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Poeltl stands out in big man class that must find its way

David Aldridge's 2016 Big Board: Centers

POSTED: May 16, 2016 9:51 AM ET
UPDATED: Jun 22, 2016 9:46 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst


Utah center Jakob Poeltl may be agile enough to also play power forward in the NBA.

In about six weeks, some NBA team is going to offer Hassan Whiteside -- who was playing in Lebanon two years ago -- more than $20 million per year.

At the same time, someone else will offer Dwight Howard -- heavily criticized and scrutinized for the last several years, with a bad back and a rapidly deteriorating offensive game -- slightly less than Whiteside to be their center for the next few years.

The same thing, with variations in amount, will happen for Al Horford, Pau Gasol, Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah, Nene, Timofey Mozgov, Zaza Pachulia and others.

For a position that is supposedly being phased out of the NBA game, centers are still popular, and have the pay stubs to prove it.

There are, to be sure, more talented smalls around the world playing hoops than bigs. And the success of the Golden State Warriors and other teams that have gone to small ball lineups, combined with increasing emphasis on the 3-pointer, have reduced the emphasis on big men and what they have traditionally done on courts.

But there's still a place for centers.

Whiteside's presence was crucial to the Heat's return to the playoffs this year. His absence down the stretch of Miami's series with Toronto looked to be a crucial factor in the Raptors' increased offensive output as the series went on. Driving lanes that Whiteside closed off with his length and quickness were suddenly wide open, and Kyle Lowry and other Raptors took advantage. The Raptors also dominated Game 7 against Miami Sunday by playing their bigs, Bismack Biyombo and Patrick Patterson, while the Heat stayed small. Result: 20 offensive rebounds, and a rout.

The Oklahoma City Thunder's series win over the San Antonio Spurs was fueled by playing both of its centers, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, together, which served to offset the Spurs' size advantage inside. The Thunder crushed San Antonio on the glass, and Adams and Kanter both did damage offensively, giving OKC a dimension it has rarely had in the playoffs.

So, this year's crop of college and international centers in the Draft will find an NBA that is trying to work through exactly how they'll be utilized as pros, but will take time and spend money to keep them around while they figure it out.

It's the most inscrutable of basketball's positions. There aren't a lot of people who've played it well, and it takes a lot longer for people to become good at it than at other spots. A great point guard in college tends to pick up right where he left off in the pros; ditto for shooters.

But centers are almost never a finished product when they're selected. Many are still trying to get used to their increased height, which often is not accompanied by a corresponding increase in weight and strength. It is indeed hard, even for the best of the best, to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the floor for 48 minutes.

And thus, young centers often take years to show what they can do.

DeAndre Jordan played 14.5 minutes a game his rookie season. Jefferson started one game for the Celtics. Noah was thought a hothead and without discernable offensive skills early in his Bulls career.

But they all got better, much better, in time. It stands to reason that a couple of the prospects in the Draft will have a similar career arc.

Center is our last position to examine before Tuesday's Draft Lottery, which will determine the top 13 picks in the first round of June's Draft. We've already looked at point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward, and ranked all on the Big Board. With the Chicago Draft Combine in the books, we'll now update the measurements of all players on the Big Board.


DA's Big Board



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.

We include underclassmen that are expected to declare for the Draft, or are at least thinking strongly about it. No one who hasn't thought about declaring is going to be swayed by seeing his name on a Draft board. So we include everyone.

Players are listed at the position at which NBA people believe they'll play as pros.

For example: there are two players who'll definitely be taken high in the first round of this year's Draft -- Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray and Michigan State's senior, Denzel Valentine. Both have been on the ball for much of the season for their respective teams. But the vast majority of NBA people I've spoken with believe that Murray's best position in the pros will be at the point, while Valentine will be a two -- or, maybe, a point forward. So Murray is on the Big Board as a point, while Valentine isn't.

