The NBA is undergoing a positional revolution that bodes well for the future of the league

karl anthony towmsAnn Heisenfelt/AP

The most intriguing position in the NBA is one that many felt was going out of vogue for the past decade.

In a league with a bevy of talented point guards and an increased emphasis on floor-spacing, perhaps the most exciting development has been a cast of talented young big men who show promise to be the next faces of the NBA.

It was on display Thursday night, as the Minnesota Timberwolves took on the Philadelphia 76ers on national TV. Two teams with a combined 5-16 record going into the game were getting primetime airplay. At the center of it, no pun intended, was the matchup between Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves’ 2015 No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year, and the Sixers’ Joel Embiid, the 2014 No. 3 pick.

On this night, Towns squarely out-dueled Embiid, posting 25 points on 12-18 shooting with 10 rebounds while showing off his dynamic offensive repertoire. Embiid, perhaps in a display of his success in his first healthy season in the NBA, had the worst game of his young career, posting 10 points, 10 rebounds, and a block — not bad.

A primetime matchup on TNT between two teams with below-.500 records, with young big men as their franchise cornerstones, represents a shift in the NBA — one that stretches to several teams around the NBA.

On Wednesday night, it was Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ 7-foot-3 “unicorn,” who posted a career-high 35 points, showing off offensive versatility never before seen from someone his size. Knicks guard Derrick Rose remarked that it’s “scary” how well Porzingis is already playing in his second season.

Across the NBA, there is a throng of young big men who look to impose a changing-of-the-guard in a league where there was supposedly a big man crisis: Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, DeMarcus Cousins of the Kings, Hassan Whiteside of the Heat, Andre Drummond of the Pistons, Myles Turner of the Pacers, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic of the Nuggets, Steven Adams of the Thunder, Porzingis, Embiid, Towns. The 76ers have two other young, talented big men in Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel who have been buried under Embiid’s star. In Atlanta, Dwight Howard is posting a late-career revival.

In a profile of Towns, who is perhaps the brightest of these young stars, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz notes two important distinctions in the crop of growing big men:

  • In 2015-16, 7-footers took more three-pointers than the number of total attempts in the first 13 seasons when the three-point line was introduced.
  • The league will inevitably adapt to this. Writes Arnovitz, “Yet as with every dialectic, a new condition has emerged — and because frontcourt players are smaller than ever, there’s a greater advantage than ever to be gained by being big.”

Already this season, there have been eight traditional big men (power forwards and centers) who have taken ten or more three-point attempts this year, grabbed 65 or more rebounds, and blocked 10 or more shots.

Yet, as Arnovitz notes, as big men drift away from the hoop and utilize the power of spacing the floor, the more fruitful it can become for big men to dominate around the basket. Drummond, Whiteside, and Howard are almost exclusively paint-bound in their pursuit of baskets. Others, like Cousins, Towns, and Marc Gasol, to name a few, have learned to extend their range out to the three-point line, combining their inside and midrange skills with newly found confidence from deep.

This is the evolution of big men in the NBA. As Arnovitz writes, the job requirements of centers has increased considerably in recent years:

“It’s not enough anymore to take up space in the middle, shoot 60 percent at the rim, rebound in the low double digits and block a couple of shots a night. It’s not even enough to shoot a little from the outside. You must now combine power and finesse and make plays for teammates and have quick feet that can switch out on speedy point guards on the pick-and-roll and run the floor and be able to catch the ball on the move and attack like a perimeter slasher and still display that old-school big-man gravitas so that your four Lilliputian teammates heed your commands, hear you calling out defensive assignments from the back line or issue a decree in the huddle during a stoppage.”

Not every center has all of these skills, of course, but increasingly, the NBA is seeing big men command the paint, dictate the defense, and step out for three-pointers.

It bodes well for the NBA that a position that at one point seemed to be dying out is making a strong comeback. The requirements of the position are changing, offering more versatile players, playbooks, and counters to those players and strategies. Celtics coach Brad Stevens once said that the game evolves around its best players. As the current crop of young big men develop, the way the game is played will evolve, keeping the sport fresh.

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