NBA fans can probably name a dozen point guards and twice that many wings to fill All-Star lists and fantasy teams across the league. When we get to centers, though, the pickings dwindle to two, maybe three consensus candidates. That apparent lack of talent at the five spot takes over today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I noticed that of the 30 players drafted in this year’s first round, only two were centers, and those two were the only ones standing at 7-feet tall or above. Ten years ago, in the 2013 NBA Draft first round, 8 players towered over 7-feet tall and 7 of those players were listed as playing center. Clearly NBA players are trending toward being smaller, more agile, and multifaceted. The game is moving from grit and grime to finesse. Gone are the days of big fellas playing bully ball. Is this a good evolution for the league? Will we ever return to the days of old where big men dominated? What might be the next iteration of the NBA in a decade or two?
Oh no, big men are alive and well. Just look at the last few NBA MVP’s for example. I would also argue against calling today’s game finesse-based. I believe Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic could hang and bang with centers of yore. So could various Plumlees. Perimeter rule changes may have made the game easier on guards, but the big men still suffer.
Instead of “finesse”, let’s say that the game is more speed- and skill-based than it once was. That’s why you’re seeing a relative lack of seven-footers in this era compared to years past.
Before the three-point shot changed the game, the interior was the most prized territory on the court. Close shots were easier than long ones. Centers had value because of size. When the best space consisted of a 5x5 square in the key, sticking a huge, seven-foot monster in there fouled up the works. Whether he was mobile was beside the point. You didn’t want him straying too far. Cut-offs, blocks, and rebounds were the prizes.
Note that, even then, the system wasn’t foolproof. Google “Isiah Thomas Drives” for an example of what happened when perimeter defenders let dribblers go unchecked in the land of the giants. Speed and agility were prized even then. Immobility was always a liability. But nothing like it is today.
The spread offense, reinforced by the three-point shot, has made floor coverage mandatory. It’s no good to have a center locked into interior space that nobody is using. Blocks and rebounds have been replaced by contests: getting a hand near enough to make a shooter blink before he drops three on you.
Centers whose main attributes are height and bulk are not valued as much anymore because they can’t be disguised. Height and mass are still useful, but not if they can’t be employed across the whole offensive arc.
The story is similar, though not exactly the same, on offense.
You can’t spread five players along the arc, so keeping somebody in the middle of the floor is fine. That spot, traditionally the low-post, used to be the endpoint. Teams would throw it into their center or power forward, then watch them cook. The same speed we talked about above allows opposing defenders to close on anybody who tries that now. And most teams don’t want to burn enough clock per possession to make that slow-down post game work anyway.
In the modern game, the center not only has to move, he has to see the floor, read plays, pass, and generate offense. Otherwise your scheme operates at a disadvantage before the play even starts.
Understanding this, you can see the type of seven-footers who are prized nowadays: agile, aware, with passing skills, plus some ability to face up and spread the floor with their own jumper. Anybody lacking those abilities—or possessing them but just being slow—is going to go undrafted. It’s not that big men don’t exist anymore. Most of them just don’t qualify.
That may not always be the case, though. These evolutions have been developing for a decade now. That’s a long time. Ten years in, the entire explanation above seems pedantic. It’s become widely accepted.
But how long does it take to grow an NBA player? The minimum is 18 years. Today’s earliest draftees were born in 2005, long before these changes took hold fully. Some draftees go back to 2002, when giants were still a thing.
The lag time between the evolution of the game and the evolution of its players is creating the apparent “lack” of seven-footers you’re seeing now. Training and focus for big men has changed too recently for it to be gospel for the current generation, so only the most exceptional players get a look. The run-of-the-mill center by the old definition doesn’t find his services needed anymore.
The definition of “run-of-the-mill” is changing, though. Over the next few years, you’re going to see 6’10 and above players who have known nothing but the Dirk Nowitzki/Kevin Durant/Joel Embiid/Nikola Jokic model. They’ll have been covering the three-point arc (and shooting from there as well) since birth. You won’t just see tall guys at center, but at small forward, maybe shooting guard.
The current gap is going to fill in with trained, mobile players who just might comprise a large portion of the draft. Seven-footers will always be rare, which will keep the aggregate numbers down, but we’ll still see a resurgence among the ones that do make it. So no worries about the big guys! They’ll always be welcome.
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