Greatest Player Names in NBA History
Just as not every NBA player can hoop like Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, not every NBA player has a name as simple as “Michael Jordan” or “Larry Bird.” Fortunately, those iconic players’ games captured your attention much more than their names, but that’s not the case for many other NBA players. Some have unique, funny or downright confusing names that make you smirk and wonder about their name’s origin.
Over the last 75 years, the NBA has blessed us with many memorable player names that have actually become part of everyday society. “Jalen” is one of the most popular boys’ names today, thanks to the NBA's very own Jalen Rose. Likewise, there are a whole bunch of kids born in the mid-90s named Shaq or Shaquille after Shaquille O’Neal made his fame around that period.
Maybe we’ll have lots of American boys named “Giannis” or “Luka” entering the NBA 20 years from now. Who knows? What we do know is that these are the 30 greatest NBA player names in history.
30. Lonzo Ball
Career: 6 seasons (2017-present)
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans, Chicago Bulls
Bottom Line: Lonzo Ball
When your name is Lonzo Ball, or LaMelo Ball, then you’re destined to hoop. Sure, many other sports also use balls in competition, but being able to ball is a colloquialism for being able to play basketball.
Lonzo Ball’s outspoken father, LaVar, put a bullseye on his son’s back before he even played in his first pro game, but the younger Ball has settled into a solid point guard. His first name of Lonzo is also unique, as it’s not short for Alonzo or anything else, making him the first “Lonzo” in NBA history.
As of the end of the 2022-23 NBA season, Lonzo Ball's career was very much in doubt due to a catastrophic knee injury
29. Fat Lever
Career: 11 seasons (1982-94)
Teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks
Bottom Line: Fat Lever
Born Lafayette Lever, his younger brother had trouble pronouncing his first name. Thus, “Fat” was born. At 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, Lever certainly wasn’t overweight, so he was more “Phat” than “Fat.” He was a lockdown defender who ranks fifth all-time with 2.2 steals per game and made two All-Defensive teams.
Lever was also a bit like Russell Westbrook in that he could rebound like a big man. His boards, along with his dimes and points, enabled him to get 43 career triple-doubles, which ranked fifth in NBA history at the time of his retirement.
28. Dragan Bender
Career: 4 seasons (2016-20)
Teams: Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors
Bottom Line: Dragan Bender
For years, we had Goran “The Dragon” Dragic in the NBA, but Bender eschewed a Dragon nickname and just had it as his real first name. He was born in Bosnia but is Croatian and, thus, his nickname is the Croatian Sensation. However, that nickname is only 50 percent accurate, as Bender was no sensation in his short time in the NBA.
He was the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft but never landed a meaningful role with three teams over four seasons. He did score 23 points in his final NBA game — which was more of a garbage-time special — but went unsigned afterward and joined a pro team in Israel.
27. Latrell Sprewell
Career: 13 seasons (1992-2005)
Teams: Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves
Bottom Line: Latrell Sprewell
It’s not every day that you find someone whose first name rhymes with their last name but, hello, Latrell Sprewell. He is both the only Latrell and the only Sprewell in NBA history, and “Spree” was definitely one of a kind. He made four All-Star teams but is best remembered for choking his then-head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a practice one day.
A forgotten part of that story is that after Sprewell choked Carlesimo, he was removed from practice and headed to the locker room. He then showered, changed and walked back on the court 20 minutes later to again attack the coach. He took a swing at Carlesimo and grazed him on the cheek before being dragged away by assistant coaches.
Career: 17 seasons (2002-19)
Teams: Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets
Bottom Line: Nene
The burly Brazilian was the third person from the country to make it to the NBA, but he was the first to adopt the Brazilian custom of using only one name. Nene was known as “Nene Hilario” when he first joined the NBA, but in the vein of countrymen such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, Nene wanted to be only known by one name.
The NBA granted his request, and from then on, only “Nene” appeared on the back of his jersey. There have now been 17 Brazilians to play in the NBA, and Nene is the leader among those in points, rebounds, blocks and career earnings at over $135 million.
