Even to someone unfamiliar with basketball, 7-foot-6 University of Central Florida center Tacko Fall should seem like an obvious NBA prospect.
The 23-year-old native of Senegal already set records at the pre-draft combine in Chicago for his height (7-foot-7 in shoes), wingspan (8-foot-2.25 inches), standing reach (10-foot-2.5 inches) and hand length (10.5 inches).
Technically, he won’t become the tallest player in league history next season as he’d be following in the footsteps of 7-foot-7 giants Manute Bol and George Muresan.
And besides, Fall might not even make it to the NBA.
FALL’S PRE-NBA DRAFT MEASUREMENTS
- HEIGHT (with shoes): 7-foot-7*
- WINGSPAN: 8-foot-2.25 inches*
- STANDING REACH: 10-foot-2.5*
- HAND LENGTH: 10.5 inches*
- WEIGHT: 288 pounds
- BODY FAT: 6.8 percent
*NBA draft combine record (since 2000)
In spite of his historic size, and basketball’s reputation for favoring the extraordinarily tall, he is far from certain to be chosen at Thursday night’s NBA Draft. Neither ESPN nor Sports Illustrated are predicting he’ll be drafted and NBADraft.net, a nearly 20-year-old scouting website, has Fall ranked just 60th out of its top-100 prospects. (There are 60 picks in Thursday’s NBA Draft)
In 2009, when 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet was taken second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, Fall would likely be assured a spot on an NBA roster. And 20 years ago, as ESPN analyst and former Duke center Jay Bilas said in May, Fall would have been ‘a lottery pick,’ meaning he’d be one of the first 14 players selected.
But as the game has evolved through a series of rule changes and other influences, basketball’s giants are struggling to find a place in the world’s top league.
‘The game is just played with more space, more speed, more athleticism, of course the pick and roll, and then the defensive three-second rule as much as anything,’ former Atlanta Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox told the Daily Mail.
‘All of that just kind of combines to make it harder for a player at that size to have the traditional role that we all remember growing up watching and playing.’
Tacko Fall speaks to the media during Day One of the 2019 NBA Draft Combine on May 16
Tacko Fall already set records at the pre-draft combine in Chicago for his height, wingspan (8-foot-2.25 inches), standing reach (10-foot-2.5 inches) and hand length (10.5 inches)
Wilcox, who serves as an analyst for NBA TV, is not writing off Fall.
Rather, he’s listing the new obstacles facing such players and there is no shortage of supporting data.
Today’s NBA has a much faster pace: In 2018-19, the league averaged over 100 possessions per game for the first time in 30 years, according to Basketball Reference.
Furthermore, offensive play has moved further away from the basket due to the proliferation of three-point shooting. In 2018-19, NBA games averaged an all-time record 32 three-point attempts per game, which is up from 18.1 per game in 2008-09 and just 6.6 per game in 1988-89.
For people my size, that’s the biggest thing that they’re always looking for,’ Fall told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine in May. ‘Can you move? Can you keep up with the game? Can you run the floor? Can you step out and guard? ‘I feel like I have the ability to do those things
Even 7-foot centers are starting to shoot from beyond the arc. For instance, 7-foot-1 Brook Lopez has drained 434 three-point attempts over the last three seasons after making just three from distance over the first eight years of his career.
And then there is the growing popularity of the high pick and roll, which is a basic offensive play aimed at drawing an interior defender away from the basket to create scoring opportunities.
‘For people my size, that’s the biggest thing that they’re always looking for,’ Fall told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine in May. ‘Can you move? Can you keep up with the game? Can you run the floor? Can you step out and guard [on the pick and roll]?
‘I feel like I have the ability to do those things.’
Fall was pictured next to 5foot6 CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson back in March
The combine records date back to 2000, by which point the league had already seen 7foot7 giants such as Manute Bol (left) and George Muresan (right), so Fall won’t necessarily be the NBA’s tallest player ever if he does break into the league next season
Playing for the Washington Bullets in 1986, 7-foot-7 Manute Bol is seen blocking Michael Young
Lastly, rule changes over the last 10 or 15 years have been unkind to plodding centers.
Specifically, defensive three-seconds prohibits defenders from remaining in the painted area surrounding the basket unless they’re actively guarding an opponent.
FALL-ING IN LOVE WITH BASKETBALL
Neither ESPN nor NBADraft.net currently have 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall being selected in their respective mock drafts, but the native of Senegal still has a chance to be selected during Thursday’s NBA Draft
After originally despising the game of basketball as a child in Senegal, seven-foot-six Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall was simply too tall to stay off the hardwood.
