NBA Position Power Rankings, End of Regular Season Edition: Centers
Youth continues to reign supreme for NBA centers.
Though a few wily veterans have maintained spots near the top, five of the 10 best have yet to celebrate their 25th birthdays. Youthful studs such as DeMarcus Cousins, who turns 27 this offseason and is still moving toward his prime, must feel unnecessarily old.
Right along with youth is versatility. Few centers dominate by serving as one-dimensional players these days, though there are notable exceptions. Shoring up weak spots is important, especially given how stiff the competition is throughout these deep rankings.
By analyzing all aspects of the on-court work these players have produced in 2016-17, we're here to put the top 30 centers in order. The goal is to identify those we'd most want to build around based on results from the current campaign, so long-term upside and prowess in the distant past are irrelevant. For the sake of consistency, all positional designations are the same as they appeared in the midseason edition of these rankings, even in instances where splits have changed to slightly favor new positions.
30-26: Valanciunas, Kanter, Gortat, Capela, Olynyk
30. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors (Previous Ranking: No. 27)
Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
Don't be fooled by Jonas Valanciunas' lofty player efficiency rating (PER), which stems from his ability to shoot a high percentage from the field and avoid making mistakes. He's still playing only 25.9 minutes per game, and he doesn't insert himself in the action frequently, to the point that the Toronto Raptors can go multiple possessions without giving him a touch. That, coupled with defensive regression, is a clear indication the 24-year-old isn't progressing as expected.
29. Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder (Previous Ranking: No. 26)
Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Enes Kanter remains an offensive rebounding demon who displays remarkable touch around the basket, and he's showcased solid chemistry with Russell Westbrook when diving to the hoop. But his limited role should leave him with enough energy to contribute defensively, and he's not. According to ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM), only five centers have fared worse on the less glamorous end.
28. Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards (Previous Ranking: No. 22)
Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
Marcin Gortat started the season in stronger fashion, but his contributions for the Washington Wizards have waned as Otto Porter and Bradley Beal continue to assume larger roles. Since the All-Star break, he's averaged only 8.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 51.4 percent from the field. And while he can still thrive as a rim-runner, his minutes are beginning to evaporate as he fails to leave an indelible impression during the tail end of his age-32 season.
27. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets (Previous Ranking: No. 21)
Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks
What would Clint Capela be able to do without James Harden? So much of his offense is wholly dependent upon his chemistry with the bearded guard, with whom he thrives in the pick-and-roll. But his defense and rebounding have regressed throughout the year, and he's been unable to assert himself during the few opportunities he's given to shine without playing alongside the team's MVP candidate. Unless he's feasting on a smaller matchup, he hasn't displayed the upside with which he entered the year.
26. Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Per-Game Stats: 9.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kelly Olynyk will never be a rim-protecting stalwart who can anchor a defense, but he's learned how to move his feet and position himself positively, which mitigates much of the damage that would otherwise hamper the Boston Celtics. That, in conjunction with his ability to hit 34.9 percent of his triples and finish plays around the basket with impressive touch, makes him an intriguing two-way center off the bench. Olynyk's upside is limited, and he doesn't truly thrive on either end. But slightly above-average play in multiple situations can still work out nicely.
25-21: Pachulia, Vucevic, Monroe, Dedmon, Thompson
25. Zaza Pachulia, Golden State Warriors (Previous Ranking: No. 23)
Per-Game Stats: 6.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks
The only knock on Zaza Pachulia is that he wasn't able to make the All-Star roster in the Western Conference. But kidding aside, the 33-year-old has filled his role nicely for the Golden State Warriors, even if his unathletic attempted finishes around the hoop can sometimes verge on infuriating. He does most everything else well, whether he's playing a physical brand of defense, passing to cutters or setting solid screens for the plethora of shooters surrounding him.
24. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic (Previous Ranking: No. 28)
Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks
The 2016-17 season was the campaign in which Nikola Vucevic's reputation got flipped upside down. Throughout his career, he'd been known as a scoring threat who struggled to overcome his lack of mobility on the defensive end. But this year, he was far more disciplined on the preventing side, and he used that to combat a shooting stroke that somehow disappeared. Though he was more efficient in the second half, hitting 46.8 percent of his field-goal attempts and 66.9 percent of his free-throw tries was less than ideal for a man who entered the go-round with career tallies of 51.1 and 73.1 percent, respectively.
23. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous Ranking: No. 19)
Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks
Greg Monroe never asserted himself as more than a fringe contender for Sixth Man of the Year, but his trimmed-down physique allowed him to play the best defense of his career. Whereas he was constantly out of position in previous seasons, he slid to stay in front of roll men and was able to hedge out harder before using his quick hands to affect the passing lanes.
As Jay Spanbauer wrote for Behind the Buck Pass, "Active hands and increased offseason conditioning have allowed Monroe to lead all backup centers (and most starting centers) in steals. With 1.2 steals per game, the Moose complements Jason Kidd's constant-switch defense impressively. He is active and doesn't seem to get lost on switches nearly as often as the previous year."
22. Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio Spurs (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mentions)
Per-Game Stats: 5.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
Offense is almost irrelevant for Dewayne Dedmon, even though he picks his spots so wisely that he's shot 62.7 percent from the field for the San Antonio Spurs. It's defense where he earns his paycheck, thriving in just about every area but truly excelling as a deterrent around the hoop. Opponents have only been able to shoot 44.1 percent against him at the basket, and he's facing an impressive 8.5 shots per 36 minutes, per NBA.com's SportVU data.
21. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers (Previous Ranking: No. 18)
Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.1 blocks
At some point, Tristan Thompson needs to expand his game. There's no way to complain about his offensive rebounding, and he's an efficient finisher around the hoop (67.1 percent from within three feet) when the Cleveland Cavaliers grant him opportunities to score or he creates his own looks after corralling a board. But until he develops a mid-range jumper or starts protecting the rim in elite fashion (49.9 percent allowed while facing 7.4 shots per game), it'll be tough for him to avoid getting leapfrogged by improving centers.
20-16: Nurkic, Adams, Noel, Drummond, Plumlee
20. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.1 blocks
Jusuf Nurkic was a different player after a midseason trade sent him from the Denver Nuggets to the Portland Trail Blazers. Through turnovers could occasionally hold him back, he showed new elements to his game by thriving on defense and looking to find open teammates. Prior to suffering a late-season leg injury, he averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals in Portland. If this wasn't a small-sample-size fluke, he'll keep moving up the rankings for Rip City.
19. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder (Previous Ranking: No. 16)
Per-Game Stats: 11.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks
Whether due to a nagging undisclosed injury or a lack of confidence stemming from his declining role after the arrival of Taj Gibson, Steven Adams hasn't quite been the same player during the season's second half. He's regressed on both ends, no longer looking like the efficient finisher who dominated the interior on defense. Fortunately, he's only 23 years old and has plenty of time to bounce back with aplomb.
18. Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks (Previous Ranking: No. 24)
Per-Game Stats: 8.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 blocks
The idea of Nerlens Noel can be as impactful as the man himself. Ever since he left the Philadelphia 76ers for the Dallas Mavericks in a deadline deal, he's been a huge defensive presence (when healthy) who can also inspire the rest of the Mavs with his rim-running work. As soon as the team's guards saw what he could do around the rim, they suddenly started throwing lobs to everyone, thereby adding a new element to an improving offense and aiding Dallas' second-half push, even if it didn't result in a playoff berth.
17. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons (Previous Ranking: No. 13)
Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.1 blocks
It's time to stop thinking of Andre Drummond as an elite center, even if he grabs a massive number of rebounds every time he takes to the court. His development has stalled on both ends, to the point that the Detroit Pistons had to change their entire strategy. After going into the 2016-17 campaign with hopes of dominating in four-out, one-in schemes, they quickly realized Drummond can't hold up his end of the bargain as an interior scorer. Kudos to Piston Powered's Duncan Smith for originally unearthing this stat, but the big man actually scores more points per possession on free throws (0.772, assuming two per trip) than he does as a post-up scorer (0.74).
16. Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets (Previous Ranking: No. 15)
Per-Game Stats: 10.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks
If you must, blame the Denver Nuggets for Mason Plumlee's modest backsliding. Since they acquired him in the deal now headlined by Jusuf Nurkic, he's been forced into a smaller role behind Nikola Jokic. Still, it's a testament to his all-around ability that he's functioned as a solid two-way presence while averaging 8.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists with his new teammates. Plumlee's skill would make him a triple-double threat in a bigger role, but serving as a Jokic replacement is just fine for the time being.
15-11: Gasol, Lopez, Zeller, Whiteside, Howard
15. Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs (Previous Ranking: No. 20)
Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.1 blocks
Even though Pau Gasol has been known for his offense throughout his career—and he's still providing efficient points for the San Antonio Spurs—his defense has also impressed in 2016-17. Head coach Gregg Popovich understands how to scheme around his mobility limitations, and Gasol has excelled guarding just his space. Most every metric has him as a distinct positive; ESPN.com's DRPM, for example, leaves him sandwiched between Al Horford and Steven Adams.
Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.7 blocks
Brook Lopez just keeps on doing his thing. After the All-Star break, he's averaging 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists for the Brooklyn Nets—eerily similar numbers to what he posted before the midseason festivities. And the close-knit comparisons remain when looking at shooting percentages, since strides during live action have been negated by free-throw regression, which keeps Lopez's pre- and post-break true shooting percentages almost identical.
13. Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets (Previous Ranking: No. 17)
Per-Game Stats: 10.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks
If you're looking for the master of doing the little things at this position, you've found him. Cody Zeller's per-game numbers don't scream that he should be considered a top-15 center, but it's not hard to find justification. Between his ever-improving (and versatile) defense, his efficiency around the hoop and his productivity as a tough screener who constantly frees Kemba Walker for easy looks, Zeller is a film darling whose reputation should soon catch up to his impact. Hopefully.
12. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat (Previous Ranking: No. 8)
Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 14.1 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.1 blocks
Perhaps Hassan Whiteside was just misused all season, since he'd fit so much better in a role that asked him to dominate on defense and take no more than one or two post touches per game. But the Miami Heat were forced into using him as a featured option once Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were both unexpectedly unavailable with no fallback plans in place, and it wasn't until head coach Erik Spoelstra discovered the drive-and-kick offense with Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters that Whiteside started to, once again, look like a force. The potential is there for him to surge back into the top 10, but the offensive exploits have been so counterproductive that a fall is necessary for the time being.
Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.2 blocks
While playing for the Atlanta Hawks, Dwight Howard won't ever reach the offensive levels he ascended to during his Orlando Magic career. But his impact hasn't come solely on the defensive side, either. The 31-year-old big man has helped change head coach Mike Budenholzer's philosophy, which no longer requires his troops to always eschew offensive rebounds for transition defense. With Howard on the court, the Hawks have collected 26.3 percent of the available offensive boards, which would leave them sitting at No. 6 in the season-long standings.
10. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (Previous Ranking: No. 10)
Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.1 blocks
Myles Turner just keeps getting better. It's to the point that he should be considered a leading contender for Most Improved Player, even if that award doesn't typically go to second-year contributors who were expected to grow substantially after their rookie campaigns.
His role has slightly diminished since returning from the All-Star break, but that's more a reflection on Paul George's takeover instincts than Turner's progress. He's still an efficient offensive player who can excel with mid-range jumpers and interior finishes—almost always greeted by howls toward the rafters—while thriving on defense.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Turner's field-goal percentage allowed around the rim (49.2 percent) isn't ideal. But he's facing a staggering 9.5 attempts per game and deterring even more looks with his athleticism and lanky arms. He's one of only four players defending at least nine shots per contest at the hoop and forcing opponents to miss more than they make.
Turner still needs to develop his three-point stroke, which has basically disappeared during the second half of his sophomore season. But once that happens, he'll already be tantalizingly close to serving as a two-way force who's still getting used to legally consuming alcoholic beverages.
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous Ranking: No. 11)
Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.5 blocks
According to NBA Math's FATS model, the Philadelphia 76ers were a slightly different team with Joel Embiid on the floor.
When the big man has missed action—which unfortunately happened quite often during his delayed rookie campaign—the team plays like a bottom-feeder, tracking toward just 27.7 wins over the course of a full season. But when he's on the floor, the Sixers morph into a playoff-caliber squad expected to win 49.9 games, essentially transitioning from the New York Knicks into the Toronto Raptors.
That's a monumental impact for any player, much less a first-year big man.
It's undoubtedly concerning that Embiid lasted just 31 games before a knee injury ended his 2016-17 efforts, but he already proved himself to be an elite rim-protector who could also score 20 points per game in efficient fashion while contributing in other ways. As soon as he learns not to foul and cuts back on his plethora of turnovers, he'll be a strong contender for the "best big in the NBA" title.
Of course, that's assuming he ever lasts a full season. Such sterling health can't yet be ruled out, but it's awfully tough to bet on him playing with anything less than a significant minutes restriction in 2017-18.
8. Al Horford, Boston Celtics (Previous Ranking: No. 6)
Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks
Al Horford isn't going to give the Boston Celtics traditional center production, though that doesn't make him anything other than a true center. The 5 remains his best position, even if hordes have called for him to switch to the 4 ever since he left Florida and began thriving as an undersized big for the Atlanta Hawks.