25. Georgios Papagiannis
Career: 2 seasons (2016-18)
Teams: Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers
Bottom Line: Georgios Papagiannis
Simply from looking at his name, you probably could have guessed that Papagiannis is Greek. However, despite his surname being what it is, he is NOT the father of Giannis Antetokounmpo, which would be hilarious if it were true. In Greece, the name “Giannis” is like “John” in America. Thus, “Papagiannis” is akin to “Johnson” in the states.
Papagiannis had nowhere near the impact of The Greek Freak, despite being the No. 13 draft pick in 2016. Papagiannis scored just 160 points in his NBA caree,r which is the fewest of any lottery pick from that draft.
24. Mookie Blaylock
Career: 13 seasons (1989-2002)
Teams: New Jersey Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors
Bottom Line: Mookie Blaylock
Born as Daron Oshay Blaylock, he was nicknamed Mookie as a kid by his older sisters, and the name stuck. Blaylock was one of the most underrated point guards of the ’90s and was a menace on the defensive end. He led the NBA in steals twice and made six straight All-Defensive teams.
His interesting name also caught on outside of basketball, as the rock band Pearl Jam originally named themselves “Mookie Blaylock” before changing it. Also, MLB MVP Mookie Betts, whose real name is Markus, got his nickname from Blaylock.
23. Duje Dukan
Career: 1 season (2016)
Teams: Sacramento Kings
Bottom Line: Duje Dukan
Pronounced Doo-yay Dook-in, Dukan was born in Croatia but moved to Chicago in 1992. That means he undoubtedly grew up as a fan of Hall of Famer Toni Kukoc, who was also from Croatia and played for the Chicago Bulls during the ’90s. But Dukan had another reason to be a huge Bulls fan, as his dad, Ivica, was the Bulls’ supervisor on European scouting after playing there for 15 years.
Duje’s connection led to him being a Bulls’ ball boy during the team’s heyday, and he would play college ball close by at the University of Wisconsin. Dukan’s NBA career lasted all of one game when he was called up from the G-League to play in the last game of the 2015-16 season.
22. Worthy Patterson
Career: 1 season (1957)
Teams: St. Louis Hawks
Stats: 1.8 PPG, 0.5 RPG, 0.5 APG
Bottom Line: Worthy Patterson
Born Worthington Patterson Jr., “Worthy” had a short four-game, 14-minute stint in the NBA but made a huge impact outside the league. Before joining the Hawks, he spent two years in the Army and was stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. After his brief NBA career, he then worked in the Hawks’ front office as part of the organization’s effort to integrate the team.
He then became a music executive and worked with such acts as Hall & Oates, Waylon Jennings, Kiss and The Village People. So, even though his NBA career was short, you could say he had a very worthy professional career.
21. Walker Russell
Career: 6 seasons (1982-88)
Teams: Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers
Stats: 3.0 PPG, 2.3 APG, 1.2 RPG
Bottom Line: Walker Russell
You have to believe that for Russell’s entire career — and life for that matter — people got his names mixed up and called him Russell Walker. He’s part of a basketball family, as his two brothers also played in the NBA, and they have “normal” first names in Frank and Michael (aka Campy).
Walker Russell’s son also played in the NBA, giving the family four pros, and he’s named Walker Russell Jr., who was surely referred to as Russell Walker Jr. once or twice. Both Russell Walker Sr. and Russell Walker Jr. are from Detroit, and they also both began their careers with the Pistons.
20. Rakeem Christmas
Career: 2 seasons (2016-17)
Teams: Indiana Pacers
Stats: 2.1 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.2 BPG
Bottom Line: Rakeem Christmas
No relation to Lloyd Christmas, but Rakeem Christmas does have a familial connection that should conceivably help his basketball career. He has a son with Jasmine Jordan, daughter of Michael Jordan. Christmas and Jasmine met when they were both students at Syracuse and had a kid in 2019, so their son will have a lifetime supply of Jordans to wear every — wait for it — Christmas.
While Christmas was an All-American with the Orange, he lasted just 30 games in the NBA. He hasn’t even received a known tryout with Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets, so nepotism isn’t helping him in that regard. Since his final NBA game, Christmas has bounced around from leagues in Turkey, New Zealand, the Philippines and Taiwan.
