Friday, January 13, 2012

Can a Player Get His Head Above the Rim?


One of the most prevalent comments about high-flying dunkers is how they’re heads are at or above the rim at the apex of their respective flights. I believe a lot of this is due to the angle you see the dunk, but with some basic math and a little research you can prove NBA players can get their heads to rim level.

To test this I used all the pre-draft data available from DraftExpress.com. This means not every NBA player is included, but there are 947 players with the appropriate information over the past decade (with a couple exceptions in prominent players like Shaq.) All I did was simply add the player’s height in shoes to the maximum running vertical measured. Since the pre-draft data was used, virtually everyone is young and not yet an NBA player. Some have never even played in the league. However, it’s the most comprehensive resource I could access, and it should show how plausible it is for a guy’s head to be above the rim or near it.

The results are interesting. There were 21 players who had the tops of their heads reach ten feet or higher. This was only 2.2% of every player who had a recorded max. vertical, but it shows that it is possible. The highest recorded was 10’ 2.87” from Stefan Bircevic, a 6’ 11” forward/center now playing in Europe, and one few fans will recognize. The results are shown in the table below.

Player
Year measured
Height with shoes
Max. vertical (inch)
Top of head relative to rim (inch)
Stefan Bircevic
2010
6' 11.07"
39.8
2.87
Jamario Moon
2001
6' 7.75"
43
2.75
Yi Jianlian
2007
7' 0.25"
38
2.25
Kenny Gregory
2001
6' 4.75"
45.5
2.25
Shaquille O'Neal
1992
7’ 2”*
36
2
Steven Hunter
2001
6' 11.25"
38.5
1.75
Joakim Noah
2007
7' 0"
37.5
1.5
Vince Carter
1998
6’ 6.5”*
43
1.5
Patrick Ewing-Jr
2008
6' 7.25"
42
1.25
Jason Smith
2007
6' 11.5"
37.5
1
Solomon Jones
2006
6' 9.75"
39
0.75
Mike Bell
2005
6' 9.25"
39.5
0.75
Rudy Gay
2006
6' 8"
40.5
0.5
Matt Barnes
2002
6' 8"
40.5
0.5
Ronald Dupree
2003
6’ 6”*
41.5
0.5
Marcin Gortat
2005
7' 0"
36
0
Jon Leuer
2011
6' 11.5"
36.5
0
JaJuan Johnson
2011
6' 10"
38
0
Josh Powell
2003
6' 9.5"
38.5
0
Ekene Ibekwe
2007
6' 9"
39
0
Al Thornton
2007
6' 7"
41
0
*Only barefoot height was listed, so one inch was added to create a conservative guess for height with shoes.

The list is surprising, containing names you wouldn’t think. Vince Carter is on there, but so is Matt Barnes. You have high-flyer and slam dunk participant Rudy Gay but you also have the infamous bust Yi Jianlian. There are two basic types of players here: explosive leapers with solid wingman height, and athletic big men. It’s basically humanly impossible for a smaller guy’s head to hit the rim. Nate Robinson, who has the second highest vertical measured and listed at DraftExpress, was still a few inches away. Dwight Howard, interestingly enough, did not make the list, but he was an 18 year-old kid and has since improved. There’s even a video of him doing a true “kiss the rim” dunk and hitting his head on a reverse dunk shown below.



Another famous dunker can also get his head at rim level. James White has barely played in the league, but he’s a legend in some respects. 


Kenny Gregory is the shortest player who made it, and he had to use one of the highest verified vertical leaps measured in any sport. The NFL combine is another good source of maximum vertical data; however, they only include standing vertical jumps, and not running like the NBA. The difference for most players is four to six inches better for a running jump, so it’s interesting that in the past decade the best result at an NFL combine was 46 inches by Gerald Sensabaugh (he’s listed at 6’ 1” and thus would barely miss the rim with his head.) He’s probably a two-footed jumped – guys who are better jumping off two feet than one foot – and as such may not benefit too much from a running start. However, it’s likely he could approach 50 inches, which is a phenomenal accomplishment.

Only a handful of other NFL players have also cracked the 45 inch barrier – Derek Wake, Chris McKenzie, Chris Chambers, Donald Washington – indicating that it’s perhaps a limit. Again, they do this without getting a running start, but the NFL’s higher number of elite jumpers is due to their much larger player pool and need for athleticism without a reliance on height like basketball.

Instances of athletes cited for a 50 plus vertical leap are apocryphal. Kadour Ziani, by some sources, has a vertical of 60 inches, but it’s unverified and most likely incorrect. Even if he has a vertical of 56 inches as sometimes reported his head should be a half foot above the rim, and he probably has something near the 45 to 48 inch range based on his videos. Cuban volleyball player Leonel Marshall reportedly has a 50 inch vertical, and watching youtube clips of him in action it’s hard to dispute that he’s at least at 45 inches. Lastly, Michael Wilson of Globetrotters fame has dunked on a 12 foot rim and is also cited as an athlete with a 50 plus vertical. Since he’s 6’ 5” and most players his size have a standing reach of around 8’ 5”, to dunk a basketball on a 12 foot rim he’d need a vertical in the four foot range to get the ball a few inches over the rim. However, a jump above 50 inches is unlikely, and anyone claiming otherwise does not have verified sources and should be questioned.

As an additional note, grabbing a quarter or something else from the top of a backboard is impossible on an NBA regulation court without something like a ladder. The top of the backboard is 13 feet off the ground, which is out of reach of anyone human. The highest vertical reach in the pre-draft camps was 12’ 5” by Shaq – this was from when he was only 303 lbs – followed by 12’ 4” by Solomon Jones with Rudy Gay close behind (12’ 3.7”.) Dwight Howard in a dunk contest claimed he touched 12’ 6” on the backboard, and given that he posted a reach of 12’ 3” as young kid this is possible. Vince Carter would need a vertical something north of 50 inches, and as discussed that’s virtually impossible. The previously mentioned James White has come close, but if he can’t do it I’d say all accounts of players grabbing something off the top of the backboard should not be believed without proof.


Using confirmed data from pre-draft results, it is indeed possible for a player’s head to reach the same plane as the rim, but it takes the rare athlete with good height doing his best jump possible in his athletic prime. This is not something you will see in a regular NBA game, and no one can get his head fully above the rim. 

EDIT (Feb 2013):
Something I should have added a long time ago. Gerald Green is the best true example of being above the rim as anyone else. Some guys like Howard or White can get their heads a little above the rim, while Green can do this with a great magnitude. Here are the key pictures:




Given that Gerald Green is about 6' 8" with shoes, the elevation the top of his head has over the rim is how many inches over 40 his vertical is. He was measured at 39" at the combine, but he was an 18 year-old rookie. Green's slim frame helps him, as he needs less power to lift his light body. His vertical at its absolute max is mid-40's. (If you hear an NBA player has a 50-inch vertical, don't believe them, especially with the tall guys, because a 50-inch vertical would mean, say, Jordan's head would be 8 inches over the rim.) I don't want to say it's a myth you can't get your head over the rim; it's more that it's extraordinarily rare and usually exaggerated. You need a tall guy with amazing vertical leaping.

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