Again: This is not a mock Draft (though one of those is, sadly, coming).They are a complete waste of time, especially this long before June. No one has any idea what will happen between now and then; we don't even know all the teams that will be in the Lottery, much less when they'll be picking. We don't know if there will be a major injury that will impact what a team wants or needs. What follows is a rough consensus of what NBA personnel people, GMs and coaches, and college coaches that I trust -- and that, obviously, can't be quoted by name -- believe is the pro potential for this year's crop of college and international players.

In the interim, what follows is a rough consensus of what NBA personnel people, GMs and coaches, and college coaches that I trust -- and that, obviously, can't be quoted by name -- believe is the pro potential for this year's crop of college and international players.

• "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" will refer to players whose intentions are not yet known for certain, but who are viewed as potentially draftable if they do. Emphasis on "potentially."

• If a player was not invited to the Chicago Draft Combine, his height and weight is his listed one from his school and/or his pro team if he's an international prospect.

David Aldridge's Big Board 2016: Centers


1. Jakob Poeltl | Utah | Sophomore | 7-1 | 239 | Late Lottery

2. Ante Zizic | Cibona Zagreb | 19 | 6-11 | 240 | Mid/Late 1st

3. Ivica Zubac | Mega Leks | 19 | 7-1 | 240 | Mid/Late 1st

4. Diamond Stone | Maryland | Freshman | 6-10¼ | 254 | Late 1st

5. Stephen Zimmerman | UNLV | Freshman | 6-11¾ | 234 | Late 1st

6. Damian Jones | Vanderbilt | Junior | 6-11½ | 244 | Late 1st/Early 2nd

7. A.J. Hammons | Purdue | Senior | 7-0 | 250 | Late 1st/Early 2nd

8. Zhou Qi | Xingiang | 20 | 7-2¼ | 218 | Second Round

9. Chinanu Onuaku | Louisville | Sophomore | 6-10 | 245 | Second Round

10. Georgios Papagiannis | Pantinaikos | 19 | 7-2 | 275 | Second Round

Honorable Mention: Alpha Kaba * (19), 6-8, 240, Mega Leks; Egidijus Mockevicius, 6-10, 225, Evansville

* = opted not to enter NBA Draft

Poeltl may end up as power forward

The University of Utah may not be the first place you think of when the subject is NBA big men. But the Utes have sent a few talented bigs to the pros, including Tom Chambers, Keith Van Horn and Andrew Bogut. Sophomore center Jakob Poeltl could be the next.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Utah
Utah's Jakob Poeltl was a standout peformer in the Pac-12.

Poeltl was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, averaging 17 points (second in the conference in scoring) and 9 rebounds for the Utes, who went 27-9 and reached the second round of the NCAAs. Poeltl was a consensus second team all-American selection, finishing in the top 10 among college players in Player Efficiency (31.1, ninth nationally) and field goal percentage (.646, eighth). He measured out at 7-foot-1 at the Chicago Draft Combine, and his height and skill set leave most NBA types believing he will have to play center in the pros.

"Personally, I think he wants to be a four," a Pacific Division personnel man said. "If you watch his body actions and the way he plays. I think he'll ultimately play both positions, but I think his mindset is as a power forward. I think that's what he wants to be. He's such a good passer. I have him as a center initially, but I have him as both. With his agility and his size and his range, he'll be able to play some power forward."

He made good strides from last year to this year. He's got great hands, good touch around the hole. Not a great defensive presence for being a seven footer, but he's got a pretty good feel for how to play, understands his limitations.

– Eastern Conference executive, on Utah's Jakob Poeltl

There are other reasons other personnel types have him as a power forward.

"I have him as a four only because he is not close to being strong enough for a five," a Western Conference executive says. "I expect he will be in a few years."

That may have manifested itself in the NCAA Tournament, when Poeltl scored just five points against Gonzaga and its big man, Donatas Sabonis. It was just the fifth time all season that Poeltl was held under double figures in scoring. Yet others believe that center is Poeltl's best NBA position.

