Ranking NBA's Top 5 Rookie Centers Entering 2018-19

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2018

Ranking NBA's Top 5 Rookie Centers Entering 2018-19

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    Three of the top seven picks from the 2018 NBA draft were centers. It's looking like the strongest position in terms of potential star power.

    Those three centers ultimately project as long-term cornerstones for their respective franchises. But how quickly will their teams see results?

    Two more 5 men, including one who went in the second round, could make immediate impacts based on their projected roles and NBA Summer League performances.

    These rookie centers are ranked on how they'll perform this season, not on their long-term potential.

5. Moritz Wagner, Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers added LeBron James, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee, and they'll still have a need for rookie Moritz Wagner.

    With James, Beasley and Kyle Kuzma, the No. 25 pick should log most minutes this season at center, where he can stretch the floor and help improve spacing.

    As a junior at Michigan, Wagner, a 7'0", 241-pounder, ranked in the 95th percentile out of spot-ups, making 43.8 percent of those non-dribble jumpers. He buried 63 threes at a 39.4 percent clip. But Wagner also warned defenders to be careful with their closeouts. In those spot-up situations, he converted 14 of 22 drives to the basket, showing terrific off-the-dribble footwork and the body control to score on the move.

    He'll still mostly be valued for his shooting, though he should be an effective scorer around the basket (65.6 percent at the rim last year) who compensates for limited explosiveness with soft hands and strong finishing instincts.

    Wagner only ranked in the 38th percentile for post-ups and 37th percentile in isolation. It seems reasonable to expect he'll struggle to score efficiently when forced to make a move against a set defense.

    His own defense will be under the microscope as well. Despite his size, he blocked just 20 shots in 39 games last year. Wagner won't offer rim protection, and depending on his matchup, guarding in space could be problematic. He graded out in the 31st percentile in half-court defense.

    On the flip side, he registered strong steal percentages for a center in college (career 2.3 percent) and summer league (4.3 percent), which are typically promising indicators. 

    Extremely passionate and competitive, Wagner has a chance to win over coaches and crack the rotation, particularly since McGee and Ivica Zubac are both part-time players.

4. Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

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    There was an inordinate amount of anticipation for Mitchell Robinson's summer league debut, given his high school accolades and decision to skip college. He wound up acing the first impression in Las Vegas, and now the bar has reset to where it was before he chose to leave Western Kentucky, when he combined for 29 points on 14-of-16 shooting between the McDonald's All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic.

    Robinson led all of the NBA Summer League in player efficiency rating (minimum four games), finishing with per-40 minute averages of 21.1 points and 16.5 rebounds on 66.7 percent shooting. His 4.0 blocks per game, which he racked up in 24.7 minutes, was a record dating back to 2004.

    Powerful, long and explosive, Robinson projects as a weapon around the basket for his elite finishing potential and ability to make defensive plays on the ball. He's a high-percentage target off dump downs and lobs high above the rim. Robinson also demonstrates impressive coordination below it, looking capable of converting from awkward angles or off balance.

    His quick jump, leaping and effort will lead to second-chance points as well.

    And though not disciplined defensively, his tools, athleticism and determination to reject everything will lead to heavy activity, overall disruption and a high block rate.

    Robinson is completely raw and doesn't figure to give New York any post scoring or shooting. He'll also get caught out of position and commit silly fouls.

    However, he possesses too much natural ability. And with Kristaps Porzingis potentially out for the season and the Knicks likely playing for the lottery during the second half of the year, Robinson should have every opportunity to play through mistakes and earn a regular role.

3. Mohamed Bamba, Orlando Magic

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    It will take a trade for Mohamed Bamba to receive starter minutes next season, with Nikola Vucevic sitting above the rookie on the Orlando Magic depth chart.

    It means the Magic will have one of the league's most compelling backup centers for 2018-19. His body and skill level are still developing, which suggests his scoring output won't be huge. But that 7'10" wingspan should work for Bamba right away as a finisher and rim protector.

    Second in the country last year in shot-blocking (3.7 per game) while shooting 74.3 percent at the rim (97th percentile), the mobile seven-footer will give Orlando a unique weapon around the basket at both ends.

