him, but he earns an honorable mention for what he did in the first dozen years of his career. Let's all agree to remember him as he once was.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
The version of Kevin Garnett that plays for the Boston Celtics is still a darn good NBA player, in large part because of his smarts and defensive intensity. But in his 12 seasons as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, he displayed some of the most impressive guard skills we’ve ever seen from an NBA big man.
At 6’11”, Garnett racked up 10 consecutive seasons with four assists per game, all while also leading his team in rebounding and scoring. He ran the floor like a gazelle, could lead the break and actually played point guard for long stretches.
What’s most interesting about Garnett’s guard skills is that he also scored like a little man. Just about the only thing he never developed was a reliable post-up repertoire, so KG has depended throughout his career on a steady midrange jumper.
Garnett still occasionally flashes the amazing guard skills that used to be a much larger part of his game, but he’s not close to the player he once was. He’s definitely worth an honorable mention for his lifetime achievements, though.
6. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets
New Orleans Hornets rookie Anthony Davis sneaks onto the list despite a very small NBA sampling of his guard skills. After a dominant year at Kentucky and a handful of NBA games, Davis is better known as a terrific rebounder and shot-blocker. But there are a couple of justifications for his presence here.
First of all, Davis actually was a guard as recently as 2009, before a monstrous growth spurt during high school added seven inches to his frame. Overnight, Davis went from being a 6’3” slasher to a 6’10” presence in the post.
Secondly, we have seen from his brief NBA tenure that Davis actually has a reliable outside shot. The Hornets’ power forward has made 75 percent of his short jumpers (3-9 feet) and 43 percent of his long ones (16-23 feet), according to Hoopdata. So we know the sweet-shooting guard is still in there somewhere.
Davis certainly won’t be used outside the lane very often in his pro career, but his terrific hands, coordination and touch all hint at the guard skills that are still inside him.
5. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors
Calling Andrea Bargnani a power forward is kind of a joke. Despite his huge frame, Bargnani lacks any discernible skills you’d normally associate with a frontcourt player. He doesn’t rebound, rarely seeks out contact and has a reputation (Insider required) as a soft post defender.
It’s a good thing for the Toronto Raptors that he’s got an excellent array of guard skills.
Bargnani has taken more shots from beyond the arc than he has from the free-throw line in his career, which isn’t always a good thing. But because he’s managed to hit more than 36 percent of his three-point tries, he can get away with it.
The Italian big man’s best little-guy ability is probably his funky face-up game. Bargnani loves to isolate his man, using an unconventional wrong-footed jab step to dribble by his defender. It’s not something you normally see a player of his size pull off, but Bargnani has averaged 15.5 points per game in his career by utilizing his quickness on the perimeter.
Because of his guard-like face-up game and his penchant for perimeter shooting, Bargnani checks in at No. 5 on our list.
4. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
With the way he’s been playing lately, Pau Gasol almost fell into the Honorable Mention section of our rankings. However, because the Los Angeles Lakers forward has spent his career dazzling observers with incredible passing skills, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
At over seven feet tall, Gasol possesses the court vision and creativity of a much smaller player. His career average of 3.3 assists per game doesn’t come close to doing justice to his talents as a distributor, as anyone who’s watched Gasol rack up the highlight-worthy assists can attest.
The Spaniard’s guard skills aren’t limited to passing, though. He’s also proved he can lead a fast break in a pinch, and his perimeter range now extends behind the three-point arc.
Recently, Gasol has looked a little lost in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, but he’s simply too skilled to stay adrift forever. His little-man skills earn him a spot on this list, and sooner or later, they’ll earn him a clearer role on the Lakers.
3. Boris Diaw, San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw is somewhat notorious for prolonged lapses in his physical conditioning. That might make him seem a little selfish, but anyone who can appreciate his unique package of guard skills knows that on the court, he’s anything but.
Diaw played a whole lot of center during the “Seven Seconds or Less” era in Phoenix, and his passing touch was a key aspect of the Suns' offensive dominance. In 2005-06, the French import averaged 6.2 assists per game. Although he’s never since matched that gaudy total, Diaw’s career average still sits at 3.9 per game, a very impressive figure for a frontcourt player.
If anything, Diaw’s guard skills and ability to find open teammates has made him too unselfish. Often, he’ll forgo open looks of his own in favor of making an extra pass. A career 49-percent shooter should probably hoist a few more shots.
Nonetheless, Diaw’s terrific passing and total unselfishness earn him a spot in our rankings.
2. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
If Andrea Bargnani made the list, you had to know Dirk Nowitzki would be here, too.
The Dallas Mavericks’ former MVP and future Hall of Famer has turned an array of guard skills into one of the NBA’s most remarkable careers. The German import is probably the greatest shooting big man in league history, and his brilliant perimeter footwork simply shouldn’t belong to a man of his size.
Consider the following: Nowitzki ranks No. 13 in NBA history in free-throw percentage, and is in the top 50 in points per game (No. 24), three-point field goals made (No. 31) and three-point field goals attempted (No. 38). Those aren’t all-time ratings you’d normally associate with a seven-foot forward.
Nowitzki may not be known as the greatest passer in the world, but he has averaged 2.6 assists per game for his career. Considering that most of the Mavericks’ plays are designed to end with Dirk taking a shot, that figure is nothing to sneeze at.
When Nowitzki finally hangs it up, he’ll be remembered as a truly unique talent, thanks in large part to his unprecedented dominance as an outside shooter. For now, he’ll have to settle for a No. 2 ranking.
1. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Marc Gasol’s unparalleled passing skills and elite basketball IQ allow him to play a role no other NBA center has the ability to match. Watch the Memphis Grizzlies play, and you’ll notice that the entire offense runs through him.
He, not Mike Conley, is actually Memphis’ point guard.
Pau’s younger brother is the Grizzlies’ maestro, orchestrating an effective offensive attack from the high post by setting screens, hitting jumpers and, above all, finding cutters like mad.
Essentially, Gasol has every skill a guard needs. He just happens to be 7’1” and 265 pounds. He’s averaging 4.4 assists per game this season for a Grizzlies team that looks like a legitimate title contender.
No player in the league can match Gasol's blend of big-man size and little-man talent. Because of that, he easily takes the top spot in our rankings of NBA big men with the best guard skills.