In spite of teams utilizing more small-ball lineups in recent years, quality big men are still incredibly valuable and a fleeting resource at that. Not only are they in charge of patrolling the paint to get rebounds and anchor the interior defense, but they’re also tasked to catch lobs and make easy shots inside.
The amount of skills required being a center today is arguably the widest it has ever been in history. As such, let’s look at who the top five centers are heading into the NBA season. For the sake of uniformity, I’ll be focusing on players who are projected to play heavy minutes as a five man.
5) – Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Standing only 6’10 and lacking any elite athleticism has never been a hindrance because Al Horford is a true workhorse that does all the intangibles on the team. As seen by his career averages of 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, almost 1.0 steal, and 1.2 blocks per game, he possesses the ability to set his teammates up for shots, while serving as the focal point of the Celtics’ defense.
We’ve also seen Big Al develop into a very capable outside shooter. In the last three seasons, he has averaged 1.2 made threes per game on 38% shooting from behind the arc, which has only made him a more complete center in the modern NBA.
Horford, though, is not a go-to scorer and is better equipped as a second or third star on a system-based squad. However, knows his role – to play solid defense, rebound the ball, get his teammates involves, and shoot the occasional three – and does it very efficiently.
4) – Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The Big Spaniard is entering his 11th NBA season, yet he and Mike Conley are still the unquestioned faces of the Memphis Grizzlies. Marc Gasol’s unique combination of strength, finesse, and smarts make him a nightly matchup problem, regardless of who’s on the other team, and one of the most complete players in the league.
Just like Horford, Gasol serves as the fulcrum of the Grit and Grind system, protecting the inside from would-be attackers and punishing defenders with his dazzling post moves. Opposing teams are also wary to double-team him because he’s such a good passer – averaging 3.3 assists every contest. Gasol has even evolved into a deadly shooter from behind the arc with 1.5 makes each game.
Still, his biggest contribution to the Grizzlies is intangible, and that is his leadership. As numerous personalities have come and gone, the former Defensive Player of the Year is one of the few remaining constants left.
Through thick and thin, he has led the Tennessee-based club to several postseason berths – not counting last season, of course. Now that he’s back to his healthy self, the rest should once again Fear the Bear!
3) – Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Arguably the most colorful personality in the whole NBA, Joel Embiid definitely has the talent to back up his big mouth. However, we cannot put him any higher on this list because of his long history of getting injured – appearing in only 94 games since 2014.
Despite only playing in limited minutes, Embiid is a monster in every sense of the word. For his career, he is averaging 27.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.9 steal, 2.5 blocks, 1.4 threes made, on 47.8% shooting per 36 minutes. These are phenomenal numbers that are clearly only the tip of the iceberg as The Process has yet to turn 25 years of age.
Being the number one option on Philadelphia, JoJo will be given all the opportunities to develop into the most dominant player since Shaquille O’Neal. His strength, footwork, and moves on the block have drawn comparisons to the legendary big man. Still, only time will tell whether his knees can hold up his potential; but given all that he brings to the table, fans should be ready to go all-in on Embiid, just as the Sixers have.
2) – Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Not a lot of centers can be a nightly triple-double, yet Nikola Jokic makes it look easy. After a rocky rookie season that only saw him play 21.7 minutes a night, he has quickly developed into one of the best big men in the world. Since that time, his stats have jumped to 17.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.0 steal and almost a block per game over the last two seasons. He even makes 1.1 threes, shoots 53% from the field, and 84% from the line, making him a true dynamic basketball savant.
As the main anchor of Denver, Jokic can do virtually anything on the court – from blocking shots, behind the back passes, and even posting up – and he does it with much showmanship and pizzazz. His playmaking talent is also a big reason why the Nuggets have made do with Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray at point guard for so long.
His best trait, though, is how he always looks like he’s having fun the court. It amazing how the game comes so naturally to him and this is a huge reason for his success. As he enters only his fourth NBA season, the sky is the limit for the man they call The Joker
1) – Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Whether you know him as The Brow, AntMan, King Pelican, or just AD, Anthony Davis is the best center we have today in the NBA. Just like his counterparts on this list, he has the indispensable ability to affect each game on both the offensive and defensive end, but he does it on a whole different level.
In six seasons with the Pelicans, Davis is averaging a staggering 23.4 points per contest, to go with 10.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and a whopping 2.4 rejections, all while maintaining a 51.7% shooting clip and almost 80% free throw percentage. What doesn’t appear on the stat sheet, though, is how he can easily get any shot from wants for anywhere on the hardwood. Thanks to his length, athleticism, and shooting touch, he possesses the talent to score in an array of different moves – from dunks, mid-range jumpers, post-ups, and even step out beyond the three-point line.
Besides that, he patrols the shaded lane like nobody’s business, gobbling up any shot near the basket and returning it to the sender with conviction. He can even switch out on smaller guards to torment them with his long limbs and quick feet, forcing them into contested shots or turnovers.
The only real knock on the five-time All-Star, however, is his propensity to get injured, as he has never played more than 75 games in a season. However, once he gets past these issues, it won’t be long before he ascends into the best player in the league conversation.
As another NBA season is drawing closer, these centers will play a huge role in each of the team’s success. As fans, we can only hope that they continue their rise as the best big men in this generation.