The Center position is arguably the most historic. The position has changed over time and left a lot of legends in its wake, so let’s count down the top 15 Centers of all time!
15. Nate Thurmond
Basketball Hall of Famer, 7x NBA All-Star, 2x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 3x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1964 NBA All-Rookie First Team
Built like an ox, Nate Thurmond was an absolute beast in the low block. Despite being much younger than most of the league when he was drafted, he averaged 10.4 rebounds per game against much bigger opposition.
He started his career playing as a backup behind Wilt Chamberlain, but once Wilt was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, he realized his full potential. He became the All-Star starting center that Wilt said he could be. His accomplishments for his career include gathering the most rebounds (18) in a single quarter of a game.
Unfortunately, he could never get the San Francisco Warriors past the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Division playoffs. But he established a name for himself as one of the best passing centers and screen setters in the league for many years.
He averaged 20.5 points and 22 rebounds per game in the 1967-68 season – a feat that was only ever replicated by Wilt Chamberlain. Judging by the way the game is played nowadays, that prestigious group will only feature Nate Thurmond and Wilt.
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14. Walt Bellamy
Basketball Hall of Famer, 4x NBA All-Star, 1962 NBA Rookie of the Year
Some rookies enter the league and take the NBA by storm. Despite the obvious jump in talent and competition, there are some rookies who can seemingly meet the challenge head on and take little to no time in getting used to the league.
Walt Bellamy was one of those rookies. Drafted as the NBA first overall draft pick in 1961, Bellamy was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 1962 after having one of the greatest rookie seasons in NBA history. He averaged 31.6 points and 19 rebounds per game in his first year.
Unfortunately for Bellamy, he was unluckily playing in the same era as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. He would continue to rack up great individual statistics, but he would never have a team good enough to challenge the two titans – the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
That said, Bellamy accomplished a rare feat that will might never be replicated again. IN the 1968-1969 season, he was traded from the New York Knicks to the Detroit Pistons. Due to a weird scheduling quirk, he played 88 games that season – 35 for the Knicks, 53 with the Pistons.
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13. Dave Cowens
Basketball Hall of Famer, 2x NBA Champion, 1x NBA MVP, 7x NBA All-Star, 3x All-NBA Second Team, 1x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 2x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1971 NBA Rookie of the Year, 1971 NBA All-Rookie First Team
The Boston Celtics have had a knack for acquiring all-time great centers: Robert Parish and Bill Russell are two of the more illustrious names on that list. Some might argue that Dave Cowens deserves some mention as one of the top two all-time Celtics’ centers.
Cowens was adored by fans from the very start. He embodied the very nature of the city of Boston, playing with a sense of recklessness and tenacity on the court. The fans appreciated his style of play and his all-out intensity credo quickly established him as a fan favourite.
Before he was drafted, there were concerns that Cowens would be too small to play center. The Celtics decided to ignore those concerns on the recommendation of none other than Bill Russell himself. It turns out Russell was right, and the Celtics were vindicated on their faith in Cowens.
He would lead the Celtics to two titles in 1974 and 1976. He was also part of an elite four man group to lead a team in all five major statistical categories for a season (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals). LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Scottie Pippen round out the rest of the group.
His off-court behaviour included sleeping on a park bench after celebrating the 1974 championship, and working as a cab driver for a night “to clear his head” after suffering from burnout. Despite his weird behaviour, he remains as one of the all-time Celtics greats.
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12. Wes Unseld
Basketball Hall of Famer, 1x NBA Champion, 1x NBA Finals MVP, 1x NBA MVP, 5x NBA All-Star, 1x All-NBA First Team, 1969 NBA Rookie of the Year, 1969 NBA All-Rookie First Team
The outlet pass – a dangerous weapon when used properly, the pass can spark a devastating fast break that can lead to a score before the opponents have enough time to realize what happened. A flick of the wrist and the ball goes sailing to the other end of the hoop, waiting for a teammate to finish it off.
Coming out of college, Unseld was a star the moment he was drafted into the NBA. He shares the honour of winning the MVP as a rookie alongside fellow great Wilt Chamberlain. He was a bully in the low block, using his incredible strength to push bigger players out of the way despite the size disadvantage.
He had a knack for rebounding, averaging 14 rebounds per game over the course of his career. Currently, he is one of only 15 players in NBA history to average a double-double while playing at least 975 games.
He led the Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards) to their only title in franchise history in 1978 – that alone should speak volumes of his ability and inclusion as an all-time great.
