The game of basketball had meager beginnings, with a bunch of athletically awkward guys trying to toss a ball into a peach basket. Fortunately for us, the game has evolved over the years and no longer requires us to wait for a guy with a stick to poke the ball out of the bucket after Dwyane Wade makes a layup, and as the game has evolved, so has the manner in which people have been able to put the ball in the goal. Basketball has developed into the highest scoring of the major sports, and that’s one of its great appeals. What you see every night is a group of big, freakishly athletic men running up and down the court scoring in ways James Naismith never would have dreamed possible.
Of course some have honed these skills better than others over the decades. These are the players whose ability to put the ball in the hoop has reached the level where we can comfortably refer to it as “transcendent.” These are the players who draw us in and make us fans of the game, if for no other reason than we want to see if there’s anyone in the world who can stop them from asserting their will on the hardwood. These are the 20 players for whom defenders have simply never found an answer.
20 Pete Maravich
When it comes to Pete Maravich, people tend to remember his untimely death and the fact that he averaged 44 points-per-game in college, and they just kind of gloss over the fact that he had a heck of an NBA career as well, averaging 24.2 points to go along with 5.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds in his career. He did all of this scoring before the three point line as well, and with the almost unlimited range on his jumper, it’s not hard to imagine his scoring average jumping up by two or three points-per-game if he played in a more modern era.
Maravich wasn’t the most conventional star to ever play the game, but his flashy play and outstanding skill level made him one of the most exciting scorers to ever step on a basketball court.
19 Dominique Wilkins
They don’t call you the Human Highlight Film for nothing, and in the case of Dominique Wilkins, it sums up pretty nicely why he was so incredibly difficult to check defensively. Wilkins was a 6-foot-8 dunking machine and one of the most unfairly athletic wing players to ever step on an NBA court. Despite never shooting even 50% from the floor in his career, he was able to use his physical talents to pour in just under 27,000 points in his career.
‘Nique averaged better than 30 points-per-game twice, and the thing about Wilkins was that he didn’t just dunk on you, he threw it down harder than just about any other player in league history.
18 Carmelo Anthony
You can say what you want about Carmelo Anthony possibly being a gunner or not being particularly interested in playing defense, but what you can’t deny is that he’s one of the most naturally gifted scorers to come alone in the NBA in the last several decades. Boasting great size at 6-foot-8 and about 250 pounds, he’s strong enough to finish through contact, he has a strong midrange game, and his three point shooting has been improving year after year.
Now that he’s transitioning into more of a stretch four than a natural small forward, it makes him even more of a nightmare matchup for opposing teams.
17 Moses Malone
Nicknamed the Chairman of the Boards, people these days seem to forget about Moses Malone when referring to the top centers in NBA history. The 6-foot-10 post player started his career in the ABA before transitioning to the NBA in 1976, and went on to score more than 27,000 points with a career average of 20.3 points-per-game. Some of the numbers Malone put up were absolutely silly by today’s standards, such as when he boasted per-game averages of 31.1 points and 14.7 boards during the 1981-82 season.
Malone averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds every night in 11 seasons, and about the only reason he’s not a little bit higher on this list is the fact that his career shooting percentage was a shade under 50% from the field.
16 Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson, quite simply, may have been the single most versatile player in NBA history. People these days tend to remember him more for his battle with HIV and his work as an analyst, but the fact of the matter is he was an absolute basketball anomaly: a 6-foot-8 point guard whose unselfishness is pretty much the sole reason he didn’t become a 30 points-per-game scorer. He absolutely had the talent, and he created a mismatch for anyone trying to guard him with his combination of size and skill.
Magic averaged just 19.5 points-per-game for his career, but added an astonishing 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds. He was a guy who could – and did – play every position on the floor and still managed to dominate every night.
15 Julius Erving
It’s easy to think of Julius Erving as just a dunking machine, but ask anyone who saw the man play and they will tell you quickly and emphatically the man was a tremendous all-around talent. The 6-foot-6 product of UMass spent the first five years of his career in the ABA before becoming arguably the most legendary player in Philadelphia 76ers franchise history, pouring in more than 18,000 points in 11 NBA seasons and over 30,000 points when you include his five seasons in the ABA.
Dr. J averaged 22 points-per-game and 6.7 rebounds per game in the NBA, and 28.7 points and 12.1 boards against ABA competition, with a career shooting percentage of 51% and some of the most spectacular highlights of anyone in hoops history.
