2018 NBA Draft
Draft may show big men are back in fashion -- but with a different style
New crop of potential post-up players have different skills than bigs of old
NEW YORK – There was a ballroom full of NBA centers in midtown Manhattan Wednesday — not one of them eager to follow in the sizeable footsteps of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Shaquille O’Neal or Dwight Howard.
In fact, on the very day that the top prospects for the 2018 Draft were made available to the media — a talent pool particularly long on length this year — Howard was on the move again, in a reported deal from the Charlotte Hornets to the Brooklyn Nets that will land the eight-time All-Star with his fourth team in four seasons.
That bit of news — of an old-school NBA big man being shuffled off again into what looks to be basketball irrelevancy — served as a counterpoint to the young giants just starting out.
There will be plenty of guards and forwards selected in the first round Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, including Michael Porter Jr., Trae Young, Collin Sexton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mikal Bridges, Kevin Knox and Lonnie Walker. But the lottery will be top-heavy with big men, with Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mo Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr., and Robert Williams all hearing their names called.
All six are listed at 6-foot-10 or taller, though they’ll bear little resemblance in style or production to the Hall of Famers cited above or even to Howard. The last time last time six players that size were drafted in the top 10 was 2007, when Greg Oden, Al Horford, Yi Jianlian, Brandan Wright, Joakim Noah and Spencer Hawes all went early.
Much has changed in 11 years. These young guys represent basketball’s new-age pivot men … which means we’d better drop the “pivot men” nomenclature. Rather, the word that got tossed around most often Wednesday during conversations about these guys’ fit – with specific teams and in the league generally – was modern.
Modern centers for a modern NBA.
“Modern-day 5,” is how Bamba put it. “Defend multiple positions, can shoot it, handle it a little. Can do a little bit of everything.”
Said Jaren Jackson, Jr.: “At times, I’ve heard that I’m right on time for the way the game is going. A lot of bigs can handle the ball and be versatile and they’re able to make plays.”
If you want to feel old, consider the NBA’s prevailing definition of “modern.” Major League Baseball’s “modern era” historically is thought to have begun in the year 1900. The NBA’s modern era dates back to about a week ago last Tuesday.
That’s how quickly the view about centers has changed.
After ruling the NBA landscape for most of the league’s first 50 years, traditional big men looked at now as dinosaurs, both in form and function. Plodding isn’t allowed. Posting up, back to the basket, and backing into the paint seems as dated in this league as helmetless players in the NHL.
There have been noticeable markers along the way. In the ‘90s, players who naturally would have been trained and used as centers – Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Amare Stoudemire, Antonio McDyess – demanded to face the basket and be referred to as power forwards. Then in 2012, the league joined them, eradicating “center” from its All-Star ballot and opting for “frontcourt” as a catch-all category for everyone from wings to 7-foot shot swatters.
This latest era dates back just a few years, if you go by a few key analytics. A recent ESPN.com story tracked the minutes played by 7-footers in the playoffs, compared to the regular season, and identified the tipping point as the 2016 postseason.
Even if you back it up by a year to include Golden State’s heavy use of small ball in winning its championship in 2015, that’s still barely more than a heartbeat.
But the full embrace of the 3-point shot and the type of pace favored by a majority of current NBA coaches has put a premium on centers who are mobile, can switch defensively, challenge perimeter shooters, do some of that shooting of their own and still crash the boards and protect the rim.
The next Shaq or Kareem?
Now the model is the Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela, the Boston Celtics’ Al Horford or the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns.
Big guys such as DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis have added range to their shots.
Some – Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas, a few more – have status or contracts that assure them of minutes.
Other old-style bigs are either out of the league (Roy Hibbert, Andrew Bogut) or logging long stretches on the bench (Greg Monroe, Al Jefferson, Hassan Whiteside).
Just two years ago, Jahlil Okafor was the No. 3 pick in the 2016 Draft. These days, he’s an afterthought with little market value.
So the challenge for a fellow such as Ayton, projected to be the near-consensus No. 1 pick this year, is to make sure no one confuses him or his game with DeAndre Jordan.
Asked about the trend Wednesday, Ayton at one point sounded a little defiant. “I’m not changing my way of play in the NBA,” he told reporters. “I’m still an inside-out type of player. I’m going to start inside and establish myself down low until I have to stretch the floor.”
It helps, of course, to have that option. Ayton already is built like an NBA veteran, but he has sufficient quickness to cover ground defensively and to keep up with a faster offensive pace. And for those who haven’t been paying attention to him since the NCAA season ended, Ayton has a surprise: a more reliable 3-pointer he’s willing to unleash.
You look at a team like the Warriors, they switch everything. They can play all different positions. That’s what they’re good at.”
Jaren Jackson Jr.
“The NBA 3-ball is way farther than the college 3-ball,” he said. “I’ve really put on some range and put on some muscle. When I’m fatigued in games, I really can [still] get my shot off in a perfect arc.”
Bagley, depending where he lands, might end up playing more out on the floor than the other bigs in this draft. That’s his experience, having had Carter Jr. next to him at Duke to handle the basics.
Williams will likely benefit from shifting in the opposite direction. He played a lot at power forward for Texas A&M but is rated highly for how his game translates to, you guessed it, modern center play.
Bamba has drawn comparisons to Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, as much for his charisma as for any play similarities. He allegedly has overhauled his shot this spring, and also was eager to tout his 3-point range Wednesday.
Then there is Jackson, who has been rated as the best two-way player of the bunch. That includes not just his defense against fellow bigs but his ability to guard nearly any position.
Jackson seemed to speak for all the future big men in New York Wednesday. Unlike a previous generation of centers — many of whom got caught in the NBA’s transition to a smaller, faster, position-less style — these Jackson Jr. and the rest grew up watching it. And preparing for it.
Nothing frustrating about it, Jackson said, though it’s a far cry from the league in which his father, Jaren Sr., (1989-2002) played.
“No. Whatever helps each team do their best is what lineup they’re going to put out,” Jackson said. “They’re going to put the best players on the floor every time. You look at a team like the Warriors, they switch everything. They can play all different positions. That’s what they’re good at.”
That’s what these guys, given their size, are remarkably good at too.
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