The days of big men camping in the paint are over. The role and requirements of an NBA center have evolved — and quite frankly, have been marginalized — and it’s never been more apparent than in the 2018 playoffs.
Rudy Gobert is the likely Defensive Player of the Year, but he was rendered largely ineffective in Utah’s second-round loss to the Rockets due to his inability to defend high pick-and-rolls in space. When the Rockets needed to close out a game against the Warriors in the West finals, they were just as likely to put 6’4 P.J. Tucker at center as their own emerging big man, Clint Capela. When the stakes are at their highest, NBA teams are replacing traditional big men at center with oversized wings.
Take Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who played 26 percent of his minutes at center in the playoffs after only playing seven percent of his minutes there in the regular season, or Golden State’s Kevin Durant, who has spent 28 percent of his minutes at center in this postseason after spending only 14 percent of his time there during the 82-game grind. Both underscore the core skills important to a modern center.
Today’s centers need to be able to switch onto a guard defensively. They need to be able to stretch the floor with legitimate three-point range. Ball handling and passing ability are becoming essential, and bigs still have to protect the rim, rebound, and finish inside, too.
So, it’s within that context that we view the new fleet of young big men who could be five of the first seven picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. (This doesn’t even include Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., a wing who measured 6’11 at the combine and is bound to spend plenty of time at the power forward and center spots as a pro.)
Deandre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., and Jaren Jackson Jr. are all undeniably talented — each a five-star out of high school who, more or less, lived up to the hype as a one-and-done. If they entered the draft even five or 10 years ago they’d be billed as the type of can’t-miss big men worth tanking for, but it’s 2018, and the NBA has moved on. Size still rules, but the parameters for what a star big man is supposed to do have changed. Will this next generation become a casualty of that change, or will they redefine the future of the NBA center? It depends on how well they fit the modern archetype.
You can make the argument that Deandre Ayton is one of the most precociously talented big men to enter the draft in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole.
Ayton is a 7’1, 260-pound physical freak: At just 19 years old, he already has the muscular frame to dominate most NBA centers; he runs the floor like a wing; he allegedly has a 43-inch vertical jump; he has a soft touch around the rim; and has proven to be a dependable free throw shooter. His three-point shot has the potential to grow into a weapon, too.
Ayton put up monster numbers during his one season at Arizona, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds per game on 61 percent shooting from the field. He was automatic as an inside scorer by overwhelming opponents with his size and strength, but he also showed deft touch stepping away from the basket. That combination of elite physicality and undeniable production should make him a no-brainer.
Yet Ayton enters the draft with real questions about his ability to handle the defensive responsibilities of a modern center.
He often showed poor instincts at Arizona, struggling to diagnose plays and make proper rotations. A big man with his physical gifts should have been forcing turnovers all over the floor, but Ayton rarely racked up blocks and steals. Part of that was because Ayton played out of position at power forward much of the season next to a slow, plodding senior center in Dusan Ristic, but the smaller players he was asked to guard in college will be similar to his assignments in the pros as teams continue to downsize their front courts.
In an era when even the best defensive centers in the league, like Gobert and Capela, are becoming part-time players in the playoffs, can a big man who struggles so much defensively live up to being a No. 1 pick?
There’s no doubt Ayton is going to put up big numbers on offense. The question is how much he actually helps a modern NBA team win.
If Ayton’s lack of defensive awareness makes him an awkward fit in today’s NBA, Mohamed Bamba’s defensive potential is the biggest part of his appeal as a likely top-5 pick.
Bamba has the physical tools NBA GMs dream of: He will have the longest wingspan (7’10) in the league, which he leveraged to block 3.7 shots per game — second in all of college basketball.
But how valuable will Bamba’s rim protection be when he’s guarding a shooter out to the three-point line? And if Bamba’s shot blocking is mitigated by being pulled out to the perimeter, how much will he be able to do offensively?
Bamba’s immediate offensive value will come as a lob target diving to the hoop out of the screen-and-roll. He’s also flashed some potential as a shooter, which could eventually make him the type of stretch five every NBA team wants. For now, Bamba’s shooting ability is more theoretical than tangible. He only hit 27.5 percent of his 51 three-point attempts at Texas.
