Overcoming Being “Undersized” for NBA Post Players
The NBA is made up of players of all shapes, sizes and skill sets that set them apart on their respective teams and within the league. At the forward/center position, there have been some absolute mismatches in size throughout NBA history, perhaps none greater than 7’5” skilled center Yao Ming. Conversely, a 6’4” or 6’5” post player like Charles Barkley can still find a way to become MVP.
Everyone knows about the prototypical post players who excel in the league like Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. What about the outliers on who aren’t as vertically gifted? How is it that they are able to match up and/or thrive in the league dominated by a “type” of all-around big man?
From our observations, the typical NBA power forward’s ideal height is 6’9” +/- 1” (give or take an inch) and is around 235 lbs. +/- 15 lb.s. The typical NBA center stands about 6’11” +/- 2” and 250 lb. +/- 15 lbs. Meaning if a power forward stands just under 6’8” or a center is under 6’10”, they are technically “undersized” relative to NBA competition at their position.
However, being undersized is not an overwhelming hindrance or dooming factor on a player’s career. Conversely and true to Darwin’s natural selection of “only the strong survive,” it allows players to utilize their gifts and adapt to play the game in a different way that puts pressure and forces those “prototypical size post players” to adjust their styles. Here’s a closer look at the stronger contributing factors for undersized big men to perform well in the NBA.
Strength, Grit & Physical Play
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While you may not be the biggest player on the court, if you are willing to play physical and hold your ground in the post, you can have success. Some undersized bigs possess brute strength and raw power they can yield to battle for boards and D up with. With that strength and willingness to use their physicality to show some added grit, battling for the boards and bodying up on D becomes manageable.
A perfect example of an undersized post player demonstrating that extra ounce of grit necessary to succeed is Chuck Hayes. While only 6’6”, the Rockets are willing to play him at power forward and center without hesitation because of his raw strength, fortitude and toughness. Hayes is one of the most physical post players in the league and has to be at his size to succeed, pulling down a career best 8.1 rebounds per game this past season.
Another perfect example of raw strength to succeed in the post is Ben Wallace, who is listed at 6’9” (although he is admittedly more in the 6’6”-6’7” range) but overcomes his lack of height with physical strength. The Charlotte Bobcats' 2011 draft pick Bismack Biyombo has a chance to be a similar type player as an undersized center prospect at 6’9” with his uncanny grit.
Big Body & Positioning
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Being smaller comes with its advantages in the paint, including a lower center of gravity and being able to use your body as base leverage to jockey for position. Being able to establish yourself as an immovable object around the basket gives you the edge in rebounding the ball and defensively, because it prevents your man from getting prime position.
Glen “Big Baby” Davis does an excellent job of wedging himself deep in the paint and hanging in there with his big body. He does a great job of using that body as an asset to box out the opposition on the boards and keep his man from backing him down at svelte 290 lb.s.
Another prime example of a big body becoming an asset is 6'7" DeJuan Blair for the Spurs. While lacking in height, he certainly doesn’t lack in the width department and yields his body as a source of unparalleled power on the floor.
Another big body to look out for in the coming years that can make a similar impact is Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger.
Post Moves & Craftiness
If you can’t go over or through them, you can always go around them. Utilizing a quick drop step, spin move, up and under play, or pump fake demonstrates some post savvy that can make it tough for the opposition to hang with you. If you have patience and skill handling the ball, then out-maneuvering the defense shouldn’t be a problem for talented yet undersized post scorers.
Paul Millsap is a forward capable of playing on the perimeter and in the post but displays an array of moves in his game to score in the post. While only 6’8”, Millsap is a shifty and savvy player that has great quickness and patience playing around the paint.
Shawn Marion has also found a unique way to excel with his play, becoming a master of the running jump hook floater. While built like more of a perimeter forward at 6’7”, 230 lb., Marion has always been a unique post scorer in the paint with some crafty back to the basket play.
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If you want it more than the other guy and are routinely willing to sacrifice your body to make the play, then you have an edge in your ability to pursue rebounds relentlessly and stay focused on shutting down your man defensively. In doing so, players develop a reputation as having a strong motor with their unyielding ability to never give up on a play and constantly play with a high level of energy on the floor. These are the playmakers whose persistent play and ability come up with the ball while the other players are resting and complacency going through the motions.
