Quality centers available in the NBA D-League

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Shams Charania of Yahoo reported that the Orlando Magic will call up guard Keith Appling from their affiliate, the Erie BayHawks. This isn’t a surprise to anyone following the Magic, as the Michigan State alum almost made their 15-man roster out of training camp and has been tearing it up for Erie ever since.

Why is this relevant? Well, Appling will mark the ninth D-League call up this season and none of them have been big men — power forwards or centers, that is.

Last year, the real gem of call ups was Hassan Whiteside, who is still starring in Miami for the Heat. While Whiteside may be considered an anomaly of sorts, his story is not unlike that of many big men dominating the D-League scene. Whiteside wandered aimlessly around the world going from one international stop to the next before landing his opportunity with the Heat and now he will be a hot commodity on the free agent market this offseason.

Opportunity is the goal of the D-League. Players do not sign with the league for life-altering paydays, but instead bet on themselves to perform at a high level while knocking on The Association’s door all the while.

Whiteside is still only 26-years-old and looks to be an NBA center for the foreseeable future. So, let’s take a gander into the D-League’s current rosters to see if we can feature some other big men who are legitimate prospects at the center position.

Alex Stepheson — Iowa Energy
Vitals: 28-years-old, 6-10, 250 pounds
Stats: 34.3 minutes, 15.4 points, 13.2 rebounds & 1.4 blocks per game on 56.7% FG

Stepheson went undrafted in 2011 and he’s already made his international rounds playing in Greece, Slovenia and Turkey before landing in the D-League this season. The enormous Stepheson went to training camp with the Memphis Grizzlies before being waived and allocated to the Energy as an affiliate player. This is his first experience in the NBADL and he’s making quite the impression.

The man is gigantic. I mean, he’s 6-10 and 250 pounds so you kind of knew that, but when you watch him play he looks so much larger than others that are listed at his size and weight. Ask some of his opponents and I’m sure they will agree, because he regularly bullies them in a style that resembles a more polished Jeff Adrien.

His footwork in the post is above average and if he’s caught out on the perimeter he exhibits the ability to move well laterally if it’s required. He should not be categorized as a “shot blocker,” but he has the ability to protect the rim and alter more shots than what shows up in the box score. Perhaps even more important is that he plays solid defense without fouling (just under three fouls per game).

Stepheson leads the league with 17 double-doubles and 13.2 rebounds per game, and he rarely takes a bad shot. He’s a bruiser in the best sense of the word and he punishes opposing defenses around the basket. He shoots almost 57 percent from the floor but the majority of his damage is done in the paint. 190 of his 240 field goal attempts have come within five feet of the basket and he’s made 65 percent of them — league average is 59 percent.

His weapon of choice is usually a monstrous dunk or tough layup, but he’s also shown the ability to present a quality hook shot with either hand. He’s shooting 76 percent (16-21) on hook shots and should look to use that move much more often.

Jordan Bachynski — Westchester Knicks
Vitals: 26-years-old, 7-2, 254 pounds
Stats: 26.0 minutes, 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds & 2.7 blocks on 59.4% FG

My affinity for Bachynski should be well-known by now, but personal bias aside he deserves a shot in NBA. He went undrafted in 2014 and then took a brief trip to Turkey before realizing that situation wasn’t for him. He joined the Westchester Knicks last year during their inaugural season and never really gained traction as a legitimate center.

This offseason he went to training camp with the Detroit Pistons and though he was waived, he came into the D-League season with a renewed confidence, which is evident in his play. The consistency he’s able to provide on the low block, both on offense and defense, for Westchester cannot be overlooked. He’s very long and uses that length to his advantage, averaging 2.7 blocks per game. He still gets out of position from time-to-time going after blocks but that’s par for the course with shot blockers throughout history.

Like the aforementioned Stepheson, Bachynski’s footwork makes him standout from other bigs in the D-League. As the season has gone on and chemistry with his teammates has grown, he’s become adept at finding both cutters and shooters on the perimeter out of double teams. He’s aggressive when he has proper post position but only gets to the line around four times a game — a number that should be higher given his size. Having said that, he shoots 72 percent at the free throw line, so he cashes in on those chances when they arise.

Bachynski is more of a traditional big man and I liken him to a Robin Lopez-type of player. He runs the floor well, has good hands and can make a large impact on the game without scoring a single point. When in position to score he’s almost certainly going to his hook shot, which he’s converting at a 75 percent (27-36) clip.

When Bachynski spoke to U&M earlier this month, he made no qualms about the fact that he’s an NBA player. Here’s to hoping he gets the proper chance to prove that sometime this season.

Henry Sims — Grand Rapids Drive
Vitals: 25-years-old, 6-10, 245 pounds
Stats: 14.1 points, 9.1 rebounds & 1.6 steals on 56% FG

Sims is a little different than the first two guys because he’s already gotten a shot in the NBA. He’s played 121 games (starting 57 games) since going undrafted in 2012. Sims has played for New Orleans, Philadelphia, Cleveland and then made a trip back to Philly. He went to camp with the Phoenix Suns this summer but they ultimately waived him.

The other difference? He’s only 25. Sims professional career isn’t near done yet. Even if he doesn’t make an NBA roster this season, he could make a quality living playing this game overseas, but signing with the D-League is a clear message that he wants to be in the NBA. Although he played for bad teams during his NBA career, his averages of 7.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in just 18.8 minutes a game gives us a glimpse into what he can do.

Sims was acquired off waivers by the Grand Rapids Drive (Detroit Pistons’ affiliate) and he’s been right at home on their veteran-laden roster, which includes Dahntay Jones, Devin Ebanks and Lorenzo Brown before his call up by the Suns. The team is just 10-10 so far this season but Sims has been exceptional on both ends of the floor.

Sims doesn’t bring the power game that other bigs possess, so instead he uses his adept touch around the rim and quick hands to get the job done. On offense he’s more of a finesse big man as he can step out and knock down a mid range jumper (42 percent on 17-46 this season), but his soft touch and great hands allow him to be efficient in the paint as well. He only has three dunks all season, which you wouldn’t expect from your 6-10 post player, but he’s shifty and once he gets a defender off balance he’s able to explode quickly to the basket for the finish.

On defense he’s not a guy who’s going to erase a ton of shots. Sims and Stepheson are both listed around 250 pounds but Sims is wiry and Stepheson is gigantic, so rather than body a guy up he uses his intelligence and quick hands to frustrate them. He’s averaging 1.6 steals on the season, a number usually seen by point guards, not centers.

More than anything, Sims knows what it takes to be a pro in the NBA and I think it’s only a matter of time before he gets a call from a team. His play has really seen an uptick in January as well — he’s averaging 17.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals.