NBA Player Power Rankings: B/R's Top 30 Centers at the Halfway Point
Young centers are taking over the NBA.
While Joel Embiid (22 years old) puts up massive numbers in his Rookie of the Year conquest for the Philadelphia 76ers, a number of other organizations are thanking their lucky stars: Nikola Jokic (21) is thriving for the Denver Nuggets, Myles Turner (20) for the Indiana Pacers and Karl-Anthony Towns (21) for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
And that's saying nothing of the established studs still blessed with youth. Anthony Davis (23), DeMarcus Cousins (26), Andre Drummond (23), Steven Adams (23) and Hassan Whiteside (27), among others, remain on inexorable marches toward their primes.
Between all those up-and-comers and the veterans still playing at high levels, the center position is back. (For that matter, it may never have left.)
By analyzing the work these players have done in 2016-17, as well as their reputations from previous seasons and the expectations going forward, we're identifying those we'd most want to build around for the remainder of the campaign. So, long-term upside and prowess in the distant past are irrelevant.
30. Robin Lopez, Chicago Bulls
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.2 steals, 1.6 blocks
When Robin Lopez was traded to the Chicago Bulls in a deal that also involved Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant, he was coming off the best season of the bunch. But he has inexplicably declined since moving to the Windy City, forcing up ill-advised shots and failing to gain much comfort on the defensive end.
Lopez should improve during the season's second half as he continues learning how to operate with these new teammates, but his willingness to launch jump-hooks while tightly covered is legitimately concerning. He needs more self-awareness on offense, taking on a lesser role and focusing on the hustle plays that made him so sneakily valuable with the New York Knicks.
And if he continues to attack, he at least needs to draw more whistles and start converting at the foul stripe.
Honorable Mentions: Bismack Biyombo, Dewayne Dedmon, Channing Frye, John Henson, Mike Muscala
29. Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 4.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.8 blocks
Lucas Nogueira has the luxury of competing against other teams' bench mobs. His advanced metrics may look stellar, but he's still a limited player.
You don't want him spending much time with the ball in his hands, even if he's developed stronger passing instincts. You also don't want him shooting from anywhere away from the rim. And you probably wouldn't mind if he started converting more opportunities on the defensive glass, especially because he can sometimes pull himself out of position by going for an ill-fated block attempt.
But despite the notable flaws, Nogueira has become quite valuable for the Toronto Raptors, whose net rating improves by 10.6 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Between his skill protecting the basket and his knack for finishing out of the pick-and-roll, he's been a dynamite substitute who allows the team to take on a hard-nosed mentality whenever he's in the game.
28. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.0 blocks
It's been a strange season for Nikola Vucevic.
He's seemingly reversed his skills while coming off the Orlando Magic's bench for the first time since they acquired him (four-and-a-half seasons ago) from the Philadelphia 76ers. Rather than serving as an offensive specialist who strives to overcome his lack of defensive mobility, he's been an asset on the preventing end while struggling to score.
Vucevic remains valuable to the Magic cause, but they need more from him. He can't continue to shoot 45.5 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from downtown while struggling to earn free-throw attempts and converting at a 58.5 percent clip. It's as if his confidence has just dried up.
Then again, he's also just 26 years old, which makes this regression seem like more of a fluke than anything. So while his stock has declined in 2016-17, he should eventually establish a rhythm that makes him more accurate.
27. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
As Gavin MacPherson explained for Raptors Republic, Jonas Valanciunas has developed his fair share of supporters and detractors:
Somebody said some words about Jonas Valanciunas the other day which inevitably sparked the age-old debate: is Valanciunas the second coming of Arvydas Sabonis who should take no fewer than 20 shots per game or is he an obsolete dinosaur from ages past who should stick to his arts and crafts and leave the basketballing to people who can run a sub-7.0 40? As usual the answer is somewhere in between the extreme positions...
Valanciunas hasn't been too valuable for the Toronto Raptors this year, despite the team's impressive record.
