In the recently released book, Basketball: A Love Story, the opening chapter includes a handful of Hall of Fame and current NBA players talking about falling in love with the game. NBA logo and Hall of Fame icon, Jerry West spoke about the role of imagination in his love of the game: “I’ve always felt that the greatest thing a person can have is an imagination … I could use my imagination to be the hero of every game.” Two-time MVP and recent Hall of Fame inductee Steve Nash said, “I could imagine and conjure and create, and that was at the heart of it all.” At the core of basketball’s great what-ifs (Greg Oden vs Kevin Durant, Sam Bowie vs Michael Jordan, Len Bias, Bill Walton, Chris Paul to the Lakers) is imagination and at the core of some of its greatest realities is imagination as well.
The premise of this piece is/was how present-day big men like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns are inspiring the imagination and thus lifting the possibilities for the next batch of bigs who stroll across the stage on draft night which potentially include kids like Bol Bol, Naz Reid, James Wiseman, and Isaiah Stewart. Like Stephen Curry opening the ideas and imaginations of long-shooting guards, Jokic as an offensive facilitator, Embiid with his power and finesse, and KAT with his transcendent shooting are advancing concepts not just of what can be, but what are basic pre-requisites.
It’s important to note that in the age of the unicorn, the intersection of ability and opportunity are not mutually exclusive. Just because distance shooting is more valued in big men now than it has ever been doesn’t mean that big men didn’t shoot in the past. And because defensive versatility, the ability to protect the rim on one play, then crouch into a stance and stay in front of Chris Paul on the next play, is critical to successful team defense doesn’t mean Draymond Green is the originator of defensive versatility. It’s not quite a linear path from owning and honing a skill set to being trusted to execute it on court in a competitive game situation. In a piece written by Jerry Brewer of The Washington Post on the big men of the 2018 draft, Brewer quotes former Nets exec and current ESPN analyst Bobby Marks, “The one thing that kind of stands out is that the bigs up top (in the draft) … are really not pigeonholed.”
In terms of stylistic and skill-based evolution, pigeonholing has no doubt played a critical role as a self-imposed ceiling on what players can or can’t do. Take former MVP and three-time NBA scoring champion Bob McAdoo for example. He came into the league as a 21-year-old in the 1972-73 season and though he was a center, at just 6-9, 210 pounds, McAdoo’s defining skill was his jumper. Of McAdoo, Lakers coach Bill Sharman said, “With this guy, you have got to watch him from 28 feet and in” while Celtics Hall of Famer John Havlicek said McAdoo was, “The best pure shooter I’ve ever seen.”
In that way, McAdoo was iconoclastic and as talented as he was, it’s hard to imagine there weren’t other men his size who had the physical ability or technical skill to fire up jumpers. The problem though, and to some degree, it’s likely still an unimaginative ode to conventionalism, is that tall kids are stuck on the block from the moment they step onto a court. In rec leagues, junior high, high school, the tall amongst us are pigeonholed and often the more successful they are, the more pigeonholed they become. In the same piece linked above, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar inadvertently articulates this boxed in definition, “I used to think he (McAdoo) took bad shots, but I’ve changed my mind. Nobody takes it from where McAdoo does and hits.”
McAdoo’s first four seasons in the NBA were played under Dr. Jack Ramsay. In those seasons, including his rookie year, he averaged over 40-minutes-per-game, scored over 28 points with 2.5 blocks and over 12 rebounds on a 55 true shooting percentage. He led the league in scoring three times, true shooting once, and Win Shares-per-48 minutes once. Without Ramsay, he would go on to average under 25 points while playing for four different teams over the ensuing five seasons. This may seem like a non-sequitur, but it’s more representative of the requirement for evolution and expansion to include parts ability and parts opportunity. There’s a line in the previously linked piece on McAdoo that reads, “Dr. Jack Ramsay … says that by the time Bob McAdoo is through he will be the greatest player in history.” And it was at McAdoo’s insistence that Ramsay “gave in, putting McAdoo at center for the last three games of the season. He responded with 39, 39, and 45 points.”
Dr. Jack is important in this conversation as a coach who bucked convention. Even with his progressive approach (he was the first general manager to use “computerized analysis in scouting college players” and was one of the originators of the full court press; he even wrote a book on the topic), it took time and prodding for him to acquiesce to the skinny big man’s demands and ultimately, “build an entire team around” Mac. There’s nothing here to imply Ramsay was the source of McAdoo’s success. And it’s flippant to say it, but all he had to do was have the courage and imagination to challenge convention.
Pushing together open-minded coaches and front office personnel with uniquely skilled and sized players have marked the unfurling of talent and style for decades. McAdoo and Ramsay may not have ushered in any type of explicit stylistic revolution, but they presented an unorthodox approach which was reimagined in the Don Nelson/Dirk Nowitzki pairing nearly 25 years later. Unsurprisingly, Dirk with Nellie was a measure of extremes: his top-three seasons for threes attempted occurred under Nelson’s coaching. Other “bigs” like Danny Ferry, Terry Mills, and Clifford Robinson had chucked up 3s at high volumes, but each had done so in more of a specialized role. For Dirk, it was just another piece of a broader array of scoring skills. Dirk’s background is better known than McAdoo’s so I won’t go into his history in nearly as much depth. It’s fun to wonder how his career evolves if the Bucks never trade him for Robert “Tractor” Traylor whose coach in Milwaukee was George Karl. Karl, like Nelson and Ramsay, operated on principles but was not confined by them. And if Charles Barkley’s to be believed, it would’ve taken a lot more than a shift from Nellie to Karl to slow down Nowitzki.
