After years of big men dominating the NBA, the game of basketball underwent several changes. More and more players started to fall in love with the three-ball, every front office and coach wanted a big man with range, and the NBA All-Star voting completely eliminated the center position. The league was point guard heavy and there were not many guys capable of playing the traditional center spot, let alone center at all.
The 2016-17 season will now be remembered as the time when depth at the big man position in the NBA returned. With talent across the league, the center position might be the deepest in the league right now based on potential. Most of the players are reaching their prime, while others are playing like stars—despite barely being over the age of 20.
There are four players who separate themselves from the rest of the pack and will run the NBA for the next decade barring health issues.
If you ever want to argue for the “one and done” college situation, Karl-Antony Towns is the perfect guy to use as your example. Towns spent just one season at Kentucky and made the most of it. He excelled in the NCAA tournament and proved to scouts that he should be the number one pick of the 2015 NBA Draft. Towns averaged 10.3 points per game on 56 percent shooting to go along with 2.3 blocks in his lone season in college.
He went on to Minnesota and is now the best big man the team has had since Kevin Garnett. Towns had a sensational rookie season for the Timberwolves, averaging a double-double in his first season with 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds. He won Rookie of the Year, the year after his teammate Andrew Wiggins won it.
Towns is not your typical big man, though. He showed on a national stage that he could handle the ball as well as anyone, beating quick guards in the Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend. Towns also headlined the World vs. USA game during the weekend.
This season, he continues his tear. Despite a slow start, Towns has been on fire lately. Tom Thibodeau has learned how to use his 7-foot phenom to his advantage. Additionally, Zach LaVine and Wiggins both understand now that Towns is clearly the best player on the team and needs the ball in his hands. In January, Towns averaged 25.4 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and nearly two blocks per game. He was compared to Anthony Davis in his first season in the NBA and no one thought that was an insane take. That speaks volumes.
Having a brother six years older than you who plays professional basketball can definitely help a young athlete create his own route. That’s exactly what Porzingis did. Youth basketball leagues across Europe helped the kid develop into something special. Something so special, that he was actually nearly drafted in 2014. Many teams in the NBA had interest in him, but he pulled his name out of the draft. He did not think he was ready to have an impact in the league, and made the decision to leap to the league the following year.
A chorus of boos surrounded all across New York back on June 25, 2015. The Knicks drafted Porzingis, who many considered a project that was years away from playing at a legitimate NBA level. With Carmelo Anthony on the downside of his career and fans hungry for a winning season, no fan of the blue and orange was excited by the pick.
Things quickly changed in the city that never sleeps. The buzz the 7-foot Latvian brought after a few games on an actual NBA court turned the biggest of naysayers into fans. Receiving Dirk Nowitzki comparisons and praise from players around the league and coaches, Porzingis became a household name. He averaged 18.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in 72 games of one of the most unexpected rookie campaigns of all-time.
Now in his sophomore season, the Unicorn is averaging a shade over 20 points per game and is making at least two three-pointers a game. He has been dealing with a lingering Achilles issue as of late, but it hasn’t seemed to slow the big man down. In what might be the messiest situation in all of the NBA, Porzingis is the lone bright spot at Madison Square Garden. If he’s playing like this as a project, the league should fear what’s to come in the next decade.
Perhaps the most fun player in the league, Embiid shows you can have fun and still be an elite talent on the court. The son of a volleyball player, Embiid always had athleticism in his roots. The 22-year-old first started playing basketball at the age of 16. In just a few years, he became a five star recruit and went on to play for Kansas where he became known for his excellence on the defensive side of the court.
Despite a broken foot, Embiid was selected third in the 2014 draft by the 76ers. Constant setbacks and frustration, Embiid missed both the entire 2014-15 season and the 2015-16 season. Many started to question the direction of the 76ers franchise, but now he’s quickly reminding everyone to trust the process again.
Embiid is putting up 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game this season. He is making at least one three a game and can play near the rim because of his excellent post-game. The 76ers all of a sudden look like a team that belongs in the NBA and there are constant trade rumors to clear up the logjam in the frontcourt so Embiid can have more touches.
He was nearly an All-Star this season and many consider him one of the biggest snubs in the Eastern Conference. Regardless, he will play a key role in the World vs. USA game as well as the Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend.
Embiid is still fragile and has missed games this season, but it’s clear he is the future of Philadelphia, alongside Ben Simmons. There hasn’t been a player this exciting in the city since Allen Iverson. If he can stay healthy for most of his career, Embiid has Hall of Fame written all over him.
The most underrated among the pack, Jokic gives Denver something to look forward to each game. He was originally drafted during the second round in 2014, but did not play his first season for the Nuggets until a year later after his final season in Serbia.
The 21-year-old is a very skilled passer and talented in almost all aspects of the game. He is a complete player. He started his rookie season slow in 2015, but played 80 games and gave Mike Malone many reasons to keep him out there. He averaged 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, a steal and shot 51 percent from the field, 33 percent from three, and 81 percent from the line in 80 games.
This season, the 6-foot-10 center is putting up 15.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4 assists and shooting nearly 60 percent from the field on a nightly basis. In January, he averaged 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game. He is quickly blossoming into not just one of the best centers in the league, but best players period.
Denver is looking to ship Jusuf Nurkic out as soon as possible because they now know what they have in Jokic. If Jokic keeps this up, he can be in the running for Most Improved Player of the Year along with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic turns 22 in just a few weeks, which like all the other guys on this list is just scary to think about. The Nuggets are in great hands.