Basketball changed so much in the last two decades, and the evolution of the role of center reflects this more than any other position on court. Once considered the centerpiece of the team, the main scorer and the one who should receive the ball near the basket to easily score, the center evolved in a dynamic player, who has to pick screens for his teammates and has to cover a much wider space in defense than he used to.
This made life difficult for the descendants of the Tckachenkos and the Crumjins monolithic, Stonehenge-like players who made room with their immense mass, though moving like a ballerina on the pivot foot. On the other hand, it opened the doors for players who would have struggled once, lighter, faster willing to cover a wide space in defense to help the teammates.
On the offensive side, the modern center owns a double nature. On the one side he plays much nearer to the basket. Back-to-the-basket movements are less important, because the center tends to receive the ball from the pick and roll, often scoring with an alley-hoop. On the other hand, a good three point shooting center is an asset, because he makes the opposite center move from the area creating space and often leaving him against a guard or a forward in a positive mismatch.
In this final four the best “modern center” is Niccolò Melli from Fenherbace. Melli has shot 41% 3 pointers in the regular season and has great offensive movements. In Obradovic’s system he helps stretch the opponent’s defense, a role similar to Pero Antic’s, who, in fact, last year decided the final when he entered the game in the second half and, and Olympiacos did not have an answer for him.
The “double nature” of the center (near the basket vs far from the basket), carries another consequence. A long time ago, the name of the center represented the character of the team. Dino Meneghin, Clifford Lyuik, Kreso Cosic, left the court for a few minutes to back-up centers who replicated their characteristics. Today, a backup player is a different personality, a tactical weapon, which has to change the team’s approach to the game.
Every team plays with at least two centers, each one with a different character.
Real has Ayon and Tavares. Ayon moves more, he’s faster and more technical, while Tavares is a giant a rim defender with infinite arms. Felipe Reyes can play center, too, adding his poisonous experience to the team in the key moments.
Fenherbace plays Vesely and Melli. Jan Vesely, a Czech, is a 2.09 thin center with the dynamite in his feet. Fast, tall, a rim defender and a dunker, Vesely is complemented by Niccolò Melli, a player with multiple dimensions: both a 3 point shooter and an inside-the-area fighter. The two give the team two different aspects, radically different, which makes it difficult for opponent teams to adapt.
CSKA’ Kyle Hines, a 1,98 mt center, in the tradition of undersized centers like Dino Meneghin and Wes Unseld, is a defensive standout, an intelligent player who profits from his speed and his understanding of the game. A fighter at rebound, he shares the center duties with Othello Hunter, a 2,03 center who replicates Hines’s characteristics while Vorontsevich helps spread the team with his 3 point shooting.
In Zalgiris, Brandon Davies shares the center duties with Kavauliaskas. Davies plays vertical basket, in the three secs area, while Kavauliaskas has to temper his lack of athleticism with a finer technique. Zalgiris plays a “starless” basketball, in which two selfless players like Davies and Kavauliauskas perfectly fit.
It’s interesting to wonder who would thrive in this environment, from the old centers, compared to who would suffer. Certainly, Dino Meneghin, especially the player of the 70s, with outstanding agility and speed. Kreso Cosic, a player for all seasons, or Ratko Radovanovic, with his smartness.
A player especially dear to a generation that grew up watching basketball in the80s, who would have thrived in today’s basketball thanks to his speed and agility, is Fernando Martin, the Spanish great who died in 1989 in a car accident. At 27 he could not show all his greatness, yet a whole generation of aficionados was struck by his strength and modernity, that probably the NBA itself was not able to understand.
The hybrid nature of modern basketball reflects itself in the role of center. And the definition of role itself becomes always more difficult. The 2 -3 – 4 roles tend to melt in one universal role, a guard forward who shoots, passes, dribbles, creates. Unfortunately, not all can be LeBron Jameses or Luka Doncics, even in this world of freaks the world supply of seven footers, or 6’9”, around 2,10 mt, who can jump run and so on is limited.
In a way, the center can cut for itself a specific role, very different from the past, but very creative. Basketball does not allow you to stop, or to remain in a specific place, you have to move, to adapt, and change. Anything can work in today’s basketball, given the puzzle respects the basis of the game.
And the center, long neglected as a peripheral part of the game, can be again the centerpiece of the team.