Dominant big men are hard to find these days. Gone are the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal. Gone are the days of the paint being a sacred area of the basketball court, where only the best and the brightest could maneuver into the middle of the floor and score close to the basket. The NBA has had a hard time finding truly dominant big men in draft pools, and the 2014 NBA Draft prospects at the center position will be no different.
While there are a number of gifted and dominant centers in the NBA such as Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol, the total number of centers with a high degree of skill are more and more limited. It’s the reason Larry Sanders received a huge contract extension after one good season for the Milwaukee Bucks (4 years, $44 million signed this past summer). About $11 million a year for a player heading into his fourth season in the NBA, never averaging double-digit scoring or rebounding numbers and having a respectable 47 percent field goal average for his career. At 24 years old, Larry Sanders was thought to be the Bucks’ center of the future.
It didn’t take long for Sanders to start making Milwaukee wonder about their big investment. After suffering a broken thumb in a bar fight, Sanders missed a good chunk of the first half of the season and continued to battle his own mistakes — both on and off the court — and ended up playing 23 games this season. Milwaukee is now locked in with LARRY SANDERS and may be regretting that big extension.
Sanders received that big extension because of his potential and future upside. With a bonafide center being so hard to come by, they didn’t have many other options. It’s a problem that has plagued many teams in the NBA for a few years now and the pattern does not favor a change.
Big men no longer like to work strictly in the paint. Blocking shots, put-back layups and battling in the trenches for rebounds isn’t sexy. Few enjoy doing the dirty work to help make a team better. Centers are now transforming themselves into oversized power forwards that shoot the three, rarely consistently enough to be a sharpshooter, and are soft on the inside. We’ve seen what that sort of play has done for Andrea Bargnani‘s career and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on.
With a 25 percent chance to earn the top selection in the 2014 draft, the Bucks have a chance to select another center. Joel Embiid has been shooting up draft boards since his emergence at Kansas began in November. Fans and teams love his upside and overall skill capacity. He’ll block shots, battle for rebounds and has solid footwork in the paint. He’s still a bit raw, but Embiid is considered one of the top prospects in this year’s draft. However, the same thing was said about Hasheem Thabeet after he dominated the paint for Connecticut for a few years. Thabeet was taken second overall in the 2009 draft and averages 10 minutes per game for his career.
One of the biggest issues with the lack of centers in the draft pool the last few years is that because the need for a true center is so big, players labeled as centers in college are coming out of school earlier than before. We saw it with Steven Adams last year, leaving Pittsburgh after only one season because his “upside” was so high some teams coveted him. Adams has performed well for Oklahoma City in rookie season, but its too early to tell if he was a steal, the right pick or a bust.
For every Andre Drummond there’s a Meyers Leonard. Some centers that are drafted on upside pan out greatly while others take much more time to put it together, if they put it together at all. Make no mistake about it, the 2014 draft class is thin at center. In fact, there’s really only three or four true centers in the draft class. Only one of them is projected as first round caliber and that is Embiid. The other ones are foreign players that might not even see the inside of an NBA arena for another year or two.
Of course, there are other players that played center in college, but either their lack of height, physicality or interior offensive presence projects them has more of a power forward. One of those players in Adreian Payne out of Michigan State. At 6-10, Payne could play center in the NBA, but he works better as an inside-out big; one that can work inside but has a nice enough outside shooting stroke to leave him behind the arc on many possessions.
Then there’s a player like Mitch McGary out of Michigan. With only one eight-game stretch where he looked like a star to stand on, McGary will be drafted purely on potential. He’s shown flashes of greatness, but he’s also dealing with a back injury that made him miss all but eight games this past college basketball season.
Which brings us to another point of the center dilemma: injury issues.
Big men wear down quicker than most, especially if they do battle down low as big men should. We’ve witnessed Greg Oden‘s career rise up and fall apart quicker than a hiccup due to knee problems. We may never know what kind of NBA player he could’ve become because his knees won’t allow him to do so. Last year, Nerlens Noel, a potential top overall selection in the draft, fell in the draft because of his rehabbing ACL. He missed all of the 2013-14 season and hopes to be back for next season. The question is whether or not his knee is going to hold up. As a big man who battles in the post and relies on his jumping ability to be a supreme shot blocker, Noel is attempting to right the sinking ship that is young, unproven centers in the NBA.
Embiid is overcoming a back injury himself and Payne dealt with foot issues all year. There isn’t a center in the draft that doesn’t have some sort of baggage. Centers are drafted on pure potential these days because few of them stay in school long enough to develop fully. They leave because the NBA is in desperate need for true centers as they are very hit-and-miss. Payne stayed all four years, but Embiid only stayed one and McGary played one season and eight games, leaving drafting teams little comfort in selecting any of these three.
There isn’t a right answer on what to do with the center position. Some teams have moved away from using a true center all together. The Miami Heat have won two straight NBA titles, going for a three-peat, while using Chris Bosh as their primary center. Bosh isn’t intimidating anybody in the paint. With Brook Lopez‘s injury, the Nets are using a three-guard, two-forward starting five. Golden State still operates with a center in most of their rotations, but they surround either Andrew Bogut or David Lee with four guards to space the floor. Others are still just looking for an answer.
Those looking for an answer aren’t likely to find one in the 2014 NBA Draft. They’ll have to go with potential, once again, and hope for the best. Even Embiid has questions around him. All big men have questions around them. Only the players themselves can answer them throughout their career. But one thing is for sure: for a team looking for a true center, they’re better off looking for them in free agency or in trade talks, because they’re not going to find one in this draft class.