Point-Centers Will Be Center of Attention in Denver

DENVER – Forget about point guards. Tonight’s Celtics-Nuggets matchup in Denver is all about the NBA’s newest fad: point-centers.

The trend over the past decade has been for big men to showcase that they can step away from the basket and shoot the ball. The trend for the next decade, it appears, may for big men to be able to step away from the basket and pass the ball.

Al Horford and Nikola Jokic, Boston’s and Denver’s top centers, are ahead of the curve.

Horford enters tonight’s game ranked third in the NBA among centers in assists per game with an average of 5.2. Jokic is just ahead of him with an average of 5.3 assists per game. DeMarcus Cousins, who will miss the rest of the season for New Orleans after tearing his Achilles, leads all centers with an average of 5.4 per game.

To put those numbers into perspective, Boston’s All-Star starting point guard, Kyrie Irving, averages 5.0 APG.

“Bigs are coming into the league and they’ve had to step away from the basket and have a lot more of being able to dribble, pass and shoot from the perimeter,” Irving explained.

The point guard, who is in his first season playing alongside Horford, has quickly realized that having a center who, in addition to the guards, possesses elite passing skills can open things up for everyone else on the court.

“The passing ability,” Irving said, “it creates other opportunities where we can run specific offensive schemes through our 5s and 4s and they’re able to make pin-point passes, and they don’t necessarily have to be the screener every time.”

The Celtics have reaped the benefits of such skills for the last season and a half as Horford has integrated himself into the team’s system. His passing ability played a key role in Isaiah Thomas’ ascension to superstardom last season, and it is playing a critical role this season in Irving putting together the most efficient season of his career.

Horford says that he and Jokic – not to mention the players around them – have their coaches to thank for empowering them to dribble and pass the ball the way they do.

“At least for me,” Horford commented, “that’s what Coach Stevens does. He allows all of us, all the big guys, to handle the ball and make decisions.”

Horford, who also averages 13.4 points per game, does not always look to pass the ball, but he does agree with Irving that looking for teammates tends to open things up for everyone at the offensive end.

“It just depends on what’s asked of me,” he said of aiming to shoot versus aiming to pass, “but normally I’m looking to make the right, easy play. So if I can get a teammate a layup, if I can get him an open shot, I just think that gets the ball moving and I feel like it makes everybody feel good and we get into a better offensive rhythm.”

Jokic offers a very similar skill set to Horford. In addition to his average of 5.3 assists, he also scores an average of 16.1 PPG and can shoot the ball from the perimeter. The big man is coming off of a triple-double performance Saturday night, as he tallied 16 rebounds, 11 points and 11 assists against Dallas.

After studying Jokic’s showing against the Mavs and other teams, Horford says the enter brings more to the table than the eye might indicate.

“He’s just a guy that’s very deceptive with the things that he’s able to do,” said Horford. “Deceptive as in, you look at him and you’re like, ‘Oh, maybe he’s just a banger. Or maybe he’s just a typical European guy who just shoots 3s.’ But he can bring the ball up the court like I do on the break, create problems, can put the ball on the floor, finish both ways. He’s just a very complete player.”

So, too, is Horford, and that’s why Boston and Denver will run their respective offenses through their skilled big men tonight.

Point guards like Irving and Jamal Murray will certainly tally some assists, but it would not be the least bit of a surprise if each team’s top center winds up leading his team in assists.

They are, after all, point-centers.