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11. Patrick Ewing
Basketball Hall of Famer, 11x NBA All-Star, 1x All-NBA First Team, 6x All-NBA Second Team, 3x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1986 NBA Rookie of the Year, 1986 NBA All-Rookie First Team
It’s almost a shame that a player’s reputation as winner or all-time great is usually decided on the number of championships he’s won. And it is because of that that never winning a ring will always haunt Patrick Ewing.
His career has come to be defined as much by his epic misses as his consistent, often dominant play for the New York Knicks. He was the number one option for his team, and never benefited from playing with the greats like some of his rivals did. The best teammate he ever had was Mark Jackson for five seasons from 1988 to 1992, and that was a big reason for the lack of rings.
Taken number one overall, Ewing is one of the few first selected draft picks to have lived up to the hype. He is still the all-time leader in points scored and games played for the New York Knicks – a record that doesn’t look to be beaten any time soon. He was the focal point for the winningest version of the Knicks, making the playoffs in all but his rookie and sophomore seasons.
Had he managed to win a title, we might be looking at Ewing being higher up on this list.
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10. Elvin Hayes
Basketball Hall of Famer, 1x NBA Champion, 12x NBA All-Star, 3x All-NBA First Team, 3x All-NBA Second Team, 2x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1969 NBA All-Rookie First Team
Integrating a rookie into an NBA team can be a painful, sluggish process. Sometimes, it might not even pan out. The pace and physicality of the NBA is too much for some guys, forcing them to take over half a season just to get used to playing basketball at such a frenetic pace and talent level.
That, however, was not the case with Elvin Hayes.
Hayes was the last rookie to ever win the NBA scoring title. He was drafted by the San Diego Rockets and immediately went about his business, scoring 28.4 points and 17.1 rebounds per game. to say he impressed the league as soon as he entered it is putting it lightly.
And he didn’t just stop after his first season. He followed it up in his second season by leading the NBA in rebounding, becoming the first player other than Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain to lead the category since 1957.
He was later traded to the Baltimore Bullets in 1972 to form a fierce and dominating frontcourt alongside Wes Unseld. They took the Washington Bullets to 3 NBA Finals and an NBA title over the Seattle Supersonics.
The Big E and Unseld are one of the very few members of a professional Washington basketball team to ever win a championship.
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9. Willis Reed
Basketball Hall of Famer, 2x NBA Champion, 2x NBA Finals MVP, 1x NBA MVP, 7x NBA All-Star, 1x All-NBA First Team, 4x All-NBA Second Team, 1x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 1965 NBA Rookie of the Year, 1965 NBA All-Rookie First Team
The Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals was a perfect reflection of Willis Reed’s career as a whole: moments of brilliance and promise cut short by injury. He played five minutes before sitting out the rest of the game due to injury as Walt Frazier guided the New York Knicks to the title.
At 6’9”, the left-handed Willis Reed had an excellent post game and a deadly shot from 15 feet. He was a monster on the boards and an excellent defender, making him a real threat. He was the perfect example of a clutch player, raising his season averages in the playoffs and dominating his competition.
Unfortunately, his health problems cut short his great career. He was outstanding in his first seven years in the NBA, averaging 20.1 points and 13.8 rebounds per game and making the All-Star team every season. Things began to go wrong in year eight, and he soon retired two seasons after at the age of 31.
His early retirement left Knicks fans playing the ‘What If’ game: What if Willis Reed was able to stay healthy?
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Basketball Hall of Famer, 2x NBA Champion, 1x NBA MVP, 10x NBA All-Star, 4x All-NBA First Team, 2x All-NBA Second Team, 4x All-NBA Third Team, 1x NBA Defensive Player of the Year, 4x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 4x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1990 NBA Rookie of the Year, 1990 NBA All-Rookie First Team
For all the qualities we praise Duncan for: his basketball IQ, his professionalism, great sportsmanship, Robinson also had them in spades. Perhaps it has something to do with the San Antonio Spurs as an organization, or Duncan learning from his mentor in Robinson, or perhaps just a coincidence.
Considered as a choke artist for most of his career, many of his detractors will be quick to point out that Robinson only won his two rings after Duncan joined the team. While that may be true, a quick look at some of the Admiral’s supporting cast doesn’t exactly scream championship-worthy.
Known as one of the best defensive players ever, he was also one of the most prolific shot blockers the NBA had ever seen. Add a nice, well-rounded game with an outside shot for a player his size and you have one of the greatest centers of his generation.
