We’re continuing our coverage here at Basketball Insiders this week with our positional rankings. Today’s NBA game has gotten away from standard positions, with more players embracing a versatile role.
But when they step out on the court, each player is still assigned a basic position. We’ve taken a look at who we believe are the top point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards in the league, now we’ll discuss the top centers.
The center position is much different than in generations past. A traditional center was one who did most of their damage in the paint. The ’90s and the early ’00s seemed like the heyday for players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning.
Nowadays, it’s common to see a center making a move off the dribble or launching a jumper from the three-point line. While the center position has shifted, some players have embraced the change and others have done pretty well maintaining the course. Here’s a look at the top centers in the NBA. A few like Bam Adebayo, Kristaps Porzingis, Domantas Sabonis and LaMarcus Aldridge were interchangeable as power forwards so they won’t be mentioned here.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Scrutinize “The Process” all you want, but there’s no denying the 76ers got part of what they wanted in Embiid, a franchise-changing talent. While his first two years in the league were derailed due to injury, he’s become the premier center in the NBA. He’s a walking double-double who has an array of offensive skills in the post.
He’s extended his shooting range as well, becoming a semi-threat to score off jumpers. This season, he’s shooting a respectable 34.8 percent with just under four attempts per game. He’s a monster on the other end of the floor as well. Embiid is an interior defensive anchor that averages 1.3 blocks per game while altering many more. He’s a solid passing big man as well in the half-court. He’s got a career average of 3.1 assists.
2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
This one might cause a little bit of a stir considering there’s a certain Serbian big man in Denver that some consider interchangeable with Embiid, but here we are. In many ways, Towns has continually flown under the radar because of how poor a team the Timberwolves have been. Last time we checked, Towns wasn’t making front office decisions on building the roster.
He’s just as versatile as any big man in the league and owns the complete package when it comes to the offensive end. He can score in the paint, step out and shoot to space the floor (career 39.6 percent from three) and he can even attack off the dribble. Towns can play with his back to the basket and either bury a jumper or go right by you to the rim. There have been some questions about his commitment to defense, but those same questions revolve around Denver and their big-time cornerstone as well. This season, in particular, Towns is averaging 4.4 assists per game.
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Honestly, depending on what you value or how you’re building a team, one could argue that the top three here could be interchangeable. Moreso, it’d be tough to argue against somebody deadset on naming Jokic the best center in the NBA. He’s flourished since coming into the league as a second-round pick, become a perennial All-Star and is key to the Nuggets’ offense.
Jokic is arguably the best passing big man in the league right now — he’s averaging 6.9 assists per game this season and has a career average of 5.4. Each game, he throws a pass that makes you shake your head in awe. Denver runs the offense through him in half-court sets in which he can decide to score or pass. The main knock on Jokic has been his defense, but he’s actually improved on that end to where he’s become a pretty decent defender in the paint.
4. Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers
Here’s another one that might turn some heads. In all fairness, it’s a matter of preference between Drummond and a certain French center in Utah. Drummond is a player that’s most definitely flown under the radar – so far, in fact, that he’s almost become forgotten across the NBA landscape. He’s arguably the best rebounder in the league and only has one season, his rookie year, where he averaged less than 13 rebounds a game.
Questions have been roused about his seeming penchant for taking poor shots, but this season, especially early on with Detroit, he was much more willing to pass – as well as showing improved passing out of the post. He did have one season under Stan Van Gundy when he averaged 3.1 assists per game. Defensively, he is underrated. We only saw him in eight games with the Cavaliers, but Cleveland went 4-4 in those games with Drummond putting up 17.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.5 steals.
5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
This will probably seem too low for the Jazz faithful, as well as many around the league, but, as noted, it’s a matter of preference. The main knock on Gobert has been his offensive game, but he’s not some offensively-challenged player. He’s elite when it comes to the pick and roll, plus one of the best screeners and a top finisher at the rim. He has a knack for offensive rebounding and put-backs. Notably, a bad offensive player doesn’t put up 15.1 points per game.
If we were basing this list off of defense alone, there’s no question Gobert would be No.1. He’s among the best defenders in the league regardless of position. Ultimately, he’s the epitome of what a modern-day defender looks like; that is someone who can body up bigs in the paint and can also switch out and cover wings on the perimeter.
6. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Vucevic is another player who hasn’t garnered as much attention as he probably should have. He was often considered the dreaded good-stats-on-a-bad-team kind of player. The Magic made the playoffs last year, however, and were on pace to reach the postseason again this year. Vucevic was a major reason why.
Vucevic can do what he wants on the offensive end. He’s a post-up threat, but the center can only face up and shoot the jumper. His passing game has actually opened up a bit the past couple of seasons and he’s had three consecutive years of averaging just over three assists per game. He’s the key that makes the Magic offense run. He won’t be confused for being an elite defender, but he’s certainly become passable on that end.
7. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
It seems like a lot of these guys have been swept under the rug and Adams has to be one of the more underrated players in the entire NBA. This has been arguably his best season in the league as he’s helped the Thunder battle for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs – but where is his nation-wide parade?
Like Gobert, he’s one of the better operational big men in the league. He sets good, solid screens and finishes strong at the rim as the roller. Playing with Chris Paul, an elite pick and roll guard, has amplified that part of Adams’ game. Adams has also improved with the ball in his hands in terms of decision making and is averaging a career-high 2.4 assists. He remains a top rebounder and defender, overall just a tough-nosed player.
8. Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies
Much has been made about the Grizzlies’ young core and rightfully so. But a big part of their success this season has been due to the strong play of Valanciunas. He’s still an old school, back to the basket center. While he’s expanded his range to include the three-point shot, post play is still his bread and butter.
He’s one of the better rebounders in the league right now, too, even after all these years – and his 11.2 rebounds per game this season are a career-high. Valanciunas has never been a player to get a lot of touches offensively, even in Toronto, but he’s always been rather efficient. He’s also never been a particularly strong defender, but he’s serviceable. The stalwart veteran plays his role and it’s made Memphis a much more effective team.
Honorable Mentions: Deandre Ayton, Clint Capela, Hassan Whiteside, Mitchell Robinson
While the center position has certainly been “revolutionized,” in a way, it is definitely not dead. There is a good mix of players in terms of old school centers and modern versatility as this list shows. All of them play integral roles for their respective teams regardless of their skillsets. It’s hard to win in the NBA without a big-time center and if these eight have anything to say about it, the position is in excellent hands.
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