Setter was the hardest position to rank in this series. It is tough to isolate a setter’s impact because it is dependent so much on who is passing and who is hitting. Because they are the ultimate team position, these rankings are based on 100s of hours watching these guys play. Here are the fiveonevb rankings of the the top 10 setters in 2018.
A big reason for Germany’s stellar performance in the European Championships in 2017 and the World Championships in 2014 was the distribution skills of setter Lukas Kampa. Even though he doesn’t have the setting wizardry of some of the other players on this list, he still benefits his teams with physical play and leadership. His club team, Jastrzebski Wegeil, is making some serious additions next year with players like Julien Lyneel, Christian Fromm, and Dawid Konarski. I don’t really have much to say about Kampa other than he seems like a great guy and a great setter.
It’s easy to be forgotten as a setter when your hitters include Srecko Lisinac, Uros Kovacevic, and Aleksander Atanasijevic. But Nikola Jovovic doesn’t get enough credit when Serbia succeeds in international play. He can pull off a lot of the unique skills possessed by some of the other top setters in the world, albeit at a lower level. The two-handed dumps of Toniutti, the tight setting of De Cecco, and the off-the-net shoots of TJ Sanders. The ability to read and react to a wide range of situations makes him a versatile player. A couple of things hold him back from the top tiers however. Jovovic is not much of an athelete. He is slow to get to the ball and chase down passes, and he relies on his height to contact the ball rather than his jump. And his float serve rarely results in a tough pass. Serbia has struggled recently, and Jovovic is partly to blame. The World Championships is the perfect time to get things back on track.
Canada has burst onto the volleyball scene the last couple of years with high finishes at all international events and a deep if not superstar-filled roster. Arguably the biggest reason for their success is the play of setter Tyler James Sanders. Hailing from London (no, not the one in England, the one in Ontario), TJ was a slow burner, bouncing around in lower tier leagues and teams before starting to gain recognition around 2016. He has improved considerably every year, adding elements to his game and climbing through the ranks of team Canada and professional clubs. Every middle who plays with TJ improves considerably. Ever heard of Lukas Van Berkel or Arthur Swarc? Despite being kind of mediocre in their club play, when they are paired up with TJ, they become beasts. And Graham Vigrass, who is a beast already, becomes unstoppable. He can find the middle from anywhere in front of the attack line and put it right in the pocket. There are lofty expectations for Sanders and the rest of the Canadians at the World Championships. Anything less than a top 4 finish would be disappointing.
Among the three Russian setters that are among the top in the world, (Grankin, Butko and Kovalev), Butko is number 1. He is another part of the legendary Zenit Kazan team that has ravaged the Champions League for the better part of this decade. You could argue that it’s not that hard to set up players like Wilfredo Leon, Maxim Mikhaylov, and Matt Anderson, but there is a reason the best Russian club has chosen Butko. He has few weaknesses. He is a strong blocker, consistent jump server, and is great at getting his attackers into a rhythm. He could have limited time in the World Championships this fall, considering that him, Egor Kliuka, and Dmitry Muserskiy were all not born in Russia, and the FIVB has a limit of 2 foreign-born players. Butko might be the least flashy player on this list, but consistency has maybe become a bit underrated in this new era.
I imagine this ranking could be a little controversial, as Saied Marouf seems to inspire some strong opinions one way or the other. A lot of people think the Iranian is right up there with the top setters in the world. I believe he is in a tier below, not that there is anything wrong with 6th. If there is one thing we can all agree with about Marouf, it is that he is an entertaining player to watch. You never know when he is going to dump it on the second contact, and he has a way of hiding his intentions that sometimes even fools his own teammates. He can make digs that 80% of liberos couldn’t hope for. Iran has been among the best dozen teams in the world recently, and a big part of that is due to the orchestration and leadership of Marouf. There are a couple of things keeping him out of the top 5 however. While he completes most of his unconventional and spectacular sets, he is still prone to making more errors than more traditional setters. His fiery demeanor makes him a polarizing figure among fans and teammates. And as he gets older, his height becomes more and of a limitation as a blocker. He will still be a huge asset to both Iran and his new club team, Emma Villas Siena in Italy.
