The Evolution of the Center Position, Through The Eyes of Towns/Okafor

The Evolution of the Center Position, Through The Eyes of Towns/Okafor
Jun 24, 2015, 11:49 am
It would be very surprising if Karl Towns and Jahlil Okafor aren't the first two names called by commissioner Adam Silver as the top of the 2015 NBA Draft. While that won't shock anyone who followed college basketball this season, the proposition of two centers as locks to go 1-2 is significant both from a historical perspective, despite the shifting importance of the position in the NBA.

A Brief History of Centers at the Top of the NBA Draft

It is not uncommon for a center to get drafted in the top three, or go first overall by any stretch. Size is always at a premium in the NBA. Since 1980, 31 of the 105 players selected in the top three selections in the draft, including—15 first overall selection—have been true centers, making that the position picked most frequently over that period. On five occasions in those same years, two true centers been selected back-to-back at the top of the draft.

2004 - #1 Dwight Howard (SW Atlanta Christian (GA)), #2 Emeka Okafor (Connecticut)
2001 - #1 Kwame Brown (Glynn Academy (GA)), #2 Tyson Chandler (Dominguez HS (CA)
1992 - #1 Shaquille O'Neal (LSU), #2 Alonzo Mourning (Georgetown)
1984 – #1 Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston), #2 Sam Bowie (Kentucky)
1983 - #1 Ralph Sampson (Virginia), #2 Steve Stipanovich (Missouri)

It is interesting that aside from the pair of players in 1992, each of the other years includes one player who enjoyed measurably more success at the NBA level than the other, due to a variety of different circumstances. It is also worth noting that many of the seminal figures at the center position have been picked in the top two in the past, as the cream of the crop the five spot regularly rises to the top at the collegiate level. We saw an example of that this season as Towns went from a likely high lottery selection to the clear-cut top prospect in this draft with his strong play throughout the year.

Before we look at why the prospect of drafting a center with the potential of a Towns or the high basement of an Okafor is so inimitably appealing, let's first take a look at how these prospects stack up against their predecessors. While it is impossible to provide a comprehensive, unbiased statistical portrait of all centers selected in the top-3 due to the differences in age, class, role, system, and quality of competition that separate the players in that group, we've compiled and color-coded the per-40 minute freshman statistics of center selected in the top-2 since 1980.

In looking at where Okafor and Towns fall in each of these metrics, their tremendous scoring efficiency stands out among a group that includes a number of NBA MVPs, champions, and true legends of the game. Backing up the scouting reports written on him to this point, Okafor ranks first in two-point percentage by a considerable margin, and ties former Spurs superstar David Robinson, who played very little as freshman, for the lead in per-minute scoring, while ranking as a poor free throw shooter and shot blocker. Towns earns above average marks as a scorer and rebounder while making his free throws at an unparalleled clip relative to the top center prospects who have made the jump to the NBA before him.

As much flack as Okafor takes for his lack of rim protection, Andrew Bogut was equally as inept in that area as a freshman at Utah in 2004, not emerging as the prolific shot blocker and DPOY candidate we know him as today at the NBA level until he had already been in the league for a few years. One the other hand, the third player in that tier of shot blockers, Brad Daugherty, never became a particularly dominant interior defender focusing on rebounding the ball instead. The jury is still out on what Okafor can bring to the table on that end of the floor, even if he reaches his full potential.

In Towns's case, his 2-point percentage and per minute shot blocking numbers aren't overwhelmingly impressive, but, even in his worst statistical categories, he ranks only marginally below average among the top players in this group. Deemed to have very few major weaknesses, Towns certainly looks the part on paper, even when compared to some of the league's all-time greats.

Although both Okafor and Towns scored more efficiently and produced at levels comparable to the others players in this group, it is notable that many of the players listed, for a variety of different reasons, did not become franchise level talents. Greg Oden, Sam Bowie, Steve Stipanovich, and Pervis Ellison all had their careers derailed by injuries, while Hasheem Thabeet and Michael Olowakandi are considered major busts.

Regardless of how the pair of highly touted 2015 center prospects measure up to their predecessors on paper or in practice, it will be their ability to grow as players and blossom in the situation they're drafted into that will dictate how we look back on them. Time and familiarity often lead us to forget how far some of the top players in the NBA have come, which is especially worth keeping in mind as the stars of the one-and-done era begin to emerge. Many of the game's rising stars did much of their developing after getting drafted.

