Basketball is not for the gravitationally challenged. If you’re on pace to grow above 6 feet tall as a child, chances are that you are going to play some type of sport. If you’re on pace to grow 7 feet tall, your fate is pretty much sealed as a basketball player. The adjectival stereotypes attached to basketball players are tall, lanky, and skinny. Basketball players are modern day human avatars that walk the planet. For their entire lives, basketball players have stood head and shoulders above everyone else. In every classroom photo, they are taller than their teachers – giraffes amongst insects.
Traditionally, every position in basketball has a standard height. For example, you will never see a six-footer player center, nor will you ever see a seven-footer playing point guard. Usually point guards are around 6’1, shooting guards are around 6’6, small forwards are around 6’8, power forwards are around 6’10, and centers are around 7’0 tall.
However, every once in a while, an undersized player – in stature and height – forces himself into a position that he has no business playing. Sometimes, it is because of their superhuman speed, at other times it is because of their kangaroo-like hops, and at other times it is because of their grit and hustle.
This is a list of the best undersized players for each position throughout the history of the NBA. There are other players that may have been shorter, but these are the best undersized players, in our opinion, that have excelled at their position, despite being severely undersized.
5. Point Guard – Calvin Murphy
At 5’9, Calvin Murphy was overlooked his entire career. Even when Murphy was drafted into the NBA, he was taken in the second round. But the tiny point guard lasted fourteen years in the NBA (1970-1983). He also has the distinguished award of being the shortest player to ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.
At one time in NBA history, Murphy had the record for most consecutive free throws made, in addition to the highest free throw percentage in a single season. Since Murphy’s retirement, the records have been broken but they still stand in the top three. His free throw percentage in ’80-’81 was a ridiculous 95.8%, which stands second all-time. And his 78 consecutive free throws made from December 27, 1980 to February 28, 1981 stands at third all-time.
When Murphy finally retired, he had career averages of 17.9 ppg, 4.4 apg and 1.5 spg, making him the best undersized point guard of all-time.
4. Shooting Guard – Allen Iverson
At a generous 5’11 and 165-pounds, Allen Iverson has frequently been labeled as the best pound for pound player in NBA history. So, if there was an award for the greatest undersized player of all-time, Iverson would win this award hands down.
At 5’11, Iverson looked more like a point guard than a shooting guard and was routinely outmatched in size and weight. The only problem was that everyone else was outmatched by the size of Iverson’s heart. Iverson may not have given his 100% during practice, but he certainly gave 110% during games.
Iverson led the league in scoring four different times and led the league in steals three different times. This month, Iverson finally announced his retirement, so his stats are finally cemented. Iverson boasted career averages of 26.7 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.7 rpg, and 2.2 spg. His point and steals total rank sixth and seventh all-time.
The talented guard was Rookie of the Year in ’97, appeared in the All Star game eleven times, and was on the NBA First Team three times. He even won a MVP award in 2001.
Iverson, never won a championship ring, but he did lead his severely under talented team to a NBA Finals and even won Game one all by himself. It is no wonder, that Iverson is the only professional athlete to have never been booed in the ruckus and hostile city of Philadelphia.
3. Small Forward – Elgin Baylor
Standing at 6’5, Elgin Baylor played thirteen seasons in the NBA from 1958-1971. Baylor was taken with the first overall pick in 1958 by the Minneapolis Lakers and was Rookie of the Year. After Baylor’s illustrious career, he finished with averages of 27.4 ppg, 13.5 rpg, and 4.6 apg. His career average of 27.4 ppg still ranks as the fourth best all-time.
To give you an idea of just how dynamic of a scorer Baylor was, in November 15, 1960, Baylor went off for 71 points in a single game against the New York Knicks. Offense came easy for Baylor.
In fact, during two seasons in his prime, Baylor averaged 34.8 ppg, 19.8 rpg, and 5.1 apg and in the other season, he averaged 38.3 ppg, 18.6 rpg, and 4.6 apg.
He was an eleven-time All Star and the All Star Co-MVP in ’59. Additionally, Baylor made the All-NBA First Team a whopping ten times. And in 1977, Elgin was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame and was additionally named into the top 50 players of all-time.
The only wrinkle to Baylor’s career was that he made the NBA Finals eight different times, but never won a championship.
Today, Baylor is the vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers where he has been working since 1986. The Clippers were the laughing stock of the NBA for nearly two decades, but they have quickly changed the complexion of their team under the leadership of Elgin Baylor.
2. Power Forward – Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley has been listed anywhere from 6’4 to 6’6, but most people say that he was around 6’4. However, the Round Mound of Rebound always played bigger than he really was. For someone so stocky, Barkley possessed an unusual amount of athleticism. His dunks were ferocious and he protected every rebound in the air with his elbows pointed out like a mother hen guarding her chicks.
However, Charles was a polarizing figure during his playing days. Barkley never wanted to be a role model for anyone, but fans couldn’t help but be enticed by his personality and play. Barkley made the All-Star team eleven times and the All-NBA First team five times. He was also the MVP in 1993.
Barkley had career averages of 22.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg, and .8 bpg, while shooting 54% from the field. It is a wonder that Barkley averaged a double-double 15 out of his 16 seasons.
But perhaps Barkley’s most prestigious accolade was his ’92 gold medal in Barcelona, Spain. Barkley was a starter for arguably the best team assembled in history – the ’92 Dream Team.
And in 2006 the Alabama country boy was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
1. Center – Wes Unseld
At 6’9, Ben Wallace could also have been the best undersized center of all time, but Wes Unseld was just that good. At 6’7, Unseld put up numbers like a 7-foot center. He was not the greatest shot blocker in the world due to his height, but he made up for it in every other category. Unseld posted career averages of 10.8 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 3.9 apg, and 1.1 spg.
In 1968, Unseld won Rookie of the Year and put up an impressive 13.8 ppg and 18.2 rpg like he was a NBA veteran. But what makes Unseld’s rookie year so remarkable is that he was the only player in NBA history to ever win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same exact season; a feat that will likely never be repeated again.
Unseld finished his career as a five-time NBA All Star and won the NBA Championship with the Knicks in 1979, where he was named the Finals MVP.