The 23-year-old with size 22 feet grew up favoring soccer and only really started playing basketball six years ago.
Fall’s story is almost as unique as his size.
His family went through some very difficult times in Senegal. He often didn’t have enough to eat, to the point where he would have nothing for breakfast and then would try to ration his school lunch and preserve some to serve as dinner. Money was often tight.
When Fall was 16, Ibrahima N’Diaye changed everything. He ran a basketball academy and suggested to Fall that he try to play in the U.S.
There was one small problem: Fall disliked the game, but eventually came around thanks to his basketball-loving grandmother.
‘There used to be cartoons on every day at 5 o’clock,’ Fall said. ‘And one day, I think our national basketball team was competing, my grandma put that on instead of the cartoons. We had only one TV, and I got mad.’
He got over it.
Fall came to the U.S., first going to Houston and then bouncing around a bit before settling in Florida. He enrolled at Liberty Christian Prep – a place where the devout Muslim could have plenty of spirited, respectful, thought-provoking conversations with teachers and other students about religion.
It was also a place where he realized basketball could provide a future.
‘The tough times really make you appreciate what you have,’ Fall said. ‘It’s destiny. I met a guy who I had never met before, went home to talked to my mom about playing basketball which I never imagined I would play, wound up coming to the States and ended up in Florida, the best place I could have ended up at. Everything worked out just fine.’
(Source: Associated Press)
NCAA basketball has no such rule, which allowed Fall to park his 290-pound frame underneath the hoop and challenge anyone who came into the paint. (Fall averaged an impressive 2.6 blocks a game last season – ninth among all Division I college players)
For that matter, professional leagues in Europe have no such rule either, which is why some NBA centers have found a second life across the pond.
Wilcox drafted Walter Tavares with the Hawks in 2014, and while the 7-foot-3 center struggled to adjust to the NBA, he was recently named the EuroLeague’s Best Defender while playing for Real Madrid in 2019.
‘[Tavares] went overseas and is now one of the most impactful players in Spain,’ Wilcox said.
It’s not as though NBA talent evaluators are actively searching for shorter players. In fact, the average height in the league has held steady at about 6-foot-7 since 2011, according to research by RunRepeat.com.
As Wilcox explained, the emphasis now is on skill rather than height, which is how soon-to-be free agent center Boban Marjonovic has carved out a niche for himself, most recently with the Philadelphia 76ers.
‘Nobody thought Boban could be an effective player in the NBA,’ Wilcox said. ‘He’s 7-5 and maybe not the fastest guy in the NBA, but he can make up for it. There are times where, certainly, Boban doesn’t fit in the game. But there are times when he’s a real value and a real asset out there, and we saw that in the playoffs. He’s incredibly skilled.
‘Coaches are trying to find ways to get more skill on the court these days,’ Wilcox continued.
‘So that may be what leads to the re-definition of traditional positions and how you play. But I think the skill dictates how you build the roster.’
Another complicating factor is the medical risks.
Outside of a shoulder injury, Fall has stayed healthy during his amateur career, so this is not an immediate concern. However, players over 7-foot-3 have historically struggled to recover from lower-body injuries.
For instance, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, who stood 7-foot-6, had his All-Star career cut short by foot problems. Former NBA and Chinese National Team coach Del Harris told the Mercury News in 2004 that the All-Star center’s ‘socks would be red from the blood coming from his big toe’ following games and practices.
Former second-overall pick Shawn Bradley battled knee and other leg issues during his career.
Muresan, too, had his career curtailed by a variety of injuries and now 7-foot-3 Dallas Mavericks star Kristaps Porzingis has taken over a season to recover from a torn ACL in his left knee.
‘We’ve done things differently because there is no protocol for a 7-3 guy,’ Porzingis told reporters in September, before he was traded to Dallas from New York. ‘There is no timetable for my type of body, my size and all that.’
Bol’s son, Bol Bol, is expected to be taken in the first round of this year’s draft, but the 7-foot-2 former Oregon center needs to prove he’s healthy after hurting his foot in December and missing the rest of his freshman season.
