I can still sort of remember the first time I watched Arvydas Sabonis play for the Portland Trail Blazers, which Basketball-Reference.com tells me must have been Dec. 9, 1995. Sabonis was the biggest human I’d ever seen in person, and probably only Andre the Giant surpassed him period. Yes, Shawn Bradley and Manute Bol were taller, but they were stick figures. Sabonis had tree trunks for legs. He dwarfed the entire Sonics roster. Sabonis also moved about as quickly as a tree, but that did not stop him from controlling games with his skilled play. I loved watching him play and Craig Kilborn‘s punny nickname of sorts–he’s not my Vydas, he’s not your Vydas, he’s Arvydas.
Sabonis is one of the European players who presents a challenge to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame because of its all-encompassing credo. Relatively little of Sabonis’ value came in the NBA, so we can’t really compare his stats in the U.S. to other Hall of Famers in any meaningful sense.
To try to provide a little more context, I looked at my WARP database (back to 1980) and pulled out only seasons where each player was 31 or older–the age Sabonis was during his “rookie” season. On this level playing field, Sabonis ranks 26th in modern NBA history:
Player WARP HOF? John Stockton 173.5 in Karl Malone 151.4 in Jason Kidd 117.7 N/A Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 109.4 in Hakeem Olajuwon 101.0 in Steve Nash 99.4 N/A Charles Barkley 88.4 in Julius Erving 86.8 in David Robinson 83.3 in Robert Parish 82.7 in Player WARP HOF? Reggie Miller 79.4 out Artis Gilmore 79.3 in Gary Payton 77.7 in Moses Malone 77.6 in Shaquille O'Neal 77.0 N/A Mark Jackson 73.3 out Michael Jordan 70.4 in Dikembe Mutombo 70.2 N/A Patrick Ewing 64.1 in Sam Cassell 64.0 N/A Player WARP HOF? Marcus Camby 63.9 N/A Scottie Pippen 61.0 in Darrell Armstrong 58.9 N/A Clyde Drexler 58.0 in Larry Bird 56.1 in Arvydas Sabonis 56.1 in
This list is a fascinating mish-mash of all-time greats and late bloomers. On what other list of value would Larry Bird rank behind Marcus Camby? Of the 22 players on this list eligible for the Hall of Fame, 20 have been voted in. Reggie Miller will almost certainly get there at some point. The percentages will drop as more recent players like Camby and Darrell Armstrong become eligible, but this is still impressive company for Sabonis.
Because of the many different career paths possible, this is hardly a guarantee that Sabonis would have been a shoo-in Hall of Famer had he played a full NBA career, but it does seem to suggest that. The most impressive thing is that, given his knee injuries, the young Sabonis was probably a better player than his performance in his 30s would suggest. Suffice it to say Sabonis was a special player.