NBA

Five Centers on the Rise in 2014-15

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As the game has evolved over the last decade and the stretch four has become increasingly popular, more and more teams are relying solely on their center to protect the rim. The days of having two bigs with the ability to bang down low and control the paint seem to be rapidly fading away. This puts a premium on having a center that can, at the very minimum, change shots around the rim and ideally send some of those shots back. Additionally, with teams emphasizing floor spacing, more pressure is on the center to secure the rebound and keep second chance opportunities to a minimum. If you can find a guy who has the ability to do all that while also having a strong post game and passing ability on the offensive end, he can be the type of player who can transform a franchise.

Over the last decade, Dwight Howard has been the best model of a two-way center who can dominate a game, but he hasn’t been the only one. Joakim Noah is another guy who has really developed into a special two-way player from the center position. While his style is markedly different than that of Howard, he has become a terrific all-around player. One young big, who has already developed into one of the best in the game, is Anthony Davis. With the Pelicans’ acquisition of Omer Asik, Davis will start at the four. However, with Ryan Anderson in the fold as well, Davis will surely spend some time playing center when paired in the frontcourt with Anderson.

Although these centers are at the head of the class right now, there are a number of young bigs hungry to join them. Here are five centers who have a chance to take their game to the next level this upcoming season.

DeMarcus Cousins

You could easily argue that Cousins belongs in the above group with the type of numbers he has put up since joining the Kings. In his four years with the team, Cousins has career averages of 17.9 points and 10.2 rebounds. There is no denying his productivity. However, despite strong play from Cousins, the Kings haven’t experienced much success. They have never won more than 28 games in a season since Cousins has joined the team. He hasn’t always been surrounded by the most talented supporting cast, but his lack of team success is a bit concerning. Next year will be his first full season alongside Rudy Gay, and the Kings will rely heavily on Cousins and Gay as they look to turn things around.

After another season where Cousins experienced great personal success, he was chosen to be a member of Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. This is great opportunity for Cousins to play with and against some of the best players in the world. He will hit the ground running next season following FIBA World Cup play and will again look to be dominant down low. There is a strong chance that next year is the year that Cousins finally breaks through and makes his first All-Star appearance. Whether the Kings take the next step as a team and experience collective success remains to be seen.

Andre Drummond

Drummond really came on strong during his sophomore campaign with the Pistons. After starting in 10 games as rookie, Drummond played and started in all but one contest for the Pistons in the 2013-14 season. Still somewhat raw, Drummond has already shown the ability to use his massive frame to dominate the glass. Last year, he finished second in the league in rebounds per game (13.2) and led the league in offensive rebounds per game (5.4). Although he doesn’t possess the most complete post game at this stage of his career, he is able to convert a number of those offensive rebounds into easy second chance buckets.

Despite his early success, particularly rebounding the ball, Drummond still has a ton of potential at 21 years old. It’s a scary thought for the rest of the league to envision the type of player he can be if he fulfills that potential. During the final month of last season, Drummond averaged 18.4 points, 17.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 64.2 percent from the field. Now, with Stan Van Gundy taking over as the Pistons’ head coach and making Drummond a focal point of Detroit’s attack, the big man is poised for a monster year manning the middle.

DeAndre Jordan

The former second round pick has made great strides over the last few years and has become an integral piece for the contending Clippers. Jordan has developed great chemistry with Chris Paul and the two combined for some of the more entertaining plays of this past season. Not only did Jordan work well with Paul, but he also fits in alongside frontcourt mate Blake Griffin, as the two connected regularly in the tight quarters of the paint. The great chemistry with both Paul and Griffin has helped Jordan get a number of easy buckets around the rim. Jordan finished the season leading the league in field goal percentage, shooting an incredible 67.6 percent from the field.

While his eye-popping lob finishes drew the most attention, his work on the defensive end is what has helped elevate his game the most. Since the arrival of head coach Doc Rivers, Jordan has become a force defensively. This past year, he led league the league in rebounds per game (13.6) and was third in blocks per game (2.5). There is no reason why Jordan can’t duplicate, and potentially build on, his fine play of 2013-14. He will play a key role as the Clippers make another push towards a title.

Jonas Valanciunas

The young Lithuanian has quickly become a key member of the up-and-coming Raptors. He is another young center with big upside. He has great physical tools, standing at 6’11 and 230 lbs., giving Toronto a big who can bang with just about anybody down low. He followed a strong 2013-14 season with a great showing in playoffs. In the postseason, Valanciunas averaged just shy of a double-double – 10.9 points and 9.7 rebounds – as the Raptors pushed the Nets to seven games. While the Raptors may have been disappointed with their first-round exit, they had to be pleased with the play of Valanciunas.

Prior to start of next season, Valanciunas will have the chance to build on his impressive playoff performance as he will play for Lithuania’s national team during the FIBA World Cup. In the past, his role with his national team has been relatively small, but he figures to be a much bigger contributor this time around. Both his playoff experience and his FIBA World Cup experience should prove beneficial when next season begins. He showed nice progress from year one to year two; don’t be surprised to see him make an even bigger leap in his third season as a pro.

Nikola Vucevic

Of all the players listed here, Vucevic might be the most under the radar. Since joining the Magic after one season with the Sixers as part of the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade, Vucevic has given the team great production from the center spot. In his first year in Orlando, he averaged 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds and followed that up this past season with 14.2 points an 11 rebounds. Vucevic battled injuries throughout the 2013-14 season, playing in only 57 games, but all signs point him being good to go to start this upcoming season. When fully healthy, Vucevic has shown to be one of the steadiest contributors for the young Magic. He will be an important piece as the team continues to develop their talented core. If Vucevic can stay healthy, he should be in line for another very productive season. At just 23 years old, Vucevic’s best basketball is likely still ahead of him and he could be a cornerstone for Orlando to build around going forward.

Honorable Mention

Steven Adams

Adams made a name for himself this past postseason with his physical play. He gave the Thunder great energy off the bench and showed, despite his lack of experience, that he is the team’s best option at center. Kendrick Perkins remains under contract with the team for one more year. Despite that, Adams appears ready to overtake Perkins in the starting rotation.

Larry Sanders

Sanders had a breakout campaign in 2012-13 and then followed it up with a disastrous 2013-14 season. Now, the 25-year-old is looking to bounce back to the form that made him one of top interior defenders in the league. If he can avoid the injuries and off the court issues that plagued him a season ago, look for Sanders to resemble the 2012-13 version of himself (that was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate) much more than the 2013-14 version this coming season.

Nerlens Noel

After being chosen fifth overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, Noel missed the entire 2013-14 season due to injury. He will begin this upcoming season fully healthy and will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent in Philadelphia. Had he not been injured while at Kentucky, he likely would’ve been the top overall pick in last year’s draft. Now, we’ll get a chance to see what the top prospect can do against NBA competition. The gifted shot blocker looked good in Summer League and should provide the Sixers with some much needed help in the paint.

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About John Zitzler

John Zitzler

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.