"He's a one position player -- straight five," an Eastern Conference executive said.

"He made good strides from last year to this year," the Eastern Conference exec said. "He's got great hands, good touch around the hole. Not a great defensive presence for being a seven footer, but he's got a pretty good feel for how to play, understands his limitations. Can make a one-on-one post move, but he's not going to face up and shoot it. About 10 feet and in is his game. He's pretty comfortable with his back to the basket, but in today's game, he's not as in vogue with just a straight back to the basket (game). He doesn't have a lot of versatility to him."

Poeltl is viewed as a decent team defender who will likely struggle when switched out on screen and rolls. But that's the same as 80 percent or more of young centers when they get to the pros.

"I go back to Alex Len," another Pacific Division personnel man said. "Alex is a little more athletic, but he struggled early in his career to figure it out. (Poeltl) is more mobile than people give him credit for. I've seen him guard smaller guys. He played (California's) Ivan Rabb as good as anybody I've seen this year. (Washington forward Marquese) Chriss gave him problems when I watched him. But he's got to figure it out ... he may never meet expectations, but I think he's going to be okay."

Two 19-year-olds from Europe are likely to be the next two centers taken.

European duo Zizic, Zubac show promise

Ante Zizic impressed this year by averaging 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds for Cibona Zagreb in the Adriatic League, one of the tougher leagues on the continent. As an 18-year-old, he averaged 13 points and seven rebounds per game for Croatia's Under-19 team that won the silver medal last year at the U-19 world championships.

Among Zizic's teammates on that U-19 Croatian team was Ivica Zubac, who played this season for Mega Leks after spending the previous four seasons with Cibona. He also excelled for that silver medal-winning Croatian team, averaging 15.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. Zubac started this year for Mega Leks, averaging 12 points and 5 rebounds per game.

Zubac is not a great shooter, but he's crafty around the basket, and his size and length should make him a decent rebounding prospect.

Zubac would follow in the footsteps of Nikola Jokic, who played for Mega Leks for three years before being taken in the second round of the 2014 Draft by Denver, and who is now one of the Nuggets' core players going forward.

"Both (Zizic and Zubac) are ready for the next level," a Southwest Division executive said, "and both should get drafted late in the first round."

Stone talented, but raises some red flags

Maryland freshman Diamond Stone came to College Park with a lot of hype. He had some sterling moments in his one college season -- 39 points off the bench against Penn State, 22 points and 12 boards at Michigan, 23 points and eight rebounds in the Terps' first-round Big 10 tournament win against Nebraska. He put up solid numbers across the board in conference play. And despite opting not to play in Chicago, he got an invite to the Lottery selection show Tuesday.

Diamond Stone
Diamond Stone was not one to venture far from the paint.

That doesn't mean that he doesn't have work to do. Stone got a one-game suspension from Maryland after slamming Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown's head into the hardwood floor during a game in February. (Stone was called for a technical foul for the action, but was not thrown out of the game.)

"I worry about the neck up part," a Southeast Division talent scout said of Stone. "But even from the neck down, he ain't ready. And now you throw in he's going to get guaranteed money, I don't know how that's going to turn out."

Stone does his work in the paint -- he didn't attempt one 3-pointer this season. This is not a stretch four about whom we're talking.

"People are saying there's no position for him because he's more like Zach" Randolph, one scouting director said. "All I know is two years ago, when (Randolph) was available, people offered him a whole bunch of money. D.J. (Jordan), Robin Lopez, all those guys got paid. The more they talk about our game has changed, they still pay to put them big boys in the middle."

Some front offices wary of Zimmerman

UNLV freshman Stephen Zimmerman was thought to be a Lottery pick by some early during his one season in Vegas. But that notion cooled significantly as the year went on as Zimmerman struggled to stay healthy and stay on the court. A sprained knee in February kept him out three weeks, and though his numbers were okay by season's end (10.5 points, 8.7 rebounds), he didn't look like a guy that was ready to come out. But, he'll likely go late in the first round, and it's hard to tell anyone to walk away from that kind of guaranteed money.

