Hakeem Olajuwon never wanted to be just a center and was often considered a guard trapped in a centers body. After starting playing basketball at the age of 17, Hakeem didn't even know about the difference in positions because it didn't feel natural and shared his evolution as a player.
He was naive about basketball
In a great interview with the Players Tribune, Hakeem shares what happened when he was preparing to move to the US and start a college basketball career at the University of Houston. Olajuwon never expected to be limited in his role and what he could do on the court. During that summer, he actually had to play a center in a game and mostly spent time in the paint, which was a complete surprise for him. Playing in a structure where he was perceived as a center because of his height was a big initial challenge for Hakeem.
"As it turned out, being naive about basketball worked in my favor. I didn't approach basketball with any preconceptions. When my coach told me to play the center position, I didn't know what he meant. I could name the five positions, but I couldn't really explain the difference between a center and a small forward. The summer before I began college, my coaches would yell at me during practice, 'Hakeem, you're playing center! Just stay in the key!' I didn't want to stay in the key. I watched the guards, and I was inspired by their creativity. The key was boring."
Hakeem worked on every aspect of his game
Hakeem was inspired by the guards on the perimeter and wanted to do the same thing and not be stuck in the paint, where his movement was limited. That was when Hakeem decided to work on his outside game and improved every aspect of his game. Shooting, working on handles, post moves, passing are all things that were in Hakeem's focus early on in his basketball career. As soon as coaches saw what Hakeem could do on the basketball court, they stopped limiting him and let him play his game which was a win-win situation for everyone.
"I wanted to dance in and out of the paint, all over the court. I saw guards handling the ball and I'd say, 'Man, I want to do that stuff.' So I developed my outside game. I didn't just do big man drills. I worked on my dribbling and my mid-range jumper. I worked on my passing and my footwork. If I had a slower guy guarding me, I would draw him outside of his element. I could get an easy jumper, or I could cross him over and beat him to the rim. If he was smaller, I'd get early position inside and post him up. I learned that basketball and soccer are similar in at least one way: You take what the defense gives you. Soon, coaches stopped telling me to stay in the key."
Hakeem revolutionized the centers' position in many ways, showcasing you can have guard-like moves in the post and be successful. However, it's not easy to do what Hakeem did so effortlessly for almost 2 decades, and even though players are to replicate Hakeem's moves, we haven't seen anyone just like him yet in the NBA. Hakeem is probably one of those players that would blossom even more in today's NBA, where he would have even more freedom to operate outside of the paint. Imagine surrounding Hakeem with 4 shooters and letting him go to work and create opportunities for others after double-teaming comes, and you know for sure they are coming after Hakeem.
The Rockets in his days had a similar system in place, which was the main reason why they won two consecutive NBA championships, and Hakeem was a two-time NBA Finals MVP outperforming all the great centers from that era, and we all know there were quite a few of them. Big men nowadays need to be more versatile, while back then that wasn't the case, and because Hakeem got inspired and tried other things on the court, it made coaches realize you can't just put a big man in the paint if he has different skill sets that could help the team win.