Head coach Brad Stevens may have to provide the C's with alternate sources of rim protection, which Amir Johnson and others have brought on a regular basis. He needs to supplement the team's glass-crashing efforts, since leaving Horford alone to collect the boards is a detrimental decision that forces Boston to yield too many second-chance points.
But it's worth doing so.
Horford is such a skilled and versatile player that he can make a consistently positive impact even while his deficiencies are on full display. He joins Giannis Antetokounmpo as one of only two players this season to average at least 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and a block, and he's doing so while thriving defensively and shooting efficiently.
Let's expand the criteria. Throughout all of NBA history, only 11 qualified players have matched those aforementioned numbers while posting a superior defensive box plus/minus (DBPM): Kevin Garnett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Scottie Pippen, Draymond Green, Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Chris Webber, Alvan Adams, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Lamar Odom.
When that's the type of company by which you're surrounded, you're doing something right.
7. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (Previous Ranking: No. 7)
Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.6 blocks
DeAndre Jordan shouldn't shoot free throws unless he absolutely has to, or else he risks subjecting fans in attendance to an undue number of unintentional air balls. He's never going to be a jump-shooter capable of spacing out the court for the Los Angeles Clippers. Asking him to facilitate for his teammates is a bad idea.
But the 28-year-old center knows this. He understands his role, sticks to it and thrives, becoming one of the league's most effective bigs by holding down the interior of the Clippers' defensive schemes and scoring around the hoop in remarkably efficient fashion.
Jordan isn't quite leading the league in true shooting percentage, but his mark (67.2 percent) is still high enough to avoid criticism, even with the so-called freebies dragging it down. In fact, he's set to become one of 11 players in NBA history with a true shooting percentage north of 67 while averaging at least a dozen points.
Having Chris Paul feeding him the ball certainly helps—ditto for Blake Griffin, who remains a top-notch facilitator at power forward—but Jordan is also so big and athletic that he could turn anyone into a high-quality pick-and-roll passer. He's scoring 1.52 points per possession as a roll man in 2016-17, which puts him in the 98.6 percentile.
6. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks
The second half of the NBA season has become Karl-Anthony Towns' personal plaything.
Since returning from the All-Star break—and there's a legitimate argument he should've been featured during that weekend's main event—the sophomore center has averaged 28.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 59.7 percent from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown and 83.5 percent at the stripe.
He's been a man possessed, and the Minnesota Timberwolves have been outscored by the opposition by just 1.6 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. That sounds bad, and it's admittedly less than ideal. But keep in mind that without him, they've posted a 0.8 net rating.
Wait. That doesn't make sense.
The 'Wolves have still been worse with Towns on the floor? Even while he's posted historic numbers at just 21 years old?
Unfortunately, the numbers don't lie, and the reason behind them is all that prevents him from sliding up in the big-man hierarchy: Towns still struggles with his positioning on the defensive end, and he hasn't picked up on the nuances of head coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes. His off-ball work hinders the team's overall efforts to such an extent that he's actually the last-place center in ESPN.com's DRPM.
Until that changes, there's only so much his oh-my-goodness-I-can't-believe-he-just-did-that offense can do.
5. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Per-Game Stats: 19.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.4 blocks
One of these seasons isn't like the others:
|Season||Three-Point Makes||Three-Point Attempts||Three-Point Percentage|
Marc Gasol seems to add new elements to his game every year, but this is more than just a mere wrinkle. He's completely changed how he operates on the offensive end, taking over contests as a shooter and doing everything in his power to help overcome the Memphis Grizzlies' perpetual dearth of spacing.
The big man hasn't sacrificed other aspects of his game. He's still a destructive defender and a fantastic facilitator. But now, he's filling those roles while putting together six games in which he made more threes than he did during any other season of his impressive career.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks
"It feels good to finally kind of tear down that wall, as you can say—break out of the shell, whatever the case might be. At the same time, man, it feels even better to get this win. That's what it's about at the end of the day. When I'm able to knock down shots, it definitely opens up the rest of my game. I think my aggressiveness," DeMarcus Cousins said after his 41-point, 17-rebound showing against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 21, per NOLA.com's John Reid. "Guys have been telling me since I got here to just to go out and be aggressive and be myself. I think I was able to do that tonight."
The quote is telling for two reasons.