His 1994 campaign was arguably his greatest, marked by two all-time great achievements. First, he recorded a quadruple –double against the Detroit Pistons on February 17 with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 blocks and two steals.
He followed that magnificent feat with what was then the second highest single-scoring game since the NBA-ABA merger with 71 points against the Los Angeles Clippers. Doing so allowed him to snatch the scoring title over Shaquille O’Neal.
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7. George Mikan
Basketball Hall of Famer, 5x BAA/NBA Champion, 4x NBA All-Star, 6x All-BAA/NBA First Team
The average NBA fan might know of the Mikan drill – a fundamental drill for big men taught at all ages. What the average NBA fan might not know, is the man the drill is named after: George Mikan.
Standing at 6’10”, Mikan was a giant for his time. What really set Mikan apart from his opponents however, was his low-post game that baffled opponents. He could score with either hand, floating hooks from any part of the paint.
He was on the All-NBA First Team all six years, and took the then Minneapolis Lakers to five championships. There is no doubt that Mikan would’ve won MVPs and Finals MVPs had those awards been given out in the early days.
To even out the playing field, the NBA even changed the rules after deciding that Mikan was too good for his competition. They widened the lanes from six feet wide to 12 feet, and introduced the shot clock. He also affected college play, with the NCAA outlawing defensive goaltending.
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6. Moses Malone
Basketball Hall of Famer, 1x NBA Champion, 1x NBA Finals MVP, 3x NBA MVP, 12x NBA All-Star, 2x ABA All-Star, 4x All-NBA First Team, 4x All-NBA Second Team, 1x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 1x NBA All-Defensive Second Team
He played two successful seasons in the ABA before continuing his dominant run in the NBA following the merger in 1976. He established himself as one of the most feared rebounders in league history with his six rebounding titles. He leads the NBA in offensive rebounds with 6731, two thousand more than the second placed Robert Parish.
His other accomplishments include leading the league in rebounding five seasons in a row – a feat he shares with Dennis Rodman.
However, Malone was much more than just a rebounder. He used his incredible strength and quickness to compensate for his smaller size. He also put up at least 20 points per game for 11 of his 19 NBA seasons, silencing those referring to him as a one-trick pony.
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Basketball Hall of Famer, 2x NBA Champion, 2x NBA Finals MVP, 1x NBA MVP, 12x NBA All-Star, 6x All-NBA First Team, 3x All-NBA Second Team, 3x All-NBA Third Team, 2x NBA Defensive Player of the Year, 5x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 4x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1985 NBA All-Rookie Team
Where many other centers established their dominance through their physical superiority and brute strength, Hakeem Olajuwon did it with grace and nimble feet. His patented “Dream Shake” was almost impossible to stop. So much so that several current NBA superstars have come to him during the offseason to request lessons from him to teach them his skills in the post.
His quick feet and deft touch was due to his soccer skills he develop whilst playing as a goalkeeper in his native Nigeria. His agility even out-performed some of the guards in the league, and was widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the league.
Olajuwon was the No. 1 pick of the 1984 draft and didn’t disappoint the Houston Rockets franchise where he till this day, is still the most outstanding player to play for the franchise. He led the Rockets to two titles while Michael Jordan was out of the league or wasn’t at full force.
Plus, he did it the first year as the only superstar to win a title with only role players and no real No. 2 option in the modern NBA (post 1970s till now). He also has the distinction of being the only player in league history to win the NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP awards all in the same season.
When discussing a center’s offensive skill in the post, Hakeem Olajuwon is still the highest standard to which many strive to reach.
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4x NBA Champion, 3x NBA Finals MVP, 1x NBA MVP, 15x NBA All-Star, 8x All-NBA First Team, 2x All-NBA Second Team, 4x All-NBA Third Team, 3x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1993 NBA Rookie of the Year, 1993 NBA All-Rookie First Team
Frequently referred to as the most physically dominant center (by others and himself), Shaquille O’Neal was a physical specimen. A four-time NBA champion, he relied on his physical gifts rather than skill to dominate his opponents.
His size, strength, athleticism, and agility made him a monster, the great legend that he is.
Drafted by the Orlando Magic in 1992, he took the league by storm with his monstrous dunks. No one could match his size and strength, and those that could, weren’t fast enough to stop him. Simply put, no one in the league could stand in his way to success.
The one thing that could though was his free-throw woes. Opposing teams used the “Hack-a-Shaq” technique to stop him from single-handedly winning all his games. Despite his incredible talent, he was often referred to as easy-going, preferring to enjoy his time in the NBA, rather than continuing to hone his basketball skills.
