The center position has evolved rapidly over the last few years. Now it’s arguably no longer enough to be an effective back to the basket center. Teams are looking for centers that can perform in the pick-and-roll, protect the rim and run the court among other things. However, there are still quite a few big men who can’t knock down three-pointers but can be effective in other ways. With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the centers who can become free agents this upcoming offseason.
1. Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks
Earlier this season, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut and a first-round pick. Noel started out his career in Philadelphia as a foundational piece, but became expendable as the frontcourt becoming increasingly crammed. The team had to decide whether to keep Noel, a soon to be restricted free agent, or trade him to avoid having to pay him in the offseason.
The Mavericks have been looking for a long-term answer at center since the departure of veteran center Tyson Chandler years ago. With Noel, the team again has a potential rim-protecting, shot-blocking, athletic pick and roll threat who can play the role Chandler did so effectively years ago.
Drafted sixth overall in 2013, Noel is only 22 years old and arguably has not come close to his potential yet. While Noel looks like a natural fit with the Mavericks, his current statistics look remarkably similar to his numbers from earlier this season with Philadelphia, including points (8.9 to 9.5), rebounds (5.0 to 7.1) blocks (.9 to 1.2) and shooting percentage (61.1 to 60.3 percent). However, Noel is playing 22.5 minutes per game coming off the bench for Mavericks and is producing 15.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1 steal per game per 36 minutes. With Carlisle’s pick and roll heavy offense and more time to adjust, Noel could very well become a big-time contributor for Dallas, should the Mavericks re-sign him after this season.
Noel will be the most intriguing and arguably talented free center this offseason, but his status as a restricted free agent will likely dissuade other teams from making aggressive offers, knowing the Mavericks will likely match.
2. Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets
Currently playing for the Denver Nuggets, Plumlee is due for a pay raise as he heads toward his first non-rookie contract. Like Noel, Plumlee was also traded recently. Unlike Noel, Plumlee did not appear to be pining for a possible change of scenery. Plumlee started every game for the Portland Trailblazers prior to being dealt. Since the trade, Plumlee has seen his points per game drop from 11.2 to 9.2 as the Nuggets continually experimented with how to best utilize him.
Plumlee isn’t particularly great at any single thing, but he does a number of things very well, evidenced by a recent start alongside Nikola Jokic in which he contributed nine points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals in a losing effort to the Houston Rockets on March 18. Plumlee is a skilled passer for a big man and is averaging 3.9 assists per game. Plumlee doesn’t put up jaw-dropping numbers, but he is usually a positive contributor. It should also be noted that Plumlee’s playing time is down since being traded, so that partially explains his slight statistical drop-off.
3. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe is a talented, throwback center but has dropped off his production in recent seasons. The fast pace of the modern game has sometimes relegated prototypical back to the basket scoring big men into becoming primarily bench scorers. Enes Kanter serves as an example with the Oklahoma City Thunder as he had been featured prominently as a starting center until 2015-16 when the Thunder permanently moved him to the bench.
From the 2011-12 to 2015-16 season, Monroe averaged 15.6 points per game in 31.6 minutes while starting the majority of games. In 2016-17, Monroe is averaging 11.8 points and career-lows in rebounds (6.6) and blocks (.5) in 22.5 minutes per game off the bench. In an era where there is a premium on big men that can score both inside and out, Monroe works almost exclusively down low and shoots at league average rate. Monroe’s inability to shoot beyond midrange limits his effectiveness on offense.
Defense isn’t one of Monroe’s strengths as he is not an explosive athlete, a particularly effective rim protector or weak-side shot blocker. He does rank fourth amongst centers in steals with 1.2 per game and accountss for 28.1 percent of the Bucks’ overall steals. However, this doesn’t really offset how much of a liability he generally is defensively.
Monroe didn’t expect to suffer this sort of decline when he signed with the Buck before the 2015-16 season. Monroe passed on both the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, who had been looking for a premier free agent. He is still a talented player, but his lack of range and limited effectiveness on defense likely limit to being a paaaost-scoring big man off the bench. There is value in having a player like Monroe, but it’s still a significant drop off from the standing he used to hold across the league.
4. Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs have sustained a high level of success for longer than any other team in recent NBA history. How is this possible? In part, by finding and maximizing undervalued talent. Add Spurs center Dewayne Dedmon to the list of players that have found an effective role within the team’s system.
Dedmon’s statistics don’t jump off the page. He is averaging 5.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and .8 blocks per game in 17.4 minutes of action per night. However, Dedmond’s value for San Antonio stems from his ability to play solid defense, set effective picks and act as a lob threat on runs to the rim out of the pick and roll. Dedmon may not be the most talented center in the league, but he understands his role and stays within it to the benefit of his team.
Amongst centers, Dedmon ranks 9th in the league with .041 defensive win shares, per nba.com. Additionally, opponents are shooting 44.5 percent at the rim against him, which is good for 7th in the league.
