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The NBA’s Big-Man Boom

The story of the season has been the play of young hybrid big men. Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner talk about their revolutionary styles. Plus, notes on Kawhi, Harden, and more.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Karl-Anthony Towns talks about his basketball influences, he sounds like he’s opening a restaurant. “I’ve taken a lot of flavors from a lot of different players from the past and present,” the Timberwolves big man told me on Friday. “It’s also keeping my own spice, my own recipe that makes me the player I am.” Towns listed 12 players from whom he’s borrowed skills, ranging from Moses Malone to Chris Paul to Len Bias to Dwyane Wade to Kevin Garnett. Wait a minute … Bias and Malone? Twenty years ago, big men Towns’s age (he’ll turn 21 this month) would probably be influenced by their contemporaries, not players whose primes happened well before they were old enough to play hoops competitively.

Towns isn’t the only one treating the game’s history like a buffet. “My biggest guy was Kevin Durant. I love everything he could do,” Myles Turner said, adding that his dad got him started watching clips on YouTube to study “Hakeem Olajuwon’s footwork on the post” and “Alonzo Mourning’s timing as a shot blocker.” As they pick and choose what to use, and reject preconceived limits based on their body types, Turner and Towns have become the figureheads of a kind of postmodern basketball generation.

In 2011, Shaquille O’Neal said that modern big men have either “fell off or evolved” and earlier this year he declared the center “dead.” Yes, we’re going through a shortage of low-post scoring bigs. But centers aren’t dinosaurs, and pace-and-space is not the asteroid. Is the point guard dead because there are fewer traditional pass-first playmakers like John Stockton? No, the position has developed into a loaded score-first position. In the early 2000s, the NBA banned the hand-checking of perimeter players. These rules created the need for players who could play off the dribble much more so than in the past. That has helped create the dynamic guards we see today. The league also permitted the use of zone defenses, which made it harder to simply toss the ball into the post and let a big go to work. Current-day defenses can be craftier with their resistance inside.

Bigs have adapted by migrating from the paint to the perimeter, and we’re on the brink of another golden age; it will just look a little different than we’re used to. “I think it’s awesome how everybody’s evolved. We’re able to do so much more,” Turner said. “It’s so much cooler to go out there and do everything instead of just sitting on the block. When we were doing drills in high school and the guards were doing their drills, I’d do those drills, too, to prove everybody wrong.”

Here are the hybrids: big men who blend old-school frontcourt size and backcourt skills. They have the ability to score 25-plus points per game, from all levels of the floor, while supplying interior defense and rebounding. Their emergence as players with a chance of reaching a transcendent level is one of the defining story lines of this young season.

Karl-Anthony Towns

Towns is following his Rookie of the Year season by posting per-possession numbers on par with Hall of Famers and unleashing step-back jumpers and crossovers you’d expect to see from guards.

He is the centerpiece of a young T-Wolves team trying to scrape its way to relevance after years in the wilderness. You can tell this responsibility weighs on him. Towns scored 33 points in a blowout loss to the Thunder on Saturday, and after the game he said of his night: “It’s the least thing that I care about. None of those stats matter without us getting a win. I’d rather finish with zero points and one rebound, and get a W.”

I asked him if he ever thinks about his place in the league as a potential great, and he said he really just focuses on continuing to work every day. But he does hope it’ll lead to great things for his team. “Maybe one day I’ll be fortunate enough to have rings,” he says. “And look back at my career and be able to say that I changed the game and left it in a better state than when I came in.” Towns is set up for success with a great coach in Tom Thibodeau (whom Towns called “obsessed with the process”), talented young peers, and a good system to grow in.

Joel Embiid

In four games this season, playing on a minutes restriction, Embiid has already justified the hype with per-100-possession averages of 40.7 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 6.6 blocks. Those numbers will wane as his workload increases, but even on a small sample it’s worth noting just how rare it is. No player has met that statistical threshold since 1973, per BBall-Reference. Not one. Zero. Zip. If you drop the six-plus blocks per possession, only Shaq and Karl Malone meet the threshold over a full season. Drop the 13-plus rebounds, and we get a list of 14 players, all of whom are current or potential Hall of Famers. What Embiid is doing is historically rare — and fun.