Still, he won three championships as the best player on the team (Los Angeles Lakers) and another as the second-best player (Miami Heat).
He faded towards the end of his career, bouncing around the league with multiple teams before the injuries and Father Time caught up with him. Regardless, his sheer physical dominance was the last of a dying breed of centers in the modern day NBA.
It’s unlikely that we ever see someone exert such a decade-long show of dominance in today’s league.
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3. Wilt Chamberlain
Basketball Hall of Famer, 2x NBA Champion, 1x NBA Finals MVP, 4x NBA MVP, 13x NBA All-Star, 7x All-NBA First Team, 3x All-NBA Second Team, 2x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 1960 NBA Rookie of the Year
Before Shaquille O’Neal, there was Wilt Chamberlain.
Wilt was the Shaq of the 1960s, but much better. His was so much bigger, stronger, and more powerful than everyone else that it didn’t matter that he couldn’t shoot. And for a big man that couldn’t shoot, he is widely regarded as one of the best scorers of all time.
Even his rivals were in awe of his pedigree. Oscar Robertson was asked “Is Wilt the best of all time?”. His response, “The books don’t lie.”
They most certainly don’t, considering Wilt holds 60 of the 72 NBA records. He scored 100 points in a single game, 55 rebounds in a single game, reached four thousand points in a season, averaged 50.4 points per game through an entire season and grabbed 27 boards too.
He was the best offensive force in the history of basketball, and those records will very likely stand the test of time. He won seven scoring titles, 11 rebound titles, and led the league eight times in field goal percentage.
But the biggest blemish on Wilt was that despite his undeniable talent on offense, he “only” won two titles, the second of which came when he was no longer “the man” on his team. Much of his lack of success in the playoffs had to do with a guy by the name of “Bill Russell”, but at least Wilt has the individual statistical edge over Russell.
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2. Bill Russell
Basketball Hall of Famer, 11x NBA Champion, 5x NBA MVP, 12x NBA All-Star, 3x All-NBA First Team, 8x All-NBA Second Team, 1x NBA All-Defensive First Team
Some records are just never meant to be broken.
Bill Russell’s 11 championships as a player looks likely to be one of those records. Granted, the game has changed significantly before then, but his legacy as the most successful NBA player will be etched in NBA folklore forever.
If you were curious as to what his accomplishments were, let’s hear it from the man himself.
“I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college, I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between.”
Russell’s individual statistics won’t blow you away – he never scored above 19 points per game in any season. But, he was terrific at rebounding, shot blocking, defending, and he could pass and shoot on the offensive end. He possessed an incredible basketball IQ and was the most dominant clutch performer.
His battles with Wilt Chamberlain were the stuff of legends. He was the only one who could stop Wilt, beating him three times in the Finals and neutering his usually sky-high numbers.
Honestly, it’s difficult to determine where Russell ranks. His legacy as a consummate winner isn’t in doubt, but the fact that the NBA has changed so greatly makes it so much harder to rank where he stands in the pantheon of all-time NBA greats. Some will argue that he deserves to be first, while others claim the evolution of the game dates his accomplishments.
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Basketball Hall of Famer, 6x NBA Champion, 2x NBA Finals MVP, 6x NBA MVP, 19x NBA All-Star, 10x All-NBA First Team, 5x All-NBA Second Team, 5x NBA All-Defensive First Team, 6x NBA All-Defensive Second Team, 1970 NBA Rookie of the Year, 1970 NBA All-Rookie Team
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the biggest legends ever. Until this day, no one has scored more points, blocked more shots, won more MVP awards, played longer, or was on more All-Star teams. His has built himself a legend as a superb scorer, rebounder, shot block and defender. And it wouldn’t be farfetched to call him a leader, champion, and winner.
He made 18 All-Star games in 19 seasons, his lone exclusion coming in the year when he broke his hand. That speaks volumes of his consistency, as he was never as dominant in his peak years as other great centers like Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal.
Standing tall as the all-time leader in points with 38,387, his scoring record will hard to top. The closest active challenger is Kobe Bryant with 31,929, and he doesn’t look like he is going to top that mark any time soon.
All of his success came from his trademark shot: the sky-hook. Frequently referred to as one of the most unstoppable shots in NBA history, it was basically a cheat code for the NBA. His longevity added to his legacy as an all-time great, as he played 32-35 minutes in his late 30s and was in the league for two full decades.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar isn’t just one of the greatest centers of all time; he is one of the greatest basketball players ever, period.
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