I’ve been catching up on the videos for the Champions League round of 16 and the Final Four and one player that literally stands out is Meshkov Brest’s Dainis Kristopans. He didn’t have the best performance in the SEHA Final Four, but he was a force to reckon with in the Champions League, and finished the season as the 7th leading scorer with 76 goals.
At 7’1” and 298 lbs it is certainly hard to miss him. I’m not sure if someone is keeping height stats of professional handball players, but he’s got to be one of the tallest to have ever played the game. And, in my opinion, he is the tallest elite handball player to ever play the game. I’m sure there have been taller players, but it’s less doubtful that they could be considered elite. All too often as players approach 7 feet tall their effectiveness as handball players diminishes.
This seems counterintuitive, but the physical nature and pace of the game starts to negate the height advantage. In particular, the prototypical back court play of either breaking through the defense or shooting over it can be harder to execute for the taller player. Sure, the taller player can shoot over, but without the credible threat of beating the defense for a breakthrough, a good defensive player can rough up the player and make that 9-10 meter shot ineffective. There’s a reason why the typical back court player is in that 6’3” to 6’8” height range and it’s not just because everybody taller decided to take up basketball. A combination of height, quickness, jumping ability, toughness and throwing ability is needed. Not to mention smart passing skills. There’s just not a whole lot of 7 footers out there with that combination.
And, what makes Kristopans interesting is that he doesn’t have that full complement of skills, but has developed a playing style to maximize his height/weight advantage. He’s never going to out quick his opposition for a breakthrough at 6 meters, but he knows how to position himself for a quality shot at 8 meters. At nearly 300 lbs the defense has to be directly in front of him to stop him. Finally, he’s also not blessed with great jumping ability, but it doesn’t matter. He smartly uses his height advantage to wind up and get his shot off over the opposition.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention the fact that he’s left handed. At age 26, RK Vardar was wise to sign him up. Paired with a quality center back that can set him up on attack, he could inflict some real damage.
A personal side note for some perspective on height and size. Back in 1989 at the U.S. Olympic Festival, while standing in line at the cafeteria I had the opportunity to stand next to a 17 year old basketball phenom that everyone was talking about. His name was Shaquille O’Neal and to this day it is the only time in my life where I just felt puny. Not just merely shorter, but puny. I’m 6’5”, about 215 lbs and I’ve stood next to lean 7 footers and it’s just slightly unnerving for a tall guy not used to looking up. But Shaq had a 100 lbs on me, roughly half my body weight and that was totally unnerving. (And, back then Shaq wasn’t overweight.) Kristopans isn’t quite 3 bills plus like Shaq was, but he’s approaching it. Something that defenders have to contemplate when he’s on attack.
That’s my take on this giant of handball, but I’ve only been following the sport closely for 15 years. If you know of a taller player that still passes muster for “elite” status chime in on Facebook or Twitter to set me straight.