What makes Okafor and Towns so compelling is that, unlike the players we've compared them to above, they're entering the NBA at a time where the importance of a dominant big man is and flux and the role centers play is shifting rapidly.

The Evolving Role of the Modern NBA Center

Aside from when the league implements significant rule changes, very few bigger picture elements of how the game is played at the NBA level change very quickly.

Instead, they ebb and flow relative to what strategies are en vogue and what players are in the league at that moment. Many of the significant trends in the league right now fly in the face of history as the significance of true centers has been diminished by a number of different factors.

The inception of the hand check rule and the rise of the pick and roll as the primary source of shot creation for almost all of the league's teams, coupled with a sudden dearth of efficient, high-volume post scorers and increased attention paid to analytics has altered how centers are valued in the league today. Fifteen years ago, backup centers were the most likely players to be overpaid relative to their production, and the adage went that you couldn't win a NBA title without a dominant big man. Last week, the Golden State Warriors took control of the NBA Finals by benching their 7-foot defensive player of the year candidate entirely, as the referendum on the position that defined NBA basketball continues.

We've compiled some data to illustrate what Karl Towns and Jahlil Okafor will be up against relative to the dominant big men of yesteryear.

1. The role NBA centers are asked to play offensively are far different than they were when players like Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon roamed the paint in the mid-90s.

No center in the NBA has finished in the top five in points per game since 2001 when Shaquille O'Neal placed third, averaging 28.7 for the Lakers. The last time more than one center appeared in the top five was 1996 when O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson all scored over 25 points per game. The days of teams running their offense through the post, as the chart above suggests, are largely over (for now). The advent of the 3-point shot and the efficiency of the looks a team can get out of the pick and roll are simply more attractive at this stage.

That isn't to say that there isn't a place for a dominant offensive big man in the NBA today. They're just competing against a far more loaded deck than they were a decade ago and especially before the hand check rule led to more unrestricted play movement away from the rim.

In 2015, the NBA players using over 500 post-up possessions collectively scored .906 points per post up possession. In 2005 a far older group of centers averaged .923 points per post up possession. Even though we've seen power forwards like LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, and Zach Randolph run extremely hot in post-up situations over the last few postseasons, the NBA's primary post threats aren't as efficient as they were 10 years ago, especially at the center position.

The implications of post play for both Okafor and Towns as pros is extremely interesting. 54% of Okafor's possessions were post ups last season, and aside from some less than stellar performances in the NCAA Tournament, he turned in one of the most efficient, prolific post up scoring seasons of any elite NBA prospect in recent memory, outscoring a number of teams from the low block on the year by himself, shooting .922 points per possession over 8.4 possessions per game.

Towns wasn't too shabby either, keying Kentucky's win over an undersized Notre Dame team with his play on the low block while shooting a very respectable .922 points per possession with his back to the basket on the year in limited touches relative to Okafor, as he used only 3.9 possessions per game as Kentucky's depth led to fewer touches for the highly touted center.

The question of whether Towns and Okafor will become capable post scorers at the NBA level seems like a fairly easy one to answer given Towns' combination of size and touch, and Okafor's unique blend of strength and polish. The far more compelling question is whether either player can revive the center position as a centerpiece of a NBA offense at some point down the road. That's asking a lot of two players who are only a year removed from their high school graduation, but there's a historical precedent that, much like Dwight Howard, they'll be asked to live up to over the course of the next decade, fair or not.

Towns will be a particularly interesting case study in how elite prospects in this era operate out of the post at the NBA level. He flashed the ability to bang in the paint and make hook shots throughout his freshman year, but his shooting touch also gives him some upside as a finesse scorer from the midrange, like Randolph or Aldridge. Perhaps more significantly, unlike Okafor and so many centers in the NBA at this point, he can buffer his scoring productivity and efficiency from the free throw line where he's shot a spectacular 82% over last season, and the various events we have on record that he's participated in over the last four years.

Many of the NBA's most physically imposing centers are severely limited in their ability to take over a game offensively because their shooting from the foul line sinks their efficiency to unacceptable level. Many of the centers who do make their free throws at a reasonable clip don't have the physical tools to bully their way toward shooting a high percentage from the post. Towns appears to have the tools to rise above both of those trends, as could Okafor if he can improve on his 52% shooting from the line.

