Looking around the NBA today, it’s impossible to avoid the influx of young talent at the center position. Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner are five of the most skilled 7-footers the league has ever seen, and they are all under 23-years-old. To combat the small-ball revolution, the do-it-all 5 man is emerging before our eyes. Lumbering 7-footers were on the verge of being replaced by 6-foot-8 forwards who could shoot, pass and defend. In response, the 7-footer who can shoot, pass and defend evolved.
What’s interesting about the emergence of these talents is the demand they create for other types of centers. In order to guard 7-footers with sweet shooting strokes and budding post-games, teams need more of them readily available, and thus the less-skilled centers have new life due to their size alone. Steven Adams’ and Jusuf Nurkic’s massive frames are going to be that much more valuable in the coming years because of the guys they will have to face night in and night out at the center position.
This year’s NCAA class lacks any of the ultra-perimeter skilled and defensively forceful game changers — we can look to DeAndre Ayton for that — but does have its own mix of interesting 5s who now deserve a little more of the spotlight.
Note: Harry Giles is not included in this post because of his reputation as a 4/5 and his likelihood of playing power forward at Duke. That being said, his best long-term position might very well be as a center.
Jarret Allen — Freshman — Texas
At 6-foot-11 and 224 pounds, Allen is lacking in traditional measures of size, but he more than makes up for it with his 7-foot-5 wingspan, pop around the rim and speed around the floor. When looking at the Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela, it is clear how much value a player with size can bring with those basic tools. Allen’s length and bounce make him easy to project as a rim protector and a finisher in the pick-and-roll.
The key next step in Allen’s game is improving his ability to slide with the guys on the perimeter. He has a lot of straight line speed, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to turn that into efficient lateral movement. Allen will never be able to bang with the biggest guys in the league, but if he can use his length to bother behemoths around the rim and get better at switching onto little guys, he has the potential to be useful in both small and big lineups.
Bam Adebayo — Freshman — Kentucky
Adebayo and Allen will be compared all year long, as their potential NBA roles are nearly identical. The big advantage Adebayo has is his strength. At 260 pounds, he is an absolute bull and much more capable of banging inside than Allen. Adebayo is also a bit more explosive as a leaper and is better at catching in space and flying through the lane than Allen, who is more strictly a lob finisher. Adebayo even has the makings of a mid-range jump shot making him a more versatile offensive prospect than Allen.
Defensively, Adebayo’s ability to get in a stance and guard on the perimeter still needs work, but is slightly ahead of Allen’s at this stage in his development. Despite all of these points in Adebayo’s favor, Allen might be the better prospect due to the disparity in their rim protection. Bam is only 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, and his lack of length combined with a leaping style that takes a bit more time to load up makes him significantly worse at altering shots around the basket.
If Adebayo cannot prove he has the chops to provide at least solid rim protection, he will probably top out as a destructive pick-and-roll force off the bench, not a starter level two-way player.
Marques Bolden — Freshman — Duke
Bolden is the most traditional of centers in this group. He combines Adebayo’s girth at 250 pounds with Allen’s length at 6-foot-11 and a crazy 7-foot-6 wingspan. Though the traditional big is coming back, being too old-school can certainly be an issue. Bolden has the size to move people around the rim and the soft touch and coordination to be a scoring force, but questions revolve around his athleticism. The concern is he’s a bit like Diamond Stone from last year — not athletic enough to provide high-level rim protection, really weak at guarding the perimeter and while a good interior scorer, not as versatile a threat in pick-and-roll as other prospects at the 5.
However, there are some encouraging signs in Bolden’s favor. He looks like he slimmed down a bit over the summer, and while he’s battling a leg injury right now, he looked a little quicker and more explosive than expected in Duke’s first preseason game (albeit against very weak competition).
If he can prove to be quick enough to guard pick-and-roll reasonably well and use his length and decent bounce to really protect the rim along with providing some pick-and-roll value, he could be a real force. I’ll be watching him closely at Duke this year to see how mobile and springy he looks.
Thomas Bryant — Sophomore — Indiana
Bryant is both the only returning college player on this list and the only one with a real outside stroke. His 3-point shot isn’t a consistent weapon yet, but he’s got solid form and is a decent bet to morph into a minor perimeter threat. Bryant combines his stroke with soft touch, a good feel for creating space around the rim and a 7-foot-5 wingspan, which he uses to his advantage on both ends of the court.
With a year already under his belt, it’s easier to be critical of the rest of Bryant’s game. He lacks the ability to put the ball on the floor and struggles to see the floor when he catches it inside. Defensively, he combines poor athleticism with tight hips, preventing him from getting in a stance making him a poor perimeter defender and an underwhelming rim protector. Bryant will need to hone out his jump-shot, improve his reading of the game and look a little more competent on the defensive end, but he certainly has some raw tools that make him worth tracking.
Omer Yurtseven — Freshman — N.C. State
The Turkish freshman is suspended for the first nine games of the NCAA season but is soon going to be running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll with star point guard Dennis Smith. He doesn’t have the overwhelming length (7-foot-1 wingspan) or leaping ability of these other guys, but Yurtseven makes up for it with his mobility, skill and feel for the game.
Offensively, Yurtseven is a skilled post scorer, and his soft hands and court vision should make him a great pick-and-roll partner with Smith. On defense, he moves his feet and positions himself well, which for a 6-foot-11 guy is oftentimes enough to make up for lack of length and mediocre bounce. In every facet of the game he seems to just know how to play, and it is important that he’s a solid athlete, not a bad one.
Coming from Fenerbahce, Yurtseven should be able to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NCAA game, and I’ll be watching to see how both his IQ and athleticism look when matched up against NCAA players.