Patrick Ewing and Kevin WillisThe Ultimate Raptors Rankings are the Raptorblog editors’ attempt to rank the top 30 Toronto Raptors of all time. These rankings are obviously somewhat arbitrary and endlessly debatable, but they’re based on each player’s contribution, performance and longevity as a Raptor, and on how beloved they are by Raptors fans. We’ll count down a new Raptor every Wednesday on this blog.

Kevin Willis’ Raptors résumé:

  • 11th in franchise history in rebounds
  • One of six Raptors to average 12 points and eight rebounds in a season

The Toronto Raptors’ history of legitimate centers — meaning guys who weren’t actually power forwards playing out of position — is far from illustrious. The fact that Zan Tabak logged over 2,300 minutes in a Raptors uniform would be astounding unless you recall that the alternatives at the time included Dan O’Sullivan and Ed Stokes.

One center who actually looked like he belonged in the NBA while wearing a Raptors uniform was Kevin Willis. Entering his 14th season out of what would be an amazing 21 NBA seasons, Willis was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Raptors in June 1998 for Roy Rogers and two 1998 first round draft picks that the Rockets would later use to draft Bryce Drew and Mirsad Turcan. (Pointless trivia that might amuse only me: Drew was the 16th overall pick while Turcan went 18th overall. The pick between them was Rasho Nesterovic!)

If you had to pick one thing that stood out about Kevin Willis, it would definitely be his physique. Willis was renowned for his dedication to physical fitness — from observing his muscular frame, it wasn’t difficult to believe the reports that he could bench press over 400 pounds. He used that conditioning and strength to great effect on the boards, even though he was handicapped by short arms and surprisingly small hands considering his seven-foot height.

Willis’ NBA success was built on a combination of hard work and his natural genetic gifts. He wasn’t, however, a particularly elegant or exciting player to watch, which meant that he never really caught on as a fan favorite in his two-and-a-half seasons with the Raptors. That didn’t stop Barrie-based TV network “The New VR” from featuring him (perhaps ironically, but probably not) in this wacky commercial in 2000.

While Willis’ rebounding remained strong as he played through his 38th birthday in Toronto, his offense sadly fell into sharp decline. He was never particularly polished in the post, but his 42.5 percent shooting percentage as a Raptor would be subpar if he was a guard — nevermind that he played under the basket. Those short arms didn’t help, obviously, and they were also a significant reason why he never averaged a block per game in any season.

The photo accompanying this post was taken during the New York Knicks’ three-game sweep of the Raptors in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. (This was the Raptors’ first ever post-season appearance and Game One took place on my birthday. I can still remember how pumped up I was.) Willis was actually pretty solid in that series, averaging 13 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Patrick Ewing averaged 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds for the Knicks over the three games, so you could say that Willis held his own against one of the NBA’s premiere big men. It was Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell that the Raptors didn’t have an answer for.

The mid-season trade that sent Kevin Willis to the Nuggets in January 2001 has to be considered one of the most surreal yet successful transactions in Raptors history — Willis was shipped to Denver along with Aleksandar Radojevic, Garth Joseph and a second round pick for Keon Clark, Tracy Murray and Mamadou N’Diaye. Since Willis was 38 years old at the time of the trade, you might have thought that he was nearing the end of his career. In fact, he would go on to play 248 more games over the next five-and-a-half seasons with the Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs, Hawks and Mavericks. When he finally retired in 2007, he could claim to be the oldest man to play more than one game in an NBA season and he is currently fifth all-time in games played.

Perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Kevin Willis about his time as a Raptor was the example he set with his hard work and physical fitness. Yeah, he had T-Rex arms and carny hands that may or may not have smelled like cabbage, but he was an important part of a tough squad that won 45 games in 1999-2000 and gave Raptors fans their first taste of the playoffs, so I’m happy that we could fit him on this list.