Wave of star big men form axis for new age of center play

All-around skills, 3-point shooting these stars possess meshes perfectly with today's NBA

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Maybe it’s time to put “Center” back on the All-Star ballots.

The voting category dedicated to the game’s best big men has been missing since 2013, removed by the league’s Competition Committee in a nod to a style of play pushing toward the perimeter. There also was an acknowledgement that the very best bigs were roaming the NBA as “power forwards” and, let’s be honest, a desire to avoid the likes of Jamaal Magloire and Brad Miller as “All Stars,” mucking up the annual fast-paced, offense-obsessed showcase game.

As league exec Stu Jackson said at the time, “It [the center category] just seemed a little outdated and didn’t represent the way our game has evolved.”

As Roy Hibbert, the former Indiana Pacers center who felt his All-Star days were suddenly over (he’d made the 2012 Game): “That’s bull—-!”

Well, get a load of the All-Star rosters now.

Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins (injured) and Anthony Davis racked up enough votes to earn starting spots. Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, Draymond Green, Kristaps Porzingis (injured), Kevin Love (injured) and Andre Drummond were chosen reserves or injury replacements.

There’s a wide range of sizes, skills and capabilities in that group of nine, but all are, or at various times have been, centers.

The players have changed, not the game. The big men aren’t going away, they’re just getting better.”

Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni

Just when it looked as if the large fellows were marching dinosaur-style into the NBA’s great tar pit, the league suddenly turned into Jurassic Park. Centers are thriving, with the position hosting a wildly diverse group of players, from traditional, plodding bangers to ball stylists with the shooting and passing skills of wings.

“There’s very talented [big men] now,” former Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said earlier this season. That night the Bucks were facing Minnesota, and Towns happened to pass by in the hallway where Kidd was talking.

“Just talking about Towns as he’s walkin’ by, someone who can play inside, out, put it on the floor,” Kidd said. “Can lead the break. Can pass. Everybody talks about the [3-pointer]. So I think the center position is in a good place. Sometimes we look at the past and how the game has changed, and some of us haven’t changed with the game. But there’s an understanding that everybody can shoot a thiree now. It’s not just about playing inside for twos.”

The poster guy for the resurgence at center is the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid. At 7-foot and a sturdy 250 pounds, Embiid looks like a throwback big man, with the length and heft to dominate inside. Yet he possesses the ball skills and shooting range of a guard, combined with nimble footwork reminiscent of Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon.

What’s exciting for the NBA – and a sign of a style pendulum swinging back – is the number of promising young big men lining up to challenge both Embiid and any irrational thoughts about a centerless game.

“When I was younger, I was taught to be as versatile as possible … I wanted to shoot like Dirk, I wanted to play defense like KG, I wanted to be ‘Showtime’ like Magic.”

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Per basketball-reference.com, of the 31 centers and power forwards who were averaging at least 10.0 points and 6.0 rebounds through Monday night (while appearing in at least 30 games), 10 are age 23 or younger. Seven more are 24 or 25. Only six are older than 29.

And among the youngest group, only Houston’s Clint Capela and the Portland Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic are down in the single digits of the 3-point game with traditional big men like the Charlotte Hornets’ Dwight Howard, the LA Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan or the Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside.

The 10 youngest of those 31 big men have attempted 125.2 shots from the arc this season, compared to 69.6 by the 10 oldest. And that includes Marc Gasol’s 233 and Al Horford’s 175, which account for 58.6 percent of the older group’s total.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr talked last month about rule changes that made life tougher for traditional post players. “When Patrick [Ewing] was playing, you couldn’t double-team the post until the guy got the ball,’’ Kerr said. “You can do that now — it’s made posting up much more difficult.

“So rule changes led to an offensive revolution. Led to centers deciding, ‘I’m going to go shoot threes,’ whether it was Pau Gasol or Mo Speights, Marc Gasol. You see a lot of centers who, three years ago, never took a three and now they’re shooting threes.”

Certainly, some old guys have learned new tricks — Gasol has scored 29.9 percent of his points on 3-pointers since the start of 2016-17, compared to just 0.4 percent through his first eight seasons. But it’s the new guys who are arriving with those tricks as standard equipment.

“Certain types of big men [have been legislated out of the game],” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, laughing. “The ones who aren’t skilled.”

D’Antoni doesn’t need his centers to launch 3-pointers when he has shooters like James Harden, Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. And, the Rockets take more 3-pointers (42.6) than any team in the league. Yet in Capela, D’Antoni has the perfect complementary big.

“It would be nice if you could post up, but that’s not what we’re looking for,” said the Rockets coach. “To me, a big man has to be able to guard on the perimeter. If he can’t do that, if he can’t run the pick-and-roll and have good hands and finish above the rim, that makes it tough.

“The players have changed, not the game. The big men aren’t going away, they’re just getting better.”

Towns is typical of a generation of big men for whom size, formerly an easy advantage, loomed as a possible liability in today’s NBA if it weren’t bundled with superior basketball skills.

“When I was younger, I was taught to be as versatile as possible,” Towns said. “If you’re versatile, there’s no reason a coach can’t have you in the game. That’s what my dad’s philosophy was, so from a young age, he taught me to be a guard first and a big second, though I don’t think he had a crystal ball to be able to see what the NBA would become.”

