The true definition of the center position has evolved tremendously over the course of the years. Initially, centers were just known for playing with their backs to the basket and their job would be to snatch rebounds, score close to the basket and defend the paint. Today, the center position has become more dynamic and you find centers who can handle the ball, take players off the dribble, pass, and shoot from three-point land.
The modern NBA has certainly changed the way this position is viewed. Over the years there have been some centers who played with great distinction and have left an unforgettable mark on the game. These are the top centers of all time:
Honorable Mention: George Mikan, Nate Thurmond, Robert Parish
10. Wes Unseld
Wes as he was known, was a very good basketball playing coming out of high school. He starred on the Seneca High Team that went on to win back to back state championships in Kentucky. Wes played his college ball as a member of the Cardinals for the University of Louisville and made an immediate impacting offensively on the boards. His career at Louisville lasted from 1965- 1968. After leaving Louisville he was drafted second overall in the 1968 draft by the Baltimore Bullets. His success on the court quickly continued and he snatched the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 1969. He became a five-time NBA All-Star in 1969, 1971-1973, 1975. He led the NBA in rebounding in 1975, which seems unimaginable since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, Moses Malone were all active at that time.
Another thing which makes this accomplishment so noteworthy is the fact that Wes Unseld was just 6″7 which is undersized for the center position. This is evidence of the type of player he was, known for being extremely strong and willed. This will propel his Bullets to win the 1978 NBA Championship against the Seattle SuperSonics. Wes received NBA Finals MVP honors for his performance for the Bullets. This was the only NBA Championship he has ever one in his career. Wes was the NBA league MVP in 1969, All-NBA First Team in 1968, J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award in 1975.
He scored a total of 10,624 point whilst average 10.8 ppg and pulled down 13,769 rebounds, whilst averaging 14 rpg, 3,822 total assist, whilst averaging 3.9 apg. Wes will be remembered for his outlet passing which he used to start the fast break. He has the honor of being enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988 and 1996. And is amongst the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time.
9. Artis Gilmore
Artis who was better known as the “A-Train” during his playing days began his college career at Gardner-Webb Junior College from 1967-1969 and Jacksonville University from 1969-1971. He was a dominant force as a rebounder for the Dolphins and still today has the highest rebounding per game by a NCAA player, with 22.7 rpg. Gilmore played in both the ABA and NBA, as we all know the ABA and NBA merged. Artis was an athletic, agile and highly skilled as a center and he was considered one of the strongest players in his day.
Artis was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1971 as the 7th pick and the 117th overall and also by the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. He was 7″2 and was not afraid to use his size to dunk over opposing players. Gilmore found success early in his playing career, winning the ABA Rookie of the Year in 1972. He was a five-time ABA All-Star from 1972-1976, ABA All-Star Game MVP in 1974, five-time All-ABA First Team from 1972-1976, ABA MVP in 1972, ABA Playoff MVP in 1975, ABA All-Rookie First Team in 1972. Gilmore was a truly special player and when he played in the NBA he was still a force to be reckoned with. He was a six-time NBA All-Star in 1978, 1989, 1981-1983, 1986. He was the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 1978. He was able to lead the NBA in field goal percentage for four seasons and during the 1980-81 season posted a field goal percentage of 67%.
Gilmore racked up 24,941 for his career, while averaging 18.8 ppg, and corralled 16,330 rebounds, and dished out 3,050 assists. Artis was not given the notoriety that he deserved during his career. Although he proved himself to be of one of the best centers in both the NBA and ABA. He only reserved a call up to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2011 which was so many years after he had finished played.
8. Willis Reed
Reed grew up in an era where segregation was rife in the South. Reed played his college ball at a historically all-black college, at Grambling State University. Reed was a dominant college player and scored over 2000 points in his playing career. He also averaged 26.6 PPG and 21.5 RPG in his final season with the Tigers. He led his team to one NAIA title and three SAC Championships. Willis Reed surprisingly was not a very high draft choice coming out of college, he was picked in the second round of the 1964 NBA draft the New York Knicks. Willis Reed’s draft position did not project in any way the success he would later come to have in the NBA.