Zimmerman may also have been swayed by the firing of UNLV coach Dave Rice, who recruited him, in January, despite the Runnin' Rebels having a winning record at the time.

"He's a good player, really skilled," an Atlantic Division executive said. "But he gets nickel-and-dime injured, a lot. He's not faking it. He gets dinged a lot because he's not physically ready. I think in his heart of hearts, he'd stay two or three years. He's not in love with school by any means, but he was really enjoying being a college student ... he's a solid player. Better player than he's shown this year, because the injuries kept getting in the way. UNLV may have had the craziest season in the history of basketball, and he was a teenager trying to deal with that."

Teams that interviewed Zimmerman in Chicago got similar answers.

"We asked him point blank: why would you come out now?," one team executive said. "I saw him in Hawaii and he was hurt. I told him, 'I've seen you play five times and three tines you didn't finish the game. That was indicative of your season. Why would you come out now?' He just said it was my time, with everything that was going on on campus ... the reason he gave just didn't make any sense. The body of work is just too spotty."

Consistency an issue for Vandy's Jones

Vanderbilt's Damian Jones also raises questions. A first-team all-SEC team selection as a junior, Jones was second in the conference in field goal percentage (.560) this season after leading the SEC as a sophomore. He had several strong games: 27 points at Florida, 20 points and 10 rebounds at Mississippi State, 26 points and nine rebounds at Texas against the Longhorns' senior center, Prince Ibeh (who is also a potential Draft pick).

Prince Ibeh
Damian Jones averaged 13.9 points in 2015-16.

But he also had some clunkers: nine points and two rebounds against Mississippi, six points and seven rebounds at Tennessee, nine points and four rebounds against Auburn and just five points and five rebounds against Wichita State in Vandy's first-round NCAA Tournament loss.

He's big, he can shoot, he's powerful, he's explosive, he's a good character kid, he's got some smarts. There's a lot of physical tools to work with there. Whether he's got the basketball smarts is what remains to be seen.

– NBA team executive, on Damian Jones

"His biggest part is just consistency," an Eastern Conference scout said. "Sometimes you see him and he looks great, and then other times he didn't. If he and Wade Baldwin (the Commodores' sophomore point guard, who's also declared for the Draft) are both first round picks, allegedly, then their whole damn team should have done better."

Jones measured out at 6-11 ½ in Chicago, with one of the longest wingspans (7-3¾ ) of any of the invitees. Those physical gifts will get him long looks from teams who'll want him in for individual workouts before the Draft.

"He's going to look like a stud," one team executive said. "He's big, he can shoot, he's powerful, he's explosive, he's a good character kid, he's got some smarts. There's a lot of physical tools to work with there. Whether he's got the basketball smarts is what remains to be seen."

Vanderbilt is no basketball factory, but it did send another big man, Festus Ezeli, to the NBA just a couple of years ago, and Ezeli is primed to get a fairly significant payday very soon, either from the Warriors or someone else. But right now, Jones is not viewed as quite as gritty as Ezeli was when he came out.

"I'm not a fan," a Pacific Division exec said. "I just don't think his motor will ever improve. He'll be a decent player at some point in his career, but I don't know if he's ever going to be a guy that really gets it."

Off-court concerns surround Hammons

There are similar questions about Purdue senior center A.J. Hammons, despite his first team all-Big 10 selection, winning the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award and being name an honorable mention all-American. Hammons also led the Big 10 in blocks (84) and blocks per game, as well as PER (31).

But Hammons has had an uneasy path through four years in West Lafayette.

A.J. Hammons
A question of desire often comes up for NBA scouts regarding A.J. Hammons.