It's been tough to play high-quality defense when he patrols the paint and gives up easy buckets, and the Raptors can't give him the ball frequently enough to showcase his scoring. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan using all the possessions, he's exposed as a passing liability who only scores in limited settings.
The 24-year-old big man is still brimming over with upside, but he's not in the most advantageous scenario.
26. Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.7 blocks
If you look solely at Enes Kanter's defense, you'd think he was one of the NBA's worst players.
The 24-year-old center has always been a matador. ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) has him as the third-worst defender among the 69 qualified centers, and this isn't a one-off metric. NBA Math's defensive points saved (DPS) also views him as a distinct negative, which makes sense when he's allowing opponents to shoot 54 percent at the hoop.
But if you look solely at Kanter's offense, you'd think he was one of the NBA's best.
Between his offensive rebounding and tremendous touch around the basket, he's an unstoppable force when a shot goes up. It only helps that he's developing some passing chops, which even allow him to make plays in transition.
Of course, the truth lies in between the two ends of the spectrum.
25. Marreese Speights, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.5 blocks
Marreese Speights has become an offensive machine for the Los Angeles Clippers, shooting 45.0 percent from the field, 39.0 percent from downtown and 86.7 percent from the charity stripe. He hasn't lost his penchant for firing away in any and all situations, but he's having (easily) the most efficient season of his career.
The veteran big man won't add much on defense, regardless of whether he's holding down the fort as an undersized 5 or playing next to DeAndre Jordan at power forward.
But his shooting alone has given the Clippers more firepower off the pine than they possessed during the last few seasons while also easing some of the scoring responsibilities endured by Jamal Crawford. LAC's even putting up 107 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
This stretchier version of Speights has always been the dream, and it's finally become a reality.
24. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks
After moving past injuries and the drama that comes with having so many big men on the roster, Nerlens Noel has started to play high-quality basketball. In fact, he's the only member of the Philadelphia 76ers with an above-average score in both the offensive and defensive portions of NBA Math's total points added (TPA), even if that's partially due to the small sample size.
That Noel is performing well on defense should come as no surprise. Ever since he burst onto the national stage at Kentucky, he's been an impactful stopper who's equally adept at playing fundamental defense, blocking shots and jumping passing lanes.
His offensive surge, however, is shocking.
Noel hasn't fallen victim to so many turnovers in 2016-17, though that will likely regress to the mean as he begins playing more. He's also displayed more touch away from the basket, hitting 55.6 percent of his shots from between three and 10 feet after draining just 30.6 percent in 2015-16.
23. Zaza Pachulia, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 5.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
The idea of Zaza Pachulia as a starting member of the Western Conference All-Star squad is farcical, but it may be more sensible than the notion that he's not a solid starter for the Golden State Warriors.
Pachulia doesn't make the Dubs work; that job belongs to the more glamorous players on the squad. He also has distinct weaknesses, which are most evident when he's asked to protect the rim or finish plays on the interior.
However, his nonstop hustle is contagious.
And even that's not as valuable as his understated passing chops, ability to knock down the occasional shot, strong positional defense and willingness to do the little things. When you watch him play, you can understand why the Bay Area has fallen in love with him so quickly—just as the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks fanbases did previously.
22. Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.0 blocks
So long as Marcin Gortat continues to set bruising screens and roll to the rim effectively, he'll have plenty of value for the Washington Wizards. With Bradley Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter carrying the scoring load, he doesn't have to create shots out of the post, instead focusing his energy on rim assaults and defense.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, 24 percent of Gortat's plays come as a roll man, but he's scoring just 1.0 points per possession (47th percentile). And that's why we're saying "trying" rather than "doing."
Gortat should get more efficient as the season progresses. But given his current role and effectiveness, he's not doing enough to jump into the top 20.
21. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.6 blocks
Clint Capela has thrived as a pick-and-roll finisher.
