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Longform: From Johnny Kerr to Nikola Jokic, the quest to find the best passing centers of all-time

Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Arturas Karnisovas couldn’t make it through his first practice alongside Arvydas Sabonis without getting conked on the head by one of the big man’s bullets.

In the summer of 1992, Karnisovas and Sabonis were back home in their native country of Lithuania gearing up for the Olympics in Barcelona. Karnisovas had just wrapped up his sophomore year at Seton Hall while Sabonis, seven years his senior, was already dominating competition as a pro in Europe. 

Karnisovas was familiar with Sabonis’ game at that point; he’d watched him play enough to know that the 7-foot-3 giant's blend of power and skill was special. But it wasn’t until Karnisovas tossed the ball to Sabonis in the high post, cut to the basket and took a pass to the schnoz that he fully understood what Sabonis was capable of.

Karnisovas could've had an easy two. Instead, blood rushed from his nose.

From that day on, I always expected a pass,” Karnisovas said. “It didn’t matter where my defender was. All I had to do was cut, and I knew I was going to get the ball. ... He was the only one who when he demanded the ball was going to give it back to you. He was like, ‘Give me the ball.’ It was almost like in that Jerry Maguire movie, ‘Help me help you. Help me help you.'"

Lithuania went on to win the bronze in Barcelona, an enormous accomplishment for a nation that only two years earlier regained its independence from the Soviet Union. It won bronze again in 1996, the same year Karnisovas was named FIBA's European Player of the Year.

Karnisovas retired from professional basketball in 2002. These days, he helps run a team built around another Eastern European big man who has the ability to see angles others can't. Nikola Jokic is only three seasons into his NBA career but already has put together two of the most prolific passing seasons ever from a center. He averaged 4.9 assists per game in 2016-17, his first season as a full-time starter, then followed that up by handing out 6.1 assists per game last year.

"I’m expecting Nikola to break all the records," Karnisovas, the Denver Nuggets general manager, said. "The stuff that he does…"

Karnisovas has gotten an up-close look at two of the best passing bigs to play the game of basketball. To figure out who else belongs in the conversation of greatest playmaking centers, BSN Denver spoke to three writers who collectively have more than six decades of experience covering the NBA, consulted Basketball Reference and combed through hours of YouTube videos. The list we came up with includes 11 names.

The criteria

Joakim Noah did not make the cut nor did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That's despite the fact that Noah averaged 5.4 assists per game in 2013-14, the sixth-most by a center in a single season, and Abdul-Jabbar averaged 3.6 assists per game for his career, which ranks ninth among centers. Being a great passing center, in our estimation, requires a combination of sustained success as a playmaker and creativity.

Noah was an imaginative passer at his peak, but he didn't do it for very long. In seven of 11 seasons as a pro, he's averaged fewer than 2.5 assists.

Conversely, Abdul-Jabbar put up respectable assists numbers for a decade and a half, registering three assists per game or more in 15 of his 20 NBA seasons. Yet there was never anything remarkable about the way he moved the ball.

"Kareem was an OK passer," said longtime NBA journalist Bob Ryan, who began covering the league for The Boston Globe in 1969. "That's as far as I'm willing to go."

Abdul-Jabbar could make the obvious pass effectively. There is value in that. Some big men lack the coordination or are overcome with tunnel vision to the point they can't complete a simple kick-out pass. But to be considered a great passing center, a big man must be able to do more than find a teammate when everyone in the gym knows where the ball should go.

"Some assists connect dots everyone can see," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote in his April awards column. "A lot of Jokic's assists create shots that otherwise wouldn't exist."

Does the center in question have the vision to do more than advance the play from point A to point B? Can he bypass point B, C and D and make the play that connects A to E? With that in mind, let’s get into it.

Johnny "Red" Kerr

Years active: 1954-66

Career APG: 2.0

Most APG in a season: 3.4, 1963-64

Johnny Kerr is best known for his role as the Chicago Bulls longtime color commentator. Kerr sat in that post from 1975 until 2008, calling the Jordan years with such passion his play-by-play partner Jim Durham once joked, "We need to get Johnny a seat belt."

To hoops historians, Kerr also holds the unofficial title of first great passing center. A three-time All-Star who helped the Syracuse Nationals win the championship as a rookie, Kerr played the game at a time when most offenses relied on getting the ball to their center and running looping cuts off of him. This style suited Kerr, who had a between-the-legs bounce pass in his arsenal.