2. The top scoring big men in the NBA score in a variety of ways, stepping away from the rim far more frequently than the dominant big man of lore.

The jury is out as to whether or not Okafor or Towns ultimately wind up becoming superstars because of their post play. The roles they're likely to play in the short term will fall somewhere in between. As the graph above shows, the three leading scorers in the NBA among centers were most prolific in the post, but did a significant amount of damage in other areas as well, especially DeMarcus Cousins, who has the unique distinction of having used more isolation possessions away from the basket than almost any NBA center in recent memory.

Comparing the averages of those three players to the performance of the two elite center prospects in the 2015 draft, it is hard not to be impressed with how prolific Okafor was in the post and how eerily similar Towns' scoring output per-40 minutes was. Neither collegiate big man were used very often in the pick and roll last season, which is very common at the NCAA level. Okafor shot an astounding 79% finishing at the rim this season, while Towns shot 66%. Both players have the potential to be very effective rolling to the rim playing alongside guards who can create for them, and Towns could add value as a pick and pop threat as well.

Towns' jump shot is an interesting aspect of his skill set relative to the average center at the NBA level. Quite a bit has been made of his ability to potentially spread the floor at the next level, although he only made 8 of the 28 jump shots he attempted this year, including 2 of 8 from beyond the arc. Only a handful of centers measured over 6'11 have ever attempted more than two three-pointers per game, not just over the last few seasons, but in the history of the game.

Jack Sikma was likely the first significant big man to step all the way out to the arc regularly, but he didn't add the 3-ball until his early 30s. The two most relevant centers in recent memory to average over two three-point attempts per game are Raef Lafrentz and Mehmet Okur, both of whom entered the league attempting a fair number and embraced that part of their game as injuries limited their athleticism inside. This season, Meyers Leonard and Spencer Hawes qualified for membership in that unique group with Leonard turning in one of the most efficient jump shooting seasons for a big man in NBA history, albeit while averaging only 5.9 points in 16 minutes per game. If Towns ultimately does become a 3-point weapon and a reliable post weapon, he could go down as one of the most unique centers to this point in history.

3. The ability to score in the two man game is important for a modern NBA center, but the ability to defend in it has gradually become nothing short of critical.

Last season Karl Towns defended almost 20 possessions used on the pick and roll, ultimately facing more possessions while defending the ball handler than the roll man as part of Kentucky's switching defensive strategy. Opposing teams were more aggressive involving Okafor in the screen and roll, but even he defended only 31 possessions used out of the screen and roll. Approximately 20% of all possessions in college basketball are used or created out of the pick and roll. By contrast, 31.4% of all possessions in the NBA originate from the two-man game. Though the screener only winds up using a fraction of those possessions, the player defending him plays a key role in containing the ball handler and preventing the action from sucking in additional defenders.

Prior to the hand check rule, it was far easier for opposing guards and big men to defend the perimeter, as they could get away with much more physical play. With the freedom of movement resulting from that rule change, and the proliferation of pick and roll play, big men now have to be far better with their feet than they were during that era. We see far fewer plodding 7-footers seeing extensive minutes late into their careers, while players like the Draymond Green who, after reshaping his body entirely since his college days, can play big and quick defensively. Players in that mold are extremely valuable in on the pick and roll, while the 7-footers who once dominated the game are truly challenged, as they're pulled much farther away from the rim than they ever have been before.

Neither Okafor or Towns has extensive experience defending the pick and roll against the level of competition they'll see in the NBA, and one of the more intriguing aspects of their rookie seasons from an X's and O's perspective will be just how quickly they can become comfortable stepping away from the rim and defending in the two man game. If Towns struggles in that regard, he has the ability to fall back on his length and add something defensively as a rim protector. Okafor's ability to do the same is a bit more questionable due to his heavier feet, though he certainly has the size and wingspan to be a factor in that regard as well.

As much as the center position defined NBA basketball for the better part of two generations, the way the games is played is far more demanding of the position than ever before. Not only do big men need to be more efficient on the block to warrant touches, they also face ever more aggressive offensives looking to exploit their lack of foot speed away from the rim. The Warriors small ball championship victory was simply another step in an ongoing shift away from the dominance of the traditional back to the basket star. There is still a place for a dominant big man in this league, but that players is going to have to be truly, truly special to overcome the trends working against that style of play.

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