A staggering 26.5 percent of his plays have fallen into this category, and he's converting them so well that he's scoring 1.3 points per possession. Not only does he sit in the 91.1 percentile, but of the players for whom rolling comprises at least 25 percent of their possessions, only Dallas' Salah Mejri and Toronto's Lucas Nogueira have been more effective.
Playing next to James Harden has done wonders for Capela. The bearded guard is able to squeeze the ball into tight spaces and create easy opportunities at the rim, and his immense workload ensures the 22-year-old doesn't have to overextend himself.
Capela wouldn't be ready to take on a bigger role at this stage of his career. But he'll be perfectly capable of stepping back into this one when he returns from his fractured fibula.
20. Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.3 blocks
Analyzing Pau Gasol was a difficult task while he suited up for the Chicago Bulls, and it's even tougher now that he's playing for the San Antonio Spurs.
Head coach Gregg Popovich has done a fantastic job figuring out how to cover up Gasol's flaws and maximize his strengths, which means some of the advanced metrics treat him more favorably than they should.
Take his defense, for example: According to ESPN.com's DRPM, only 14 centers have been better on the less-glamorous end. But when watching him, it doesn't take long to realize that's a massive exaggeration.
He's adept at covering the limited zone within which he operates, and the Spurs scheme to mask his weaknesses—not unlike former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter's excellent fielding percentage distracting from his lack of range and unwillingness to dash after balls he might not be capable of reaching.
Gasol is great within the niches he can fill. But Father Time has made him more limited than ever.
19. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks
A trimmed-down version of Greg Monroe has reasserted himself as a valuable presence for the Milwaukee Bucks. He's able to slide his feet and stay with quicker players while thriving in the post with fast-twitch moves that keep defenses off guard.
Last year, Monroe didn't make the Bucks too much better while he was on the floor:
|Offensive Rating (Rank)||Defensive Rating (Rank)||Net Rating (Rank)|
|With Monroe||104.8 (No. 10)||107.5 (No. 28)||Minus-2.7 (No. 20)|
|Without Monroe||98.4 (No. 29)||103.2 (No. 13)||Minus-4.8 (No. 26)|
This year, that's a totally different story:
|Offensive Rating (Rank)||Defensive Rating (Rank)||Net Rating (Rank)|
|With Monroe||113.8 (No. 1)||103.7 (No. 7)||10.1 (No. 2)|
|Without Monroe||102.6 (No. 22)||105.3 (No. 17)||Minus-2.7 (No. 21)|
Monroe is finally starting to justify the gigantic contract he inked with the Bucks.
18. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks
Let's focus on the two elements of Tristan Thompson's game that are most important: offensive rebounding and interior defense.
The 25-year-old doesn't need to be much of a scoring threat for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he'll rarely touch the ball in the flow of the offense when operating alongside LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But his ability to create second-chance opportunities and lighten the defensive load for Love remain vital.
Among all qualified players, only Dwight Howard (17.8), Kenneth Faried (16.2) and Joakim Noah (15.7) have a higher offensive rebounding percentage than Thompson's 14.8. He's also one of just seven players to hold opponents to no better than 47 percent shooting around the rim while facing at least seven shots per game.
Howard, Faried and Noah all fall short of that second group.
17. Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks
Cody Zeller doesn't often throw up glamorous numbers for the Charlotte Hornets, but he's steadily improved throughout his professional career. Now, he's having an undeniably positive impact by doing all the little things and avoiding mistakes at all costs.
Charlotte's offense runs primarily through Kemba Walker, and most action is initiated with a pair of high screens near the top of the key. It's usually Zeller setting one of them, and he's quite good at it.
"Most big guys want to get to the rim really quick and slip out," he told Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman in early December. "What I'll do is hold it a little longer and try to get away with as much as I can without being called for it. The guards (on other teams) don't like that."
It works: Only three players are averaging more screen assists per game.
16. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks
Steven Adams has arrived.
He still doesn't defend the rim as well as some of his peers at the center position, and you'll rarely find him spacing the floor for the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder. But the young big man has learned how to finish on the interior, whether he's slamming home finishes from a Russell Westbrook feed or creating shots with his back to the basket.