"Johnny Kerr, oh my God," Ryan said. "If they ever had YouTube of Jonny Kerr today you’d be howling at some of the shit he’d do. He was a showman passer as a center. You start with him."

Kerr never finished a season first in assists per game among centers in his 12-year career. He came in second twice and third three times, always behind Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Even so, Kerr deserves credit for being the NBA's first center to read the floor in a special way.

Bill Russell

Years active: 1956-69

Career APG: 4.3

Most APG in a season: 5.8, 1966-67

Bill Russell's ability to dominate the real estate around the hoop powered the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons. He was a fearsome shot blocker, and he grabbed every rebound in sight. Another crucial ingredient to Boston's incredible run of success, however, was Russell's playmaking.

"People think about him in terms of defense and rebounding, but he had been the key to our offense," John Havlicek wrote in his 1977 autobiography "Hondo." "He made the best pass more than anyone I have ever played with."

Russell is among the best outlet passers to ever play the game. And in the half court, his unselfishness and quick decision making created looks for teammates who didn't regularly beat opponents off the bounce.

"That mattered to people like Nelson, Howell, Siegfried, Sanders and myself," Havlicek continued. "None of us were one-on-one players... Russell made us better offensive players. His ability as a passer, pick-setter and general surmiser of offense has always been overlooked."

The Celtics ran their offense through Russell, especially after Bob Cousy retired in 1963. If you dumped it to him down low, screened and cut enough, the odds were Boston was getting a good look. The Celtics loved running this action.

"The entire offense was built around Russell’s ability to pass and see the floor," Ryan said. "Russell knew who he was. He could have scored more. He’ll probably tell you to this day he didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm of the team by taking shots he shouldn’t have. But if you asked him to go get 25, he could’ve done it. But it wasn’t his game."

Wilt Chamberlain

Years active: 1959-73

Career APG: 4.4

Most APG in a season: 8.6, 1976-77

While Russell always knew who he was on the basketball court, Wilt Chamberlain spent a lot of time recalibrating. As great as he was, Chamberlain couldn't break through for an NBA championship in any of his first eight seasons. He watched the Celtics win the trophy in every one of those years. Then during the 1966-67 season, Chamberlain had an awakening of sorts. He began shooting less and sharing more. He averaged 7.8 assists per game — third-most in the entire league — as the 76ers finally won the title.

"He very, very consciously said, 'OK, screw this. Everybody is complaining about me. I’m going to become a passing center,'" said Jack McCallum, who began covering the NBA for Sports Illustrated in 1981. "They ran the offense through him. He was very, very skilled. (Passing) wasn’t in his DNA because he was a scorer. But he put it in his DNA because, dammit, he was going to be a passing center and a team player. That was kind of how he ended his career. Sort of that way."

Chamberlain struck the right balance between scoring and setting his teammates up that season. In ensuing years, he sometimes veered too far in the direction of passing. In Game 7 of the 1968 Eastern Division Finals against Boston, Chamberlain attempted only nine shots all game — one fewer than teammate Matt Guokas! —  as Philadelphia lost 100-96. It was a bitter ending to a season in which Chamberlain became the only center ever to lead the league in total assists.

"Wilt was a selfish assist man," Ryan said. "He maybe should’ve shot more. That was the way Wilt was. He didn’t do anything halfway. If he was going to score, he was going to score 40 a game. If he was going to pass, he was going to lead the league in assists. If he was going to lead the league in field goal percentage, he was going to do it his way — by not taking shots besides tips and dunks and occasional finger rolls."

So what should we make of a player who didn't pass enough during the first half of his career and often passed too much in the second half of it? Chamberlain is first all-time among centers in assists per game (though Jokic is right behind him and should close the gap soon).

His dexterity and fluidity were unbelievable for someone who stood 7-foot-1.

Chamberlain was so far ahead of his time athletically. It's too bad he didn't have more seasons like that magical run in 1966-67 when he got the balance between scoring and passing right.

Wes Unseld

Years active: 1968-81

Career APG: 3.9

Most APG in a season: 5.2, 1975-76

Wes Unseld could stand under one basket, fling a two-hand overhead pass and hit the opposite backboard 90 feet away, the story circulated in basketball circles went. "That was the great folklore about him," Ryan said. "I don’t doubt it for a second."