I spoke with Patrick Ewing recently about the usage of bigs in the NBA, and he described how the Magic would surround Dwight Howard with four shooters, which left the paint open for destruction. “Dwight wasn’t a 3-point shooter, but we spread the floor to give him room to be able to go one-on-one in there, and if they doubled him, pass it out to the 3-point line,” Ewing said. “If you have a dominant big, I don’t see what changes. Shoot, I’d love it if I were able to play with four shooters. I’d have way more space on the blocks, and then when they’d double me I’d kick it out for 3-point shots.”

Embiid could greatly benefit from being on the kind of team Ewing describes. The Philly big man has only six assists to 17 turnovers so far this season, but he improved drastically over the course of his freshman year at Kansas. By March, he was delivering dimes that led to open 3s or layups. “The best post players that can score also become really good distributors,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told me on media day. If Embiid can establish the same rate of development in the league that he had in college, it won’t be long before he’s beating double-teams with the pass. Once Embiid loses the rust and the minutes restrictions, what else might he be able to pick up? “If somebody teaches me the point guard position,” Embiid said at Sixers media day, “I feel like I’d be able to.”

Myles Turner

Turner is the new name in this group. Maybe he’s flown under the radar because he slipped to pick no. 11 in the 2015 draft. Maybe it’s because he played a non-feature role on a 45-win Pacers team last season. But he’s right there with everyone else: a near-7-foot behemoth with long arms, light feet, and the skills to affect every part of the game.

Turner is scoring 1.31 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll this season, per Synergy, which is one of the league’s best marks. He’s capable of rolling down the lane and finishing with strength or finesse, and he can pop out to drain 3s. If teams switch the screen, he’s strong enough to plant himself down low in the paint and skilled enough to score quickly.

With NBA teams increasingly switching pick-and-rolls, there are opportunities for big men like Turner to get post-up opportunities against smaller players. Here, Turner buries Jimmy Butler under the rim and puts in an easy layup. “It just opens the paint so much better for us,” Turner said of a switching defense. “If they do switch and I get the ball, then the paint is opened more because they don’t have a shot blocker down there. If I don’t get the ball, then they have a big man trying to guard Jeff Teague one-on-one, which is probably in our favor.”

Kristaps Porzingis

You’ll often hear Porzingis compared to Dirk Nowitzki. They’re both tall Europeans with cool names and nice 3-point jumpers, so the comparison makes sense.

The difference between Dirk and Kristaps is that Porzingis is significantly more explosive. He can throw down lobs at the rim just as well as or better than he drains 3s from outside, making him one of the few players versatile enough to do both.

Nowitzki said last season that Porzingis is “way ahead of the curve compared to when I was 20.” He’s right, and it’s because of Porzingis’s defense: He’s already a better rim protector than Nowitzki ever was, and as he develops he’ll likely become better as a positional defender as well.

Anthony Davis

Imagine that it’s November 7, 1996. Two men, John and Red, are watching basketball at a bar, and Hakeem Olajuwon has just led the Rockets to an overtime win against the Nuggets. John leans over to Red and says, “This is the golden age of the big man,” and rattles off a list of bigs. “Shaq. Mourning. Malone. Robinson. Ewing. The college kid Duncan will be great too.” Red puts down his drink, slowly glances up, and says, “Can you imagine if in 20 years centers could hit 3s and dribble between their legs like Bird and Jordan?” John chuckles and says, “Maybe Garnett is the future. But bigs have always played inside. How could that ever change?”

Imagine how they’d react if you could time-travel back to that moment and show them Anthony Davis.

Their eyes would bulge out of their heads. They’d feel a rush of excitement knowing what the league would someday become. Maybe they’d think Davis is an “invention of a God,” as Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins wrote in 2014. There are few players who can match Davis’s blend of length, quickness, and athleticism. This season he’s on a tear, leading the Pelicans in points (30), rebounds (11.8), blocks (3.2), and steals (2.5). At 23, Davis is already an established superstar in the NBA, and he’s not done getting better. If only they knew what the league would become.

We haven’t even touched on established stars like DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. Or the explosive interior bigs like Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Nerlens Noel, Clint Capela, Andrew Bogut, Dwight Howard, and Steven Adams. Or the young throwbacks like Derrick Favors, Nikola Jokic, Jahlil Okafor, Jusuf Nurkic, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic, and Julius Randle. Or the ballhandling bigs like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons.

It’s certainly possible that none of the five players outlined above ever reaches a level worthy of the single-name status reserved for Hall of Famers like Shaq, Wilt, and Russell. But the potential is there, and you can’t say that about many players.

