The NBA’s trend towards skill, speed, and “pace and space” has given way to a new breed of mutant centers who can stretch out to the 3-point line while also fulfilling the basic duties of a big man. 2014 draft picks Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, as well as 2015 lottery selections Karl Anthony-Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and Myles Turner are among the ten-or-so most promising young players in the league. Just as Hakeem, Shaq, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing ruled the paint in the 90’s, another golden age of centers is on the horizon. Nowhere is the center renaissance more apparent than in this year’s NCAA freshman class, which features a diverse set of burgeoning new-age big men who could shape the league for years to come.
*Pace adjusted Per 40 minute stats (courtesy of RealGM.com)
DeAndre Ayton – C – Arizona
A quick glance at DeAndre Ayton (pictured) and he looks like an obvious #1 draft choice. He has a chiseled, 7’1″ frame, an offensive repertoire that legitimately resembles Hakeem Olajuwon, and a reported 40+ inch vertical leap. With his 26 PTS and 15 REB Per 40 minute average, Ayton is also producing historically like a number one pick. However there is one glaring weakness that cast doubts over his future as a dominant NBA center; his defense, specifically protecting the rim.
A convenient comparison for Ayton is Sixers’ center Joel Embiid. The measurables, the footwork, the face up jumper, the background as a foreign giant (Ayton is from the Bahamas) who took to basketball relatively late in life. The rub is that Ayton is not like freshman year Joel Embiid. Embiid was a defensive monster who had more than double the rate of steals and blocks that Ayton has currently. Moreover it was not Embiid’s offensive polish that excited scouts, it was the fact that he could somehow execute a flawless dream shake even as he was still learning to control his limbs. A more apt comparison might be Karl Anthony-Towns, a defensive dud who has nevertheless achieved NBA stardom by being an efficient 20/10 machine. The problem with that is even Towns was a prolific shot-blocker in college (4.2 BLK/40) even though he, like Ayton, was often forced to share the court with true centers like Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. The lesson here is that while NCAA blocks don’t guarantee defensive excellence, they almost serve as a pre-requisite to becoming a great NBA center. Ayton’s appeal is undeniable, but unless he starts swatting people in league play I would at least think twice before slotting him into the top two or three.
Marvin Bagley – PF/C – Duke
As you can see from the chart above, many of the concerns over Ayton also apply to Bagley. You could argue that Bagley has more outs if he is a minus defensively; he is abnormally fast and lithe for a near 7-footer and is a voracious offensive rebounder. He is still drawing live to be a version of Blake Griffin, but the idea of a big man who is neither exceptionally skilled on offense nor strong defensively should warrant some skepticism.
Mohamed Bamba – C – Texas
Mo Bamba serves as a perfect foil to Ayton and Bagley, an under-skilled beanpole who is chasing an historic blocks rate. It’s hard to imagine a better rim-protecting prospect at this level than Bamba. He is a quick and explosive leaper with a 7’8″ wingspan who volleyball spikes attempts at the rim in a way that will make you never want to drive the basket again. As a result, Texas is 5th in defensive efficiency via KenPom (up from 21st last season) while Duke and Arizona are 106th and 75th respectively. Outside of his willingness to shoot threes, there is little to suggest Bamba will be anything more than a lob catcher on offense. Still, it is conceivable that Bamba is such an impact defender that he could return more value overall than Ayton and/or Bagley at the next level.
Wendell Carter – C – Duke
Carter is sort of the happy medium among this group except that he is notably the best passer (on paper, anyway). There are two ways of looking at this: 1) he has no red flags and is the best all-around player, or 2) he isn’t outlier good at anything and is therefore the least intriguing of all. Given that he is also somewhat husky and ground-bound, I would lean towards the latter interpretation. I do think his passing skills are key, as this is a common trait among centers who have overcome athletic deficiencies such as Jokic and Marc Gasol.
Jaren Jackson – PF/C – Michigan State
Jaren Jackson arrived on campus with less fanfare than his peers, and since they have all lived up to the hype it has more-or-less remained that way. But consider the case for Jackson:
- He is the youngest of the group
- He has the highest steals rate
- He is the best 3PT shooter (20-46, 43.5%)
- He is one of the most prolific shot-blockers in recent draft history despite playing PF
- He is the one who is best suited to play next to a traditional C in two big lineups
- MSU is top 10 in both defensive and offensive efficiency, and #2 overall on KenPom
The only red flag in JJ’s statistical profile is his turnover rate which, unlike a low block%, isn’t any sort of a death knell for a young center prospect (Embiid, Derrick Favors, DeAndre Jordan, and DeMarcus Cousins were all NCAA turnover machines). Jackson projects as a stud defender with the potential for a complete offensive game, which I can’t say confidently for any of his counterparts. I believe he deserves serious consideration as soon as Luka Doncic comes off the board.