19. Pervis Ellison
Career: 11 seasons (1989-2000)
Teams: Sacramento Kings, Washington Bullets, Boston Celtics, Seattle SuperSonics
Bottom Line: Pervis Ellison
Due to his play as a freshman on Louisville’s 1986 championship team and Ellison being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, he was nicknamed “Never Nervous Pervis.” But his basketball career peaked in college.
Even though he was the first overall pick of the 1989 draft, Ellison was an average player. He also suffered many injuries during his career, which led to Danny Ainge rechristening his nickname as “Out of Service Pervis.” Ouch!
18. World B. Free
Career: 13 seasons (1975-88)
Teams: Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets
Bottom Line: World B. Free
Born Lloyd Bernard Free, he was nicknamed “World” while growing up in Brooklyn as being all-city, all-state and all-country weren’t lofty enough. Free was All-World, so the nickname stuck. But midway through his NBA career, Free’s nickname became his real name when he legally changed it to World B. Free.
He was one of the best scorers in the league from the late-70s through the mid-80s, and he twice finished runner-up to George Gervin for the scoring title. He made one All-Star Game in 1980 and also had a career-high of 30.2 points per game that season.
17. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Career: 5 seasons (2018-present)
Teams: Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder
Bottom Line: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
If you’re counting, Gilgeous-Alexander is 18 characters, and all 18 are put on the back of his jersey. That gives him the longest last name in NBA history and has led to some interesting jersey designs. While in college at Kentucky, the Wildcats went with an extra small font to fit “Gilgeous-Alexander” horizontally and above his number.
But when he joined the NBA, the Clippers decided to keep the font the same size as all other jerseys, but the team simply got creative to fit his name on the jersey. They printed “Gilgeous-Alexander” in an arc around his number with the “G” and the “R” nearly extending to his elbows.
Since being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019, "SGA" has established himself as one of the NBA's best players, making his first NBA All-Star Team and All-NBA Team in 2023.
16. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Career: 12 seasons (2008-20)
Teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets
Bottom Line: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Mbah a Moute’s life story plays out like the “Coming to America” script, as he’s a real-life prince of a village in Cameroon. Except instead of coming to New York, he came to Florida before heading to UCLA. The Bruins marketing department cleverly came up with a popular T-shirt that read “Moute Kicks Boute,” and Luc Richard was nicknamed The Fresh Prince.
At some point during his 12-year NBA career, he dropped the “Richard” and just went by Luc Mbah a Moute, which was still a mouthful. But his greatest contribution to basketball wasn’t what he did on the court, but rather helping to discover fellow Cameroonian Joel Embiid at a basketball camp.
15. Wally Szczerbiak
Career: 10 seasons (1999-2009)
Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Seattle SuperSonics, Cleveland Cavaliers
Bottom Line: Wally Szczerbiak
Many people grew up with friends named Scooter or Buddy or Chipper or … Wally. But those nicknames usually don’t last until adulthood, making Walter Robert Szczerbiak’s name an exception. Just as Mike Piazza once said in reference to Chipper Jones, “I’m not gonna call a grown man ‘Chipper’”, there were likely many of Szczerbiak’s teammates who felt odd calling him Wally.
As for his last name, Szczerbiak is of Ukrainian origin. His parents met in a West Germany refugee camp and then emigrated to Pittsburgh. Wally’s father, Walt, briefly played in the ABA before a career overseas, and Wally was born in Spain before moving to New York.
14. Royal Ivey
Career: 10 seasons (2004-14)
Teams: Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Oklahoma City Thunder
Bottom Line: Royal Ivey
“Royal Ivey” sounds more like a menu item at a fancy restaurant more than it sounds like an NBA player. Thus, “Royal Ivey With Cheese” became the name of a podcast about Ivey’s then-team of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He was a very good college player at Texas and then became an NBA journeyman but was known for being an exceptional leader. He was one of the rare people who went right into coaching the day he retired, moving just a few seats down on OKC’s bench to the coach’s section.
