There was a time when giants ruled the NBA universe. The game was played from the inside out, and the primary goal of every team was to establish dominion over the area closest to the basket. Teams would only go as far as the man in the middle could take them – which is why it’s no coincidence that players like Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan have such decorated resumes.
But with a sudden influx of uber-talented guards and multi-dimensional wings, the game shifted from the paint to the perimeter. And with the advent of advanced metrics, the 3-point shot has become equally as valuable as a layup, diminishing the impact of centers and power forwards even more.
The game may have been fundamentally changed forever, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The current superstars – LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, etc. – have maximized their talents and are producing numbers at historic levels. But their collective brilliance is so blinding that you probably aren’t fully aware of the next wave of big men growing in the shadows.
And that’s precisely why it is time to shed a light on those guys, because they have adapted to the changes of the game and will be tasked with carrying the league in the near future. And for this argument we’ll limit ourselves to players currently 25 years old and younger, so DeMarcus Cousins (26), Draymond Green (26), Blake Griffin (27), Hassan Whiteside (27), DeAndre Jordan (28), Kevin Love (28), LaMarcus Aldridge (31) and Marc Gasol (31) won’t even be mentioned beyond this point. The depth is ridiculous.
Tier 1: The Freaks
Perimeter skills are paramount in this current age of the NBA, where “pace and space” is the prevailing philosophy. The most glaring byproduct of the game’s shift to the perimeter is the amount of big men who have developed guard abilities, creating players with unfathomable skill sets at their size. Simply put, they’re matchup nightmares.
Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis and Ben Simmons (even though he hasn’t played a game yet) all immediately spring to mind because of their ability to consistently knock down threes and/or punish defenders off the dribble. And if a smaller defender ends up on them, they have the footwork, strength and touch necessary to go to work in the post. That combination makes them a threat from anywhere on the court.
They’re also equally impressive on the defensive end, where they can all cover shifty guards in space for a few seconds and recover to the restricted area to challenge shots at the rim – an ability that is invaluable as more teams use the spread pick-and-roll to generate offense.
Tier 2: The Throwbacks
This next group is for the traditionalists who prefer power forwards and centers to set up shop in the paint. Andre Drummond, Myles Turner, Julius Randle, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Tristan Thompson, Jahlil Okafor and Nikola Jokic are most effective closer to the basket, albeit for different reasons.
Drummond, Adams, Gobert and Thompson make their presence felt on the defensive end, stifling drives to the rim and gobbling up every possible rebound. Okafor, Randle and Jokic are mostly effective on the offensive end, where they punish defenses with deft footwork (Okafor), quickness (Randle) and advanced playmaking (Jokic). Turner is the best two-way player out of the bunch and is quickly becoming one of the most reliable options at his position.
These players may not dominate games as consistently as their counterparts in the first tier, but their contributions to their respective teams shouldn’t be overlooked.
Duncan and Kevin Garnett may have recently retired (and Dirk Nowitzki’s time to step away is quickly approaching), but the aforementioned players are ready to carry the torch. Let us know your thoughts in the comment section. We’re interested in your opinion on the topic.
Photo: Steve Dykes/AP