Click here to Skip to main content
Tyler Zeller (44) of North Carolina is one of the few likely first-round center picks in this year's Draft.
Courtesy University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Pace of NBA games makes center prospects tougher to judge

Posted Jun 12 2012 10:06AM

Shaquille O'Neal is not walking through that door.

Neither are Dwight Howard, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Andrew Bynum or Roy Hibbert. Well, maybe Hibbert.

The Pacers' emerging All-Star center had the kind of career arc that the league's personnel men hope will be duplicated by someone in this year's crop of center prospects. No one expected Hibbert -- a late bloomer at Georgetown that no one on the Hilltop believed would join the pantheon of great Hoyas big men -- to be anything other than adequate in the NBA when Indiana executed a trade with Toronto soon after the 2008 Draft. But four years later, the 25-year-old is one of the league's top bigs, helping the Pacers get to the second round of the playoffs before bowing out in six tough games against Miami.

"I remember Roy Hibbert at Georgetown Prep in hs," North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall Tweeted earlier this month. "Couldn't walk & chew gum at the same time. NEVER thought he would be this good."

Quality center play in the NBA these days is like finding $20 in your jeans pocket just before you put them in the washing machine -- an unexpected gift. With most teams going smaller more often to get their best players on the court, and the NBA's rules eliminating almost all defensive contact in the open court, the pro game rarely favors the big man anymore. Long gone are the days when teams coveted the back-to-the-basket pivot who would get a touch every time down the floor.


A note on the rankings:

This is not a predictor of when these players will be taken. These rankings, based on discussions with dozens of NBA and college coaches, and NBA college scouts and team executives, address the question of how ready players are to play the position which they are assigned: In other words, if there was a game tonight, who would play better at that position tonight, not in three years. Players are ranked based on the position that the coaches and scouts believe is their best NBA position, and even then, there is always disagreement between teams.

"Sleepers" are players almost certain to go in the second round but who may have first-round talent or otherwise have an impact on the teams that select them if they overcome perceived shortcomings.

"Some Scouts Like" are players who are not certain to declare, but are viewed as potentially draftable if they do -- with an emphasis on "potentially."

• All measurements are the official ones available after the Chicago pre-Draft camp. Measurements for players who did not attend the pre-Draft camp are from their respective university or team.

Rank Name School/Team Class/Age Height Weight Likely drafted
1 Andre Drummond UConn Freshman 6-11 3/4 279 High/mid Lottery
2 Tyler Zeller North Carolina Senior 7-0 1/2 247 Mid/late lottery
3 Meyers Leonard Illinois Sophomore 7-1 1/4 250 Mid/late first
4 Fab Melo Syracuse Sophomore 7-0 255 Late first
5 Festus Ezeli Vanderbilt Senior 6-11 1/2 264 Second round
6 Henry Sims Georgetown Senior 6-11 3/4 241 Second round
7 Justin Hamilton LSU Junior 7-0 260 Second round
8 Robert Sacre Gonzaga Senior 7-0 260 Second round
9 Mindaugas Kupsas Baltai Kaunas 21 7-0 250 Second round
10 Garrett Stutz Wichita State Senior 7-0 255 Late second round
HONORABLE MENTION: Jonas Bergstedt, 20, 6-11, 240, Torrelodones (Spain); Kenny Frease, 7-0, 275, Xavier

SLEEPER: Travis Hyman (JR), 7-0, 245, Bowie State

Today, a team like Denver is more than willing to trade a prototypical center like Nene to get a more athletic and unorthodox big like JaVale McGee -- and play an undersized-but-active big man like Kenneth Faried in the middle for long stretches. The Celtics put spindly Kevin Garnett, a power forward for 15 years, in the hole out of necessity during the second half of this season. But the 36-year-old, who didn't necessarily want to start banging with bigger bodies at this point of his career, didn't suffer in his new role -- he thrived.