Keep in mind that Dedmon got a very late start to his career at age 18 amidst unusual circumstances. Though he is already 27 years old, he may have more room for growth than one may expect. Considering this, it may make sense for a team to make a significant investment in Dedmon.
5. Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics
Olynyk is an intriguing player in this free agent market. At first glance, his numbers do not stand out — he is averaging 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Amongst centers, Olynyk ranks 23rd in the league in defensive win shares, ahead of fellow big men Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns and Noel, per nba.com. In addition, Olynyk is 23rd in the NBA, amongst centers, with 3.60 RPM wins, an estimate of the number of wins a player has contributed to a team’s win total, per espn.com.
Working against Olynyk is that he has never moved into a starting role with the Celtics, never averaged more than 22.2 minutes and has never averaged more than 5.2 rebounds in his career. Although he was a 40.5 percent three-point shooter last season, Olynyk’s shooting from distance has slipped to 35.7 percent this year.
At 25 years old, Olynyk’s best days may still be ahead of him. With three-point range and an underrated offensive and defensive game, Olynyk could be a nice addition for a team in need of a big man who can spread the court.
6. Alex Len, Phoenix Suns
Now in his fourth year and 23 years old, the discussion around Alex Len continues to drift toward potential rather than his actual on-court production. Len, who will be a restricted free agent, is aware of the issue and has discussed it with the media.
“It’s my contract year, so it’s a huge stretch,” Len stated earlier this season. “I just have to show everybody I can be a starting center in this league. I got an opportunity, I just have to prove it.”
The Suns have tried giving the starting role to Len on multiple occasions, only to reverse course at times. Len has never started more than 46 games in a season and is currently playing the fewest minutes so far through the past three seasons, partially due to the presence of the veteran Tyson Chandler.
Per 36 minutes, Len’s projects to score a solid yet unremarkable 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, according to basketball-reference.com. He has the size, length, mobility and athleticism to be a solid two-way player, but he hasn’t been able to prove that with consistent production. Any team that wants to sign Len will have to make an aggressive offer and hope that if Phoenix doesn’t match, he will develop into the versatile player many projected him to become.
7. Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spur
At age 36, San Antonio Spurs center Pau Gasol is still one of the most offensively talented centers in the NBA. In late January Gasol broke a finger during warm-ups. Upon return, Gasol accepted a bench role and has thrived ever since.
Since returning from the finger injury, Gasol is shooting 50 percent overall, 58.3 percent from three-point range (notably, a career high 15.8 percent of his total shots are coming from beyond the arc). This new role has Gasol thriving against other team’s second units and provides a blueprint for how best to use the thirty-six-year-old at this point in his career. As a back-up, Gasol is ranked 20th in the league among centers in defensive win shares is both surprising and respectable. However, Gasol certainly struggles to defend opponents who are decently mobile, an issue that will worsen as he continues to age.
8. Nene, Houston Rockets
Like Gasol, Nene is a player who has long since passed his peak but has found an effective and useful role as a back-up on a championship contender. In his first season with the Houston Rockets, Nene is averaging a career low in minutes (17.5) and rebounds (4.1), as well as near career low in points per game (8.6).
However, these low marks distort how productive Nene has been in limited minutes as he averaging, per 36 minutes, a career high 17.8 points. Nene is shooting above his career percentages from all distances, including a career-high 45.5 percent from 16 feet to the three point line.
In limited minutes, Nene’s defense is passable. Amongst centers, he is 49th in blocks per game (.6), 20th in steals (.8) and 17th in defensive rating (102.2). Nene isn’t a defensive specialist by any means, but he isn’t a major liability either.
9. Zaza Pachulia, Golden State Warriors
Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia is a gritty and deceptively productive player. He has served as a decent compliment to the athleticism and scoring prowess the Warriors display on a nightly basis.
The 13-year veteran, who has started every game this year, is neither a shot blocker nor a rim-protector and accordingly ranks near the bottom in these categories for centers. Pachulia is shooting a career-high 54.1 percent but otherwise has unremarkable averages of 6.4 points, six rebounds, .5 blocks and 1.9 assists per game. Pachulia is well suited to the rest of the Warriors and perhaps holds most value to this team.
It should be noted that despite his average statistics relative to other high profile players, Pachulia received tremendous support in his home country of Georgia, resulting in him almost being voted into the 2017 NBA All-Star game.
At 33 years old, Pachulia has likely reached the peak of his potential and production. But he can still provide quality minutes for a team looking for a big man that can do a lot of things well.
10. Aron Baynes, Detroit Pistons
In February, Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders reported that the Detroit Pistons were exploring the trade market for center Aron Baynes.
“Aron is a really good player and I said this after the last game, we’re going to be in a difficult situation by the [CBA] rules of trying to re-sign him next summer,” Van Gundy said. “I’m supposed to downplay him, not play him up and tell you, ‘You know, that guy’s a pretty solid backup,’ but the bottom line is he’s a starting-caliber NBA center who we’re very lucky to have as a backup.”
