NBA: The Evolution of the Center Position


Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez represents a new era in the center position.Photo Credit: Shinya,

The NBA is experiencing an evolution in the center position.

The days of the big man are long gone. The word “center” in basketball terms used to be associated with powerful names: George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few.

That era lasted until Shaquille O’Neal retired as the last great center. He finished his career with 23.7 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. O’Neal finished in the top 10 all-time in points (sixth), blocks (seventh) and field goals (fifth). His accomplishments include four NBA titles, an MVP award and 15 All-Star selections. There will never be another center like O’Neal. Instead, something better exists.

Not many of today’s centers match O’Neal’s presence and abilities. However, the center position has changed to something even deadlier.

The center position has become an all-around threat in the NBA. We don’t recognize the old big man, but the evolving big man. Centers on average may be smaller and skinnier, but they still are powerful and intimidating.

Some moved from the power forward position. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh start at center for the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, respectively. Despite both declining, they still provide great problems for opposing teams. Garnett and Bosh characterize converted forwards, but presently they’re not the only type of centers.

Tyson Chandler brings an old philosophy to the center role: defense and crashing the boards. Photo Credit: Keith Allison,

The big man era still exists in smaller players, namely the New York Knicks’ Tyson Chandler and the Utah Jazz’s Al Jefferson. Both players almost average a double-double per game, with Chandler averaging 10.8 points and 11.1 rebounds a game. Jefferson averages 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds a game. Chandler and Jefferson also are known for their defense, as both average 1.2 blocks per game.

Joakim Noah has emerged into one of the top all-around centers in the NBA today. Photo Credit: Keith Allison,

Chicago Bulls’ center Joakim Noah also fits in this category. Noah has emerged into quite a center, averaging 12.1 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, which ties him with Dwight Howard for fifth in the NBA.

Howard also represents this era. Even though his stats have declined, Howard still puts in the work on the boards. He scores 16.2 points and gets 12.3 rebounds a game.

While some still bring memories of the big man, the new center emerges as a scoring threat.

Chandler leads all players (not just centers) in field-goal percentage with 64.6 percent. He doesn’t make or attempt many shots, though. That honor goes to Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford, who makes 7.8 field goals out of 14 attempts. Jefferson follows second with the most attempts (15.6) but only 7.6 field goals made.

Despite their best efforts, neither man is the top-scoring center. That belongs to Brook Lopez. Lopez, center for the Brooklyn Nets, earned his first All-Star selection this year and earned it. He represents the new breed of centers: skinny, lean and dominant.

Lopez averages 18.6 points per game in 57 games and has progressed into a scoring machine, reaching new season highs each year.

Assists in a center also have evolved. Noah averages 4.1 assists a game, ranked 34th in the NBA. That’s actually high for a center, more than Mikan’s 3.6 assists a game for his career.

In today’s NBA, centers aren’t the tradition big men of yesteryear. They have evolved. Creating a new legacy in this era, centers are moving forward and here to stay.