But there will be centers taken high, just as there have been every year. Someone will take a flier during the early lottery on Connecticut freshman Andre Drummond, because he's a physical manchild, even though he was wildly inconsistent in his one season in Storrs. There are also questions about the likes of Syracuse's Fab Melo and Illinois sophomore Meyers Leonard.

UNC's Tyler Zeller is considered the safest pick among the centers in this year's Draft.
Jeffrey A. Camarati / UNC Athletic Communications

The only center prospect that most personnel types would feel safe taking high in the lottery is North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, expected to be a solid if unspectacular big man. The question about Zeller -- as it is with many Tar Heels -- is whether he hit his ceiling as a player in college, and won't improve much more in the pros. But Zeller will shake hands with the Commish early.

Drummond, who averaged 10 points and 7.6 rebounds for a Connecticut team that underachieved most of the season, is a classic beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder talent. While he leaves many personnel types cold, others believe the 18-year-old is being written off much too soon, and teams that pass on him this year will end up regretting it. One team executive put Drummond's potential range as somewhere between Amar'e Stoudemire and Hasheem Thabeet.

"A lot of people have said it -- there's a risk there," said a Western Conference scout who doesn't even really like Drummond. "But there is some reward if (he) turns into something.

It does not help Drummond that the most recent big man from Connecticut that went early in the Draft was Thabeet, taken second overall by Memphis in 2009. Thabeet, who has been traded twice since Draft night and is now with Portland, may ultimately become a serviceable NBA big man. That hasn't happened yet for him after three miserable NBA seasons. That shouldn't be held against Drummond. But he has to convince a lot of teams that he's worth the risk.

"I want somebody in front of us to take him," said the scouting director of a lottery team. "Because that's a tough call. He isn't ready to play. So now you've got a young guy that everybody's going to think a lot of, and he's going to end up disappointing everybody for the first year, and maybe into the second."

Another lottery team executive expressed similar concerns.

"If you draft him two, three, whatever, you're putting yourself out there," the executive said. "The one thing he doesn't do is he doesn't know how to play. He doesn't know how to play with the other four guys on the court. He can't carve out space to rebound the ball. He just rebounds it at that level because he's bigger and stronger and more athletic than everybody else. But when he gets to our level ... he doesn't have that feel as of yet. Could he get it? I don't know."

Right now, like most young bigs, Drummond's defense is ahead of his offense; he finished 14th in the country in blocked shots last season. And most teams can be patient as their young centers develop. But there's one part of his game that terrifies NBA types and must improve if he's going to get significant time as a rookie -- Drummond shot a hard to believe 29.5 percent (26 of 88) from the foul line.

"He's as bad a free throw shooter as college basketball has seen," the Western Conference scout said.

Yet scouts are much more concerned with Drummond's motor -- "inconsistent competitiveness," as a Northwest Division personnel man put it. This was a question even before Drummond got to UConn; an observer who saw him on the U.S. Under 17 national team that won the gold medal in 2010 watched him with disdain.

"You wouldn't have even known he was there. He just disappeared," my mole said. "Then he'd get (ticked) off and he'd say, 'OK, I need to show. And you'd see everything you'd heard about."

And despite all that, Drummond won't get out of the top 10. Not a chance. An 18-year-old, 6-foot-10, 270-pound skilled big man doesn't get out of the top 10.

A Southeast Division executive thinks Drummond got typecast because of Connecticut's disappointing season.

"He got labeled with all those other kids as kind of a screwup, but I didn't see anything that would indicate he's a screwup," the executive said. "I wouldn't discount Drummond. You put him with a pretty good coach, I think he's a pretty good learner. The thing I found interesting is how intelligent he was, to the point of taking things apart and putting them together, like computers. Real inquisitive type. That's half the battle, having somebody with some smarts to them."

A Central Division executive also liked what he saw in Drummond.

"He's got such great feet, crazy feet, and that size, and that length, and that body, you think of him as an offensive putback guy and rebounder" initially, the executive said. "If you need a big, it's gonna be hard to pass on a guy like that."