13. Alaa Abdelnaby
Career: 5 seasons (1990-95)
Teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers
Bottom Line: Alaa Abdelnaby
The first Egyptian-born player in NBA history, Abdelnaby was aptly nicknamed “Alphabet.” He was one of the first stars for Coach K at Duke, and when asked about Duke’s academic requirements, Abdelnaby infamously said, “The only way I can make five A’s is when I sign my name.”
Abdelnaby was a journeyman NBA player who played for five teams in five seasons. He then played for various other pro leagues, including ones in Greece and France, as well as minor circuits such as the CBA and the G-League. He now does broadcasting for various networks and has even gotten the opportunity to call five Olympics in Arabic, which is his native language.
12. Hakeem Olajuwon
Career: 18 seasons (1984-2002)
Teams: Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors
Championships: 2 (1994, 1995)
Bottom Line: Hakeem Olajuwon
After spending over a decade in Houston with the Cougars and the Rockets, in 1991, Olajuwon announced that he was correcting his name from “Akeem” to “Hakeem.” He did it out of respect for his mother who would always ask why people in America would spell it incorrectly.
As Olajuwon became a superstar in the mid-90s, his name became one of those that even casual fans would become familiar with and learn how to pronounce. Just as Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed daunting the first time you saw it, the same went for Hakeem Olajuwon, but eventually both names just flowed off the tongue.
11. JamesOn Curry
Career: 1 season (2010)
Teams: Los Angeles Clippers
Bottom Line: JamesOn Curry
The unique first name of Curry was a combination of the names of his great-uncle, James, and his father, Leon. Hence, JamesOn, which is pronounced James-Ahn, and he is, not surprisingly, the only JamesOn in NBA history. He’s definitely not the only Curry, but he has no relation to the greatest shooting family in NBA history.
An interesting note about JamesOn Curry is that he played just one NBA game and only 3.9 seconds in that game. It gives him the shortest career in NBA history, and he recorded no statistics in those 3.9 seconds.
10. Matthew Dellavedova
Career: 10 seasons (2013-23)
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings
Championships: 1 (2016)
Bottom Line: Matthew Dellavedova
While Dellavedova is Australian, his surname is of Italian origin, and he is a sixth-generation Italian Australian. He was born and raised in Victoria, Australia, and came to the United States when he joined Saint Mary’s basketball team in 2009.
Dellavedova is best known for his time with the Cavaliers and being a 2016 NBA champion, where he was part of the team that followed LeBron James in rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors. It was Cleveland's first pro sports championship in 52 years.
9. Tree Rollins
Career: 18 seasons (1977-95)
Teams: Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic
Bottom Line: Tree Rollins
Wayne Monte Rollins was affectionately known as Tree because he was built like one. He stood 7-foot-1 and weighed 235 pounds during his heyday, and Rollins was one of the premier shot blockers of his era. He averaged 4.3 blocks per game in 1982-83, which was the most in NBA history at that point when Rollins was the defensive presence on those Dominique Wilkins’ Hawks teams that could never get past the Sixers or Celtics.
Rollins’ name has provided many plays on words with headlines such as “Tree Has Strong Roots” or “Tree Turns a New Leaf.” But the best one came when he bit Danny Ainge during a 1983 playoff game, which spawned the headline “Tree Bites Man” in the Boston Herald.
8. Diamond Stone
Career: 1 season (2016-17)
Teams: Los Angeles Clippers
Bottom Line: Diamond Stone
Before we talk about Diamond Stone, we first have to talk about his parents. His mom’s maiden name is Oliver, so her maiden-plus-surname comes out to Oliver Stone. Diamond’s father, Robert, was the one who gave the name to his son because “a Diamond is the hardest rock on the planet.”
Diamond was a cut above as an amateur player as Wisconsin Mr. Basketball, and he set Maryland’s single-game freshman scoring mark. But Diamond cracked when he got to the pros and played just seven NBA games before splitting time with the G-League and foreign leagues.
7. Devin Durrant
Career: 2 seasons (1984-85)
Teams: Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns
Bottom Line: Devin Durrant
No, this is not one of Kevin Durant’s burner Twitter accounts come to life, as there actually was a Devin Durrant who hooped in the NBA. He was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and then a pedestrian player during his first two years at BYU.
