I can't be the only one who assumed we'd be watching eight-foot tall centers by now.
When I came of age as a basketball fan in the 1980s, Mark Eaton, at 7'4", had already established himself as an NBA contributor. Rik Smits, also 7'4", wasn't far behind him. And Ralph Sampson, before injuries curtailed his career, was a 7'4" star.
And these guys weren't particularly tall, comparatively speaking. Manute Bol came to town in Philadelphia, near my South Jersey childhood home, and blocked shots in bunches at 7'7" for the Sixers. A few years later, along came Shawn Bradley, at 7'6", and Gheorge Muresan, 7'7" star of court and screen. And around the turn of the century, along came Yao Ming, 7'5", but anything but one-dimensional.
In the NBA, like everywhere else, players are getting bigger, stronger, faster. But somehow, the progress made on those tallest players has stalled.
In the past decade, Slavko Vranes and Pavel Podkolzin, each 7'5", played a handful of games, never establishing themselves as NBA players. And they, along with Bradley and Ming, are the only guys over 7'3" to even make it to the league in the past ten years.
As a fan of basketball played at the highest level, this is an immense disappointment to me. One of the reasons I enjoy the NBA most is the ability to see the kind of remarkable physical feats combined with what basketball is, an endlessly moving chess game to be played in infinite ways.
But the New Mexico State Aggies are around to fill this void. And thanks to Sim Bhullar, their 7'5", 360 pound center, and my DirecTV sports package, I have a chance to watch the NBA's next great hope for a truly enormously tall center.
I followed Bhullar as a redshirt freshman last season, when he made tremendous progress from the start of the season to the end, both in his ability to stay on the court and contribute while there. So far this season, he looks even better.
It's worth keeping in mind that Bhullar has a very different build than some other centers above 7'3", like Bradley or Bol in particular. At a burly 360 pounds, getting Bhullar stronger isn't really the issue. New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies needs to get Bhullar into better playing shape, and increase his stamina.
That's a very different task, and arguably an easier one, than figuring out how to fundamentally change the body types of a Bol or a Bradley.
"Well, he has more strength now," Menzies told me late last week in a telephone interview. "We're gonna continue to work -- his conditioning is going to be an ongoing challenge until he gets down to the weight that is right for his body. At 7'5", I'm not exactly sure what that is."
That's the delightful part of a player like Bhullar -- there's no real comparison, even among those who reached his height. There's no number, according to Menzies, just "trial and error" concerning how well he plays at different weights. But there's no model.
There is one guy similar to him. That would be his brother, Tanveer Bhullar, who is two years younger, already 7'3", and on the New Mexico State team. To my dismay, he is redshirting this season, just as his brother did. (If you were wondering, their father is 6'3", their mother 5'10".)
Menzies confirmed that this redshirting decision means we are all missing the best show in college basketball, which is seeing the Bhullar brothers playing in a twin towers setup.
"We have guys that, when we practice, we practice in all those different combinations," Menzies confirmed. "There have definitely been times in practice where we've worked on those two, playing together."
I asked Menzies what it was like to watch.
"Well, it's hard on the other two guys," Menzies replied, chuckling at the thought of his frontcourt next season.
The combination isn't as far-fetched as it might seem, according to the elder Bhullar, who explained that the two played together in high school, and whose skills actually complement one another.
"We know where each other are on the court," Sim said of Tanveer during a phone interview Thursday night. "He has a little more of a jump shot, so he plays the high post, I play the low post."
Oh man, it's too exciting to contemplate.
In the meantime, though, there's the fun of watching Sim. Against Hawaii, Bhullar had six dunks, four blocks, and each one was remarkable to watch -- the ease with which Bhullar dunks, or swats away opposing shots, is astonishing. There's a fluidity and athleticism to his movements that bode well for his professional future, something that didn't come so easily to many of the tallest players in league history.
When Bhullar falters now, it is usually by waiting a few seconds too long to react. He'll find himself out of position for a rebound, or coming over late to block a shot, and foul trouble can result. That's what limited him to just 23 minutes in Saturday night's win over UTEP.
But New Mexico State isn't just Bhullar and pray for rain -- they have an NCAA tournament-quality team around Bhullar, including scoring guard Daniel Mullings and Tshilidzi Nephawe, a 6'10, 268 pound big man who'd be a center on virtually any other team, but next year, could be the small forward.
At times, Bhullar can be disconnected from the offensive flow to the point that the Aggies are almost playing their own game, and when Bhullar can come in and grab a rebound, or slam a putback, it's a bonus.
"We can play multiple looks, depending on our opponent, and the advantages we have," Menzies said. "We have a way we'd like to play, but depending on the competition, it might not be conducive to play that way."
Menzies seemed to mean utilizing Bhullar more, which makes sense. Having someone who shot 62 percent from the field last season, and 75 percent so far this season, take more of your shots is just a question of basic math. But doing so is more complicated than it may seem. For instance, Menzies noted, he needs to teach his guards different angles for entry passes, taking advantage of Bhullar's ability to go above even the tallest player on nearly every opposing defense.
And as Bhullar gets better at finishing, staying on the court longer, defenses may not be so willing to let him play anyone one-on-one.
"In theory, that sounds great. In reality, you've got five guys on the other end of the floor that don't want that to happen," Menzies said. "So defensive schemes and scouting reports will always play a role. If they've got three guys standing around Sim, he's not going to get the same number of attempts he usually does."
Apparently, I'm not the only one watching Bhullar and dreaming of the future.
"I definitely think it's in his future," Menzies said when I asked about the NBA, and presence of NBA scouts, at New Mexico State games. "Yeah, we've had some come out already."
Bhullar, too, wants to break that recent glass ceiling for the very tall.
"That's definitely the goal one day," Bhullar said. "But for now, it's about just getting better, refining my game right now."
Rest assured, as he does, I'll be watching. And so will many others. He may not be eight feet tall, but he is something we haven't seen for a while, and potentially, something entirely new.