But in case such teams do, they'll have a safe fallback in Zeller, the ACC's Player of the Year. He teamed with another likely high first-rounder, forward John Henson, to give the Tar Heels a formidable frontcourt, and led Carolina in the unlikely combination of field-goal percentage (55.3 percent) and charges drawn (26).

Zeller may not be sexy, and a lot of personnel types said the same thing -- he may never be a starting center on a contending team. But they also have him down for a 10- to 12-year NBA career.

"I like him a lot," said an assistant coach of a team that played Carolina last season. "He can really run, really run. I think he's skilled. He's got great hands. He touches it, he has it. That's on the run, that's in traffic. And he has good touch -- right hand jump hook, left hand jump hook. He can go out to about 17 feet, and he can pump fake you."

Zeller runs the floor so well, the Tar Heels' coaches often let him leak out on the break instead of keeping him in the paint to rebound.

"This is a safe pick," a Western Conference scouting director said. "You're not going to hit a home run, but you know you're at least going to get a single out of this deal. He'll make some elbow jumpers and he's got some low post moves. You've got an accomplished player. At the least, he should be no worse -- ever -- than Spencer Hawes, and probably better."

Hawes, taken 10th overall in the 2007 Draft, is a better passer and shooter than Zeller -- "if you're throwing Tyler the ball, you're either asking him to swing it or shoot it," one scouting director said. But Zeller, who averaged 25 points and 8 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, is a better defender and rebounder.

The biggest issue with Zeller is his strength. There are questions about whether he'll be able to handle the physical play in the NBA paint.

"He seems to be a hard working kid, so you don't worry about that," an Eastern Conference VP said. "That'll happen naturally. He's 22. By the time he's 25 he'll be all right."

Meyers Leonard's upside and potential intrigue scouts, but he'll need to bulk up in the NBA.
Courtesy University of Illinois

Leonard just turned 20, and his potential upside is what intrigues NBA scouts. He led the Big 10 in blocked shots, finished third in the conference in rebounding and was 11th in the country in field-goal percentage (.584) as a sophomore. Unlike many young big men, Leonard doesn't seem to mind actually playing in the paint.

"I watched him twice this year, and I liked him," an Eastern Conference GM said. "And then when you really break down his game and watch him, that guy's got a great motor. He can really run."

But while Leonard made major strides between his freshman and sophomore seasons at Illinois, he'll need a few years to add some additional sinew to his 245-pound frame. Most think a couple of years in the weight room should take care of that, but in the interim, he'll likely get pushed around.

Leonard also will have to use his interviews and workouts to convince teams he can be focused and not get too caught up in a game. As one scout put it, "he's young physically, and he's young in the way he plays."

Said a personnel director of a Lottery team: "He's up and down like a typical young man. He's got a little emotional streak in him, a little competitive fire to him that can be both positive and negative. I think I'd rather have a guy that has a little (emotion) in him than a guy who's more stoic and doesn't have a passion to be out there."

Another scout recalled hearing an interview Leonard did after the Illini upset then-18th ranked Gonzaga and its NBA center prospect, Robert Sacre, in December. Leonard finished with 21 points and 6 rebounds.

"He said, 'Well, the first half, Sacre kind of got in my head,' " the scout said. "I was like, 'Why would you say that, even if it's true?' ... I understand why he came out, but I think he's gonna struggle some. Nice shooting touch, but he better get ready for some banging. Those kind of guys scare me. But is he skilled? Yes. Any time you have a big guy with nice hands and a nice shooting touch, you have a chance."

Melo, the Syracuse sophomore, has next to no shooting touch. And his promising, bounce-back sophomore season at Syracuse ended abruptly when he was ruled ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. But the NBA doesn't grade on the curve academically; whatever issues Melo had in the classroom aren't going to be held against him.

"He made a lot of improvement this year," a Northwest Division executive said, "and he's got skills."

Said another executive: "Over time, I think he's going to be a reliable role player. He accepts what he can do. He's so big and long, and can block shots. Especially off the ball, he's going to be effective there. To his credit, he accepts being a role player and tries to play the right way, so there's something to be said about that."

