Is the Future of the NBA's Center Position in Good Hands?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2015

LOS ANGELES CA - OCTOBER 31: DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers reaches in to swat the ball from DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter of the basketball game at Staples Center October 31, 2015, in Los Angeles California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The future of the NBA's center position is shrouded in more mystery than any of its counterparts.

While the power forward slot has been home to more of a functional face-lift, the 5 spot is unique in its apparent expendability. The league is favoring an offensive style that often marginalizes, and sometimes negates, the importance of traditional centers.

Can the Association's 5s pivot to remain a key part of the game's future? Is there enough star talent to carry this group of bigs in the coming years? Are stereotypical 5s becoming obsolete?

Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman and yours truly are back with the final installment of our position-by-position outlook, this time taking stock of where, if anywhere, the center position is headed.

  

Current Crop

There are still plenty of big-time 5s to watch.
There are still plenty of big-time 5s to watch.Allen Einstein/Getty Images

A de-emphasis on post play has not spelled the end for star centers.

Nine of the league's top 25 player efficiency ratings belong to 5s, and the position has more than its fair share of household names:

  • DeMarcus Cousins is basically David Robinson with a mean streak...and a three-point shot.
  • Andre Drummond is the best rebounder the Association has seen since Dennis Rodman.
  • Rudy Gobert, though injured, has "Future Perennial Defensive Player of the Year" tattooed across his forehead.
  • Marc Gasol was an older, toned-down version of Cousins before the latter even entered the league.
  • Dwight Howard hasn't posted a PER south of 18 since he was a rookie. 
  • DeAndre Jordan is what happens when you program Iron Man to rack up double-doubles and block at least two shots per game.
  • Brook Lopez's offensive production deserves better than the Brooklyn Nets.
  • Greg Monroe will make you fall in love with face-up footwork all over again.
  • Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star without an All-Star appearance to his name.
  • Hassan Whiteside has made it his personal mission to take a stick of dynamite to shot-blocking records.

That is not an insignificant mixture of talent, and despite an uptick in three-point-packed offenses, there are plenty of bigs on the rise.

Okafor and Towns are just two of the NBA's up-and-coming centers.
Okafor and Towns are just two of the NBA's up-and-coming centers.David Sherman/Getty Images

Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns, two of the first three picks from the 2015 draft class, are both 20 and still get ID'd when they order beer-battered onion rings. Nikola Jokic, also 20, is Danilo Gallinari with All-Defensive Team promise. 

Clint Capela, just 21, is already stealing minutes from Howard. Nerlens Noel, 21, has Defensive Player of the Year potential outside of Philadelphia.

Steven Adams, still 22, need only improve his touch within pick-and-rolls before he's dubbed one of the most pesky two-way centers alive. Gorgui Dieng, 25, has sneakily become the Minnesota Timberwolves' third-most valuable player. Festus Ezeli, 26, is trying his darnedest to supersede Andrew Bogut in the Golden State Warriors rotation.

Some of the established lightning rods, meanwhile, aren't even kind of old. Drummond has yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday; Gobert is 23; Cousins, Monroe and Vucevic are each 25; and Whiteside, while a journeyman, is just 26.

But the number of worthwhile names is rivaled by the growing number of red flags.

There is, in fact, a lack of ascending star power at the 5. Just nine players under the age of 25 have played center exclusively this season while also qualifying for the minutes-per-game leaderboard. Of those nine, Drummond is the only one who's on the fast track toward superstardom.

And that brings about another issue: the exceedingly blurred lines between power forwards and centers.

Anthony Davis and Derrick Favors are recognized, to this point, as career 4s. But most of their minutes this season are coming at the 5. Likewise, Cousins and Noel, centers by craft, are spending large chunks of time at the 4.

It's getting harder and harder to pigeonhole bigs to just one position.
It's getting harder and harder to pigeonhole bigs to just one position.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Merging those two positions, though, isn't even the main concern. Chris Bosh has been headlining that balancing act for more than a decade, and there was a time when power forwards and centers were even more interchangeable than they are now.