14 George Gervin
Just like Dr. J, George Gervin both started his career in the ABA and boasted one of the best nicknames in sports history. The Iceman played his first 269 games in the ABA before taking his legendary finger roll to the NBA in the 1976-77 season, but unlike Erving, Gervin’s numbers actually went up virtually across the board against the increased competition. Gervin averaged 26.2 points during his NBA career, pumping in more than 30 points-per-game twice.
Gervin also took part in one of the most hotly contested scoring titles in NBA history during the 1977-78 season, as David Thompson poured in 73 points in the final game of the season to take the lead. However, The Iceman went out that night and had 53 points by halftime, cruising to the scoring crown with 63 points at the end of the night.
13 Larry Bird
They don’t call you “Legend” for nothing, and were it not for serious back problems later in his career, Larry Bird may well have gone on to become one of the most prolific scorers in league history. Amazingly, the man who virtually everyone agrees is one of the top 10 players in NBA history scored just 21,791 points as limped to the finish line in his injury plagued career, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more deadly clutch shooter and competitor than Bird. He finished his career with a scoring average of 24.3 points-per-game, and had one of the best shooting lines in basketball history.
Bird shot 49.6% from the field, 37.6% from long range, and 88.6% from the free throw line to make him one of the best all-around shooters the game has ever seen, and pulled off the incredible feat of shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% from deep, and 90% from the line twice.
12 Karl Malone
A lot of people will be quick to credit much of Karl Malone’s success to his running mate John Stockton and the way they perfected the pick and roll, but you can’t deny the pure consistency that the Mailman showed throughout the course of his career. After all, there’s a reason people called him Mailman: he always delivered. He finished his career as the second most prolific scorer in NBA history with 36,928 points and shot 51.6% from the field over his 19 seasons.
The physically dominant power forward was one of the biggest, strongest, and most intimidating figures to ever play the game at 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, and his superior fitness and athleticism allowed him to run past defenders and finish with authority.
11 Allen Iverson
The best way to sum up Allen Iverson is to describe him as a little man with a very big game. Officially listed at 6-feet and 160 pounds, both of those were probably a stretch for the diminutive combination guard who nevertheless used his incredible speed and quickness to get wherever he wanted on the floor and score more than 24,000 career points. Four times during his career, the Answer averaged more than 30 points-per-game, all despite being beaten and rarely getting the benefit of calls from officials who didn’t treat him much like a star due to his attitude.
Never has such a small player impacted the game of basketball the way Iverson did, finishing his long career with a scoring average of 26.7 points. If Iverson had been 6-foot-5, we may have been talking about him as arguably the toughest scorer the game has ever seen.
10 Dirk Nowitzki
The Big German, Dirk Nowitzki, has always sort of flown under the radar when talking about the all-time NBA greats. He’s not in the biggest or flashiest market down in Dallas, but there’s no denying what an unstoppable offensive player he has been for most of his career. The thing that sets Dirk apart is the tremendous skill level he possesses for a 7-footer, possessing a deft shooting touch from long range and a one-footed fade away jumper that is one of the most unguardable moves in NBA history.
Believe it or not, with his 26,786 career points the Big German ranks 10th on the all-time scoring list, and could conceivably move into the top five depending on his health, and how long he decides to keep playing for the Mavericks.
9 Oscar Robertson
At the time when Oscar Robertson played basketball, he had the unfair advantage of being very big, very strong, and very athletic. That’s not to say that other players didn’t also possess those qualities, just that virtually no one possessed them in addition to having the skill set of a perimeter player. The 6-foot-4, 205 pound Robertson was simply too strong and athletic for any other guards of his era to handle, which is a big part of the reason he finished his career in 11th place on the NBA scoring list with 26,710 points.
The Big O averaged more than 30 points-per-game in six of his first seven seasons, and in just his second season added 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists, making him the only player in league history to ever average a triple-double for an entire season.
8 Kevin Durant
It’s difficult to decide which is more amazing: the fact that Kevin Durant has already scored nearly 15,000 points in his career, or the fact that he’s still just 25 years old. It’s almost unfair that a player could come along with Durant’s combination of size, measuring in at 6-foot-9, and shooting range. One of the most dangerous scorers the league has ever seen, Durant is a fearless shooter whose range pretty much consists of “in the gym.” In his first seven seasons, he’s already topped 30 points-per-game twice in an era where no one averages 30 anymore, and like Bird, he’s entered the rarified territory of having shot 50% from the field, 40% from three, and 90% from the line in a season.