Last year, 76.2 percent of Adams' successful two-pointers came after assists, and he shot 65.5 percent from within three feet. This year, those numbers have changed to 68.5 and 69.1, respectively.
Those may seem like minuscule shifts, but they're substantial over the course of the season and represent just how much better Adams has been at filling his role for the surging Thunder.
15. Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks
Before the season began, the Portland Trail Blazers were optimistic about Mason Plumlee's chances of recording more than a few triple-doubles. Here's what Damian Lillard told CSN Northwest's Jason Quick:
A lot of our new sets that we've put in, where we are moving the ball around, a lot of times we are putting the ball in his hands to make a play. It's kind of what Golden State does with Draymond Green. He gets a lot of assists getting the ball in the middle of the defense and making that decision. Mase is really good at it, so I could see him getting a bunch of them this year.
Plumlee still doesn't have a trip-dub, but he's been close on a number of occasions—most notably when he finished with eight points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists against the Detroit Pistons. And even with none to his credit, he's still one of just eight players averaging at least 11 points, seven rebounds and four dimes.
His versatility is real.
14. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.7 blocks
Brook Lopez's defensive immobility and inexplicable stretches of futility on the glass prevent him from consistently playing like a top-10 center. But he remains one of the league's biggest offensive threats, especially now that he's added three-point range to his diverse arsenal of scoring methods.
Before 2016-17, Lopez had taken 31 triples in his career and made just three of them. That's not a per-season average; it's his career total.
But while taking over as the Brooklyn Nets' first, second and third option when on the floor, he's gone 65-of-179 from downtown.
It's now taking him, on average, two games to match what was previously the sum of his entire career.
13. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 13.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks
Though it's easy to get blown away by Andre Drummond's massive per-game numbers and penchant for gaudy double-doubles, those can be quite misleading. Just look at the latter two advanced stats, which by no means indicate All-Star level production.
Drummond must do two things much more successfully to take that next step and truly blossom as the Detroit Pistons' centerpiece. After all, head coach Stan Van Gundy's four-out, one-in system is predicated upon his ability to control the interior.
Defensively, he must be able to protect the rim instead of allowing opponents to shoot 54.6 percent while facing 7.5 shots per game.
Offensively, he needs to create his own looks rather than relying on second-chance opportunities and easy dump-off passes. However, he's scoring just 0.73 points per possession on post-up plays, which leaves him in the 17.9 percentile.
It may seem blasphemous to leave one of the best rebounders outside the top dozen, but there's so much more to the game than cleaning the glass.
12. Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 13.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.3 blocks
Dwight Howard may still have the same warts that have plagued him throughout his NBA career—a lack of range and limited post moves, above all else—but he's been so good on the offensive glass that he's completely changed the Atlanta Hawks' mentality.
The Hawks spent all of last season eschewing the offensive boards in favor of playing extra transition defense. They grabbed just 19.1 percent of the available caroms, which was the worst mark in NBA history (the third-worst when adjusted to the league average, per NBA Math).
This year, Atlanta ranks 11th in offensive rebounding percentage, and Howard leads the league among all qualified players. That alone added plenty of value, and we haven't even touched on his ability to anchor an impressive defensive unit.
11. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.3 blocks
Rest assured that you won't see Joel Embiid ranked outside the top 10 next season.
He's improved substantially during his first half-season of healthy action and is quickly becoming a two-way asset for the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid is already one of the league's most dangerous rim protectors: Opponents are shooting just 42.1 percent against him in the restricted area—the top mark among the 74 players defending at least four shots per game at the hoop.
He's also a terrifying offensive presence capable of big totals in relatively few minutes. Most veterans struggle to shoot 46.0 percent from the field, 36.7 percent from downtown and 78.7 percent on free throws, but he's doing so as a rookie and often making it look effortless.
But there are still two glaring flaws in his game: turnovers and fouls.
