NBA History: 50 best NBA players of the 21st century

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Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace (JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images) /

64. . C. Detroit Pistons. Ben Wallace. 42. player

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 42. Ben Wallace

One of the greatest defenders of his generation, no, one of the greatest defenders of all-time, Ben Wallace is on this list despite what many would consider pedestrian offensive numbers. The highest scoring average of Wallace’s career was 9.7 points per game, and yet, his spot on this list was never in doubt. He’s too accomplished elsewhere.

The heart and soul of the early 2000s Detroit Pistons, Wallace became infamous for his gritty demeanor and insatiable hunger. He did not like to lose, and his play on the court was an unceasing reminder of that fact. He went all out, and in doing so, won four Defensive Player of the Year awards — tied for the most all-time. He also made four consecutive All-Star appearances from 2003 to 2006, despite his meager offensive output.

Wallace was a menace defensively, protecting the rim and swallowing rebounds better than anyone. He averaged three or more blocks per game thrice and was a two-time rebounding champ. It’s no coincidence that the “superstar-less” Pistons, who prided themselves on team basketball and defense, were able to make two straight Finals (and win one) during Wallace’s tenure. He was a large reason for the success of those underdog Detroit teams.

There is perhaps no more dominant defender on this list. Wallace was one of the few players capable of star-level impact without outsized production on offense. He could single-handedly swing games with his performance on the glass and his presence in the paint. The Pistons were what they were because of him.

73. . C. Denver Nuggets. Nikola Jokic. 41. player

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 41. Nikola Jokic

This is admittedly projection on my part, as Nikola Jokic is only in his fifth NBA season. That said, the Serbian sensation has three All-Star appearances under his belt and is in the thick of the MVP conversation in 2021. He is well on his way to becoming a central figure of this century’s basketball landscape.

Eternally underrated in real-time, Jokic has quietly emerged as a borderline top-five player on a Nuggets team people don’t take seriously enough. Just last season, Denver made it to the conference finals and landed a couple of real blows on the championship-winning Lakers. Jokic is gifted beyond measure as both a passer and scorer — a true unicorn in a league littered with players who undeservedly claim that title.

Jokic is arguably the best passer in basketball. It’s impossible to quantify “passing,” even when you invoke advanced metrics, but Jokic is at, or near the top of the list. His ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes — or, more plainly, his unexplainable ability to see the court in 360-degree HD — is awe-inducing. He is the hub of a very potent Nuggets offense, this season averaging 27.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 8.6 assists on .567/.418/.881 shooting splits. Please tell me he doesn’t belong on this list.

Even the main criticism levied against Jokic is often false. He’s not a bad defender. He’s no Ben Wallace, sure, but he’s a decent post defender who can clearly stay on the court and produce immensely positive results in the postseason. The Nuggets have a special, special talent, and even this early in his career, it’s hard to deny this spot on the board.