Baynes’ performance overall this season may not result in the payday that Van Gundy predicted, as Baynes is averaging 4.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 0.5 blocks per game this season. However, he is only averaging 15.2 minutes of action per game, so a team may take a chance on him after this season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Knicks Holdovers Proved Something to Carmelo Anthony and the NBA
The Knicks made a statement in beating Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder convincingly in his return to Madison Square Garden.
As he walked up the tunnel in his dapper outfit and slick looking fedora, Carmelo Anthony had spent the past few nights thinking about this moment.
Seeing friends and family he’s missed since relocating to Oklahoma City, the game was quite emotional for the 10-time All-Star.
Never did he imagine, though, that his former teammates would want to beat him more than he wanted to beat them.
Even without Kristaps Porzingis, though, that’s exactly what the Knicks went out and did.
When LeBron James spurned the Knicks and announced his intentions to take his talents to South Beach, word began to trickle out of Denver that another big fish had his eyes on New York.
It was there, in the aftermath of heartbreak that the infatuation with Anthony began. Forcing a trade to New York in 2011, Anthony will forever wear the fact that the Knicks were muscled into trading for him like a Scarlett letter. It was ironic then that even with Anthony, the Knicks would spend the majority of his career in New York lacking the talent required to compete for supremacy atop the Eastern Conference.
As the years progressed and the Knicks continued to flounder, fans in New York inevitably split. Some blamed Anthony for the franchise’s failure to achieve higher. By forcing the trade, they’d argued, Anthony stripped the team of valuable assets that could have been used to help acquire reinforcements for him. Those that defend Anthony would sooner point to the organization’s lack of continuity—both on the bench and in the front office—as the primary reason the team floundered.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, just like the scores of teammates Anthony has had in New York have.
Player movement in the NBA has become its own phenomenon. Tons of time is spent talking about things from the superstars’ perspective, and not much from the perspective of the role players. So when a player like Anthony is deemed to need to relocate in order to have an opportunity to win at the highest levels, players like Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee and even Kristaps Porzingis begin to be thought of as players who aren’t good enough to succeed in a serious way in the league. It usually takes many years of futility for the superstar to be the one considered damaged goods.
So when Anthony and the Thunder came into Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the 10-time All-Star wasn’t the only one that had something to prove. Subliminally, the role players left behind—the team that many expected to find itself in the lottery once the season was over—was just as eager to prove that the team’s failure to win around Anthony wasn’t completely due to their shortcomings as professionals.
As the Knicks soundly defeated the Thunder by a final score of 111-96, there’s no doubt that the Thunder’s triple-overtime game in Philadelphia the night before had an impact, but there’s also no doubt that there just so happened to be a little extra pep in the step of each Knick player. That the Knicks managed to outlast the Thunder without top gun Porzingis was especially impressive.
And when it was all said and done, the Knicks fans that curiously booed Anthony proved a central point: there is a large section of them that believe that Anthony somehow held the team back. Certainly, the Knicks could have and should have achieved higher during his years there, but to boo an athlete that chose New York—a franchise that has been marked by poor management and poorer decisions—seemed a bit out of touch.
Sure, Anthony may have failed the Knicks, but they absolutely failed him, too. And in the face of it, all Anthony ever did was show up, play hard and answer every question ever posed to him authentically and honestly. He proudly wore New York across his chest and showed up every day. In a world where LeBron leaves for Miami and Durant leaves for Oakland, Anthony’s commitment to New York should have meant something to Knicks fans. Flaws and all, Anthony chose New York and it wasn’t until he was told in certain terms that the organization wanted to move on that he honored their wish.
And in the end, Anthony decided to waive his no-trade clause to head to Oklahoma City. In return, the Knicks got Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and the rights to the Chicago Bulls’ second round pick in 2018 NBA Draft.
Still, heading into the season, the Knicks were projected to be a lottery team. Without a player the caliber of Anthony, they were thought to be a long shot for the playoffs. Holdovers from last year’s team knew what people were saying about them, and although head coach Jeff Hornacek refused to admit it, there is genuine surprise around the team that, at 16-13, has matched its 29-game start to last year.
Perhaps those that booed Anthony on Saturday night did so because of some warped sense of reality. Perhaps they believed that it was Anthony that quit on the team and not vice versa. Maybe they thought that, without Anthony, they wouldn’t have a shot at doing anything impactful this season.
Through 29 games, it would appear that they were wrong.
And in Anthony’s return to Madison Square Garden, the Knicks proved that, and a lot more.
Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA
David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.
Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.
But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.
“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”
Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.
He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.
VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.
Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.
“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”
VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.
Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.
“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”
The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.
Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.
“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”
NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard
On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.
Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.
In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.
Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.
Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.
Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.
Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.
For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.
“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”
Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.
Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.
Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.
“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”
After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.
During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.
Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.
For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.
“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”
New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.
On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.
After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.
Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.
“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game, more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”
It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.
“I know it’s coming,” he said.
When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.
“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”