Historically, players over 7foot3 have struggled to recover from ailments. Houston Rockets center Yao Ming (right), who stood 7foot6, had his All-Star career cut short by foot problems. Former first-overall pick Shawn Bradley (left) battled knee and other leg issues during his career. The 7foot6 Bradley played for the Philadelphia 76ers and had jersey No. 76. Yao was indispensable for the Houston Rockets between 2002 and 2011, getting selected to eight All-Star teams and ultimately being inducted into the Hall of Fame after his career was cut short by foot problems
Manute Bol’s son, Bol Bol (pictured), is expected to be taken in the first round of this year’s draft, but the 7foot2 former Oregon center is also struggling with injuries after hurting his foot in December and missing the rest of his freshman season
‘The area that you are a little more concerned when you’re dealing with extremely large people is lower-body injuries or, more than anything, foot injuries, which we have seen with Yao and [7-foot-3] Zydrunas Ilgauskas and, of course, [7-foot-1 76ers center Joel] Embiid – the amount of force on the feet.’
Still, in spite of the recent trends across the NBA, Wilcox believes Fall can carve out his own role.
It’s not that NBA executives are focused on what he can’t do, Wilcox explained, but rather what he is capable of.
That doesn’t mean Wilcox expects Fall to become a star overnight, but the right coach will find a way to get production out of the NBA hopeful if he can build on his growing skill set.
‘Besides his physical presence, he’s a fun player to watch,’ said Wilcox, who saw Fall play in person at the pre-draft combine. ‘I was very impressed. And actually, standing in that gym, I thought that he was worthy of being drafted as a second-round pick, even at his immense size with the changes in how the game is most commonly played.
‘I don’t think he should just be eliminated because of the changes in the game and because of his size. It will come down to the other stuff he has.’
UCF’s Tacko Fall (24) celebrates as fans storm the court following a win over Cincinnati
‘YOU CAN’T TEACH HEIGHT’
By Alex Raskin, Sports News Editor for DailyMail.com
Commonly attributed to the former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden, the phrase ‘you can’t teach height’ has been a staple of the NBA Draft for decades now.
Traditionally the seasonal adage is used by scouts, executives, or media to justify the preference for one aspiring pro player over another who may possess more skill.
For instance, while serving as a Jazz executive in 1993, Layden pulled out the well-worn maxim to explain why he believed 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley was a better prospect than NCAA All-American players like Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, and Jamal Mashburn.
Taken with the second-overall pick of the 1993 NBA Draft, 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley had a solid NBA career, but failed to live up to the praise he received from the likes of Frank Layden and Rick Majerus
‘Listen, he should go first in the draft ahead of Chris Webber,’ Layden told The New York Times. ‘Webber’s a great player, and so is Hardaway and the guy from Kentucky, Mashburn, but you can’t teach height.’
University of Utah coach Rick Majerus went a step further, comparing the notion of passing on Bradley to the Portland Trail Blazers’ infamous decision to choose Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft.
Time has proven Layden and Majerus were both wrong. Bradley, who was taken by Philadelphia with the second pick, became a role player for a few teams over his 12-year career while Webber, Hardaway and Mashburn became All-Stars.
The Bradley dilemma is just one of many instances of NBA executives becoming intoxicated with a player’s listed height.
The problem is, the league’s giants have often struggled to meet expectations.
Obviously 7-foot-5 Yao Ming was indispensable for the Houston Rockets between 2002 and 2011, getting selected to eight All-Star teams and ultimately being inducted into the Hall of Fame after his career was cut short by foot problems.
But outside of the Chinese basketball icon, only a handful of players over 7-foot-3 have enjoyed any sustained success in the NBA.
Two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Mark Eaton (right) stands alongside Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who is about half a foot shorter than the 7-foot-4 former Jazz center
At 7-foot-5, Yao Ming was indispensable for the Houston Rockets between 2002 and 2011, getting selected to eight All-Star teams and ultimately being inducted into the Hall of Fame after his career was cut short by foot problems
George Muresan and the late Manute Bol (both 7-foot-7) struggled with injuries and development, Canada’s Sim Bhullar managed to appear in only three NBA games, and 7-foot-5 Chuck Nevitt averaged just 5.3 minutes a game for his career.
Then there was the Memphis Grizzlies’ disastrous decision to draft 7-foot-3 Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet with the second pick of the 2009 NBA Draft – one year after the establishment of the defensive three seconds rule, which, as it turns out, mitigated the value of players like Thabeet.
Now 32, Thabeet most recently played in Japan last year.
There are success stories like 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton, who won NBA Defensive Player of the Year twice, and Rik Smits, who became an All-Star in 1998, but they are in the minority.
Historically speaking, great size does not guarantee anything at the NBA level. The best players are judged by their ability and not their DNA.
‘It’s not how big you are,’ legendary UCLA coach John Wooden famously declared, ‘it’s how big you play.’
Of course, that’s easy to say when you’re coaching 7-foot-2 Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Known as Lew Alcindor during his UCLA days, 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became one of the game’s greatest players, in addition to being one of its tallest