In the history of NBA, each decade has been marked by, at least, a dominant big man.
Centers who forced the league to change several rules: yes, that’s part of Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan’s legacy. Players so dominant down low that teams saw no other option than to foul them away from the ball – Wilt and Shaquille O’Neal. Players so good at a specific skill that it became a trademark move – Mikan, Kareem Abadul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan. And let’s not forget the player with most titles in NBA history, the one and only Bill Russell (11 rings on his own).
However, and as the careers of Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan were coming to an end, the league saw the dominance shifting towards guards and forwards. Combining amazing skill sets with astonishing physical tools, these players followed the legacy created by legends like Pete Maravich, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan.
The most cherished players of today’s NBA are either guards or forwards. As of June 2017, the Top7 selling jerseys in the league belong to Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas. Quick, agile, ball dominant players able to easily take shots from long distance or to drive to the basket and finish around the rim.
Are the impactful big men gone from the league? Are they being paid to set screens, roll to the basket, rebound and contest shots? That seems to be the daily job of most of the league’s bigs. But there is a group of young players taking the league by storm and bringing back the importance of the tallest guys on the court. Even if the way they play is completely different from the legends mentioned earlier in this text. That new generation of players have fallen into the “unicorn” label.
What is an “unicorn” in the NBA? Well, let’s take the definition from one very special player: “He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line. That’s rare. And block shots — that’s like a unicorn in this league.”
That was Kevin Durant talking about Kristaps Porziņģis. And that is exactly what this elite class of talented big men is bringing to the court: the ability to do it all!
Both Giannis Antetokounmpo (211 cm of height, and a wingspan of 226 cm) and Anthony Davis (211 cm of height, and a wingspan of 226 cm) are great examples of what an elite big represents in today’s NBA: both All-Stars are big and long enough to dominate on the inside – blocking shots and rebounding – while also being able to ignite their team’s offense from the outside: either with their vision and passing skills, or creating opportunities for themselves after beating their defender in one-on-one situations. They are so multitalented that the Milwaukee Bucks have used Giannis as their point guard. Or point forward, if you want.
To be absolutely complete, both players only need to improve their outside shot and their range, as none of them is still a threat from 3 point territory – during the 2016-17 season, Antetokounmpo scored 27.2% of his 3 point attempts, while Davis made 29.9% of his.
There are, however, a few big men able to knock some shots down behind the 3 point line as well as to fulfill all the tasks classically requested to centers. We are talking about players such as Kristaps Porziņģis, Karl-Anthony Towns (211 cm) and Joel Embiid (213 cm).
Durant perfectly described what these players are capable of and after a pair of seasons in the league, the numbers don’t lie: Porziņģis finished last year with averages of 7.2 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1.7 made three pointers per game; Towns finished the season with 12.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 treys; Embiid put up 7.8 rebounds, a mesmerizing 2.5 blocks and 1.2 shots from 3 point land.
In the past, a Center job was to dominate on the inside: playing on the post, crashing the boards and contesting shots. But, just like everything in life evolves, so did the NBA’s big men role. Today, an elite big is not limited to the paint. Instead, one needs to knock-down 3 pointers, to create advantages on the offensive end while playing away from the basket as well as to be able to switch on smaller defenders and hold their own on the defensive side of the court.
The big men role is being redefined every time this elite group of players gets on the floor. So, welcome to the future!