Stylistic and skill-based evolution in pro basketball has a reach that goes far beyond tall people shooting outside the paint. Dirk and McAdoo just happen to accentuate the break in extreme cases. If we fast forward from the late 1990s to the present, we see blended styles that come from multiple big man family trees. It’s not exclusively tied to growth and exploration, but rather is out of necessity as Jeff Van Gundy implied in 2017, “Defense is for a center today is harder than it’s ever been.” There is nothing traditional about the styles of Jokic, Towns, or Embiid. To varying degrees, each can shoot from distance, attack off the dribble, create for others, shoot well from the line, score in the post, and rebound. Defensively, they’re at much different stages which is unsurprising given JVG’s comment above. That each of these players is a war hammer wielded by adaptable, yet uncreative coaches is great evidence that Nellie, Dirk, Dr. Jack, and Mac could see and live the future.
Despite being awesome, dominant, possibly transcendent players, Towns, Jokic, and Embiid are just signposts on this long stretched out road. The experiment has become the requirement: shooting, attacking the closeout, creating, reading the play, switching. It’s all pulsating through the nerve centers of the collective basketball mind and (mostly) embodied in Draymond Green.
With a versatility that borders on the laughably absurd, Green’s defense scoffs at any notion of convention. At 6-foot-7, his ability to defend much larger men stands out as one of the great equalizers in pro basketball and lifts Golden State’s ceiling to places that, three years ago felt unreachable. That he defends in this way while operating as a selfless primary facilitator on offense has, at times, nullified otherwise excellent NBA centers. Like Dirk, Green’s backstory and narrative are known well enough by most of this site’s reading audience so as not to overelaborate. That said, it is worthwhile to acknowledge the role played by coach Steve Kerr in breaking with the conventional four-man, David Lee, in favor of Green back in 2014.
The reason Green and his repertoire of elite skills is so important is that he single-handedly re-defined what’s possible for the modern center to the point that the Lakers have openly discussed using Kyle Kuzma at center. Kuzma may be at the extreme end, but in the Warriors-Rockets seven-game Western Conference Finals smash up, masterclass creative coach Mike D’Antoni counteracted Golden State’s potent group with a lineup featuring 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker at center coined the “Tuck-Wagon” lineup. Like Green playing alongside Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant, Tucker at the five slots him alongside Chris Paul, James Harden, and Eric Gordon. Life is easier when you’re surrounded by Hall-of-Fame players, but Tucker’s combination of physical strength, shooting ability, and defensive effort and awareness created an unconventional, non-LeBron alternative to the Warriors’ flame-throwing brilliance. P.J. Tuckers are more plentiful than Draymond Greens, but I wouldn’t assume there’s suddenly a blueprint for neutralizing the Warriors’ death lineup.
All this history and prologue act as a map of sorts for charting a course into an unknown future in which we can already catch glimpses. In their single seasons at Kentucky and Kansas, Towns and Embiid combined to attempt 13 3s. As pros, they both take over three-per-night. Portland’s 2017 lottery pick, Zach Collins from Gonzaga, an athletic, shot-blocking 7-footer, attempted 21 3s in his single NCAA season. As a rookie with limited playing time, he attempted 113 which accounted for 39 percent of his shots.
Then there’s the 2018 class of bigs: Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr., Mo Bamba, and Wendell Carter Jr. Each of these players attempted at least a single 3-pointer per-game at the college level. The pro-style is trickling down to the lower levels where the game is opening up both in terms of floor spacing and revised orthodoxy.
As we’ve explored above with McAdoo, Dirk, and Draymond, fate doesn’t rest only in the hands of the player and their ability to shoot 3s from long range though these are critical components. It lies in coaches and a package of skills and abilities that allow for lineup fluidity: go big or small, inside or out, stretch the floor horizontally or vertically, create off the dribble. Each of these rookies has elements of skill bolstered by youth, length, and athleticism. For as strong as they all project to be, they don’t necessarily break from the convention which has been re-established by Jokic, Towns, and Embiid. Rather, they refine and build on it while lacing it with their own unique attributes: Ayton’s fluid strength, Bagley’s super spring-loaded hops, Jackson’s wing skills (on both sides of the ball), Bamba’s length and shooting and IQ, and Carter’s general smoothness attached to a bulking, long-armed frame.
And beyond? The college and high school levels are offering glimpses of the natural evolution of what’s possible: Bol Bol, entering Oregon as a 7-foot-3 freshman with a 7-foot-8 wingspan, prefers to face the basket, put the ball on the floor and attack off the dribble. He’s prone to pull-up jumpers and scoop shots, like a more agile Zinger, but with a jumper that longs for Drew Hanlen’s love and affection. There’s Zion Williamson who looks like a bigger, taller, radioactive version of grown-ass man P.J. Tucker. Williamson is just 18 and, like Bol, his physical attributes (6-foot-6, 270-some-odd pounds with lift that would make Shawn Kemp gawk) make you think something different might be possible.
Shooting, defensive switchability, and creation are table stakes for big basketball players now. To advance the game beyond the new skill era will require a marriage of the physical with the technical and mental. I can’t quite imagine what that looks like beyond some kind of miraculous Giannis Antetokounmpo clone shooting Curry bombs from 35 feet, but if the past is any indication, someone, somewhere is dreaming it and putting in the work to make it a reality.