With the modernization of the NBA, game plans and rosters are designed to dominate the perimeter. This means that every player on the court should be relatively comfortable shooting, and making three-point shots.
As a result, the storied position of center is being redefined and reimagined nearly every season. No more are the times of pure back-to-the-basket forces such as Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon. Today, guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid are responsible for not only dominating the post but drifting out to the perimeter and being efficient.
For this reason, the center position doesn’t get nearly as much love as a small forward or a guard. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t talented big men in the league.
While the league is gravitating to the players who can make 35-foot jumpers, let’s take a look at some of the near-forgotten talents in the middle of the lane.
Nurkic was so forgotten during the first half of this season that Denver traded him, along with a 2017 first round draft pick, to the Portland Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee and 2018 second round pick.
Since arriving at his new team, Nurkic has put on an absolute show. Upping his averages in nearly every statistical category, the 22-year-old Bosnian contributes 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game for Portland.
Despite Nurkic’s leg injury, which has caused him to miss the last two games and likely the rest of the regular season, his impact while on the court for the Trailblazers cannot be understated. His arrival not only brought a +11.6 difference in plus/minus while on the court, but Nurkic’s play also translated over to the win column. In games he played in since being traded, Portland went 14-6.
With the Trailblazers in the heart of the race for the 8th-seed in the Western Conference, Nurkic’s post-trade resurgence is much of the reason why.
The Houston Rockets are the perfect embodiment of a team that’s completely shifted over to the three-point barrage approach of building their roster. Between James Harden, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza, the Rockets have four of the league’s top 13 in volume shooting attempts from deep.
But they still have a presence in the middle.
Enter Capela, who has attempted a grand total of zero three-point shots this season. The second-year center in Houston gets lost in the shuffle of all the highlight reel jumpers his teammates take, but he continues to produce. Averaging 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game — in just 23.8 minutes of action — Capela gives the Rockets an inside force to draw away some of the focus on defending the perimeter.
However, what Capela does most effectively that benefits his sharpshooting teammates is rebounding. For all of the shot attempts the Rockets put up, they have their fair share of misses. Capela cleans up the offensive rebound opportunities at a 12.7 percent rate, which is seventh-highest in the NBA.
So while the rest of Houston’s roster is firing away, Capela is there to corral the missed shots and give his teammates another chance at that 30-foot jumper.
The other young player taking the New York Knicks by storm is the 6-foot-11 Spaniard. Hernangomez has been a pleasant surprise to Knicks fans this season and appears to be a great fit along franchise cornerstone, Kristaps Porzingis. The two even spent time on the same team overseas before making their respective NBA debuts.
Unfortunately for Hernangomez (and probably the Knicks), Joakim Noah signed a 4-year, $72.5 million contract with New York last offseason. As a result, Noah was the starting center on a team that hoped to contend for the playoffs at the beginning of the year.
With Noah sidelined over the last two months with injury, Hernangomez has had his chance to flourish. Since the All-Star break, Hernangomez is averaging 11.2 points and 9.0 rebounds a game.
Despite being a 22-year-old rookie, Hernangomez is showing the growth and producing the numbers to potentially be the Porzingis’ frontcourt companion for many years to come.
If we’re talking about being forgotten, Holmes represents that in the purest of forms.
On a Philadelphia 76ers team that wielded Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, and Nerlens Noel all at one time – one of the league’s biggest log jams – Holmes just sat back and waited his turn.
Drafted in 2015 along with Okafor and Hernangomez (Sam Hinkie really had a knack for drafting centers, apparently), Holmes was the Bowling Green product among his blue-blood frontcourt teammates. However, once Embiid was shut down for the season with a knee injury and Noel was traded to Dallas, Holmes was given his chance to produce. And he did just that.
Since the trade deadline, Holmes is averaging 13.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.3 blocks per game and shooting 35 percent from long range. Adjust his stat line to a per-36 basis to project what Holmes’ numbers could look like as a full-time starter, and you see 17 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. All while being an efficient shooter from downtown, an extremely coveted skill for today’s big man.
Even with drafting centers from Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke over the last few years, the Sixers most consistently productive big man may be the one out of Bowling Green.
While being a pillar of consistency over the last five seasons, Vucevic rarely gets his name thrown into the ring when the elite center’s of the NBA discussion kicks up.
Over the last five years, Vucevic has managed to average a double-double four times. He had a career year two seasons ago, where he averaged 19.3 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. Vucevic consistently has himself on the cusp of being that patented “20 and 10” guy.
With the addition of Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic last offseason, Vucevic’s numbers took a little bit of a hit offensively to start the season. As a result, his season-long averages are 14.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. But since Ibaka’s trade to Toronto, Vucevic reclaimed his role as the force inside for Orlando. His averages have upped to 17 points and 11.5 rebounds per game over the last 17 contests.
Along with being a double-double machine, Vucevic is playing some of the best defense of his career. This season, the 7-footer is registering a career-high 2.4 defensive box plus/minus score.
The only lottery pick — and perhaps the biggest name — on this list, Turner still isn’t getting his rightful recognition around the league.
Currently in his sophomore season for the Indiana Pacers, Turner is averaging 14.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Shooting an effective 50 percent from the floor, the 21-year-old has expanded his shooting game to beyond the arc, where he connects at a 34 percent clip.
Defining this season as taking a step forward could even be an understatement for Turner. Becoming a real two-way threat on the basketball court, Turner’s statistical output has improved leaps and bounds from just a year ago.
According to NBA Math’s total points added calculations, Turner has had the largest margin of improvement of any player in the league. Registering a lowly -63.28 TPA in his rookie season, Turner grades out as almost an entirely different player this year with a 96.96 TPA score.
Improving his offensive game along with continuing his defensive dominance is quickly allowing Turner to become one of the league’s budding young stars.
If Paul George is looking for reasons to stick around in Indiana, he may just have to turn around and take a look at his big man.
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