Gerald Wallace (aka “Crash”) is a natural small forward who routinely plays out of position in the post because of his unrelenting desire and drive on the court. Wallace does the “dirty work” at a high level for an undersized player and always remains focused throughout the entire game.
Kris Humphries may not seem undersized, and he’s really not at 6’9” until you put him at the center position, but what makes him a strong post player in the NBA is his relentless pursuit on the boards. Humphries had a career year for the Nets, averaging an impressive 10.4 rebounds per game playing alongside star center Brook Lopez because of his great motor.
Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets is an incoming rookie who made a name for himself at Morehead State because of his strong motor and playmaking ability as a defensive star.
Instincts & Anticipation
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The players who have a knack for being the right place at the right time are extremely valuable. They read the bounce of the ball when crashing the boards, giving them the correct angle to break on to beat the opposition to the board. In addition, having shot-blocking instincts and timing to anticipate the field goal attempts of the opposition can be a weapon defensively for undersized players. Being able to read the play before it happens can put you one to two moves ahead of the opposition.
Few players in NBA history have been as instinctive defensively as Ben Wallace, who posts a career average of 10 rebounds and blocks per game throughout his 15-year NBA career. Wallace has been a lockdown post player during his NBA career because of his intelligence and defensive awareness.
Another Wallace previously mentioned that excels on his ability to read the play is Gerald Wallace. Wallace has a better basketball IQ than he gets credit for, and it’s a big reason for his high level of playmaking. It’s no coincidence that Crash is always in a great spot to make the play because he anticipates and reacts before the competition.
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Players make a living in the league by being able to get out on the break, finish in transition and sky above the competition. Having added bounce in your jump can counteract that vertical limitation by springing you above your man to make the play. Whether its finishing at the rim with a thunderous dunk, rising above a crowd to snatch a rebound, or leaping to reject a shot, explosive athleticism can be an equalizer for the undersized.
Although standing at just 6’7”, the Detroit Piston’s Jason Maxiell is an incredibly explosive leaper capable of unleashing a nasty dunk at the rim with his vertical. Explosiveness isn’t the only reason Maxiell has found success as an NBA role player, but it’s a big reason that teams in the NBA overlook his size and respect his play.
Up-and-coming forward Thaddeus Young is another impressive athlete who is a terror in transition and has explosiveness to play in the paint. While he’s a prototypical “tweener” forward, Young has overcome being undersized and become a fixture for the 76ers at the power forward position.
Face Up Jumper
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When thinking of big men who shoot the ball at a high level, the Euro-big (Dirk Nowitzki, Danilo Gallinari, Andrea Bargnani) usually comes to mind as post players that stretch the floor with their ability to stretch the defense beyond the arc. Some players never quite develop a back to basket game and lack a move set but can make up for it with their ability to hit shots from the perimeter. You can’t give these guys an inch of space; you have to respect their range or else they can make you pay with a deep look and a quick jumper.
Boris Diaw has fairly pedestrian big man size at 6’8”, but his versatility and range command respect from every spot in the half court. In his first season with the Bobcats in 2008-09, he burned defenses shooting 41.9 percent from three.
Glen Davis is another shooter you have to respect from the perimeter because of his ability to face up in the post. While not the huge threat from the beyond the arc that some of his teammates are, Davis can’t be left open because he has the range and accuracy to hit the open jumper. Being undersized can be combated from the paint by drawing out the D to the perimeter, where height certainly becomes less relevant.
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We recently took an in-depth look at wingspan and what makes it “freakish,” finding that an 8.4 percent wingspan greater than height differential qualifies as “freakish.” Even for those players who are just below that mark in the 7 percent or greater mark still have astonishing natural wingspans that can be used to scrap in the paint. On offense, that added length can help players get their shots off above the defense or extend to finish at the rim. On defense, that length helps make it difficult for the opposition to shoot over and can be used to get a finger on the shots of the opposition.
When looking at the most freakish wingspans in the NBA, Jason Maxiell towers among the league with a 10.32 percent greater than height differential. At 6’7” with a 7’3” wingspan, its easy to see how that length is used.
Also possessing incredible length is DeJuan Blair, who qualifies freakishly as well at 6’7” with an intimidating 8.72 percent greater than height differential with a 7’2” wingspan. Among big men who may not be of ideal height, that added length helps make up for the discrepancy and can actually give them a greater standing reach than players taller than them.