Tacko Fall may be 7-foot-6, but over the next few weeks, he’ll have the chance to go even higher. The Senegalese senior has UCF on the verge of making their first NCAA tournament in almost 15 years, and is about to demolish the NCAA career record for field goal percentage.
Fall is the second most physically dominant college basketball player I’ve watched this season, behind Duke’s Zion Williamson. But while Williamson dominates by doing things you’d never expect him to be able to do after seeing him—a 285-pound guy can jump like that???—Fall dominates by doing exactly what you’d expect him to be able to do at first glance. With a 10-foot-5 standing reach, Fall scores like an 8-year-old intent on teaching his younger sibling the meaning of humiliation on a 5-foot-tall Little Tikes hoop. When opposing guards beat their man and head toward the hoop, they see Fall and scurry away like squirrels who just saw the neighborhood Doberman. Even when boxed out, he yoinks rebounds out of the sky by hoisting his broomstick arms over opponents’ heads. When Fall is on the court, it’s hard to pay attention to any of the other nine players. Even when he stands still, it feels like everybody else’s actions are influenced by the Godzilla in their midst.
But while Williamson made Duke the top team in the country and will soon be the top pick in the NBA draft, Fall doesn’t have pro suitors and will have to fight to keep UCF on the right side of the bubble. But Fall’s size also limits him: He can’t run as fast or play for as long as his counterparts, and his pro career probably won’t go as far. Which is why I’m rooting harder for Fall than anybody else this March.
I first learned about Tacko Fall from a Vine. In high school, Fall was matched up against a player who was … large, but not particularly tall. His opponent’s baffled expression explained the entire hopelessness of playing against somebody who is even taller than tall basketball players are supposed to be.
Things haven’t been much different in college. Just look at how Fall baffled SMU’s big men when they tried and failed to stop him in UCF’s 95-48 win last week. (Yes, UCF won 95-48.)
Fall finished with a season-high 23 points and a career-high 20 rebounds. He went 11-for-14 from the field—but grabbed the offensive rebound on all three of his misses. On every possession on which he shot the ball, he scored.
The career record for field goal percentage is 67.8, set by Oregon State’s Steve Johnson from 1977 to 1981. Fall is shooting 74.1 percent for his career, smashing a 40-year-old record by nearly seven percentage points. If he were to finish his season by missing his last 59 shots without making any, he would still set the record. He’s missed only 40 shots this year, though, so that’s probably not going to happen.
Fall blocks 11.7 percent of opposing shots while he’s on the floor (10th in Division I), but that arguably undersells how big of a deterrent he is defensively: UCF’s opponents shoot just 44 percent from inside the arc, 11th-worst nationwide. And Fall draws 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes, which is a huge part of why UCF is second nationally in free throw rate. (Fall’s averages of 11.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game aren’t particularly impressive, but I chalk that up to Fall’s stamina limiting him to about 25 minutes per game.)
Right now, the Knights are on the right side of the bubble for the first time in a long time. They’re listed on 118 of 122 predictions that are part of the Bracket Matrix. This is the first season UCF has ever been good enough to expect to receive an at-large bid. The last time UCF made the tournament was in 2005, when the Knights got in by winning the lowly Atlantic Sun Conference.
As it turns out, truly enormous people on college basketball teams are generally big enough to get their team to the Big Dance. (It’s gotta be tough to find somebody willing to make Size 22 glass slippers.) New Mexico State had 7-foot-5, 360-pound Sim Bhullar from 2012 to 2014, and the Aggies went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments with him on the roster. (The Aggies also had Bhullar’s 7-foot-3 brother, Tanveer, but 7-foot-3 players aren’t as automatically dominant as 7-foot-5 ones.) UC-Irvine had Fall’s 7-foot-6 Senegalese countryman, Mamadou Ndiaye, from 2013 to 2016, and made the school’s only NCAA tournament appearance in his sophomore season.
However, being a truly enormous person is not necessarily a ticket to a successful pro career. Bhullar played three minutes in the NBA (and may have come by those three minutes only because Indian-born Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé wanted his team to employ the first NBA player of Indian descent) and has since played in Taiwan and the second-best league in China. Ndiaye’s pro career to date consists of three games for a team in Mexico. Last April, I wrote about the careers of basketball players even taller than 7-foot-7, and found that joint injuries, brain tumors, and heart problems are more likely for the extremely tall than successful hoops careers.
But Fall is probably a better player than Bhullar or N’diaye—he’s posting more efficient stats while playing more minutes against tougher competition. Even so, I doubt an NBA career is likely. While 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol and 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley were able to carve out substantial pro careers in the 1990s, the NBA giant has gone by the wayside. The current tallest player in the NBA is Boban Marjanovic, who checks in at 7-foot-3. Excluding Bhullar’s three minutes, nobody taller than Marjanovic has played in the league since the retirement of 7-foot-6 Yao Ming in 2011.
Also, in today’s NBA, almost everybody can shoot. Many pro centers are developing legitimate 3-point shots, so if Fall were headed for the pros, it would be ideal to see his shot improve. Instead, it’s getting worse. Fall has attempted just one 3 in his career—I’m assuming it was some sort of end-of-clock heave—and his free throw percentage has dropped from a dismal 55.8 percent as a freshman to a horrific 36.7 percent this season. His free throw stroke is uglier than Charles Barkley’s golf swing. He’s had games in which he shot 1-for-9, 2-for-10, 6-for-15, and 9-for-21 from the line. He’s missed more free throws this year (93) than he’s missed shots from the field in his past two years combined (64).
Sure, there are a handful of NBA big men who can’t shoot even a little bit, but they tend to make up for it with elite-level athleticism and fearsome defense. I can’t imagine any scenario in which Fall isn’t a defensive liability in the pros. He’s much stronger than he was as a freshman, and surprisingly agile, but NBA centers would shoot over him, drive by him, or muscle past him. In college, players like Fall can fill the entire gym. In the pros, there is no room for their oversized bodies.
And so, Fall’s basketball legend will probably come down to these next few weeks. I doubt there’s much of a pro future for Fall—good news, he scored in the 95th percentile on his SATs and is a computer engineering major. Fall has been pretty consistent, but he’s never been able to pull off a tourney trip. UCF was awful Fall’s freshman year, leading to the firing of head coach Donnie Jones. In Year 1 under Johnny Dawkins, the Knights won 21 games, but were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee and went to the NIT. (Man, what is with selection committees and snubbing UCF?) Last year, Fall missed the final 15 games of the year with a shoulder injury, and UCF sputtered.
Height is a gift and curse for the hyper-tall. Fall grew up trying to stretch his school lunch into multiple meals, and because he’s tall, he became beloved for playing a sport he didn’t even try until he was 16, and he’ll get an American college degree. But the same body that’s blessed him with so many positives will also bring him so much pain, as humans simply aren’t supposed to be that tall. Fall didn’t ask for this, but he has worked diligently to become better over the course of his career, and now has a final chance to shine in a world where players like him can still dominate. Let’s see how high 7-foot-6 can go.