Growing up, Towns admired the games of players such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Magic Johnson — all guys who notably “played smaller” than their actual sizes. “I wanted to shoot like Dirk, I wanted to play defense like KG, I wanted to be ‘Showtime’ like Magic,” Towns said.

“As bigs, we all understand that to be the driving force of bringing back the big men, we have to be doing our jobs and continue to get better every day. It’s up to us. Obviously, we have to adapt with the game. We can’t change it back to the way it was. But we can still implement old-school philosophies into the modern game.”

Embiid already has made his reputation, being voted in as a starter for Sunday’s All-Star Game. Here are a handful of other young centers who have made size desirable again in a league that fell in love with small ball:

Karl-Antony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Vitals: 7 feet, 244 pounds

Key stat: NBA-leading 49 double-doubles

Towns’ offensive repertoire, at his height, is as strong as Embiid’s. And if you see flashes of other big men in his game, well, that’s very much by design. From Shaquille O’Neal to Sam Perkins to Rik Smits, the Wolves center has tried to learn from the best.

“One of the things that has benefited me in my career is being part of the new age of technology,” Towns said. “The ability growing up to get on the Internet at friends’ houses and go on YouTube and watch videos of great players. Just watching highlights — Kevin McHale doing his ‘slippery eel’ and Tim Duncan with his fundamentals. Just the other day I was looking at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his hook shot.”

Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau tries to incorporate Towns’ versatility. Now if only he was as effective defensively. Towns leads the NBA in fouls (195 through Monday) and often isn’t a conscientious and aware defender. When he takes that next step in his game, the Wolves can take a bigger step in the standings.

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Vitals: 6-foot-11, 243 pounds

Key stat: Third in blocks per game (2.1) past two seasons.

Turner, the Pacers’ young big, claims to have seen the game transform into “positionless basketball” just in his three NBA seasons.

“I think my rookie year was when we saw a lot of big guys — Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol — shooting threes. It has happened fast,” Turner said. “You see a lot of big men doing a little bit of everything now.”

Turner feels he adapted quickly. A 21.4 percent 3-point shooter as a rookie, he’s at 35 percent this season. He considers himself an elite shot blocker and says, “I’m confident in my ability to guard on the perimeter and protect the paint.”

Injuries and inconsistency have slowed Turner’s development, and some would like to see him work more on his inside game. He shares some of the Pacers’ big-man duties with Domantas Sabonis, son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis and another of the current gifted young bigs.

Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

Vitals: 6-foot-10, 240 pounds

Key stat: Leads NBA in 2FG% (.657)

Capela suits the Rockets’ high-octane attack as well as they suit him. He doesn’t dawdle at the 3-point line, instead converting at a high rate on lobs and layups.

“I like to run the floor, set pick-and-rolls, and move hard and fast,” said Capela, who spent much of his rookie season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the G League. “Always quick decisions. That brings my team a pace that helps to get our shooters open, to get wide open threes. It also helps me to get dunks.”

Capela’s efficiency is impressive too, given the 27.1 minutes he averages. On Feb. 9 vs. the Nuggets, he became the first player to get at least 20 points and 25 rebounds in 29 minutes or fewer. After a victory over Dallas, Paul raved about Capela’s value to their club.

“Me and James probably on him more than anyone else because he’s really the backbone of this team,” Paul recently told NBA TV. “Without him rolling to the basket, without him defending the paint … CC is the guy.”

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Vitals: 6-foot-10, 250 pounds

Key stat: Leads centers in assists (5.6 apg)

By the numbers, Jokic’s 2017-18 season isn’t much better than his breakout in 2016-17. But the Nuggets are positioned for a postseason berth and the big man’s work as a “point center” is a big reason why.

Jokic has averaged 7.8 assists in triggering Denver’s offense and leading it to seven victories in 10 games entering Tuesday. He has contributed 18.0 points and 10.7 rebounds in that stretch, too. The Serbian will turn 23 on Feb. 19 and ranks 14th in the league in total touches. But the key to his deft passing is how swiftly he makes his decisions and moves the ball along.

“He picks teams apart with his passing ability,” Turner said. “You never know when he’s going to shoot it, when he’s going to pass it. Those kind of big men, who are able to play-make, they’re the toughest to guard.”

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Vitals: 7-foot-3, 240 pounds

Key stat: 2.4 blocks per game (tied 1st in NBA)

Prior to blowing out his ACL last week, Porzingis was having a monster season, with career highs in scoring (22.7 ppg), blocks (2.4 bpg) and 3-point shooting (39.5 percent). He made history on Dec. 12 when he became the first player in league history with at least 35 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and five 3-pointers in a game.

“He shoots it so well, you’ve got to respect his range out there,” Turner said. “But he can also do it down low, especially when he has smaller guys on him.”

Porzingis’ injury forced the Knicks to reassess this season, shifting their emphasis away from playoff thoughts to a deeper dive into rebuilding. His rehab timeline will eat into 2018-19 too, though even another 10 or 12 months on the side shouldn’t prevent “The Unicorn” from taking his place near the top of the NBA’s young hybrid bigs.

“It seems like [it’s a big hurdle], but in the big scheme of things, the guy’s going to play 15, 18 years in this league,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek told reporters Monday. “He’s 22 years old. It’s a bit of a mountain he has to climb for a year. He’ll look back at this and probably be glad he went through it and got stronger. When you hit adversity and bounce back, it says a lot about your character.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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