Hammons was suspended two games at the beginning of the season for a violation of team rules and didn't regain his starting center job until January. He received a three-game suspension at the start of his sophomore season for another violation. Coach Matt Painter didn't specify the reason for this year's suspension, saying only that it was "internal stuff" with which Hammons eventually complied. And Painter said in March that Hammons had gotten much better at preparation and practice.

The talent is not questioned. The desire is.

"He dominated at times, unfortunately did not do it consistently," one Western Conference executive said. "Does he love to play? That is the issue with him. He would be in the mid teens if he played harder. Jones is more athletic, plays harder, not as skilled, but will be drafted higher than A.J."

Hammons did seem to get it together the second half. He scored in double figures in his last 15 games, including double-doubles in six of those contests. He shot 61 percent (112 of 183) from the floor during that stretch.

"He's a legit seven feet, big hands, but his motor is so hot and cold," one scout said. "He may wind up letting you down more nights than he helps you. Pretty talented. He can block shots, he can pass it. From night to night, you just can't count on him to bring it every game. If the light ever came on for him and he really wanted to be good and kick ass, he has all the tools to do it."

Rangy Zhou needs time to grow into NBA role

China's Zhou Qi tested off the charts in Chicago. The 20-year-old, who played at Xingiang this season (where he was teammates with former NBA player Andray Blatche), was the tallest player at the Combine, measuring 7-foot-2¼. He also had, by far, the longest wingspan, at 7-foot-7¾. No doubt, he's long.

But he's also skinny.

Zhou weighed just 218 pounds. To put that into context: Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon outweighed him by five pounds.

Zhou obviously does not have the offensive skill set coming in as Yao Ming did, but he's not without some offensive abilities, as he displayed last year at the Nike Hoops Summit.

Zhou was a prodigious shotblocker in China, but it's equally hard to see that translating to the NBA, at least right away. There's just no way he'll be able to hold his position long enough to be an adequate help defender. (It would be interesting, though, to see what he could do as a screen and roll switcher. If he has any lateral quickness at all, that length would allow him to recover and remain part of the play, the way the Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert can do so well. But that's a long leap, and a lot of milkshakes away.) A team drafting Zhou is going to have to be incredibly patient, dealing with the culture and language barriers, as well as the years it will likely take him to be able to put enough weight to make a difference.

And some notes on the others ...

Louisville's sophomore Chinanu Onuaku helped himself in Chicago, though he's not yet certain whether he'll stay in the Draft or return to the Cardinals for his junior season. He more than held his own in a couple of scrimmages last week, solidifying himself as a potential second-rounder.

What Onuaku does is it get after it on defense. Per, he was second in the country last season in Defensive Rating (84.9). He was third in the conference in blocks per game.

"He seems to understand what his role is," one scout said. "Really competes defensively. His body is strong. It's not necessarily all that trim but that will help him get in better shape. He goes after rebounds, he goes after shots, he tries to help defensively. He's always going to be kind of a garbage man offensively, but he seems to relish the role of an enforcer, which is good. If he goes back, he can work on his offensive game and be more polished next year."

• Georgios Papagiannis, a 19-year-old who played for Greek power Panathinaikos this year rather than play college ball in the States, has a lot of physical gifts: He led Greece to the 2015 FIBA Europe Under 18 tournament gold medal, and was named to the all-tournament team. In league play for Panathinaikos, he averaged 6.4 points per game in just 11 minutes a game. For one of the many teams with multiple picks, the 7-2, 275-pound Papagiannis is a potential draft and stash candidate.

• Another teenager, 19-year-old prospect Alpha Kaba, is a second-round prospect. He played the French power Pau Orthez for four years before joining Mega Leks this year, where he plays with NBA prospects like Zubac and guard Timothe Luwawu.

"He's gotten better," a Western Conference executive said. "Probably second round, late, needs a little more time to develop his game, still. Kind of like (Houston's Clint) Capela. Same kind of mojo. Long, can block shots. A team with lots of second round picks, he could be a guy they take and wait on."


DA's Big Board


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

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