Listed at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, Unseld was built like an oak. He used that frame to set bone-crushing screens, carve out position inside and fire obscene outlet passes.

Unseld made on-the-money, 75-foot chest passes look like a Sunday stroll through the park. He sparked countless fast breaks for Bullets teams that made fours Finals trips and won one championship in his 13-season run.

"Most players, when they get the ball, instinctively look for a shot. Wes instinctively looks for the open man," teammate Mike Riordan told Sports Illustrated in 1977. "Totally unselfish. He keeps the ball moving so much everybody gets a piece of the action. Guys love playing with him. He makes everybody else look good."

Unseld averaged four assists or more in eight different seasons. He's fifth all-time among centers in assists per game (3.9). Many of his best passes didn't even show up in the box score. As an outlet pass artist, he often made the play that led to the play — a hockey assist. He loved to haul in a miss and toss the ball to a teammate streaking downcourt before returning to the ground.

Sam Lacey

Years active: 1970-83

Career APG: 3.7

Most APG in a season: 5.7, 1979-80

Sam Lacey played 14 seasons in the NBA for a string of mostly unremarkable teams. In 1975, he made his lone appearance in All-Star Game. He came off the bench as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's backup and chipped in six points, seven rebounds and one assist. Lacey recorded his only helper of the game by tipping Jim Price's miss to himself, holding onto it long enough for a play to develop and then firing a nifty one-handed dart to Price for a lay in.

You have to search hard for evidence of any imprint Lacey made on the game. His best skills — rebounding, shot blocking and passing — never included scoring. Lacey's game wasn't sexy, and the teams he played on usually finished below .500. He flew under the radar because of that.

"He just looked so lumbering," Ryan said. "He wasn’t the top level. He wasn’t Kareem. He wasn’t (Bob) Lanier. He wasn’t (Dave) Cowens. He wasn’t Nate Thurmond. He was who he was, and he got the most out of his career. He just didn’t look pretty in any kind of way."

Lacey lurched around the court, but he excelled at finding teammates. He averaged north of five assists per game in three separate seasons, a club only he and Chamberlain are part of. He enjoyed an eight-season peak as a playmaker, never averaging fewer than 3.8 assists from 1973 to 1981.

In January 1977, Lacey had a 14-assist game as the Kansas City Kings defeated the New York Knicks 112-105. He's still one of eight centers to hit the 14-assist benchmark. Lacey scored just nine points on 2-9 shooting in that game. It was one of three times that season Lacey recorded more assists than points.

Bill Walton

Years active: 1974-87

Career APG: 3.4

Most APG in a season: 5.0, 1977-78

Foot injuries prevented Bill Walton from being mentioned in the same breath as Abdul-Jabbar, Bird and Magic from now until the end of time, but in the 517 NBA games the big redhead played in, he was still able to paint a few masterpieces. The most famous of all: his performance in the 1977 Finals. Walton averaged a ridiculous 18.5 points, 19 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.7 blocks as Portland knocked off Julius Erving's 76ers.

Philadelphia, which trotted out Dr. J, George McGinnis and Doug Collins in the starting lineup, and World B. Free and Darryl Dawkins off the bench, held the significant edge in talent. Yet the Trail Blazers prevailed in six games thanks primarily to Walton, who at his peak was as good as anyone at molding disparate parts into something beautiful.

Walton recorded 31 assists in the 1977 Finals — the most of any player in the series. "He was the essence of team play," Trail Blazers coach Dr. Jack Ramsay said.

Like Russell and Unseld, Walton loved keying counterattacks. Those three are the best outlet passers in the history of the game in some order. What made Walton unique in the half court was his ability to face up and dissect a defense.

"He was the first pure center I remember that could face up," McCallum said. "He had a kind of backcourt mentality. That’s how he sort of looked at the game. He saw it as this beautiful, poetic thing. I would have to contrast it with someone like Wilt in the early days. It was a power game. 'Let’s go down there. I’m your guy who’s going to bang. I’m the guy who’s going to be the enforcer.' Part of Walton’s success was the way he looked at it. 'I’m going to be more than a guy who just bangs down there.'"

The Trail Blazers looked like locks to repeat as champions the 1977-78 season. They raced out to a 50-10 record, but Walton's foot issues resurfaced, and he was never the same except for the 1985-86 season when he came off the bench and made basketball porn with Bird in Boston.