As setters get taller and more athletic, one setter does the opposite. At only 6 feet tall, Ben Toniutti may be taller than the average French guy, but he is the smallest player on any of our lists besides libero. The fact that he is still one of the most effective setters in the world is mind-blowing. Toniutti is technically pretty much perfect, rarely missing the mark with his hitters even on poor passes. His back row defending results in many extra opportunities for Zaksa and France, especially errant passes that he is can quickly chase down. Unfortunately, height is a crucial factor in volleyball and despite being a smart blocker, Toniutti cannot effectively slow down big, athletic hitters. Even with a good vertical, you just can’t slow down outsides who are hitting at close to 12 feet when you are half that height. That being said, his skills compensate to a large extent, and I don’t think there is much difference between Toniutti and the other top 5 players on this list.
Luciano De Cecco
De Cecco holds a special place in my heart because he played in the first professional match that I have ever seen live. I saw things that day that I didn’t know setters were capable of. To this day, he continues to impress fans of Argentina and Perugia with clever setting and the most stoic poker face in volleyball. He is one of the toughest setters to read in the sport, disguising his intentions until the last possible second to get his hitters a single (or zero) block. And his trademark one-arm dump to the bucket is a threat that opponents have to respect. After 8 years of play in Italy’s top division, he finally won the championship this season with Perugia, and next year’s team could be even more of a threat with Wilfredo Leon. Argentina suffered his absence in their abysmal 14th place performance in the most recent nations league. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference he makes for Argentina in the World Championships.
Some might consider it too early to lift Simone Giannelli into the upper echeleon of setters, but why should we penalize a player for being so good, so young? He already has the resume, both with his club team Trentino and the Italian national team. And his play speaks for itself. His almost 6’7” height makes him an imposing blocker, and he picks up a lot of balls in the backrow for someone his size. He is as good with one hand as with two, able to find the opposite hitter or tip to positions 2 or 4 on tight sets. Hard to believe that he just turned 22, considering that it seems like he has been a top player forever. Especially at a position like setter, which typically has a later peak. And the dude has 240,000 instagram followers! Only like 100 times more than me, not that I’m jealous or anything.
Bruno Rezende was born with a volleyball in his hands. Son of former Brazilian national team coach Bernardo and player Vera Mossa, there was no doubt he has been getting elite volleyball training for all 33 years of his life. And it shows on the volleyball court. Bruno has a masterful control over the ball in every situation and a telepathic connection with certain attackers like Lucas Saatkamp and Earvin Ngapeth. He spent the first part of his career in the shadow of fellow Brazillian setters William Arjona and Marcelinho, but has really come into his own over the last couple years with the current generation of Brazilian volleybal players. He will have his work cut out for him at the World Championships, with both starting outsides for Brazil injured. But if there is anything Bruno is good at, it is getting the absolute most from all his hitters. Which might be a tough task with Victor Cardosa as a starter.
The poster boy for the “new era” of tall, athletic setters, Micah Christenson takes the top spot on this list at 25 years old. And despite little agreement about the position of the 4 setters below him, all rankers had Micah at either 1 or 2. It is just so rare to have height, athleticism, coordination and the mental acuity required to be a setter all in the same body. Getting recruited to one of the top clubs in pro volleyball right out of college only happens to the best athletes in North America. And Micah didn’t just play, he excelled, with top 3 finishes in the Italian League and Champions League in all of his seasons so far. His ability to find middles from anywhere on the floor and set precise balls to the backrow mean that his teams often have team hitting %s well over 50. In fact Lube Civitanova led the entire Italian Superleague with 54% hitting this past season. Micah has big shoes to fill on the American national team after Lloy Ball, but if things continue e is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest setters of our sport.
Honourable mentions: William Arjona, Grzegorz Lomacz, Fabian Drzyzga
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