He went on capture the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 1965, become a 7 time NBA All-Star from 1965-1971. He was the NBA All-Star MVP in 1970, All-First Team in 1970. He is one of a few number of players who has the luxury of playing his entire career with one franchise. Reed was a four-time All-NBA Second Team from 1967-1969, 1971. Reed was relatively an undersized player in an era which boasted the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. Despite this drawback, he was able to still average 18.7 ppg, 12 rpg, 1.8 apg. These numbers are very good for any center, even in the present day NBA. Willis Reed will be remembered most for leading the Knicks to their first ever NBA Championship in 1970.
This series featured the Knicks going up against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers which at the time who had the like of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on their roster. Willis Reed showed his true competitive nature and passion for the game when he briefly played in game seven and was able to inspire his team to victory. He led the Knicks to their last every NBA Championship three years later in 1973 and cemented his legacy as one of the greatest centers in NBA history.
7. David Robinson
The Admiral as he was known, played his college ball at Navy from 1983-1987. And went on to have a good college career, which him being named National College Player of the Year in 1987, three-time CAA Player of the Year from 1985-1987, USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year in 1986. Robinson had the most chiseled frames in the NBA to my recollection. This strongly built center was drafted with the first overall pick by the San Antonia Spurs, back in 1987. And quickly found success on the professional level, winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 1990. Robinson was a great leaper and great shot blocker.
He led the NBA in block shots in 1992, NBA Defensive Player of the Year in that same year, named to four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team in 1992, 1992, 1995, 1996. He was the NBA MVP in 1995, led the league in scoring 1994, 10 time NBA All-Star selections, from 1990-1996, 1998, 2000, 2001. Robinson was also a strong rebounder and he led the NBA in rebounding in 1991. Robinson professionalism and fair play on the court led him to win the NBA Sportsmanship Award in 2001. Robinson lays claim to third highest scoring output in a single by a center when he erupted for 71 points against the Los Angeles Clipper on April 24th, 1994. This performance was evidence of what a force he could be on the offensive side of the ball.
Robinson was part of the San Antonio Spurs “Twin Towers” along with Tim Duncan. He led the Spurs to the 1999 NBA Finals where they won over the New York Knicks. He played a pivotal role in the 2003 NBA finals which his team won against the New Jersey Nets in six games. Robinson ended his NBA career on a high note as an NBA Champion. His contributions as a center will not soon be forgotten.
6. Moses Malone
He was one of the first players to make the jump from high school to the pros. He began his professional career after being selected in the third round of the ABA draft in 1974 by the Utah Stars. Malone quickly rose to prominence in the ABA, being selected to the ABA All-Star game in 1975 a year after being drafted. He was a very skilled and athletic big man who could use the hook shot or could face up and hit the midrange jumper, he had a turnaround, could score well on layups and put back around the rim, he also could handle the ball quite well for his size. He was relentless on the glass and though he may have missed a shot or two, he would stay with the play and then score. Malone play led him to attain three NBA MVP awards, in 1979, 1982, 1983, he would make 12 NBA All-Star appearances from 1978-1989.
His excellent ability for crashing the boards, allowed him to lead the NBA in rebounding six times, 1979, 1981-1985. Malone rebounding ability certainly ranks amongst the best to ever do it at the center position, few if any centers have had so many rebounding titles. Malone helped his Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 NBA Championship, where they swept the “ Show Time Lakers”. Malone was subsequently named MVP of that series. This was his only NBA title during his playing career, but he had made a previous trip to the NBA Finals with the Houston Rockets in 1981. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team in 1983, was selected to 4 All-NBA First team in 1979, 1982, 1983, 1985.