Even though injuries robbed Walton of most of his prime years, many still consider him the best passing big man ever. Walton could do anything on the basketball court — hooks shots and bank shots, hauling rebounds in and swatting shots away. Out of everything, passing was what seemed to give him the most joy.

"It just seemed organic to his game," McCallum said.

Alvan Adams

Years active: 1975-88

Career APG: 4.1

Most APG in a season: 5.6, 1975-76

Did you know that Alvan Adams is fourth all-time among centers in career assists per game, nestled comfortably between Russell and Unseld? Did you know that Adams led the Phoenix Suns in assists as a rookie in 1976, and together he and Paul Westphal helped them make a Cinderella run to the NBA Finals? Did you know that Adams averaged more than four assists per game in eight different seasons?

The floppy-haired Oklahoman is an underappreciated creator and all-around player.

"Alvan had no fear," Ryan said. "He’d try to throw these thread-the-needle passes in the fourth quarter of a tie game as readily as he would in the first quarter. He had great creativity."

Adams is the rare player whose rookie season was arguably his best. He was good for more than a decade, but he never reached the numbers he put up in 1975-76. The Suns never made it back to the Finals after that season either while Adams was active. They came up short twice in the Western Conference Finals.

At 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Adams was built more like a forward than a center, which helps explain why he moved around so well on the court. This no-look tip pass Adams pulled off on the fast break belongs in a museum. Curse the Phoenix Sun who blew this layup for the rest of our sun's lifespan.

Arvydas Sabonis

Years active: 1995-03

Career APG: 2.1

Most APG in a season: 3.0, 1997-98

How much different would NBA history in the 1980s look if the Soviet Union allowed a young Arvydas Sabonis to come over? That question is one of the league's greatest what-ifs. Sabonis was a force of nature in his late teens and early 20s. There's a clip of him shattering a backboard with a one-handed dunk at 20 years old.

"What people forget is that he was 7-foot-4," Karnisovas said. "It’s amazing size. He looked so proportional and fast and athletic and so long. I’ve never seen a player like that."

When Karnisovas got a job in the NBA league office in 2006, he took advantage of the library of old games and watched Sabonis during his prime years.

"I swear I was sitting there almost crying in tears just watching how good he was around 1985 and 1986 before his injuries," Karnisovas said.

By the time Sabonis made it to the NBA in 1995, nine years after Portland picked him 24th overall, a repaired Achilles and persistent foot issues sapped him of his mobility. He was effective but not dominant. Those flashes to the high post took him forever, but he could still do something spectacular once the ball was in his hands.

Getting your nose bloodied by one of Sabonis' darts, as Karnisovas did in the lead-up to Barcelona, seems perfectly understandable after watching the way he moved the ball.

Sabonis was impossibly coordinated for someone his size. Because the Iron Curtain held him back, he only got to show slivers of his brilliance in the world's best league.

Vlade Divac

Years active: 1989-2005

Career APG: 3.1

Most APG in a season: 5.3, 2003-04

After he spent the better part of a decade in L.A., Vlade Divac teamed up with Chris Webber in Sacramento at the start of the new millennium to form one of the best passing frontcourts in NBA history. The Sacramento Kings' equal-opportunity offense made them the most entertaining team to watch in an era when imagination was lacking.

The Kings finished third, sixth and second in offensive rating during the 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, respectively. They had the Lakers on the ropes in the 2002 Western Conference Finals before Shaq, Kobe and some questionable officiating caused things to go the other way. They never got that close again. Instead, they'd have to settle for "this is how the game should be played" media praise and YouTube montages. To be fair: the YouTube montages are pretty great.

Divac could throw dimes out of the post, but he loved to hang on the perimeter and facilitate from there. Weber, Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby were all dangerous weapons who understood how to move without the ball.

Everybody got to eat on those Kings teams. Divac did a lot of the feeding.

Marc Gasol

Years active: 2008-present

Career APG: 3.3

Most APG in a season: 4.6, 2016-17

The circuitous route Marc Gasol took to NBA stardom included multiple stops in Spain and Tennessee. Gasol was raised in the Barcelona area but moved to the Memphis suburbs as a teenager after the Grizzlies took his older brother Pau in the 2001 NBA draft. Gasol was a doughy kid who tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds. After high school, he went back to Spain and spent five years in the ACB League. In 2008, the Lakers traded his draft rights to the Grizzlies as part of a package for Pau in what's known as the only instance of a player being traded for his brother in NBA history.

