Updated: 4 days ago
What is a Modern Big Man?
When you think of a traditional NBA center, who immediately comes to mind?
Maybe it's Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan. Perhaps your mind drifts deep into basketball’s preliminary years and consider Bill Rusell or Wilt Chamberlain. Now revert your attention back towards today’s NBA landscape, do any players compare directly to the towering paint roamers of yesteryear? Not exactly.
This is no mistake as we’ve seen post-2010 basketball undergo a drastic shift in play that no longer demands lumbering seven footers to physically intimidate opposing teams on both sides of the ball. Outside shooting now reigns supreme as statisticians plead 3 points are greater than 2, which limits both the impact and relevance of players who struggle anywhere outside of 10 feet of the basketball in an offensive and defensive context. This reality of NBA basketball has forced the hand of those with ‘traditional’ big man skills to develop their game further in a way that can be more useful in a more modernized basketball landscape. This begs the question of, how should we evaluate bigs today as opposed to 20, 30, 40 years ago?
Perhaps the most important aspect in player evaluation to consider is that the concept of ‘positionless’ basketball is extremely prominent now more than ever before. Roster construction in the NBA, and even NCAA, is heavily based on the skills an individual player offers in the confines of their team. Coaches and front offices no longer create a checklist of positions and play lineups that feature players that are specifically listed as guards, forwards, or centers. Filling out a presumptive depth chart has become a handicap on the potential of a team and it’s personnel. Instead, playing time and value is dictated by translatable skills that properly fit into the team’s offensive and defensive scheme. There is no explicit description for a big man to confine themself to as being tall and willing to set screens and rebound isn’t as favorable for a higher pace game that demands constant motion and versatile skill sets.
NBA Case Study
Take for example three starting NBA centers who grade similarly in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). This is not a perfect stat to outline how effective a player is, but a tool that highlights a player’s overall impact for their team over a hypothetical player that grades as a net-neutral in terms of on-court impact. At a VORP rating of 1.9, we have Indiana Pacer Myles Turner and Houston Rocket Alpren Sengun, and at a slightly lower VORP of 1.8 we have Atlanta Hawk Clint Capela. Turner, Sengun, and Capela each logged a majority of their minutes at the 5-spot this past 2022-23 season in the NBA, yet each player exhibits is vastly different from the other in terms of how they yield the same grade in terms of what they are able to do on the court.
Myles Turner can simply be defined as a stretch-big, where on offense he is able to operate along the perimeter and willing to shoot three pointers at a relatively high volume. Out of his 831 total field goal attempts this past season, 30% of them were three pointers and he converted 37% (93/249) of those shots. This allows the Pacers to play at an extremely quick pace as they don’t have to wait for a big to get into the paint to avoid being at a disadvantage in their offense while in transition. Turner is perfectly comfortable spotting up along the perimeter and seems to prefer receiving kick-out passes for open threes. On the other side of the court, Turner is applauded for his mobility as a help defender and protector at the rim. Turner is able to defend pick-and-rolls in a variety of ways thanks to his quickness and foot speed despite being a near 7-footer. It is no simple feat to challenge Turner at the rim either, as his 3.8% block% ranked in the 95th percentile among big men in 2022-23, establishing himself as one of the premier shot blockers in the NBA.
Atlanta Hawk Clint Capela is a picturesque embodiment of a rim runner who dominates in the paint and above the rim. Offensively, his responsibilities are simplified to once he gets the ball near the cup, he scores. This past season, 85% of Capela’s shots were at the rim and he did not attempt a single shot outside of 14 feet. To further contextualize how Capela is used on offense, he only had 22 possessions where he was featured in the post, highlighting that he is used as a lob threat and a play finisher who receives passes or grabs an offensive rebound and instantaneously scores in the paint. This minimized workload allows Capela to specialize in a certain role offensively and enables him to be hyper-efficient, sporting a 70% finishing rate at the rim this past season. Defensively, Capela is not quite as mobile as Turner which limits him to mainly playing at the rim and avoiding potential switches on to guards or coming up to the three-point line. Capela excels at deterring any shots near the paint and inhaling the missed opportunities through his profound rebounding ability, averaging 19.8 total rebounds per 100 possessions this past 22-23 season. Clint Capela may not feature the most versatile or modernized NBA skillset, but his productivity with traditional big man tasks and relative athleticism for the position.
The Houston Rockets’ youthful big Alpren Sengun differs from Turner and Capela in a variety of ways. Touching on his defensive abilities, Sengun does not possess ideal foot speed to consistently switch on to quality ball handlers and is limited to roaming the paint. Despite being listed at 6 '9, Sengun plays physical enough to deter shots closer to the rim and inhale 9.0 rebounds per game. However, his lack of mobility limits how versatile he can be across different schemes. Where Sengun impresses the most has to be offensively, specifically through his passing ability. As a big, Sengun posted an assist% of 22% and often operated as a ‘hub’ for the Houston Rockets to run offense through. What exactly is a ‘hub’? It’s essentially what you see the Denver Nuggets incorporate with Nikola Jokic and the Sacramento Kings with Domantas Sabonis, two All-NBA centers who dazzle with their court vision. Teams will run offensive actions that license a big man to make reads as opposed to a guard to open up scoring opportunities, typically out of the high post or top of the key. Having an additional playmaking source, or ‘hub’, has provided access to a variety of complex manners in how coaches design their offensive schemes.
