In part 2 of our top ten series we will be looking at, you guessed it, the Top 10 Outsides in Volleyball. As with the last one, this list is an amalgamation of the top tens of some of the most obsessive volleyball fans I know. These are, in our opinion, the top ten players at the most multi-faceted position in volleyball, outside.
Left-handed outsides are as rare as middles who can play defense, so for a lefty to be among the best outsides in the world is impressive. Whether you are watching Uros Kovacevic play with Trentino or Serbia, you can be sure there will be at least one play from him that will blow your mind. This cut shot going away from his body to the corner is an example of one. It gives a good representation of his unorthodox play-style that has resulted in him turning into a top-tier player. The last few months have been tough for Kovacevic, with an under-performing season for Trentino, and a tough time passing at Nations League at only an 11% efficiency. Your team isn’t going to win games when you can only run first tempo 1/10 of the time. Serbia will need a better performance from him if they want to live up to their potential as a team in the World Championships.
Braizilian volleyball just hasn’t been the same for the last 9 months without Lucarelli. He went down with an achilles tendon injury in november, meaning he missed playing for Brazil in the nations league. They felt his absence, especially after outside hitter Mauricio Borges also went down with an injury. When he is healthy, Lucarelli is a dynamic force on the wing. He is a rare player who is able to serve, receive, play defense, and attack all at an elite level. He played a key component of Brazil’s gold medal win at the 2016 Olympics at won best outside spiker for the tournament. Achilles injuries are notoriously difficult to recover from, most famously ending the career of Kobe Bryant. Lucarelli might miss the World Championships as well due to complaints from his club Taubate. Hopefully he can return to playing volleyball at the same level as before his injury.
If you want proof of how important Michal Kubiak is on the volleyball court, look no further than Poland’s performance in the Nations League this year. While Kubiak was playing with the team in the first two weeks of the tournament, they went 6-0 against opponents such as Russia, France, and Canada. After he had to leave the team to deal with chronic conjunctivitis, which is a type of eye infection I do not recommend googling, the Polish team went 4-7 the rest of the nations league. Obviously Kubiak wasn’t the only reason for this, but his ferocious attacking generates a ton of important points. Kubiak is a divisive character because of his overflowing confidence and penchant for net-talk, but he can back it up. Poland will be glad to have his talent and swagger back for the world championships.
The first of two Americans on this list is 6’5” BYU grad Taylor Sander. With a massive vertical and arguably the hardest arm swing in volleyball, Sander is one of my favourite players to watch. You never know when he can explode out of the backcourt for a lighting fast bic courtesy of Micah Christenson. He can pass daggers and is a proficient blocker considering that he is undersized compared to others on this list. Despite competing with Aaron Russell and Thomas Jaeschke on team USA for coveted starting outside positions, Taylor has established himself as the cream of the crop. We didn’t get to see him play much during this summer’s Nations League as he had a new Sander on the way, but his performance in the final round was enough to earn a distinction as one of the best outsides. The foreign player limit in the Italian league limited him last season, but with Yoandry Leal and Robertlandy Simon out of Sada Cruzeiro, we will get to see how he performs as the leader of a team.
Our youngest player on this list just barely misses the top half. At just 22 years old Dmitry Volkov was the captain of a Russian team that dismantled its competition at the 2018 nations league. And he was a major part of their success, scoring 48 points in the final round on his way to a best outside award. Russia’s youth teams have always had success, so eyes have been on Dmitry Volkov and fellow outside hitter Egor Kliuka for a while. And so far, they are exceeding expectations with their dominance on the senior team. Russia will be the team to beat in the World Championships this year after winning the nations league in convincing fashion. Where Volkov hasn’t has as much success is with his club team Fakel Novy Urengoy. Even paired up with Kliuka they haven’t had much success against deeper and more experienced team in the Russian league. Will his loyalty to his youth team outweigh the lucrative contract offers from richer clubs?
While not in the spotlight as much as some of his fellow Cuban compatriots, Yoandry Leal is still one of the best in the business. A heavy arm swing that he can seemingly hit an any angle is his best asset, but like most outsides on this list, he is an all-around player that excels at every skill. Leal is making his first foray into Europe this fall, after Sada Cruzeiro in Brazil swapped him with Taylor Sander to Lube Civitanova in Italy. He has dominated in South America, and will no doubt dominate in Europe, where he will share the court with fellow Cuban Osmany Juantorena. With a closet full of awards with Sada Cruzeiro, including 3 club world championship wins, the only thing missing from his resume are international competition accomplishments. Leal will get that chance when he joins the Brazilian national team in 2019. Hopefully the injury curse of being a Brazilian outside hitter doesn’t affect him.
If you were to create the perfect volleyball player in a lab, the result wouldn’t be that far from Osmany Juantorena. At 6’7” with a condor’s wingspan, he possesses the dexterity of someone much smaller and the strength of someone bigger. He leverages his physical attributes well. He was the MVP of the Italian Superleague in the 2017-2018 season, beating out players like Earvin Ngapeth and Ivan Zaytsev. His stats blew every other wing player out of the water. He hit an astonishing 58 kill percentage on 3.43 kills per set, which was the most efficient in the league. He had 44 aces with only 59 errors. And all that offense was complimented by a 22% passing efficiency, good for 6th in the league. He wasn’t nearly as dominant in the nations league however, only hitting 47% and passing 19% over the three weekends he played. Italy will need him to play at his top form if they want a chance of winning a World Championship medal on home turf.
I received a fair amount of messages asking why Matt Anderson was missing from the top 10 opposite list. He was probably the toughest player to place at a position because he alternates so fluidly between outside and opposite. Ultimately I decided to rank him as an outside because he plays the position for Zenit Kazan and still receives as an opposite on team USA. And also because this list is totally arbitrary and I can do what I want. Regardless of which position he is playing, he is one of the best to do it. Anderson had a ridiculous nations league from a statistical perspective, hitting at 55% kill percentage and passing at a 42% efficiency. His presence helped lead them to a bronze medal over Brazil after losing to France in 5 sets in the semi-finals. Even with guys like Taylor Sander, Micah Christenson, and Erik Shoji on the team, Anderson stands out as a leader and the foundation of their team. There are a lot of young wings on team USA anxious to take his starting spot, but for now Anderson is irreplaceable.
If you were to ask a casual volleyball fan who their favourite player was, there is a pretty good chance that they would choose Earvin Ngapeth. The French superstar is the flashiest player we have in our sport. Many youtube and Instagram highlight reels have dedicated to the creative and skillful moves that he pulls in matches. Even better, things like the “backwards attack” the “fake-pipe-set” are actually effective and have been replicated by players in leagues all over the world. His rap career, however, has yet to garner quite as much attention. Even though he is known for his flashy attacks, where he makes his best contributions is behind the attack line. He is a near technically perfect passer, with 24% efficiency in the Italian League this season and 34% in the nations league. He also led the nations league in aces per set. After a messy exit from Modena, Ngapeth will be replacing our #1 player in Zenit Kazan next season. Let’s see if he can continue his dominance in Russia.
You thought two Americans on this list was impressive? How about three Cubans. Wilfredo Leon is the closest thing we have to a LeBron James in volleyball. An overpowering athlete who has been crowned the next big thing since he was 16 years old. And like LeBron, Leon has lived up to the hype. His club Zenit Kazan has won 4 champions league titles in a row, with Wilfredo as their cornerstone. He hits over 55% in every competition he takes part in and has come close to averaging an ace per set. The only thing missing from his resume is national team medals which he hasn’t had the chance to win for several years. We will have the chance to see how a modern Leon measures up on the international stage when he plays with Poland in 2019.