There’s a chance Bamba becomes a shot-blocking, three-point shooting unicorn who can change the complexion of any scheme with his historic length. But if he doesn’t reach his full potential, he could be an offensively limited center in a sport making those kinds of players useless. His value as a shot blocker could become marginalized when he’s forced to defend a nominal wing playing on the perimeter in opposing small-ball lineups.
Gobert is the easy comparison for Bamba, but Gobert is quicker and stronger, and even he was ineffective at times in the playoffs.
Marvin Bagley III doesn’t have Bamba’s defensive potential, but if you want an offensive workhorse, he’s your man.
Bagley should have been a senior in high school this past season. Instead, he reclassified in August, enrolled at Duke and immediately turned into one of the most explosive players in college basketball.
Bagley’s production was unassailable from the jump. He was immediately an automatic inside scorer and tireless rebounder, overwhelming opponents with raw athleticism, soft touch around the basket, and surprisingly advanced footwork. It was not uncommon to see Bagley jump three times before his opponents could even jump once, a testament to both his explosion and a motor that never stops running. His numbers — 21 points and 11 rebounds per game — only reinforced his natural ability.
In the past, the league treated these offensive big men like gold, but not anymore. What good are those numbers if Bagley gives them back on the other end?
He was so bad at defending high ball screens that Duke switched to a zone in part to protect him. He averaged less than one block and one steal per game. Right now, he’s a big man who can’t protect the rim and hasn’t shown the capacity to guard on the perimeter. In today’s NBA, those are two massive handicaps.
It’s possible he’s just scratching the surface as a shooter and ball handler. If he maximizes his potential on both, it will skyrocket his offensive value. He certainly has the quickness to theoretically defend smaller players, so maybe he finds some defensive role with more development and greater focus.
But at the moment, Bagley is a high-motor big man caught between the four and the five — too slow for the former, too small for the latter. He will be targeted on defense relentlessly until he proves he can hold his own on that end.
If Bagley didn’t decide to skip a year of high school, Wendell Carter Jr. would have been the Duke big man getting all the attention this season. Carter doesn’t have Ayton’s size and explosiveness, Bagley’s agility, or Bamba’s length, but he’s still as dependable as any big man in this class.
Carter’s game is more functional than flashy. At 6’10 and 251 pounds, he’s a bruising big man who can finish inside and clean the glass. He already has nice touch on his face-up jumper, hitting 19 of 46 threes (41 percent) this year for Duke. There’s a good chance he becomes the best shooter out of the Ayton, Bagley, Bamba group. He also proved he could block shots in the middle of Duke’s zone.
The catch with Carter is his lateral quickness, which will be a problem in a league that demands its bigs to switch onto guards defensively. A team like the Rockets would try to switch him onto James Harden defensively every possession. It’s possible he can be an adequate switch defender with his combination of length (7’4 wingspan) and basketball IQ by positioning himself in the right place to deter shots and cut off passing lanes. That said, it’s hard to watch a series like Warriors-Rockets and think Carter would thrive in that setting.
Carter’s skill set is well-rounded and he’ll be fine as a role player, but can you close a playoff game in today’s climate with Carter on the floor? And if not, why draft him high?
In a league that’s reducing traditional bigs to role players, Carter can do all the little things.
Jaren Jackson Jr. posted per-game numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds) that were essentially half of what Ayton and Bagley put up. But if you’re looking for a center with a skill set that fits the modern game to a tee, the Michigan State freshman is the choice.
Jackson can shoot with range, hitting 40 percent of his threes on 96 attempts this year. Jackson can protect the rim, posting a better block rate than even Bamba. He’s quick enough to slide his feet with guards and smart enough to make proper rotations on defense. He also might be just scratching the surface with his ball handling ability.
This is a mobile, agile center with great length (7’5 wingspan) and shot blocking instincts who doubles as the most dependable shooter of anyone in this group. He played out of position at power forward for MSU all season and will only benefit from the added spacing in the NBA game.
Throughout NBA history, a player with Ayton’s physicality and production would have been in far greater demand than someone like Jackson. Now it’s fair to wonder if Jackson’s modern skill set makes him the most valuable big man in this class.