He finished his career with 29,580 and with a scoring average of 20.6 ppg, and with rebounding total of 17,834 and averages of 12.2rpg. Malone certainly was a dominating force when he played and left a mark as a center.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem the dream is proud of Nigeria, where he started his career not as a basketball player initially but as a soccer goalie. Hakeem’s early days of soccer developed his footwork and other skill like agility which he incorporated into basketball. He is the center to have the best footwork ever. Hakeem played his college ball at the University of Houston from 1981-1984 was a very good player on this level. He led his Houston Cougars to a NCAA Final Four appearance in 1983, won SWC Player of the year. Hakeem was drafted first overall in 1984 by the Houston Rockets. He then went on to cement his name in the NBA as one of the best to play in the post.
As a center, Hakeem was very agile, athletic, had a high IQ and play well on both ends of the court. His ” Dream Shake” was his signature move, and it was pretty much unstoppable to guard. Hakeem frustrated opposing team centers as he had such quick feet, combined with a good shooting touch and so many fakes. Hakeem led his Houston Rockets to back to back NBA Championships, in 1994 and1995. He was a two-time NBA Final MVP in 1994 and 1995, NBA MVP in 1994, 12th time NBA All-Star, 1985-1990, 1992-1997, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Hakeem was not just a good scorer with all the right moves but was a terror on defense. He once blocked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s “Sky Hook”. He played alongside Ralph Sampson and they formed the Twin Towers for Houston. His defensive prowess allowed him to lead the NBA in block shots in 1990, 1991, 1993. He was also a very good rebounder and led the league in rebounding in 1989 and 1990. He made was named to 6 All-NBA First Team, from 1987-1989, 1993, 1994. Hakeem has left a legacy that is felt up till today.
Many present NBA players work out with him as they want to incorporate the dream shake into their games.
4. Bill Russell
Russell started his dominance in the post as a college player for the Dons program which he led to back to back NCAA Men’s Championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell was the ultimate athlete and besides playing basketball, competed in track and field for the Don. Russell defensive ability as a center was what really distinguished him from any other player of his era. He was also a very good rebounder. Russell started his professional playing his entire career with the Celtics but was drafted the second overall pick in 1956 by the then St Louis Hawks, but he was subsequently traded to the Celtics for Ed Macauley. This trade certainly worked out in Russell’s best interest, as he became a cornerstone of the Boston Celtics basketball dynasty of the late 50’s and 60’s. Russell ‘s had an illustrious playing career as a Celtic, playing for the legendary Red Auerbach.
Russell would go on to win a mind-boggling 11 out of 13 NBA Championship in his thirteen-year NBA career. This feat has not been done by any other NBA player ever. He won rings in 1957, 1959-1966, 1968, 1969. To put this in perspective, Russell pretty much cannot wear all the rings that he has won on either of his hands. Russell as a player is the epitome of what a winner or champion, and he had the honor of ending his career with a ring. Other accolades that Russell achieved include him being a 12th time NBA All-Star, from 1958-1969, 5 time NBA MVP, from 1958,1961-1963, 1965. He led the NBA in rebounding on four different occasions, 1958, 1959, 1964, 1965. What is most remarkable about him leading the NBA in rebounding is that he did it at a time while Wilt Chamberlain played which is just unfathomable. He was an NBA All-Star Game MVP in 1963, NBA All-Defensive First Team in 1969, 3 times All-NBA First Team in 1959, 1963, 1965.
Bill Russell may have been the only player of the era to know how to defend Wilt Chamberlain. These two players had plenty of on court battles that are well documented. Russell is the winningest center in NBA history and for this reason, he is number four on my list.
3. Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq as he was known during his playing days, was another very powerful force at the center position. Shaq played his college ball at LSU from 1989-1992 under coach Dale Brown, where he had a solid college career. Shaq got drafted first overall by the Orlando Magics in 1992, where he played from 1992-1996. He won Rookie of the Year honors and O’Neal went to become one of the best centers in the NBA for almost a decade. He along with Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to a three-peat, winning NBA Championships from 2000-2002. A feat that has not been repeated since then. The Laker’s were starting to be called a dynasty when Shaq played there. Shaq’s dominance led to him to win many accolades, like NBA finals MVP three times, MVP of the league in 2000, 15 times NBA All-Star, 3 times NBA All-Star MVP in 2000, 2004 and 2009, led the league in scoring twice.
