The old theory is that no matter how old you are, if you are considerably taller than the other athletes your age, you’ll probably do well at basketball. If you see a middle school student taller than six feet, it’s considered a crying shame if that person isn’t playing on the school basketball team. This theory still holds true to some degree, but there’s an important factor to size in the game of basketball: while it’s good to be tall, it’s much better to be tall with skills.
The era is gone of “big men” who simply sit in the paint doing nothing more but shifting weight around to bully their way to easy rebounds and buckets. Take Shaquille O’Neal for example. He was a massive center who could camp in the paint and bully his way to 25 points a game and 15 rebounds a game. Now with the shift in speed, quickness, and athleticism, simply relying on your size and strength is no longer good enough to be a great basketball player.
A 2015 article written by Zach Lowe details some specific big men in the NBA now who have skill sets that take their game beyond physical girth and giant wingspans. These centers such as Rudy Gobert and Jusuf Nurkic are agile defenders and good at playing the pick-and-roll, essential components to playing the game at a high level.
When it comes to a player with size and skill in the NBA, no one combines the two as well as Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk is all of seven feet tall, but don’t mistake him for a bulky paperweight that sits in the paint hoping to snatch a cheap rebound. Nowitzki has incredible range and can make everything from post-up shots to mid-range jumpers to clutch three pointers. Not only that, Nowitzki is also a talented passer, making him even more deadly as an inside threat who can find cutters to pass to or kicking out to perimeter players who can knock down a three. Nowitzki embraced the game many Europeans like himself play, where you need to be versatile and skilled at every position on the floor.
It’s important for any player developing their skills that they learn all positions. A tall 4th grader may be good as a center at his age, but what happens three years later when everyone else has caught up to him in height? His game has to develop in other areas.
What does all this mean for you? The good news is your size should not limit you. Sure, a 5 foot point guard may have difficulty driving in the lane if there is a 7 foot center there, but skill is what really separates players from each other. Stretch yourself to learn to be a better passer and more adept at shooting long range jumpers. Focus on improving footwork and ball handling. All of these elements are crucial to a well-rounded player. Maybe you’re a smaller player typically hanging around the perimeter. Focus on your speed and ball handling. Work on becoming elusive as you drive into the paint so you can get shots off and avoid them being blocked. There are several good NBA players that have had success despite being shorter than six feet tall: Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, and Isaiah Thomas, just to name a few.
The beauty of basketball is that it isn’t just a game for tall people. Work hard and let your skill set separate you from other players.