First, it shows just how impressive Cousins can be when he's on his game, blending together finesse and physicality better than anyone else. He can single-handedly take over the proceedings and thrive in every facet, whether he's showing off his growing defensive chops or just setting up his teammates with easy looks after he's cleared out a lane with back-down dribbles that demand a double-team.
But those words also hint at a sense of relief. The 26-year-old center's time with the New Orleans Pelicans hadn't gone too smoothly after the Sacramento Kings finally dealt him. He'd struggled to build chemistry with Anthony Davis as the losses racked up, and taking a backseat didn't always work in his favor.
Cousins should eventually be able to thrive as part of a two-headed frontcourt monster, but the adjustment period is ongoing. Since the trade, he's averaging 24.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from downtown—great numbers, but not quite enough to retain his midseason spot in the top three.
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous Ranking: No. 9)
Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
This may seem like an exaggeration of Nikola Jokic's talents to those who haven't watched enough of the Denver Nuggets this year, so let's turn to some numbers.
According to NBA Math's total points added, the 22-year-old has provided more value than any other center in the league despite playing fewer minutes than the men joining him in the top 10, regardless of position. ESPN.com's real plus/minus (RPM) has him trailing only six players throughout the entire league, and only one is a center (our top-ranked center, in fact). And most importantly, the Nuggets have been an entirely different team with him on the floor, boosting their net rating by a staggering 12.5 points per 100 possessions.
Jokic has quickly become the league's best passing center, as well as one of the most accurate touch shooters around the hoop, and his skills have completely changed the Denver mentality. As soon as he re-entered the starting lineup on Dec. 15, his teammates began cutting around him with fervent energy, allowing him to accumulate triple-doubles and spark the league's best offense.
That's not an exaggeration.
Starting on Dec. 15, the Nuggets have scored an NBA-high 113.6 points per 100 possessions (118.6 with Jokic on the floor), which edges out the Golden State Warriors (113.1) and beats the No. 3 Houston Rockets (111.8) by a substantial margin. The lion's share of the credit goes to the starting center and his magical—or Magic-esque—passing.
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.2 blocks
Dropping down to No. 2 isn't a reflection on Anthony Davis so much as a commentary on how much the No. 1 center has improved during the second half of the season. The unibrowed center has continued to play fantastic basketball since the Jan. 13 publication of the midseason edition, regardless of whether he's operating with DeMarcus Cousins.
Just take a peek at his numbers before and after earning that top spot:
|Before Jan. 13||29.1||12.2||2.2||1.4||2.5||57.4|
|Since Jan. 13||26.9||11.4||2.0||1.2||1.9||58.5|
Davis' per-game numbers have dipped, but he's been just as efficient. It's a decline in minutes and a willingness to cede touches to both Cousins and a healthy Jrue Holiday that give any impression of a trend in the wrong direction.
However, the big man hasn't grown. That much is beyond dispute.
He's continued serving as a source of two-way terror, but that just hasn't allowed him to keep pace with the surging center who's jumping up more than a single spot into the pole position.
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.7 blocks
Of the 59 players who are facing at least five shots per game at the rim, only Joel Embiid (41.0 percent allowed) and LaMarcus Aldridge (43.5) have been stingier than Rudy Gobert (43.9). However, while Embiid and Aldridge are squaring off against 7.7 and 5.4 shots per contest, respectively, Gobert is defending 10.3 during his average contest—more than anyone else in the NBA.
But let's forget about defense for a bit. Gobert is obviously a dominant presence on the preventing end, to the point that he's either going to win Defensive Player of the Year or finish second in a narrow loss to Draymond Green. Any other result would be almost inconceivable, with only Kawhi Leonard boasting a reasonable shot at playing spoiler.
It's offense that has propelled Gobert to the leading spot, even if such an idea would have felt nonsensical heading into the season.
Since the All-Star break, the French 7-footer has averaged 16.8 points while shooting 70.8 percent from the field. Over his last 10 appearances, he's posting 19.8 points per game while knocking down 73.1 percent of his field-goal attempts, highlighted by a 35-point showing against the New York Knicks. Even though there's not much diversity to his game, his improved touch and patience around the rim and while working out of the post have supplemented his athleticism as a roll man so nicely that he's been virtually impossible to slow down.
Plus, opponents used to be able to deter his attacks with the threat of sending him to the foul line. But not anymore, as he's connected on 63.5 percent of his freebies since the All-Star hiatus. He's developing into a more complete threat within his offensive role, which would make him quite valuable even if he served as little more than an average defender.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.