Shaq was a center who was very athletic for his size of over 300 pounds during his playing days. He loved using his body to bully smaller centers, was skilled at using the hook shot and known for his monstrous slams. He at one time was feared by many players and no player would dare try dunking on Shaq as he would certainly not let that happen. Shaq was a player with a great off court personality and appeared in movies and music videos. He was an all-out beast on the court but was the nicest guy you can meet. The only weakness in Shaq’s game was his free throw shooting and teams exploited him by going to the “Hack a Shaq” a strategy to get him to the free throw line. Despite this weakness, this certainly in no way takes away from his legacy.
Even after he left the Lakers and teamed up with “Flash” Dwyane Wade as he called him, he led the Miami Heat to their first ever championship in 2006.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
He was formerly known as Lew Alcindor, but when he converted to Islam changed his name. Kareem was a product the famed New York City Playgrounds which produced many of the basketball legends of that era. Kareem was at one time the tallest kid in the New York school system, standing at 6″8 in eighth grade. He once said that he was challenged by an older kid who thought he was better than him and proved him wrong in a one on one battle. He played with Earl the Goat Manigault and said he was the best player that he ever played with even when playing so many games in the NBA.
Kareem played for the UCLA Bruins under the tutelage of the legendary coach John Wooden, from 1967-1969 and led them to three NCAA Championships. What made Kareem so great was his ” Skyhook” a shot that he learned while playing for UCLA. This shot was virtually unstoppable and unblockable. Kareem at the time he played was one of the tallest players, standing 7″2 and being so agile, he used his ” Sky Hook” to become a dominant force. He led the team that drafted him first overall, the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship while playing alongside Oscar Robertson. He later went on to win five more championships as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988.
He garnered NBA Finals MVP honors twice, a 19 time NBA All-Star from 1970-1977 and from 1979-1989. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1970, led the league in scoring twice. He led the league in blocks four times, in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1980, led the league in rebounding once. Kareem was part of the ” Showtime” era led by Magic Johnson, the Lakers were a pretty dominant team back then.
Kareem is the second best center of all time, mainly because he stands first all-time in scoring at 38,387, which is not an easy feat considering the number of great players that have played in the NBA. He also had won on the longest NBA careers and played until the age of 42.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors poses in the dressing room after he scored 100 points in a game against the New York Knickerbockers on March 2, 1962.
Wilt the Stilt, as he was nicknamed, was a great athlete coming out of high school. As a Philly kid growing up, he competed in track and field before making a transition into basketball. Wilt played his college ball as a member of the Kansas Jayhawks from 1956-1958 and had an illustrious career there. Wilt began his pro career as a member of the famed Harlem Globe Trotters who today are known for their antics but back then were a serious basketball club that once defeated the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949. Wilt started his NBA playing career for the Philadelphia / San Francisco Warriors as it was called. Wilt entrance into the NBA was felt quickly as he became a force to be reckoned with. He easily won the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1960. And he was selected to 13 NBA All-Star games, was a two-time NBA Champion in 1967 and 1972, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player from in 1960, 1966-1968.
He led the league in scoring a whopping seven times. Wilt was one of the best passing big men of his era and this is evident in the fact that he led the league in assist in 1968. This feat surely will not be repeated by any big man anytime soon. Wilt is the only player in the history of the game to score 100 points in a single game which came against the Knicks in 1962. Wilt skills as a rebounder were unmatched and you could call him king of the boards, he secured 11 rebounding titles, from 1960-1963, 1966-1969, 1971-1971.
Wilt’s dominance in the post caused so many problems for opposing franchises that the NBA introduced new rules to deal with this. Wilt played until 1973 and still hold has records which stand today. Some of Wilt record are still on the books today and this is just added reason why he ranks as the number one center of all time.