Until he can stop averaging 3.6 per game and 5.2 per 36 minutes in each respective category, he'll be less valuable than he otherwise could.
10. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.4 blocks
Unless you ask him to serve as a facilitator, Myles Turner can already do it all.
His name might not be as hyped as the other youthful contributors at center, but he's boosting the Indiana Pacers tremendously with his two-way abilities.
Turner has emerged as Indiana's defensive centerpiece, prowling the interior and blocking plenty of shots. But he's not often overaggressive and can stay disciplined when the situation calls for it, which also allows him to move out to the perimeter and take on a plethora of varying assignments.
He's not featured on offense, but it's also not hard to see him developing into an ultra-efficient volume scorer. This is only his second professional season, but he's already on the verge of joining the 50/40/90 club by shooting 53.4 percent from the field, 41.4 percent on triples and 80.9 percent at the stripe.
Turner's long-term ceiling is crazy high, but his floor is now just as impressive.
9. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks
Since Nikola Jokic moved back into the Denver Nuggets' starting lineup, he's averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and just 2.2 turnovers while shooting 64.8 percent from the field, 50.0 percent on treys and 75.8 percent on free-throw attempts. Even more importantly, the Nuggets' offensive rating has skyrocketed to a mind-numbing 115.4.
This isn't a fluke.
Head coach Mike Malone has started running offensive sets through Jokic, allowing him to make use of his touch around the basket and phenomenal passing ability. He's permitted to push the pace in transition, showing off his distributing chops with feeds that look eerily reminiscent of—yes, prepare yourselves—Magic Johnson.
That's not the only comparison he's drawn.
"He reminds me a lot of Marc Gasol. Flashes of Pau," Mike Miller said in December. "He's an athlete like my grandpa, which is not very athletic anymore. But that's just the way he plays, and it's fun to watch."
Lately, only silly fouls have been able to slow Jokic's development into a full-fledged star.
8. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 14.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.2 blocks
Hassan Whiteside is a perfect example of why all numbers need context.
His per-game statistics may blow you away, but they haven't led to many victories for the Miami Heat. His interior defense has declined in spite of the gaudy block totals, and the lofty nature of his scoring average belies its true value, which is dipping in conjunction with his plummeting true shooting percentage.
But the advanced metrics also sell Whiteside short.
The lack of help around the 27-year-old center has forced him into a disadvantageous position. He's greeted with too many opponents driving toward the hoop, and Miami is overextending him on offense because it doesn't have any other options to put up points in bunches.
Until the Heat improve, we won't get a true sense of Whiteside's value. He's not made to be a central building block, but he has the potential to be one of the league's best supporting pieces.
7. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 13.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
Don't make the mistake of thinking DeAndre Jordan's job on offense is easy or unimportant because he only finishes plays with dunks and buckets right around the basket.
It's not easy to score 11.8 points per game when your average shot requires such close proximity to the hoop. If it were, far more players would be doing so.
Jordan's athleticism and size make him a dynamic alley-oop target and strong finisher, and it doesn't hurt that he sets such strong—and sometimes borderline illegal—screens for the Los Angeles Clippers guards. Thanks to that efficient offense, his rebounding acumen and his ever-improving interior defense, he's become a true member of the LAC Big Three.
Without Jordan, the Clippers are on the wrong end of a minus-2.9 net rating. When he plays, that number shoots up to 9.9.
6. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.9 blocks
What can't Al Horford do?
The big man is capable of scoring from all over the court, whether he's relying on unorthodox elbow jumpers, thriving out of the post or spotting up to extend the defense and open driving lanes for Isaiah Thomas. He's a tremendous defender who can both protect the rim and display defensive versatility—often hedging and recovering against ball-handlers in pick-and-roll sets.
But his passing makes him most unique.
Horford doesn't ever operate as a primary facilitator, unlike some of the bigs who rack up assists. Instead, he serves as a secondary hub and bail-out option who has a green light to break off designed plays when opportunities emerge.
