With the Nations League in the past and the World Championships to look forward to, I thought it would be fun to do every sport’s fans favourite activity: player rankings. For this series of articles, I will be ranking the Top 10 Volleyball Players in the world at each of the 5 positions. To minimize my own biases, I asked 3 other of the most obsessive volleyball fans who their top 10s were, amalgamated the answers, and produced these lists are the result. Totally subjective of course, but I will try and back up the results with evidence. First up is the position that stuffs the stat sheet, scores a ton of points, and contains the best pure athletes in our sport: opposite.
Bet you didn’t expect to see this guy on the list! After all, China’s men’s team has never been a threat in the international stage. Jiang Chuan is also the only player on any of these lists to never play in a pro European or South American league. Anyone who has watched him on team China or Shanghai knows how devastating of an attacker he can be. At 6’9 without shoes he is one of the tallest opposites in the game, and he makes full use of his height with strategic and powerful hits. In fact, he was so good at attacking he was the top scorer in the VNL while also hitting at an efficient 55%, despite being the sole focus of opposing defenders. It would be awesome to see him play in a competitive pro league such as Italy or Poland.
A beast of a player that would have been a few spots higher on the list just 12 months ago. Grozer is one of the most powerful attackers volleyball has ever seen and consistently hits balls at the top of the antenna. There are countless videos on YouTube of him bombing serves at over 120 km/h. However, after winning best spiker at the 2017 European Championships, Gyorgy Grozer hasn’t had the best of times. He started off his club season with Lokomotiv Novosibirsk, but after they posted a disappointing result in the Champions League, he was traded to Belgorod for Marcus Nillson. In the future, he will be missing the World Championship along with the rest of Germany because they did not qualify. Hopefully a summer off is exactly what he needs to return to his usual form.
There are many talented Polish opposites for the best clubs in Poland to choose from. Bartosz Kurek, Maciej Muzaj, Damien Schulz, and Lukasz Kaczmernak are all great players. But the best club in Poland, Skra Belchatow, has stuck with Mariusz Wlazly as their starting opposite for over a decade. He is undersized at only 6’4”, but has a wicked swing that makes him a dangerous attacker and server. For Skra this season he had 280 kills and 54 aces. Now retired from the Polish national team, Wlazly likely has a limited shelf life as a top player, but made he has made his mark as a volleyball player and set a great example for future generations of Polish players to follow.
He might not be the biggest name on this list, but it won’t be long until Nimir Abdel-Aziz is one of the most feared opposites in volleyball. Like Ivan Zaytsev, Nimir was a hyper-athletic setter that made the switch to the opposite position and has been killing it ever since. After outgrowing the French pro league with the position switch, he made the move to the Italian league, where he was on pace to break the single-season points record before he was sidelined with an abdominal injury. In addition, Nimir actually managed to get the most aces in the league despite missing the latter part of the season. A huge wingspan and a ferocious arm swing means he doesn’t even need to avoid the block most of the time; he simply sings through it. He’ll get a chance to show off to international audiences in the World Championships where he will likely captain the Netherlands.
The youngest player on this list at 22 years old, Stehpen Boyer is just the latest star to come out of an elite French talent development system. He killed it at the nations league this year, playing as their #1 offensive option and putting up 31 points in the semifinals against team USA. A long wingspan and tremendous leaping ability make up for his 6’5” height and allow him to hit sharp angles. There is no trickiness with Boyer’s game, its just power and quickness all day. France is lucky to have this guy for the next decade.
Sokolov is a great player, but he wouldn’t have made this list if it wasn’t for one elite skill: blocking. In the Italian League this past season, he averaged 0.67 kill blocks per set, good for top 3 in the league. And that’s not just among opposites, that’s counting middles too. Being able to shut down opposing outsides is a huge asset for any team, and Bulgaria felt his absence this year at nations league. Sokolov is out right now with a knee injury but hopefully he will return in time for the world championships in September.
Whether you love him or hate him, its hard to doubt Atanasijevi’c skills on the volleyball court. He was the most effective hitter of the 2018 Nations League, with 57% kill percentage on 200 attacking attempts. He is not afraid to let opponents know about his talent either, often chirping through the net and celebrating enthusiastically. Atanasijevic is prone to inconsistency, but when he is in the zone, there are no players who are as unstoppable. On most teams, he would be the unquestionable starter, but he has to split time on the Serbian national team with another top opposite, Drazen Luburic. It will be interesting how Nikola Grbic splits their playing time in the World Championships.
Possibly volleyball’s most recognizable face, Ivan Zaytsev has played setter and outside hitter in the past, but opposite is where he plays his best ball. Zaytsev combines his 6’8” frame with elite atleticsm, hitting over 50% in the Nations League with a barrage of unstoppable attacks. Serving is also a strength in his game, and he currently holds the record for fastest serve in an FIVB game with 134 km/h. Some argue that his off the court persona can be distracting, but like Atanasijevic, when he is dialed in you cannot stop him.
Wallace De Souza
The workhorse behind the last decade of Brazilian volleyball dominance, Wallace De Souza could easily be the #1 player on this list. However, If you’re looking for someone to base your game off of, Wallace is not your guy. He has an unorthodox play-style that includes broad jumps and gymnastic attacks in the air, which would be hard to replicate for your average player. This unique style is a big part of what makes him such an effective player. He was 2nd in the Nations League in points scored with 217 and did so on a kill % of 52.6%. For another player that would be a huge career accomplishment, but for Wallace, it’s just another day at the office.
Maxim Mikhaylov has owned this decade. He is the leading scorer of 4 time Champions League winning club Zenit Kazan, 2-time European champion, Nations League 2018 MVP, and an Olympic gold medalist in 2012. Throughout this reign he has been consistent, focused, and absolutely dominant. He is an athletic force, but what separates him from the other players on this list is his fanatical attention to detail. Every swing is calculated, he knows opponent tendencies inside-and-out, and you can count on him to never miss an approach. He will go down as one of the greats in our sport.
Other players with votes: Sharone Vernon-Evans, Ben Patch, Drazen Luburic, Amir Ghafour