With the emergence of small ball over the years it seemed the NBA Center was heading for extinction. The fact is the position has evolved and we are witnessing the evolution in three young players Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and Joel Embiid. All three seven footers possess the ability to move like guards on the court, have ball handling skills, as well as the attributes teams would want in their big man. They are not the first of their kind before them players like Dirk Nowitzki showed that big man can have three point range. These three young athletes have adopted Nowitzki’s game and expanded on it. Towns, Porzingis, and Embiid are bringing about the evolution of the center position.
Towns is in his second year with the Minnesota Timberwolves and fresh off winning the Rookie of year in first NBA season. Standing at 7’0” Towns burst onto the scene and has the future of the Wolves in his hands. Towns is averaging 21.4 points, shooting 47.5% from the field including 36.4% from three all while averaging 10.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks a night.
He moves like a guard in most situations and is a deadly weapon in pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off situations as the Toronto Raptors recently learned. When the Wolves ran a dribble hand-off play between Towns and Andrew Wiggins, he faked the hand-off and drove to the hoop where he introduced himself to Jonas Valanciunas. Later in the same game he set a side pick-and-roll for Ricky Rubio who found Towns as he rolled to the rim for an easy dunk.
Towns is excellent in nearly every facet of the game, but one place were he can make some improvements is his ability to knock down spot up shots. He’s shooting 30% in those situations, which means teams can help off of him if he attempts to space the floor and play him for the drive. That said, his three point percentage shows that he should be able to improve on his spot up percentage over time.
Porzingis was drafted in the same class as Towns taken fourth overall by the New York Knicks. He came to the podium on draft night to a chorus of boos but on a nightly basis is bathed in cheers by the Knicks faithful and rightfully so. He’s averaging 19.7 points, shooting 45.4% from floor including 37.2% from three. Nicknamed the Unicorn by Kevin Durant last season, he’s adopted Nowitzki’s game and added athleticism to it.
With his ability to hit three pointers, teams close out on him hard and he’s responding by being an excellent shooter off the dribble. Against the Cavs, after he set a pick for Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis popped to three. Channing Frye closed out on him once the ball arrived; he drove hard left and then spun into a jump shot at the elbow. Later in the game, Richard Jefferson closed out on him and Porzingis hit a step back three, which is a difficult shot for guards let alone a 7’3” unicorn.
At the young age of 21 Porzingis still has some development left in his game. His post game needs plenty of work. In two instances against the Wolves, Wiggins switched onto him, instead of punishing him for switching; Porzingis settled for two fade away jumpers that missed. With his size, he should be able to hammer smaller players when they switch onto him.
Embiid is classified as a rookie this year despite being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers two years ago but injuries forced him to sit out those seasons. A healthy Embiid has emerged as the front-runner for the Rookie of the year award this year despite playing on a minutes restriction. Averaging nearly 10 minutes fewer than Porzingis and Towns, he’s still putting up 18.2 points a night, while shooting 44.2% from three, and averaging 2.5 blocks a night.
Embiid’s moves evoke memories of Hakeem Olajuwon and the dream shake. His silky moves are all opened up by his ability to face up his defender in the post. Very easily against the New Orleans Hornets, Embiid jab stepped his defender to create some room to hit a face up jumper. Later in the game he faced up a smaller defender, as he drove middle the defender took that away which allowed Embiid to spin baseline for an easy layup.
The biggest question mark for Embiid is whether he can remain healthy. He has exhibited frustration with the minutes restriction placed on him by the Sixers but it is the right thing to do. It’s remarkable that he is putting up these numbers with a minutes restriction and it’ll be a sight to behold once all the restrictions are off. Bringing him along slowly will add years to his career down the road.
These three young bigs are changing the way big men are playing, it is must watch TV when they are matched up against each other and for years they will be linked and compared to one another. With their ability to spread the floor, move with the agility of a swingman, and defend has proven that the center position has truly evolved. Like Pearl Jam sang in Do The Evolution “It’s Evolution Baby!”
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