Gasol emerged from all those strange twists and turns as an extraordinarily skilled big man, gelling with frontcourt partner Zach Randolph and point guard Mike Conley to form the core of the Grit N' Grind Grizzlies teams that made the playoffs seven straight seasons and maxed out with a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2013. Together, Gasol and Randolph bludgeoned opponents inside.

“Those guys understood each other really well from day one, which is funny because they are not alike in any aspects," said Matt Moore, a national NBA writer for The Action Network. "They’re completely opposite dudes. But they understood each other’s games really well because they had a shared camaraderie because they understood what it’s like to play in the post."

Gasol is the rare bruiser who can pull off one-handed tip passes and no-look alley-oops.

He dominated despite never being anyone's idea of a basketball Adonis. In the lead up to the 2014 draft, Denver Nuggets executives watched a lot of his film while they considered taking a center who also got by on skill more so than speed. They eventually pulled the trigger on that player — at 41st overall.

Nikola Jokic

Years active: 2015-present

Career APG: 4.4

Most APG in a season: 6.1, 2017-18

ESPN was showing a Taco Bell commercial when the Nuggets took Nikola Jokic in the second round in 2014. While the pick was being announced, there was an image of a 'Quesarito' on the TV screen. Jokic didn't feel slighted by this at all. He was back home in Serbia fast asleep.

Four years later, Jokic has improbably developed into one of the game's best offensive weapons. The Nuggets became the most explosive offense in basketball in 2016-17 once they rearranged things around Jokic. Their improvisational style is a credit to their 6-foot-10 center, who's at his best when he's freestyling.

"He never plans anything," Karnisovas said. "He just does it."

The biggest thing for me and what separates him from the list of best passing bigs is that he can go rim to rim. That’s the uniqueness of his passing abilities. He can take the ball, get a rebound, dribble down the court, lead the fast break and make the pass. Most bigs that you’re trying to evaluate in terms of their passing are post bigs, half-court offense."

Jokic, a self-described "fat point guard" growing up, sees the games a few moves ahead of anyone else. Watch how he instructs Wilson Chandler to throw the ball to Jamal Murray to set up the post entry pass before he eventually tips the ball from the right block to the left corner.

"Jokic’s radar awareness sets him apart in a really significant way," Moore said. "I asked him when I did that passing breakdown, ‘How did you know that guy was there?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. I just did.'"

Jokic became the second center ever to average more than six assists per game last season. He had a 17-assist game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 15 (the same night he recorded the fastest triple-double in NBA history) and a 14-assist game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 1. He threw his final dime of the night versus OKC on an inbounds play to Gary Harris, who buried the game-winner.

The hand-eye coordination and the spatial awareness are parts of what make Jokic a special playmaker. His spirit is as well. Jokic's first instinct is to pass, not score.

"Passing makes two people happy," Jokic said in February 2017, invoking an old Magic Johnson quote. "Scoring only makes one person happy."

"He just does it"

When pressed on who was the better passer — Sabonis or Jokic? — Karnisovas reacted like he was asked to pick a favorite child. "Please don't make me do this," he said. "They're so close."

Off the court, the two Eastern European centers were very different people. Sabonis liked to party. He didn't make it to the closing ceremonies in the 1992 Olympics because he began indulging immediately after Lithuania won bronze instead of waiting a couple hours. He was "later found spreading his own version of Glasnost in the dorm of the Russian women's Olympic team," McCallum wrote in a Sports Illustrated story from 2011. Contrast that with Jokic, whose idea of fun is playing Fortnite.

On the court, the similarities are overwhelming. As was the case with Sabonis, many of Jokic's most brilliant moments don't occur until the bright lights go on.

"Nobody teaches Nikola how to pass behind his head," Karnisovas said. "It’s not like he’s in the gym working on that. It just comes natural to him. The similarities — everything is natural for them. It just comes to them. They’re phenomenal players who have great basketball I.Q."

Karnisovas used to get awestruck watching Sabonis pluck rebounds out of the air with one hand, turn and fire 60-foot touchdown passes downcourt. Now he gets to watch Jokic collect a miss, take a couple dribbles and throw a lob from behind half court for an alley-oop.

“I don’t know if there’s any explanation for what he does on the court," Karnisovas said. "He just does it.



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