Folk heroes in basketball almost always come in tiny packages. There’s nothing more thrilling to the common viewer than watching a veritable David rise up in a league full of Goliaths. Winning big when you’re small, in a vertically oriented game, is lightning in the NBA.
While a lower center of gravity creates a speed and dribbling advantage—almost all of the league’s best ball-handlers are diminutive—there’s still usually a bigger, longer player capable of sticking with the short and nimble. You’ve got to have something more than the chops of a dancer to be mini and thrilling. You need moxie, and these guys all have enough of it to light an arena on fire.
5. Isaiah Thomas
The Suns’ big pickup over the offseason could become 2014-15’s Sixth Man of the Year winner. Isaiah Thomas is a scoring machine, darting through coverage and stopping on a dime to drain sweet jumpers seemingly whenever he pleases.
His tiny 5’9” frame has been a refuges for Thomas doubters around every corner. He was drafted just No. 60 overall in 2011 NBA draft, and was passed over in free agency by his Sacramento Kings squad in 2014. Let all that be fuel for Thomas, though, as he wows the league in Phoenix on an almost nightly basis in the season’s early goings.
4. Tony Allen
Tony Allen is a mongoose. He doesn’t look like he could kill a king snake, but he does it all the time. Just ask Kevin Durant, who Allen took out of his comfort zone in last year’s playoffs after Durant dominated the league through his MVP-winning season. Despite having a five-plus inch deficit next to KD, the 6’4” Allen had Durant so frustrated with his aggressive defense that an Oklahoma City newspaper ran the headline “Mr. Unreliable” about their star.
That paper's phrasing was (obviously) overcooked, and Allen isn’t exactly on the smaller side of NBA players. But his performance on Durant gave fans the same thrill a true giant slayer brings—he gives up pounds consistently, but makes up for the gap with tenacity and strategy, reliably pleasing the underdog in all of us.
3. Ty Lawson
The Denver Nuggets’ best player is one of their smallest, too—they’ve also got the hummingbird frame of Nate Robinson on board. Lawson is languishing in the Rockies this season, as the Nuggets have been mismanaged into the NBA’s basement. But it wasn’t long ago that he was the engine of a 58-win team coached by George Karl, dazzling the league with open court savvy and impressive dexterity in the pick-and-roll.
Watch this terrific instructional video with Lawson, in which he demonstrates how he regularly makes dunces of big men in PnR actions by “putting them in jail”:
2. Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe held out all summer to get his money from the Phoenix Suns. After much speculation that things had gone sour and the two signs would inevitably part, “The Bledshow” got paid to the tune of $70 million over five years. Bledsoe is worth it; he’s the very best point guard defender in the game, routinely making fools of bigger point guards and thriving as a shot-blocker of big men.
Bledsoe’s other nickname is “Mini LeBron,” since he’s one of the only athletes who can approximate the versatile athletic explosion that the King brings to the court. The two friends share an agent in Rich Paul, and fans of both should keep their fingers crossed for Paul to somehow get Bledsoe and James on a roster together.
1. Chris Paul
The little general wins the list. The Los Angeles Clippers’ fearless leader is one of the hottest competitors in the league; with the smart conviction he moves with, most fans get too engaged to even notice how small Paul is. At 6’0”, he’s cracked a most unlikely category as one of the game’s best point guards. Regularly going head-to-head with the likes of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook requires CP3 to do battle with true beasts of the position.
Paul is frequently criticized for his relative lack of playoff success. Real enthusiasts of the game understand that his legacy should be cemented regardless—he’s one of the best to ever play his position. But if he can lead the Clippers to the Western Conference Finals or deeper in 2014-15, Paul will hold the hearts of the everyday fan forevermore.
— John Wilmes