Path for Kai: Non-US players over 7-foot-2 who thrived in the NBA

MANILA, Philippines – Kai Sotto has been the talk of the town yet again, lately, and for good reason.

The 7-foot-2 Filipino teenager is undoubtedly the Philippines’ best-ever chance to see a homegrown star finally break into the NBA, and his recent signing with the G League only reinforced that thought.

However, the fact remains that not many international players survive the league’s grind despite their God-given height.

In fact, the curse goes all the way up to the first overall pick, as Italian big man Andrea Bargnani flamed out quickly after a few years. Tanzania’s Hasheem Thabeet also never panned out as the 2009 second overall pick despite being 7-foot-3.

Regardless of the league’s (literally) massive busts from overseas, there have been some international giants who thrived well, if not flat-out excelled.

Manute Bol (7-foot-7, 1985-1995)

Career averages: 2.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 blocks

On the subject of basketball unicorns, no one in NBA history fit the bill more than Manute Bol, the sweet-shooting, shot-swatting Sudanese who enjoyed a decade’s worth of play time.

Officially listed at 7-foot-7 with an absurdly light 200-pound frame, Bol was a sight to behold from the moment he suited up for the Washington Bullets (present-day Wizards).

He made up for his lack of physicality with innate defensive timing and an uncanny touch from beyond the arc. Watching replays of his game is and will always be a treat, no matter how many bigs are living and dying by the three-ball nowadays.

After making stops in Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia and Miami, Bol retired in 1995 at just 32 years old as the only player in NBA history with more career blocks (2,086, 3.3 average) than points (1,599, 2.6 average).

Although he passed away at the young age of 47, he left behind a son who just might be better and more well-rounded than him when all is said and done: Denver Nuggets center Bol Bol.

Boban Marjanovic (7-foot-4, 2015-present)

Career averages: 6.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 58% shooting

Living up to the phrase “gentle giant” is Serbian sensation Boban Marjanovic.

Although he has played for 5 different teams in the same number of years in the NBA, Marjanovic is well-loved by fans and teammates in every city he goes to due to his constantly cheerful disposition.

However, he becomes an entirely different animal on the court as he has terrorized hapless defenses with his deft touch around the rim and patented no-jump dunks.

Unfortunately, his massive 290-pound body, the source of his undeniable strength, is also his greatest weakness, as coaches are forced to limit his minutes due to low stamina. In 5 years, he has not averaged above 14 minutes a game.

His wide frame also makes it difficult for him to rotate and provide help defense, leading to smaller but more agile opponents to abuse him down low. His low 0.4 blocks average for his career is solid proof of that.

Despite his glaring flaws, Marjanovic is by no means a mere attraction in a traveling circus. Whenever his number is called, he will certainly rain buckets on everyone’s heads, and there’s nothing they can do but wait for the storm to subside.

Kristaps Porzingis (7-foot-3, 2015-present)

Career averages: 18.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks

Meanwhile from another part of Europe, Latvians are proud to call Kristaps Porzingis one of their own.

In just his third season in the NBA back in 2018, the lanky 7-foot-3 forward was selected to his first All-Star game before the New York Knicks quickly gave up on him following a serious ACL injury he got that same year.

But after a long rehab process, “Porzingod” made the Knicks regret yet another bad decision in hindsight as he is currently averaging 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks with the Dallas Mavericks alongside fellow young Euro star Luka Doncic.

With virtually no weaknesses to his game other than recent health concerns, the 24-year-old Porzingis is set to make the Mavericks a solid contender for years to come.

Arvydas Sabonis (7-foot-3, 1995-2003)

NBA career averages: 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 blocks, 0.8 steals

While Porzingis still has a decade’s worth of dominance ahead of him in the NBA, the same could not be said for Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis.

Due to heated political tensions between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, Sabonis did not make his NBA debut until 1995 at the age of 31 – 9 years after he was drafted 24th overall in 1986 by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Despite this long delay that pretty much robbed the NBA of his prime years, Sabonis still averaged decent numbers against the best players in the world.

He peaked in the 1997-1998 season with averages of 16 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.1 blocks per game despite being 33 years old at the time.

He then mellowed down to being a well-respected bench player by the 2002-2003 season before returning home to Lithuania and retiring for good in 2005. He was then inducted into the FIBA and Naismith Hall of Fame in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Bill Walton, another legendary big man and current NBA analyst, called Sabonis as the “7-foot-3 Larry Bird.”

For a man who averaged 20.4 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.2 steals on 55% shooting and 39% from three for 6 seasons in Spain’s Liga ACB, that description is just spot on.

While Arvydas never played at full strength in the NBA, his good basketball genes clearly passed down to his son Domantas, who is fresh off his first All-Star berth at just 23 years old.

Yao Ming (7-foot-6, 2002-2011)

Career averages: 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.6 assists

Last but definitely not the least, Yao Ming wraps up the list as another international giant with a Hall of Fame resume.

From the moment he got drafted with the first overall pick in 2002 by the Houston Rockets, Yao immediately captivated audiences everywhere outside his home country of China.

Due to the staggering number of Chinese fans following his path out west in the US, Yao was selected to the All-Star team in all 8 of his seasons in the league and even led all vote-getters in 2005 and 2006.

However, his All-Star nods were not just products of pure fan support as he carried his own on the floor with his consistently smooth two-way play and unprecedented accuracy from the free throw line.

Unlike other big men before and during his era, Yao was not an ideal target for intentional fouls as he drained an astounding 83% (2,485/2,984) of his charity stripe shots.

Unfortunately, his legs and feet were soon unable to support his gargantuan 310-pound body as he missed a staggering 168 out of a possible 410 appearances in his final 5 seasons due to various major injuries. That’s 41% of Houston’s total games in that span.

He even missed the entire 2009-2010 season and only played 5 games the year after, forcing him to retire at the prime age of 30.

Despite his injury-ravaged career, Yao became a first-ballot Hall of Famer along with Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson in 2016 due to his invaluable influence on the Asian market, a fan base largely untapped prior to his arrival in the NBA.

And in a few years, the NBA will surely get another surge of Asian followers if ever Kai Sotto actually makes it there. Sure, he may not be a top-pick prospect nor a future international legend by a long shot, but the talent and potential are undoubtedly there.

A vast majority of basketball talent still thrives in the US, but the rest of the world is quickly catching up, which is certainly a win-win situation for everyone involved. –