When thinking of the all-time best passing centers in basketball history, the names of former Portland Trail Blazers Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis often come to mind, even for non-Blazers fans. The passing prowess of Walton helped lead the Blazers to their only championship and Sabonis’ play overseas, before he even arrived in Portland, is the stuff of legend.
Unsurprisingly, both players were spotlighted by BSN Denver’s Christian Clark as he examined the best distributing big men in basketball history.
Regarding Walton, Clark writes (with an assist from Jack Ramsay and Jack McCallum):
Walton recorded 31 assists in the 1977 Finals — the most of any player in the series. “He was the essence of team play,” Trail Blazers coach Dr. Jack Ramsay said.
Like Russell and Unseld, Walton loved keying counterattacks. Those three are the best outlet passers in the history of the game in some order. What made Walton unique in the half court was his ability to face up and dissect a defense.
”He was the first pure center I remember that could face up,” McCallum said. “He had a kind of backcourt mentality. That’s how he sort of looked at the game. He saw it as this beautiful, poetic thing. I would have to contrast it with someone like Wilt in the early days. It was a power game. ‘Let’s go down there. I’m your guy who’s going to bang. I’m the guy who’s going to be the enforcer.’ Part of Walton’s success was the way he looked at it. ‘I’m going to be more than a guy who just bangs down there.’”
As for Sabonis, Clark notes (with Denver Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas chiming in):
“What people forget is that he was 7-foot-4,” Karnisovas said. “It’s amazing size. He looked so proportional and fast and athletic and so long. I’ve never seen a player like that.”
When Karnisovas got a job in the NBA league office in 2006, he took advantage of the library of old games and watched Sabonis during his prime years.
”I swear I was sitting there almost crying in tears just watching how good he was around 1985 and 1986 before his injuries,” Karnisovas said.
By the time Sabonis made it to the NBA in 1995, nine years after Portland picked him 24th overall, a repaired Achilles and persistent foot issues sapped him of his mobility. He was effective but not dominant. Those flashes to the high post took him forever, but he could still do something spectacular once the ball was in his hands.
Clark’s piece narrows the list down to eleven names, ranging from the likes of Sam Lacey to Wilt Chamberlain, and including current players Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic. It’s a solid in-depth look at an underrated aspect of the game, especially for post players.
You can check out the full article, complete with video highlights, here.