Arvydas Sabonis: The OG Unicorn
The center position is nothing like it used to be. Three pointers, fadeaway jumpers, driving from the top of the key; the game isn’t about seven footers backing down their opponents and dominating the paint anymore. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embid and Karl Anthony Towns are all redeeming the five spot with their utilization of traditional guard skills.
While it may seem like this trend started in the last few years, it did not. There was an originator, an OG big man that balanced his massive size and guard like skills. His name was Arvydas Sabonis.
Many current day NBA fans may be familiar with Arvydas’ son, Domantas Sabonis. Domantas is having a great career so far, and is currently a key piece on a competitive Pacers team. The younger Sabonis’ strength is his post skills. Back to the basket, Domantas has some of the most fundamentally sound post moves in the league. His father was much the same, except that he had so many more tools at his disposal.
A Lithuanian born player, Sabonis was a beast. 7’3” and 290 pounds, he was an absolute load in the paint. But his game didn’t stop there, as it did for most big men of his era. Sabonis was a competent three point shooter, averaging over 30% for the majority of his career, and 50% during his final season in the NBA. In addition to that, Sabonis is known as the best passing big man of all time (the young phenom Nikola Jokic is closing in on this title). His passing was so great that Bill Russel described Sabonis as “a 7’3” Larry Bird.”
Today we see many centers following this trend. Not just in the NBA. Colleges, High Schools and even AAU teams have put more of an emphasis on stretch fives and teaching big men better guard skills.
The one regret of Sabonis’ career was his short stint in the NBA. Although he played for 23 years, Arvydas did not get to the NBA until he was 31 years old. He spent the bulk of his career playing Europe, winning the Mr. Europa Award twice and establishing himself as one of the greatest European players of all time.
Many have speculated had Arvydas spent these years in the league, he would have been utterly unstoppable. He already proved himself a force to be reckoned with on the back half of his career. Taking that same bigman and putting him in the league during his prime years, he could’ve been one of the greatest centers of all time. Perhaps he was. We just never got to see it.
That was the tragedy of the original unicorn. Although he turned out to be a great NBA player, fans were robbed of getting to see his true prime. Regardless of where he played his best years, Sabonis redefined the game, and paved the way for all of today’s centers to both dominate the paint and stretch out the floor. All of the top centers in the NBA owe him their thanks.