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NBA Daily: The Return of the Big Man?

The 2018 NBA Draft may be remembered for the reemergence of the big man.

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It’s been a couple of years since the NBA draft featured a highly touted traditional big man. The last back to the basket big man that was drafted in the lottery was Jahlil Okafor in 2015. Karl-Anthony Towns was in that draft as well, and he’s on his way to becoming a versatile center.

There was Joel Embiid in 2014. Embiid, like Towns, has also become a do it all type of player, but make no bones about it, he’s a big man.

Since the NBA game has begun moving more and more towards position-less basketball and more of a “small ball” type game, there has been much made about the demise of the traditional center. The NBA is no longer a place where the paint is patrolled by such giants as Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.

In today’s game, there is a premium on big men who can run the floor and excel in the pick and roll. JaVale McGee fills that role perfectly for the champion Golden State Warriors. Clint Capela does the same for the Houston Rockets. Those aren’t guys that a team would feel comfortable throwing the ball to in the paint and asking them to get a bucket, though.

Taking a look at the 2018 draft, however, there appears to be a resurgence of sorts when it comes to players in the post.

The projected No. 1 overall pick, DeAndre Ayton from Arizona, fits the mold of a traditional center. He’s a 7-footer in every sense of the word. A physical specimen, in his lone season at Arizona, Ayton displayed an improving ability to score in the paint.

He’s still a little raw when it comes to post moves, but given the right situation and coaching, it’s something he can definitely develop as his NBA career takes flight. That’s not all he can do though. As the NBA game evolves, so does the big man. Not only is he great in the pick and roll, but the pick and pop as well. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine him developing a three-point shot.

The bread and butter of his game though should be his skill in the post. If Ayton is the type of superstar that many are projecting him to be, the paint is where he is going to make his living.

Another name that seems to be rapidly climbing up the draft board is Texas’ Mohamed Bamba. Another 7-footer, Bamba sort of got lost in the early discussion when talking about the top players in this draft. However, recent workout reports seem to have him turning heads.

First and foremost, his defensive ability what initially got him noticed. He has all the talent to become an elite interior defender at the NBA level. He appears to have a rapidly improving offensive game though.

In workout videos, he’s displayed a nice touch around the basket, as well as the ability to put the ball on the floor and make a move towards the rim. He can also hit the mid-range jump shot as he showed during his lone season in college.

And then we come to Marvin Bagley III. Bagley is a bit less of a traditional big man than Ayton or Bamba, but he’s a big nonetheless. He’s smaller in terms of size compared to the other two, and that’s probably something he’s going to have address in the NBA.

But he can flat out score both in the paint and outside as well. He’s a bit of a better shooter than Ayton or Bamba, and he’s fluid in the post as well. He can also put the ball on the floor and finish around the rim.

There’s also Jaren Jackson Jr. He’s another name that’s been rising a little bit and could conceivably be taken in the top-five. He’s also got a nice, soft touch around the rim and is improving in terms of being able to attack the basket when making a move off the dribble.

Jackson can also step out and shoot from the perimeter including the three-point line. His post game is still raw but that’s something that can be worked on once he’s in the NBA.

And finally, there’s a bit of a wild card big in this draft, Mitchell Robinson. Robinson was originally committed to Western Kentucky but ultimately decided against playing college basketball. He sat this past season out and did not partake in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last month.

With very little samples on which to judge him by, Robinson still remains an intriguing prospect. He’s also a 7-footer with good length and athleticism. His offensive game is raw but he has all the makings of an elite defensive anchor.

Robinson was one of the top-ranked high school players in the Class of 2017 and the top overall center prospect. If he is able to refine his offensive game, there is some team that might wind up with a draft steal.

Now, the NBA draft isn’t always an exact science. Some teams will hit the mark with their draft picks and others will miss. But this draft appears to have a wealth of talented big men—something we have not seen in quite some time. Most of these guys can become big men that teams would feel comfortable dumping the ball to in the paint and telling them to score.

There are two main reasons why it seems like big men are a dying breed in the NBA. First, not many big men react well anymore when handling swarming defenses. Second, not many big men possess the ability to switch out on to perimeter players defensively when teams go small.

The elite big men of the past such as O’Neal, Duncan and Olajuwon would carve teams up with their passing when the double came. And who can remember Olajuwon stepping out and defending John Starks on the perimeter during the NBA Finals.

Of course, those were Hall of Fame players and some of the best to ever set foot on the hardwood. But that’s what is necessary for there to be a resurgence of big men. They need to have a refined offensive game while being able to handle defensive pressure properly, as well as being able to switch between multiple positions on the defensive end.

Each of the big men listed above has the potential to do just that. They’re mobile and agile. They can score the basketball. And if most of them pan out, it might just be too early to ring the death knell for the big man.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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