There’s no question that since Michael Jordan the league has been transformed into a perimeter players’ league. With the exceptions of Hakeem, Shaq and perhaps Yao Ming, the most influential players of the last 20 years have all played on the perimeter: Jordan, Kobe, TMac, Vince Carter, Grant Hill, AI, DWade, Carmelo, and LeBron James. Even 7 footers who might previously have played with their backs to the basket now move more like George Gervin than they do like Patrick Ewing. Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Kevin Durant are three great examples of the way perception of the 7 footer has evolved over the last decade.
But the dominance of the perimeter player doesn’t mean that the center position is without value. Despite the faddish popularity of “small ball”, the traditional style of basketball with a dominant center is still incredibly effective. Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert play more traditional center roles and are highly successful at it. So here are five up-and-coming centers to keep an eye on as they use the ’13-’14 season as they springboard into success.
1. DeAndre Jordan – LA Clippers
Jordan, much like our second player on our list, has been much salivated over for a number of seasons. An incredibly athletic 7-footer with the potential to radically shift his team’s fortunes, Jordan has been unable to exploit that reservoir of potential and become the player many see him to be. I put him this high on the list because I think he’s got the most potential to break through his ceiling because of the new Clippers coaching staff.
Though the arrival of Doc Rivers to LA is the death knell of Lob City, it also announces the arrival of a championship coaching pedigree. My suspicion is that Rivers’ arrival also means the presence of a solid defensive scheme and real defensive training for the Clippers, giving Jordan more tools to defend without fouling, a huge issue for him, and help keep him on the floor longer. Jordan will still need to improve his foul shooting in order to stay on the floor in the fourth quarter. But with Doc Rivers guiding his development, I see a great improvement for Jordan and the Clippers.
2. JaVale McGee – Denver Nuggets
Perhaps even more athletic and less disciplined than our first entry, JaVale McGee has already bounced around the league a bit, even tho he’s only in his fifth year. After being drafted by the Wizards, he ended up with the Nuggets where he continues to be more of a sideshow than a main attraction. His size and monstrous athletic ability make McGee a force to be reckoned with, but his consistent mental lapses make him more of a liability than an advantage. But with a new coach, a real opportunity to stamp his identity on this team and another year of maturity McGee may be ready to break through this year.
3. Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
One of the most exciting raw talents to come into the league in a long time, Drummond’s numbers in limited minutes last year were stunning: 60% shooting, 8 pts and 8 rebs in 20 minutes. Though he struggled with injury, cracking one of his vertebrae and missing a number of games last season, when he was on the court he was a stunning tandem with front court partner Greg Monroe. The only thing that kept him back last year was coach Lawrence Frank’s reluctance to play him more. With Mo Cheeks now in charge in Detroit, Drummond will likely see increased playing time and with it an incredible rise in his game.
Two questions remain for Drummond. The first is the bane of the big man: free throws. Drummond’s dismal free throw percentage makes him a huge liability down the stretch in close games. To really be a strength for his team he needs to capitalize on his opportunities from the charity stripe. Second, how the very-new Piston’s starting five gels will affect how successful Drummond can be. The return of Chauncey Billups and the arrival of Brandon Jennings, comprise a ball heavy backcourt tandem, and Josh Smith’s presence, while assuring a ton of rebounds, doesn’t offer much hope in the way of ball movement.
4. Jonas Valanciunas – Toronto Raptors
After a tantalizing summer in the EuroBasket 2013 Valanciunas looks to bring his increased strength back to Toronto and turn them into a contender. With new GM Masai Ujiri in place and eager to do the same thing from the front office, Toronto as a team has a very bright future. Though less flashy than Jordan or McGee, Valanciunas plays with more self-possessed and discipline than either of those two. A solid two-way player who brings solid production on both sides of the court, he looks to anchor an exciting dark horse in the eastern conference.
5. Enes Kanter – Utah Jazz
Kanter didn’t see much court time last year as Al Jefferson’s backup, but he clearly impressed the Jazz brass enough that they let Jefferson walk into free agency, knowing they had a solid, and affordable, replacement for him. With a great field goal percentage and even better free throw numbers, Kanter will give the Jazz 80% of what Jefferson had at a fraction of the cost, and he may even pass the ball from time to time. Given his increase in playing time, I imagine Kanter will make the most of it.
Kelly Olynyk – Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtic’s woes may serve rookie Center Kelly Olynyk well. A big man with the soft hands who can run the floor may see a lot of playing time.
Greg Oden – Miami Heat
While Oden may not see much playing time this year, that he will see any playing time at all is amazing. Just seeing him get back on the court will be satisfying enough. Seeing him succeed would be amazing.