Melo is a work in progress, but he is every bit of 7 feet tall, and he made great improvements in his conditioning this year. Eventually, he may be able to do some things offensively over his left shoulder.

"He's not unlike Hibbert coming out," said an assistant coach of a college team that played Syracuse this season. "Hibbert was challenged by John (Thompson III)'s offense, where he had to go to the high post and learn. John lived with him through some real growing pains where you'd go, 'Why does he have him handling the ball at the top of the key?' And now he can pass. (Melo) has some of that."

It's at the defensive end, though, that Melo will have an immediate impact. He finished 11th in the country in blocked shots (2.93).

Syracuse's Fab Melo (right) is expected to be the best shotblocker available in the 2012 Draft.
Courtesy Syracuse University

"Melo, you could put in an NBA game right now," one scout said. "But everybody has to really understand what you're getting. And you have to figure out the best way to use that. He's a basket defender, and everybody's looking for those ... He played so much harder through everything this year, he looked like a different player than last year. He had a lot better movement this year than last year."

Playing at the back of Jim Boeheim's 2-3 matchup zone, Melo had the wingspan and lateral quickness to get to shots and alter others. But will he be able to make the adjustment to the pro game, where centers don't often get to hide in the back of a zone and are usually asked to defend the NBA's pet play, the screen and roll?

"If you're going to stand in the middle of a zone defense and guard the rim, that's different from guarding somebody in the NBA," one scouting director said. "I'm one of those who tends to believe Fab Melo's defensive presence is somewhat overrated. He does block shots."

Melo is the last of the center prospects who's likely to go in the first round. The rest are more likely to go in the second round, beginning with Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli, who suffered a sprained right knee in the preseason and a six-game suspension early in the year for accepting a free meal and hotel room from a Syracuse alumnus last summer. Ezeli returned and helped the Commodores upset eventual national champion Kentucky for the SEC Tournament title.

One NBA executive compared Ezeli with Nazr Mohammed, the longtime vet currently with the Thunder. But Mohammed could score a little earlier in his career, and it's going to be hard for Ezeli to ever be a factor at that end of the court.

"Bad, bad mitts, man," one general manager said of Ezeli. "That really scares me."

That came up with more than one birddog. One scout said Ezeli has to have both feet together before you can even think about throwing him the ball -- and there's no way you want to throw him no-look passes.

"His hands are pretty shaky," another scout said. "He doesn't have a good feel for the game. He has a horrible assist/turnover ratio ... his hands, he had trouble catching the ball at critical times. I think he rushes. I think he gets excited. I don't think his instincts are good."

Still, Ezeli will get a look.

"He's a tough banger, strong in the post, kinda robotic but uses his body well to score in the low post," said an assistant coach of a team that played Vanderbilt last season. "He runs (the) floor, not a good pick and roll defender, can block shots. He was hurt, suspended or both so he had a down year compared to last year. I don't think he was at full strength during the season."

Georgetown has sent any number of big men to the pros over the last 30 years, starting with Patrick Ewing, through the aforementioned Hibbert. It's likely that senior center Henry Sims will be next. At 6-foot-10, 245, Sims is slightly undersized to play the pivot regularly, but his intelligence and basketball IQ will keep him in the league.

Gonzaga's Robert Sacre is a tough-minded pick-setting big man who has a decent shot at the NBA.
Courtesy Gonzaga University

"The guy is a typical Georgetown center -- he knows how to play the damn game," an assistant general manager said. "He's not a great athlete, he's not a great runner, but he knows how to play. I see him playing in the league."

The Hoyas don't play the Princeton offense nearly as exclusively as they used to, but there are still enough traces of it in Thompson III's offense that a Hoyas center has to be able to handle the ball at the top of the key, pass and hit the occasional shot. Sims, who made the all-tournament team at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in April, can do all three.

"What's the negative? He didn't have big rebound games," said one personnel director. "But I do think he undertstands the game of basketball."

Another scout that didn't like Sims as much as others nonetheless acknowledged Sims' passing ability. But he said Sims will have to be in a system offense in the pros to have any chance to be effective.