If Durant stays healthy, and considering he’s already started excusing himself from USA Basketball activities to remain fresh, there’s no telling just how many points he could score. Since he doesn’t rely on pure athleticism to get his buckets, he could very well be the first NBA player to ever reach 40,000 points in a career.
7 Hakeem Olajuwon
If you were to look at the earliest clips of Hakeem Olajuwon playing basketball in college and then in his first couple of seasons in the NBA, you’d probably never have expected him to evolve into one of the most skilled and talented big men in league history. Early on he relied on being vastly superior athletically, but over the course of his career he developed an incredible post game, including the most beautiful turn-around, fade away baseline jumper you’re likely to ever see. Add in his incredible footwork and you’ve got a guy who finished his career ranked ninth on the all-time scoring list.
The Dream scored 26,946 points in his 18 seasons, shooting 51.2% for his career as well as 71.2% from the free throw line, a very respectable number for a center whose first athletic love was soccer.
6 Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant is one of the most competitive, hardest working players in NBA history. Of course the guy he’s been competing with most doesn’t even play anymore, because his name is Michael Jordan. Kobe has been working his whole life to both emulate and try to surpass Jordan, much like how Tiger Woods has mapped out his entire career as a comparison to Jack Nicklaus. If Kobe is ever able to get healthy again, he’ll be able to surpass Jordan for third place on the career scoring list, and is currently one of just five players to ever surpass 30,000 points. Kobe’s one of the most athletically gifted players to ever grace an NBA court, but he’s also honed his skillset to make him a lethal midrange shooter.
Kobe has always been a divisive player, but it’s hard to argue against the incredible scoring prowess of a guy who once pumped in 35.4 points-per-game in the modern era of professional basketball.
5 Shaquille O’Neal
When it comes to basketball, the phrase “man among boys” is pretty much synonymous with Shaquille O’Neal. The Diesel was one of the biggest, strongest, and perhaps the most powerful presence in NBA history. Simply put, there’s never been anyone in league history who he couldn’t have out-muscled on his way to the hoop. He ended his career averaging a little less than 24 points-per-game, but that’s primarily because his body started breaking down and he hung around the game for too long. In his prime, he was simply unstoppable.
Shaq shot an incredible 58.2% from the field, which can obviously be attributed to the numerous dunks. But at the end of the day, that’s precisely why he was such an unguardable force – no one could stop him from physically dominating them and getting those dunks anytime he wanted.
4 LeBron James
Say what you will about the perceived lack of killer instinct in LeBron James, the simple fact is he’s one of the most physically gifted scorers the game of basketball has ever seen. In any other era he would be a dominant power forward, yet he possesses the skill set of a point guard with a 6-foot-8, 250 pound frame. He’s not even 30 years old yet and he’s already poured in more than 23,000 points, and despite people knocking his jump shot, he’s a career 34.1% shooter from long distance.
The simple fact is there’s only one other player in NBA history who had the combination of size, power, and athleticism that LeBron James possesses, and that’s the guy we’re about to talk about.
3 Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain was about as dominant a physical specimen as the NBA has ever seen, having been a track and field star despite his seven foot frame. Chamberlain was simply too much for anyone from his era not named Bill Russell to handle, setting records like an average of 50.4 points-per-game during his third season and pouring in 100 in a single game. If Wilt could have made free throws, there’s no telling how many points he would have scored in his career (Ditto for Shaq).
To put into perspective just how thoroughly Chamberlain owned the low post, the lane was widened from 12 to 16 feet specifically to make things a little fairer for people not named Wilt.
2 Michael Jordan
When he first entered the NBA, Michael Jordan was a freakish athlete who relied on his superior speed, quickness, leaping ability, and body control to beat defenders into the lane and finish with authority. For most of his career, that was enough to make him the most dominant scorer of his era. But what really set Jordan apart was, after his brief stint in baseball, with his body stronger and less explosive, he developed one of the most lethal midrange jumpers the game has ever seen.
He averaged better than 30 points-per-game for his career, a number made even more amazing by his two forgettable seasons in Washington just before he turned 40.
1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
It’s hard to argue against listing the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, who possessed the single most unstoppable shot anyone’s ever seen in the sport of basketball, topping this list. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar poured in more than 38,000 points in his 20 year career, dipping below 1,000 points in a season only once, and averaging 24.6 points-per-game for his career while shooting a sizzling 55.9% from the field.
The deadliness of Kareem’s sky hook cannot be overstated, particularly because in all of basketball history, he remains the only player to have ever perfected this truly unblockable shot.
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