Passing Centers becoming a new NBA trend

Over the years the NBA has changed in several ways from the style of play to how players play certain positions. The most recent change has been to the center position; the big men of the today’s NBA are becoming better passers than ever before. An excellent passing big is not a new thing; Wilt Chamberlain averaged 8.6 assists in the 67-68 season. It does seem that there are several more passing bigs than in the league. Nowadays teams can run their offense through their big man as they find their teams either cutting or in pick and rolls.

In a look over the past 20 years more and more big men are averaging more than four assists a game. In the 96-97 season, Chris Weber led all centers with 4.6 assists and was followed by fellow Washington Wizard teammate Juwan Howard with 3.8. Flash forward another 10 years to the 06-07 season and Brad Miller was the leader among all centers with 3.6 dimes a night. This season there are 4 bigs averaging more than four assists a night with Mason Plumlee just missing the mark with 3.9 assists.

96-97 06-07


Chris Webber – 4.6 Brad Miller – 3.6 Al Horford – 4.9
Juwan Howard – 3.8 Tim Duncan – 3.4 DeMarcus Cousins – 4.7
Vlade Divac – 3.7 Pau Gasol – 3.4 Nikola Jokic – 4.6
Shaquille O’Neal – 3.1 Marcus Camby – 3.2 Marc Gasol – 4.4
Hakeem Olajuwon – 3.0 Three tied – 3.0 Mason Plumlee – 3.9

One of the best passing bigs in the mid-90s, early 2000s was Arvydas Sabonis. He entered the league well past his prime but was a magician with the ball. Most of his career was spent in Europe and didn’t arrive in the NBA until he was 31. Although he never averaged higher than two assists a night, his creative with the ball led to so many opportunities for his teammates. He consistently found them from the post whether it was with a pass behind the back, over the head, or around a defender, he always made the right pass to a cutting Portland Trail Blazer and kept defenses on their toes.

In the new NBA when teams focus on the offensive end is to spread the floor with shooters to make it difficult for the defense. Teams with big men who are able to find their teammates are growing. There are several of them, Al Horford who leads all centers in assists, found Jaylen Brown under the rim for a layup when he was double teamed and Kelly Oylnyk with a high-low pass for another layup. Marc Gasol is a wizard as a roller consistently finding teammates once the help arrives. As the Clippers learned in their recent game where he found Branden Wright on two separate occasions as they shifted to defend Gasol’s rolls to the rim.

Even younger bigs are developing an elite passing game. Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Jusuf Nurkic of the Trail Blazers constantly are finding teammates whether in the post or the high post. Since the All-Star Break Jokic leads all centers with six assists a night and Nurkic is right behind him at 4.6 a night and tied with both Gasol and Horford. Off of a long offensive rebound, Jokic hit a streaking Wilson Chandler with a no-look pass that led to a dunk and then leads Chandler to the open spot on the floor for a layup. Nurkic also threw a pass to open pass to led a cutting Dame Lillard for two points and then threw a wicked one-handed over the head pass to Moe Harkless for an easy bucket.

Big men, in general, are becoming more versatile, and teams are looking for centers that can do more than just score and rebound. Passing is becoming an important talent for these big men and they are not alone. Again, passing big men are not new to the NBA but now they are becoming more common. With teams looking to space the floor and take advantage of defenses with the Pick-and-Roll, big men who can make passes to open teammates will become even in more demand than before.

NBA Notes:

  • Warriors-Spurs showdown – The big Saturday night showdown ended up being a dud, with all of the top players sitting out for different reasons. It has led us back to the rest debate, which sucks for fans. It is certainly bad for the NBA for this to happen but the only true way to fix this is to shorten the season. A great read from Baxter Holmes and Tom Haberstroh from last June explains it well. Too many games: The NBA’s injury problem is a scheduling one
  • LaMarcus Aldridge’s Heart – Saturday the NBA landscape changed once the Spurs announced that Aldridge is out indefinitely due to a minor heart issue. This never sounds good and hopefully, this won’t end his season prematurely but if it does it will impact the playoffs more than Kevin Durant’s knee.
  • Playoff Seeding – Tons of interesting races might come down to the wire, one to keep your eye on is the four and five seed in the West. The Clippers are a game behind the Jazz for what would be home court advantage for the first round. The Clippers have tons of playoff experience and this current Jazz team does not, I would say home court is always better for the more inexperienced team so it is critical for the Jazz to keep that spot.

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