That, of course, was before the three-pointer became so popular. Bigs are now expected to boast more expansive offensive arsenals. They must either find a way to survive on the perimeter or, in the case of someone such as Cousins, begin hoisting triples themselves.

This has naturally led to a stark decline in interior focus, as Zach Lowe explained for Grantland while diving into last season's offensive trends:

There is no debate that post-ups make up a shrinking portion of the scoring pie, though there is some debate about why that is. Only eight teams this season finished even 10 percent of their possessions with a post-up, per Synergy Sports. A decade ago, 22 teams hit that mark, and every team ended at least 7.5 percent of its trips with some kind of post-up. One-third of teams finished with a lower post-up share than that this season.

Five teams in 2015-16 are going to post-up sets 10 percent of the time: the Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Timberwolves, New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio is the only one of those squads to rank inside the top 15 of offensive efficiency.

It's this minimization of back-to-the-basket volume that has opened the door for centerless lineups. Where trotting out two traditional bigs was once the standard, it's now the exception. The Warriors' most used fourth-quarter lineup doesn't even feature an actual center. The 6'7" Draymond Green merely serves as a makeshift 5.

Sure, the Warriors are the extreme—for now. But what happens as stylistic copycats skyrocket? Human skyscrapers can only evolve so much if the NBA is going to marginalize size in general. Is that what it's doing?

At the very least, there are fewer opportunities for classic centers. As time goes on, will it be possible to build a viable offense around someone like Okafor, with a skill set plucked straight from the 1990s?

A Talent Deficiency

It wasn't long ago that Joel Embiid was viewed as a more valuable prospect than Andrew Wiggins.
It wasn't long ago that Joel Embiid was viewed as a more valuable prospect than Andrew Wiggins.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

While the NBA has clearly gone away from post-up and back-to-the-basket bigs, I'd credit much of the change to the fact that, lately, we just haven't seen many great ones emerge from college or overseas.

Just two years ago, everyone was convinced Joel Embiid—a traditional " '90s center"—was a franchise prospect teams could build around. A disastrous foot injury obviously clouds that possibility. But a new movement wouldn't negate or diminish the value of Embiid's world-class talent. Had Embiid been healthy and eligible for this upcoming draft, he'd still be the first pick—regardless of how much the NBA has shifted.

Teams that can't fill their center position with a star or go-to option mostly look to specialists in rim protection (Robin Lopez, Timofey Mozgov, Ian Mahinmi, Adams) or versatile power forwards (Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, Green, Kevin Love, Bosh). These are the teams typically willing to experiment more with smaller lineups to avoid playing four-on-five offensively or dealing with poor spacing.

There is no doubt teams could still win using a classic center. The good ones who score and defend are just difficult to find. 

—Jonathan Wasserman

Incoming!

Will Kentucky's Skal Labissiere end up being a 4 or a 5 upon entering the NBA?
Will Kentucky's Skal Labissiere end up being a 4 or a 5 upon entering the NBA?Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Appreciate Towns and Okafor—because it could be a few years before the NBA gets its next All-Star center. 

Freshman Skal Labissiere plays center for Kentucky, but at just 225 pounds with shooting touch and quick feet, chances are NBA coaches will look to convert him to a 4. Either way, Labissiere projects as one of the bigs likely to spend time at both frontcourt positions, depending on his team's lineup and preferred style of play.

Unfortunately, the 6'11" Haitian appears to be in phase one of what could be a lengthy development process. Though loaded with talent highlighted by footwork, post moves, a jumper and shot-blocking instincts, Labissiere has made just six field goals in Kentucky's last five games. 

He'll have the opportunity to eventually evolve into a versatile two-way scorer in the middle—just don't put a timetable on it. 

Utah's Jakob Poeltl doesn't offer the upside Labissiere does, but the Austrian anchor has quickly emerged as a potential top-10 target. 

