June 18, 2024
The Evolution of the Big Man: Today’s Top 10 NBA Centers

Who are the first players you think of as the best in the NBA today?  Current players such as Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Kevin Durant may come to mind.  Some others include Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Donovan Mitchell.  What do all of those guys all have in common?

None of them are centers.

Today the NBA is dominated by uber-talented point guards and wing players.  If you can handle the ball and shoot, you, too, can dominate in the association today.  That wasn’t always the case over the course of NBA history.  The center was the most important position in basketball for a long time.  Your team was in great shape if you had a big man on your squad who could score at will, rebound, AND defend.  Other players were afraid to drive the lane for fear of getting their shots blocked.  If you had a center catch the ball deep in the paint, it was an easy two points, or as Shaq likes to say – barbeque chicken!

The most dominant (and the best by default) players in the NBA were centers.  George Mikan, a center, was the league’s first star.  Then came Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain who dominated the game in different ways.  Russell was known for his defensive prowess and team game.  That’s probably a good reason why he won 11 championships.  Chamberlain was the game’s most dominant offensive force.  Then came Bill Walton, who added the ability to pass the ball out of the post.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the league’s all-time leading scorer in NBA History for almost 40 years. 

The 1990s was the golden era for NBA centers.  Teams still preferred to have a dominant big man over a top guard or forward then.  The NBA game often consisted of teams posting up a center and work the ball inside-out.  For teams with Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, and Shaq and their rosters also had to have shooters to feed them the ball in the low post.  When opposing defenses went to double team those guys, the centers would kick the ball back out to one of their shooters – think John Starks, 3D (Dennis Scott), Big Shot Bob (Robert Horry), or Sean Elliott to knock down a sudden wide-open three. If you didn’t double these big men in the ‘90s…barbeque chicken!

Fast forward to 2023, and it’s a totally different ballgame.  The “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns and Steph Curry ushered in a new way the NBA game is played.  Guards and talented wing players dominate the NBA game today.  Teams now put the ball in the hands of their most talented player and spread the floor with shooters.  If a player with the ball gets past his defender in the pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop) and a second defender comes, then that ball will quickly swing to the corner.  The corner guys will either put up a three or make an extra pass to another teammate waiting beyond the arc.  Either way, an able shooter is ready to knock down an open three.  Even though it’s cooked differently today, it’s still…barbeque chicken!

As a result, the traditional big man has nearly become extinct in the NBA game.  Not to pick on the guy but take Andre Drummond, for example.  In 2018, Drummond was selected as an NBA All-Star for the second time after averaging 15 points, 16 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game for the Detroit Pistons.  He didn’t suffer a significant injury, nor has he passed his prime.  In 2023, he’s averaging 6 and 6 in 22 minutes per game – at age 29.  Drummond’s skill set can help a team in spurts but is no longer a skill set of a franchise NBA center.  Hell, the NBA doesn’t even call out the center position in voting for its All-Star Game anymore!  You select two guards and three FRONTCOURT players.  Right.

There’s been a lot of talk that the NBA center is dead.  I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  I think that today’s NBA centers, at least some of them, have evolved.  They have had no other choice.  Either they suffer Drummond’s fate or find other ways to provide value to NBA teams.  Most NBA big men have added an effective three-point shot to their arsenal.  Others have improved their handles and their passing.  There are still those who are more traditional centers but position themselves in areas where they can take a pass and score from the point-blank range. 

This may surprise you, but there are MANY talented centers in the NBA today.  I’m not talking about Anthony Davis.  AD prefers to play the 4.  Same with Karl-Anthony Towns.  I’m talking about the two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic and the reigning NBA champ Joel Embiid.  Jokic and Embiid are among the NBA’s best players and will duke it out again for this year’s MVP award.  I’ve put together a list of who I believe are the top ten BEST centers in the NBA today.  I’m even going outside my comfort zone and adding advanced stats.  Narrowing down this list to ten centers was tougher than I originally thought.

Honorable Mentions:

Steven Adams, Memphis Grizzlies

Wendell Carter, Jr. Orlando Magic

Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans Pelicans

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets

Abbreviations For reference:

PPG = Points Per Game

RPG = Rebounds Per Game

APG = Assists per game

PER = Player Efficiency Rating

WS = Win Shares

Shooting Splits are Percentages (Field Goal/3-Point/Free-Throw)

And now, my Top Ten NBA centers of today!

#10 – Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves

2022-23 Stats: 13.6 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg

Shooting Splits: 65.5/0.0/66.0

PER: 19.2

WS: 6.0

I wasn’t expecting to include Gobert in my top-10 centers list.  He’s lost playing time late in games to backup Naz Reid, who is younger and can hit a three.  Last time I checked, Gobert is still 7’3’’ and doesn’t try to be someone he’s not.  Karl Anthony-Towns has been out for most of this season, so we haven’t been able to see the Wolves’ big-man duo play much together.  Still, Gobert’s PER, Win Shares, height, and defensive ability land him in the top ten. 

#9 – Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers

2022 Stats: 14.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.2 bpg

Shooting Splits: 65.2/11.1/73.1

PER: 20.0

WS: 8.2

The 24-year-old Allen is the anchor of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense.  The 2022 All-Star has developed a reputation for being both a great shot blocker and finisher.  Allen is the perfect center for the Cavs.  He is a more traditional big man and is often in the right place at the right time.  His 8.2 Win Shares are fourth most of anyone on this list.  Allen is also in the NBA’s top-10 in Offensive Rebounds per game with 3.2 per.  Just what Allen, Donovan Mitchell, and Darius Garland need – 3.2-second chances.