After analyzing Myles Turner, Clint Capela, and Alperen Sengun, what are we able to infer? Well, none share similar athletic profiles nor do they truly relate in how their utilization both offensively and defensively, yet are all listed as the starting center for the respective team. This fact of basketball reality emphasizes that there is no primary mold tied to the center position, but it may be the most important piece when team’s construct their roster.
For further contextualization; the Indiana Pacers utilize their well-rounded athleticism on their roster to constantly push the pace and want their players to either spot up along the three-point line or get to the rim, which allows Turner to fit in seamlessly. The Atlanta Hawks feature all-star two guards, Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, who thrive running pick-and-roll plays therefore running the highest percentage (21.4% of their offensive plays are PnRs) in the NBA, which maximizes who Capela can be used. The Houston Rockets play relatively freelanced in order to allow their young roster to grow and develop together, but Sengun’s passing and post ability provides them with an intriguing piece in how they can choose to shape their roster going forward. Much of the hope surrounding the Rockets is centered around how Sengun could be a true initiator of the offense with how athletic and dynamic the rest of the roster is. With centers exhibiting perhaps the greatest disparity between skill sets than any other position, coaching staffs must implement their game plan and lineups with a firm understanding of how their big men will be involved to avoid being at a severe disadvantage on the floor.
The two most notable commonalities between productive centers across all levels is maybe what comes to mind first when thinking of a ‘traditional’ center: rebounding and rim defense.
Rebounding holds a pivotal role in basketball, especially for centers. By excelling in defensive rebounding, centers significantly curtail the opposing team's chances to score. This limitation stems from the fact that securing defensive rebounds far outweighs the occurrence of offensive rebounds. Typically, a team secures three defensive rebounds for every offensive one. This prevalence can be attributed to defenders often having an advantageous position when the battle for rebounds commences. Securing offensive rebounds holds immense value for a team's performance. These rebounds provide additional opportunities to either convert and accumulate points or draw fouls and earn trips to the free-throw line. Moreover, offensive rebounds possess the unique ability to offset a team's offensive limitations. In situations where a team struggles to score efficiently, having proficient offensive rebounders can bridge the gap by ensuring a respectable point output. This is why rebounding can be considered ‘dirty work’, as it’s not aesthetically pleasing or highlight-reel worthy, but it is significant for team success. As typically the largest player on the floor, centers and big men need to control the glass on both ends and every team actively searches for them.
Being the tallest on the court also demands that big men are able to protect the rim and block shots at the basket at a high level. Despite the overflow of analytics and three-point revolution in modern basketball, the most efficient shots in basketball are wide open or poorly contested layups. Fundamentally taking away shots at the rim at a higher percentage and volume typically bolsters the effectiveness of a team’s defensive impact. Five of the top 10 overall defenses in the NBA last season were in the bottom 10 in opponent FG% inside of 5 feet, and the total would increase to seven teams if we considered the top 12 overall defenses in the NBA. Even counting stats can recognize the importance of rim defense, as the NBA’s 2022-23 block leader, Jaren Jackson Jr, was named the Defensive Player of the Year largely in part to how many shots he was able to block. The more a big man can behave as an anchor for a defense, or someone who is capable of defending the rim well, will inherently possess greater value.
The idea behind rebounding and shot blocking is pretty simple and self-explanatory for centers who in the most part flirt with a seven foot height. But just being able to do these two things is not exactly as favorable considering how common it is across all levels. When looking at players, typically blocks and rebounds increase as height increases.
So when teams scout and evaluate prospective centers, they are always looking for something additional they can bring to the table. This is perhaps why we can study three different centers in the NBA who are all stylistically different. They reach the threshold of being at least solid rebounders and shot blockers, but then offer an extra element that brings some dynamism to how they can be used on the court. Capela, maybe with the most traditional skillset, converts at an extremely high rate and a film study suggests he has some relative mobility which suggests he can be somewhat interchangeable across teams and concepts. The most recent no. 1 pick in the NBA, Victor Wembanyama, is listed at 7 '5 and offers the potential to do just about anything on the court both defensively and offensively, hence why he may be the most hyped prospect in the history of the league. There is relative certainty that he will rebound and block shots, but everything else that accompanies his skillset, or can accompany in the future, is why scouts were salivating at the mouth watching Victor.
To answer the question we began with, "how do we evaluate centers in today’s era of basketball?", is not about finding what they are good at, but instead focuses on how many things are you good at. The more versatile a big man, or any player for that matter, can be, the more valuable they will be in the eyes or coaches on any team. As a center that can do more things on a court, the less that big man will handicap how their roster can be constructed and diversify the schematic concepts the coach can implement.
So no matter your height or age, work on your handle, shoot open three pointers, guard players of different heights. Do not limit your development based on the idea that you are confined to a specific position, and coaches will always have a roster spot open for phenomenal talent.