Utah's Jacob Poeltl has more of a traditional feel to his game.
Utah's Jacob Poeltl has more of a traditional feel to his game.Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Per 40 minutes, he's averaging 25.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks on a ridiculous 69.7 percent shooting. Despite generating lottery buzz last season, Poeltl returned to school and brought a revamped offensive repertoire with him. 

Poeltl doesn't fit the mold of a new-school stretch 5—he spends almost all of his time from foul line to baseline, where he operates as a back-to-the-basket scorer, pick-and-roll weapon or finisher. And that isn't likely to affect his draft stock. The rise of smaller centers and shooting 5s won't stop a team from taking Poeltl early, assuming it buys into his talent. 

UNLV freshman Stephen Zimmerman would be the next 5 in line for me. He's another project, but with 7'0" size, decent bounce, footwork and the ability to make outside shots, he's bound to attract lottery attention whenever he declares. 

Assuming Labissiere, Poeltl and Zimmerman do indeed enter the draft this upcoming June, the following 2017 field could be awfully thin at the 5 position. We may have to fast-forward to 2018 when searching for the next big-name center. 

DeAndre Ayton, a high school sophomore, may play a significant role in shaping the future of the NBA's center position.
DeAndre Ayton, a high school sophomore, may play a significant role in shaping the future of the NBA's center position.Gregory Payan/Associated Press/Associated Press

High school sophomore DeAndre Ayton, a consensus (ESPN, Scout.com, Rivals) top-five recruit from Phoenix, will be eligible. After watching him go for 28 points and 14 rebounds at the Tarkanian Classic last week, Scout.com's Evan Daniels proclaimed Ayton the "odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft."

At just 17 years old, he measured 6'11", 234 pounds in socks with a 7'4 ½" wingspan over the summer. Ayton's physical tools look monstrous, bounce effortless and touch promising in the mid-range. 

But in the meantime, sit back and enjoy Towns' rise from (expected) Rookie of the Year to one of the premier players in the league. 

—Jonathan Wasserman 

Crystal Basketball

Towns has come to represent everything a team expects from a modern-day 5.
Towns has come to represent everything a team expects from a modern-day 5.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It's important to note here that, while there doesn't appear to be an inordinate number of superstar centers in the pipeline, the NBA isn't necessarily devaluing size.

Over the last decade, with the exception of 2009-10, the Association has played host to between 17 and 22 rookies every season (minimum one appearance) who stand 6'10" or taller. That includes the 2015-16 campaign, which has thus far featured 20 such players .

The game is just changing, and that, as Wasserman alluded to, is impacting the kind of bigs being churned out at the most fundamental levels.

"Growing up, coaches were telling me, 'Don't shoot the three-point shot' because it's too far," former NBA big Matt Bullard, a 6'10" power forward in his day, told Bleacher Report this past summer. "Now, my son, who's 17, I've been teaching him to shoot three-point shots since he started playing. So even as a junior in high school, he now has NBA three-point range."

Evolving shot selections among the league's newest towers support this change. Today's rookie bigs—players 6'10" or taller—are journeying beyond the three-point line more than ever:

This increase in outside volume doesn't mean there still isn't room for classic post-up centers, or that every 5 will soon need to chuck threes with the frequency of Stephen Curry. But it is a change that's defining how the arsenals of inbound bigs must be tailored.

Towns specifically—and, should he ever move to the 5 full-time, Porzingis—has come to represent everything that's valued most in contemporary centers. He fires the occasional triple, works off the dribble and with his back to the basket and protects the rim like it's his most valued worldly possession.

And the Minnesota Timberwolves plan to assemble a contender around him. So the market for cornerstone centers still exists, even if the supply isn't meeting the demand.

In the end, then, the dearth of up-and-coming superstar 5s spells only immediate concern for the position—not the demise of centers altogether.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com are accurate leading into games on Dec. 25 unless otherwise noted.

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