#8 – Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls

2022-23 Stats: 17.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 3.3 apg

Shooting Splits: 51.2/34.9/81.3

PER: 18.9

WS: 6.2

If this list were solely based on offensive ability, Nikola Vucevic would be ranked slightly higher on this list.  Vucevic was a traditional back-to-the-basket big man with a nice jump hook and feathery touch from the mid-range.  He’s stretched his shooting range to the arc and is a threat in the pick-and-pop game.  The two-time All-Star is currently third in the NBA in double-doubles, trailing only Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.  Unfortunately for this Bulls fan, Vucevic is the equivalent of a traffic cone on defense.  He’s also been on the wrong end of multiple posters this year.  He’s still a top-10 center, though.

#7 – Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

2022 Stats: 14.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.4 bpg

Shooting Splits: 51.0/37.7/76.3

PER: 5.9

WS: 17.3

Like Vucevic, Brook Lopez is another example of a traditional center who added to his game to stay on the floor.  The man isn’t quick but he’s certainly effective.  He added a deadly three-point shot a couple years back and it’s paid dividends for the Milwaukee Bucks.  I don’t think there’s a player who put more arc on his three-point shots than Lopez.  The 34-year-old former All-Star may be a front-runner for this season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year.  Don’t let the numbers fool you: Lopez is among the top centers in the league and a big reason why the Bucks are at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

#6 – Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

2022 Stats: 18.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 0.8 bpg

Shooting Splits: 59.2/30.4/74.3

PER: 20.9

WS: 5.5

The former #1 overall pick is earning the big money contract he signed with the Suns this past offseason.  Ayton is the latest center to benefit from Chris Paul being his point guard.  The former Arizona Wildcat is more of a traditional center but has a feather touch.  He’s slowly extending his shooting range to the arc.  Ayton has also averaged a double-double in each of his five NBA seasons.  He’s not an elite defender but he gets the job done.  The scary part is that Ayton is only 24 years old.

#5 – Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

2022 Stats: 18.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.3 bpg

Shooting Splits: 54.7/40.0/78.6

PER: 20.4

WS: 5.2

Myles Turner was a name you heard in trade rumors over the past couple of seasons.  The Indiana Pacers did not only keep Turner at the trade deadline, but they signed him to an extension.  I think both were wise moves.  Turner is a two-time NBA blocks leader and is currently 5th in the league this year.  The 26-year-old has been a key to the Pacers’ unexpected success this year.  Turner shoots at a high percentage and is a threat to hit a triple in the pick-and-pop.  He’s only getting better.

#4 – Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

2022 Stats: 21.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 3.2 apg

Shooting Splits: 53.6/8.3/80.5

PER: 20.6

WS: 6.1

Can you say point-center?  That’s what the Miami Heat have asked Bam Adebayo to be at times.  The 2-time All-Star has the ability to take his man off the dribble, put the ball between his legs, and finish from up close.  Teammate Jimmy Butler has implored Adebayo to shoot more threes, but the former Kentucky Wildcat has been more than effective in averaging a career-high 21.2 points per game this season.  He’s also the Heat’s defensive lynchpin. 

#3 – Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings

2022 Stats: 18.9 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 7.0 apg

Shooting Splits: 61.7/34.8/76.9

PER: 23.1

WS: 9.4

The son of Hall-of-Famer Arvydas Sabonis makes the NBA center medal stand, and deservingly so.  Perhaps it’s the influence of the European game and/or taking some pointers from his pops.  Domantas Sabonis was named an All-Star for the third time this season and is a huge reason why the Sacramento Kings currently sit in third place in the NBA’s Western Conference.  The younger Sabonis is leading the NBA in rebounding and is averaging the most assists by an NBA center not named Nikola Jokic.  He can play the post or step outside and hit a three.  And at 26, he’s not in his prime yet.  Watch out.

#2 – Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

2022 Stats: 33.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.1 apg

Shooting Splits: 53.3/34.4/85.2

PER: 30.3

WS: 8.8

I’m a big Joel Embiid fan, and I really, really wanted to rank him at #1 on my list.  That’s how good this dude is.  He is a six-time NBA All-Star and the league’s reigning scoring champ.  Embiid can flat-out put the ball in the basket.  He can do that from the post, from beyond the arc, taking his man off the dribble, or from the foul line.  He’s at the charity stripe a lot.  The most underrated part of Embiid’s game is his free-throw shooting.  He’s not only averaging a career-high 33.0 points per game, but a reason for that is him shooting a career-best 85.2% from the line.  Embiid doesn’t just do it on the offensive end, he’s an elite defender as well.  The Philadelphia 76ers ask a lot of “The Process.”  They will go as far as Embiid can take them.

#1 – Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

2022 Stats: 24.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 10.0 apg

Shooting Splits: 63.4/39.8/81.9

PER: 31.8

WS: 12.5

Every time I want to put Embiid over Nikola Jokic, the Joker takes his game to another level.  I’m not even trying to hate on the man some call “Big Honey.”  Seriously, that’s another one of his nicknames.  Anyway, the reigning two-time NBA MVP may very well be the first player since Larry Joe Bird to win three straight MVPs after this season.  Jokic’s Denver Nuggets are the top seed in the Western Conference, and its no secret why.  Sure, Michael Porter, Jr. and Jamal Murray have come back from injury, but its Jokic leading the way.  The man is averaging a triple-double as a center!  If Bam Adebayo is a point-center, then Nikola Jokic is Magic Johnson!  Jokic is not only the league’s best passing big men, but he’s one of the NBA’s best passers.  Oh, and he can score both inside and out.  He’s not only shooting over 60% overall from the field, but he’s also shooting almost 40% from downtown.  Jokic would become the first player in NBA history to shoot 60% and 40% from three.  Not bad for a second-round pick!

Photo Credit: Flickr.com