Unless asked to dominate the glass, he's one of the few centers who can do it all.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 blocks
The beginning of the season was a struggle for Karl-Anthony Towns, who was prematurely anointed an early contender for top placement in rankings like these. He couldn't find his bearings within the miserable Minnesota Timberwolves defense and was constantly out of place when trying to provide help for his sieve-like teammates.
But the 21-year-old has improved dramatically.
Sure, there are some nights where he looks very much like a second-year big still trying to figure out the NBA—those usually come on the road. There are also outings where he plays the part of an MVP candidate, torturing defenders with drop steps, triples, teardrops and everything in between.
Consistency will be key in Towns' quest for superiority at his position, as will continuing to improve his defensive discipline. But he's already well on his way.
4. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.4 blocks
It should go without saying that Marc Gasol is a tremendous defender and one of the main reasons the Memphis Grizzlies are always among the NBA's most suffocating squads. Ditto for his passing, as he's been racking up assists for the better part of a decade now—this year, he's doing so without turning the ball over even twice per game.
But his development into a floor-spacing option is something new.
Prior to this year, Gasol had taken only 66 triples over the course of eight seasons. He'd made just 12 of them—good for an 18.2 percent clip. Only during international play—when he feasted upon the shorter arc used by FIBA—did he show off the full extent of his shooting range.
Well, Gasol is taking 3.4 treys per game and hitting 38.9 percent of them. By doing so, he's solved the shooting hole that has plagued Memphis for years, turning it into an outfit that can compete on both ends during any given contest.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.5 blocks
Everybody surrounding Rudy Gobert in these rankings scores far more during their average outing, but that's not what drives this big man's value.
He's incredibly efficient when he does choose to provide offense, thriving as a finisher around the hoop and leading the league in true shooting percentage. It may be easy to knock down interior looks and complete alley-oop slams when you can almost dunk without jumping, but hitting 72.3 percent of your shots from within three feet is nearly unheard of.
Gobert is also one of the league's best rebounders. But even that's not his primary method of contributing.
The 24-year-old simply has to be one of the leading contenders for Defensive Player of the Year.
He's earned the "Stifle Tower" moniker by blocking 2.5 shots per game and holding opponents to 42.6 percent shooting at the hoop. Plus, he's facing 1.7 more attempts per contest in that area than anyone else, and he still trails only Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid in field-goal-percentage allowed.
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks
Some players dominate with power, bullying opponents until they've reduced the distance between themselves and the rim to convert an easy look. Others use finesse to win their individual matchups, dazzling with footwork and touch shots that leave defenders confused.
DeMarcus Cousins does both.
Now that he's added a legitimate three-point stroke to his bag of tricks, defenders might as well give up. They can't regularly stop him, especially while he remains capable of finding open teammates as soon as double-teams surface.
Throw in his improved defense, and you can see why Draymond Green recently said about Cousins, per Anthony Slater of the Mercury News: "He's the best center in the game. Best big man in the game. Period."
Green isn't quite right, but he's close.
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 29.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.5 blocks
Anthony Davis isn't going to win MVP while the New Orleans Pelicans are struggling back into contention for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed. But he's still been one of the league's most valuable players, helping spark a lackluster supporting cast with his mere presence:
|Offensive Rating (Rank)||Defensive Rating (Rank)||Net Rating (Rank)|
|With Davis||102.9 (No. 22)||102.2 (No. 6)||0.7 (No. 12)|
|Without Davis||97.3 (No. 30)||108.1 (No. 26)||Minus-10.8 (No. 30)|
Just look how putrid the Pelicans are without Davis. They'd be one of the worst teams in NBA history, and his ridiculous combination of scoring, defensive versatility, rebounding and shot-creating pushes them to mediocrity.
That, in and of itself, is a massive accomplishment. Of course, no one should expect anything less from a 23-year-old who is already producing like an all-time great.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, ESPN.com or NBA Math and accurate heading into games on Thursday, Jan. 12. Positional designations determined by Basketball-Reference.com's minute splits at the end of 2016. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.