    He'll mostly stick to the same strengths he flashed at Texas, where he totaled 84 points as a cutter and 95 off offensive rebounds. Every so often, however, he'll hit defenses with an over-the-shoulder hook or jump shot. Bamba demonstrates soft touch and some three-point range, though he isn't ready to knock down jumpers consistently.

    He's going to get pushed around under the boards and in the post. And there will be games where we don't hear much from him if the catch-and-finish opportunities aren't there.

    But Bamba still figures to make an impact with his practically unmatchable physical profile, plus an improving skill package. He should continue to shoot a high percentage, as well as rebound and block shots at exciting rates.

2. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls

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    There was buzz last year about whether Wendell Carter Jr. was better than his production let on and if the presence of Marvin Bagley III held him back. Carter then went on to completely outplay Bagley in July and earn a spot on the All-NBA Summer League First Team.

    Even as the No. 7 pick, Carter already feels like a steal for the Chicago Bulls, who'll build around him and Lauri Markkanen up front. For 2018-19, the question is how quickly the coaching staff will be willing to unleash Carter while the veteran Robin Lopez remains under contract.

    The Bulls' rookie may begin his career as a reserve, though his role should expand with each month, particularly once the playoffs are out of reach.

    At 6'10", 251 pounds, Carter already possesses Al Horford size and strength, and based on summer league, he appears to have improved his body and quickness. At Duke, he graded out in the 88th percentile or better in finishing at the rim, basket cuts and offensive putbacks. It's safe to assume that given his physical tools and nose for the ball and hoop, his inside scoring and rebounding (13.4 points per 40 minutes last year) should carry over.

    The excitement regarding his upside will ultimately stem from his advanced footwork playing back to the basket and shooting touch, which he displayed at Duke by drilling 19 of 46 threes, showing sound, convincing shooting form.

    It may take a few years before he's demanding double-teams in the post and knocking down multiple threes per game, but the level of polish he's flashed in college and summer league suggests he'll immediately start threatening and executing.

    Carter should even add value defensively with his length and timing as a shot-blocker and rim-protecting abilities behind Markkanen. And though questions have been raised over his switchability, they didn't seem alarming in July, when he appeared quicker moving laterally.

    He won't be taking over games for the Bulls or emerging as a top option. However, Carter should give them a consistent, reliable source of interior activity and offense. And in doses, we'll see his ability to create shots around the key and stretch the floor as a catch-and-shoot big man.

    Carter should finish as a top-two rookie center for both his per-minute production and efficiency.

1. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    There won't be any restrictions or logjams for Deandre Ayton to deal with in Phoenix. The draft's No. 1 pick, who already looks like one of the most physically impressive centers in the league, should receive starter minutes and a heavy usage rate right away.

    Listed at 7'1", 250 pounds and last measuring a 7'5" wingspan, Ayton's profile mirrors DeAndre Jordan's (6'11", 250 pounds, 7'6" wingspan) from the 2009 NBA combine. Ayton isn't as bouncy, but he's still a similarly powerful leaper and finisher, having shot 71.5 percent at the rim last year and ranked in the 96th percentile on basket cuts and 93rd percentile on putbacks.

    The easy baskets and high field-goal percentage should carry right over. But Ayton has also flashed a superior skill set that more closely resembles DeMarcus Cousins'.

    As a freshman at Arizona, Ayton averaged 20.1 points, ranking in the 90th percentile on post-ups. He should continue experiencing success around the key, where he shows promising back-to-the-basket footwork, confident touch and a high release point from the elbows and short corners.

    Ayton figures to test his luck as a three-point shooter throughout the season, though he didn't attempt any for the Suns in summer league. The occasional make will fuel optimism regarding his potential to eventually extend his range.

    There will be a lot of talk about Ayton's defense, which was questioned in college. His off-the-ball-awareness was weak, and his 6.1 block percentage was relatively uninspiring for a center drafted first overall. However, Ayton also played out of position at the 4 for Arizona. And in one-on-one situations, he demonstrated quick foot speed in space.

    The Suns' next franchise player after Devin Booker, Ayton should emerge as a daily double-double threat who'll consistently, efficiently score in the teens to 20s. Even if the defensive issues persist, he'll still produce his way to the top of the Rookie of the Year race.

                        

    Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Sports Reference and NBA.com