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Who’s Got Next in 2014-15: Centers

Who are the top up-and-coming centers in the NBA entering the 2014-15 season?

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Today, we’ll look at the next crop of players from the center spot who show the type of budding talent that fan bases hope will pay dividends sooner rather than later. We are no longer in the era of dominant big men. That being said, there is plenty of talent in the league and a big man with skills at the center spot is still very much valued. The old adage of you can’t teach height is something you will hear in NBA circles that still holds weight today. It’s the reason you will see big men drafted near the top of the draft time and time again, even if the prospect may appear to be unpolished as many teams in the league hope to find the next Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon or Bill Russell.

Right now, the cream of the crop are veteran players such as Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Marc Gasol, Al Horford and (when healthy) Brook Lopez. These are guys that your team can count on to perform at an elite level every night. Joining them, you also have players who have started to mature early, showing they can produce at a high level such as Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. So who’s next in line you might ask? Which big men have the talent to take things to the next level?

Jonas Valanciunas

Selected as the fifth overall pick in 2011 by the Toronto Raptors, Valanciunas hails from Lithuania, a European country that is very passionate about basketball. After a slow start during his rookie year in which he needed to acclimate himself to his new situation, he followed it up with a very encouraging second season in which he was named the MVP of the 2013 summer league – averaging 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 56 percent from the field. With newfound confidence, he looked solid although not spectacular in his second season but showed enough to give Raptor fans hope for more to come. During this year’s FIBA World Cup tournament, it was the young big man who was looked upon to be a leader on both ends of the floor and he turned heads around the league with his performances. The time he’s spent working on his strength and post moves has started to pay off.

Look for the Lithuanian big man to take the next step this year as his coaches have seen his improvement and want to make him a focal point in his third year to take scoring pressure off the backcourt. Kyle Lowry has made it known that he believes it will be his duty this year to feed the big man early to help balance the scoring and space on the floor. He will have every opportunity to take the next step in his progression this year and if his young career is any indicator, he will deliver.

Derrick Favors

It’s rare that you see a top three draft selection get traded during his rookie season before a team really gets a chance to see what he can do. Favors got introduced into the business side of the NBA quickly once he discovered he was traded as part of package as a rookie from the Brooklyn Nets to the Utah Jazz for Deron Williams. A slow starter entering the league at the very tender age of 19 , the youngest player in the NBA at the time he was drafted, it was not unusual to see a big man with raw skills not immediately dominate once he entered the league. The patience the Jazz brass has shown is starting to pay off as the Atlanta native is starting to feel comfortable in Utah coming off a recently signed four-year contract extension in 2013 that may prove to be a bargain at $49 million when it’s all said and done.

One of the big reasons why Favors is likely to see a leap in production this year is new Jazz head coach Quin Snyder’s offense along with the maturity in his game. The new Jazz offense is heavy on ball movement and will be at a faster tempo, which plays to Favors’ strengths as a long, mobile and athletic big man. Look for him to receive more feeds cutting to the basket rather than operating in the post and expecting him to create his own shot, which is still a work in progress for him. Defensively is where Favor has the capability to be  elite as he’s quick enough to get out and contest shots on the perimeter if need be but also be a defensive anchor in the paint with his immense physical tools. Coming into his fifth season in the NBA, with increased minutes and more responsibility on the team look for Favors to start flourishing.

Nikola Vucevic

Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. When the Philadelphia 76ers traded Vucevic to the Orlando Magic, the change in scenery sparked the young big man who started to produce at a level that surprised many. In his short time with his new team, he’s been a double-double machine posting an average of 14.2 points and 11 rebounds per game. For a 7’0, that’s still only 24 years old in his third year in the league, and there’s plenty for the Magic to be excited about with his development. He did suffer an Achilles injury last year that caused him to miss 29 games, which was a bit of a concern. Health is something that has marred the careers of many promising big men, but he’s returned to action and during the preseason he’s looked like he hasn’t missed a beat. With a lack of big men with his skills on a very young team, he will get all the minutes he can handle this season.

Andre Drummond

The UConn product came into the league as what many believed to be a “boom or bust” type draft pick. His work ethic, motor and love for the game were questioned by many teams despite his tremendous physical tools. In the end, the Detroit Pistons believed in him and with two years of experience under his belt he’s starting to look the part of a dominant center. As a 7’0 big man with a 7’4 wingspan and a nice frame to grow into, there’s plenty to like about Drummond. He’s heard the criticism and has taken the approach to prove the doubters wrong. He looked great over the summer and surprised many as he made the 12-man roster for Team USA. The confidence he’s displayed for a 21-year-old is nothing short of spectacular as it’s carried over into this year’s preseason. Against the Atlanta Hawks for example, he posted a line of 19 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. Now with a new head coach in Stan Van Gundy, who’s worked with plenty of elite big men in his time, there will be no shortage of help for him to reach his potential. The future looks very bright for Drummond.

Steven Adams

It’s hard for a rookie to earn playing time on a rotation for a championship contender, but Steven Adams did exactly just that last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The New Zealand native had many around the league take notice of him with his energy, hustle and aggressive style of play. He’s not a guy that’s going to dominate the game on the offensive end, but he is a guy that’s going to get under the opposing players skin, make them work for every bucket and make winning plays on both ends of the court. Adams has also impressed quite a bit during the preseason this year for the Thunder, which bodes well for him considering the noted decline in last year’s starting center Kendrick Perkins. With rumors swirling about Adams being thrust in to the starting center role this year for the Thunder, expect an uptick in production as he will look to capitalize on the opportunity.

Larry Sanders

Elite rim protector. That what you have in Larry Sanders. It’s not unusual to see him have games where gets more than three blocks. It’s why he got paid last summer to the tune of $44 million over four years. Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, he also seemed intent on making the team immediately regret that decision by a series of events that caused him to be in the news for the wrong reasons. We are of course talking about a night club incident that led to him breaking his thumb and then testing positive for marijuana, which violated the league’s anti-drug policy. It also doesn’t help that he’s been near the top of the list for most technical fouls in a season. So why is he on this list? Quite simply if Sanders can prove that last year was aberration and show what he’s capable of, all of these things will be soon forgotten. His defensive instincts are something that you just can’t teach. Last season, he averaged 12 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game after the All-Star break. The talent is there. He’s worked on his limited offensive skills during the offseason and has looked solid during the preseason this year. If he can return to form and stay out of the news, he may be poised to have a breakout year.

Honorable Mentions: Enes Kanter, Nerlens Noel

All the players listed have youth and opportunity on their side, which means they could breakout in the upcoming NBA season. Feel free to let us know what you think or if you feel we’ve missed someone.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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