"He can pass," another scout said. "That's a special skill. Again, he's gonna have to bulk up a little bit to play against centers. He's got the length and the height. But I really like how he passes the ball."

Others have further to go to impress NBA people. LSU's Justin Hamilton, who earned second team all-SEC honors, has a big body, good hands and a decent touch; he could make jumpers if left open. He also showed some skills in college in the mid-post area, and could have a future as a pick-and-pop guy. Hamilton helped himself in New Jersey earlier this month at the combine sponsored by the Nets and Rockets. But he's not much of a presence at the defensive end.

Gonzaga's Sacre has some supporters, who think he's a tough kid who will set picks and play hard if given a chance. But he's not a great rebounder at the defensive end and not a great finisher at the offensive end. He played at the Jersey combine and spent a lot of time talking to himself, according to one witness, trying to encourage himself at the defensive end. That's not a bad thing, but it was a head scratcher to some.

"That guy should be so much better," one scout said of Sacre. "He looks so big and strong, but he doesn't play that way. That guy should be much better. He's big. Every now and then he'll tease you and do something, but it doesn't add up to me."

Lithuania's Mindaugas Kupsas didn't impress many scouts at the Jersey combine with his play, but the 21-year-old, who played for Baltai Kaunas this past season, has gotten invites to visit teams the last couple of weeks after measuring 7-foot-2 in shoes in Jersey, making him the tallest player at the combine. That kind of size always rates a second or third look, even for someone that doesn't have great hands and is viewed as an average rebounder.

Wichita State's Garrett Stutz made first-team all Missouri Valley Conference this season, finishing second to Creighton's Doug McDermott for player of the year honors, and was on the Portsmouth all-tournament team. He throws his body around well and can be a face-the-basket shooter. He'll have to do more of each in the pros.

The only other international center that may have an impact, scouts say, is 21-year-old Jonas Bergstedt, a Danish-born 6-foot-11 pivot who came onto the scene a year ago with a strong performance at the Under 20 European tournament, averaging better than 22 points and 13 rebounds. Bergstedt played this past season for the Spanish club Torrelodones, and will play at the Adidas Eurocamp next month.

Xavier's Kenny Frease was unfortunately better known this past season for getting punched down by Cincinnati's Yancy Gates in that ugly bench-clearing melee between the teams in December. But Frease persevered, scoring a career high 25 points in the Musketeers' third-round win over Lehigh in the NCAAs to get them to the Sweet 16. His abilities setting ball screens and hustle will land him in someone's camp.

Bowie State isn't known for sending many players to the NBA, but the Division II Bulldogs have a legit sleeper prospect this year in 7-footer Travis Hyman. The all-CIAA and two-time CIAA Defensive Player of the Year selection is athletic, but thin.

"I could see why there would be some interest," said an assistant coach of a team that played Bowie State this season. "He was a very good runner. A dunker and a finisher. I didn't see enough of, could he put it on the deck, even one dribble, things like that. I thought athletically, I could see absolutely why (NBA scouts) were here."

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

photoJa Morant Arrives in NYC Ahead of the NBA Draft!
Project NBA lottery pick Ja Morant arrives in New York ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft.
photoJarrett Culver Arrives in NYC Ahead of the NBA Draft!
Projected NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver arrives in New York ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft.
photoZion Williamson Arrives in NYC and Visits The Empire State Building!
Presumptive No. 1 pick Zion Williamson arrives in New York ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft.
photoRui Hachimura Arrives in NYC Ahead of the NBA Draft!
Rui Hachimura arrives in New York ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft.
photoZion shares first-year goals, favorite players
Duke freshman Zion Williamson joins to discuss his expectations ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft.

Copyright © NBA Media Ventures, LLC. All rights reserved. No portion of may be duplicated, redistributed or manipulated in any form. By accessing any information beyond this page, you agree to abide by the Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights and Terms of Use. | Ad Choices Ad Choices is part of Turner Sports Digital, part of the Turner Sports & Entertainment Digital Network.