However, after his sophomore year he went on a two-year Mormon mission and came back as a bigger, stronger 22-year-old junior. He then got on the radar of NBA teams and was named an AP All-American as a senior. Durrant was then a second-round NBA pick, and while he didn’t experience much success there, he did end his pro career playing overseas in Europe.
6. Bol Bol
Career: 3 seasons (2020-present)
Teams: Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic
Bottom Line: Bol Bol
Bol may be the only player in NBA history whose first name is the same as his last name. The son of the tallest player in NBA history, Manute Bol, the younger Bol stands 7-foot-2 but is still 5 inches shorter than his father. He first gained fame in high school, as he played for four different high schools in three different states.
Bol was a five-star prospect and joined the Oregon Ducks but played only nine games with them due to a broken foot. He was then a second round draft pick by the Denver Nuggets and has split time between the G-League and the Nuggets as a professional.
5. Tacko Fall
Career: 3 seasons (2019-22)
Teams: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers
Bottom Line: Tacko Fall
Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall was born and raised in Senegal before moving to the United States at 16 years old. His full name is a mouthful, so “Tacko” has stuck and spawned many a joke. He seems to trend on Twitter every Tuesday, aka “Taco Tuesday,” and is known more for his name and standing 7-foot-5 than his actual game.
At the 2019 NBA Draft Combine, Fall set all-time records for the largest wingspan (8-foot-2), highest standing reach (10-foot-2) and tallest height in shoes (7-foot-7). He is the sixth tallest player in NBA history and 2 inches shorter than the tallest (Manute Bol, Gheorghe Muresan).
4. Pooh Richardson
Career: 10 seasons (1989-99)
Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers
Bottom Line: Pooh Richardson
Get your mind out of the gutters, as Jerome Richardson Jr. earned his nickname because his grandmother thought he looked like Winnie the Pooh. Fortunately, he didn’t play like his nickname as the Minnesota Timberwolves made him their first-ever draft pick when the franchise debuted in 1989.
But Richardson’s greatest impact was being a mentor and lifelong friend to Kobe Bryant. Like Kobe, Richardson was also from Philadelphia, and he played for the Clippers when Kobe joined the Lakers. The two even watched a Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight together at Richardson’s house and hung out together. In 1999, Richardson’s NBA career came to an end, but he headed overseas and played one year with an Italian team that was co-owned by Kobe and his father, Joe Bryant.
3. God Shammgod
Career: 1 season (1997-98)
Teams: Washington Wizards
Bottom Line: God Shammgod
Yes, God Shammgod is his legal name, but while growing up, he went by the name “Shammgod Wells.” However, when he got to college, they said he had to either go by his legal name or pay $600 to have his name changed to Shammgod Wells. That was $600 that the teenager didn’t have, so he reverted back to his legal name, and a legend was born.
Shammgod had an uneventful 20-game NBA career, but his legacy is in not only his name, but his signature move. He invented the “Shammgod,” which is an inside-out crossover that many NBA players use today.
2. O.J. Mayo
Career: 8 seasons (2008-16)
Teams: Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks
Bottom Line: OJ Mayo
Not only does OJ Mayo have one of the best names in NBA history, but he also has one of the best nicknames in NBA history. Mayo is nicknamed “Grocery List” for obvious reasons, but unfortunately, his middle name isn’t something like Eggs or Jelly.
Mayo, the player, was one of the top amateur prospects in the country but was a role player during his eight NBA seasons. His NBA career came to an end in 2016 when he was “dismissed and disqualified” from the league for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program.
1. Chubby Cox
Career: 1 season (1983)
Teams: Washington Bullets
Bottom Line: Chubby Cox
Born John Arthur Cox III, “Chubby” had a name that undoubtedly drew lots of jokes and snickers from fans. While he may have gotten his nickname from being overweight as a kid, Cox stood a robust 6-foot-2 and weighed 180 pounds during his NBA days. He spent most of his career playing in the CBA, while also making a detour in Venezuela, as he played in just seven NBA games.
But the most noteworthy thing about Cox isn’t his name or his brief NBA tenure, it’s that his sister married Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the father of the late Kobe Bryant. That makes Chubby Cox the brother-in-law of Jellybean and the uncle of Kobe.