The NBA in the 2020s will likely resemble the perimeter-oriented style we see today, but the arc could be patrolled by giants.

Seven Segments or Less

A quick survey of the trends, tricks, and trivialities that color the NBA.

The Lakers Love Basketball and Luke Walton

Metta World Peace shouted “I LOVE BASKETBALL” after hitting a free throw against the Pacers last week. It could be his most important contribution to the Lakers this season. After L.A. beat the Warriors last week, D’Angelo Russell revealed that the team uses that phrase to break huddles. “We don’t say ‘team on three’ or ‘Lakers on three,’” Russell says. “The whole coaching staff, everybody says it. It’s been great for us.”

This isn’t a gimmick. Chemistry is integral to success, especially for youthful rosters still in the developmental phase. Think about where the Lakers are coming from: the doom-and-gloom Byron Scott era, with just 38 wins over the past two seasons. Last year’s Lakers averaged the fewest assists per game of any team over the past seven seasons. They rank 20th this year — not good, but focus on process not results. Hiring Walton to replace Scott is like kicking Chad Kroeger out of Nickelback and bringing Freddie Mercury back from the dead to write and sing the band’s songs. Even if the rest of the team looks pretty much the same, the new leader instantly makes everything better.

The players are still learning Walton’s motion offense, but they’re executing it the best they can at this stage of the season. Nearly every returning player on the roster has improved, the newcomers have adapted well, and rookie Brandon Ingram has shown flashes of versatile scoring and playmaking skills coveted around the league. The Lakers probably won’t maintain an above-.500 record this season (they’re currently 4–3), but they’re a lot closer to being respectable than you might think.

Have Patience With Jamal Murray

Murray had a historically bad start to his NBA career, missing his first 17 shots. On the year, he’s now missed 26 of 33 attempts. “He’s so down right now. Every shot, it’s like the end of the world for him,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said last week. “I just grabbed him and hugged him and said, ‘I don’t care if you go 0-for-8. I really don’t. I know you’re going to make shots.’” Malone and Murray aren’t flipping the panic switch, and neither should you. The open 3s he’s missed so far will eventually go down; it’s the rest of his game that may take years to develop. Despite labeling himself “one of the best scorers in the league,” Murray will be slow to adjust to the pro game because of his limited athleticism and shoddy decision-making.

One of Murray’s best attributes is his body control: He can stop on a dime, adjust his body midair, and hit what looks like an impossible shot. His rep was built off taking and making tough attempts at Kentucky, against college-level defenders. Now he’s going against the likes of Kyle Lowry, who will suffocate him, giving him little space to release cleanly.

It’s understandable that a rookie can’t create space against a top-flight defender like Lowry, but that inability has been apparent at every level of competition. He needs to tighten his dribble, otherwise he’ll continue to have difficulties turning the corner.

Kawhi Leonard Is the Seven-Game MVP

Leonard still has a sky-high usage percentage of 33.9, ranking sixth in the league behind Russell Westbrook, Joel Embiid, Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, and DeMarcus Cousins. As we detailed last month, this is a rarity in San Antonio. Since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach, only one Spur has finished a full season with a usage over 30 (Tony Parker in 2008–09). The hallmark of Popovich’s reign has been his willingness to evolve. The Spurs played an inside-out game during the David Robinson and early Tim Duncan era. Then they learned to spread the wealth within a motion offense, and now they’re investing heavily in their burgeoning superstar.

Houston Can’t Score Without James Harden

Harden is scoring 31.5 points per game with 12.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds. The only other player to ever cross the 30–10–7 threshold over a full season is Oscar Robertson, per Basketball-Reference. Guess what. The 3–3 Rockets are much better when Harden is on the court compared to when he’s off. But the numbers are staggering.

The Rockets outscore opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions when Harden is on the floor (116.5 offensive rating and 108.9 defensive rating). He’s the leader of their potent starting unit, which has a plus-18.6 net rating. But without Harden, Houston gets pummeled by 30.3 points per 100 possessions (80.1 offensive rating and 110.4 defensive rating). The Rockets will be aided by the return of Patrick Beverley, who is out until late November after knee surgery, but Daryl Morey should still be seeking a secondary playmaker who can keep the team afloat when Harden is off the floor.

Avery Bradley Keeps It Simple (and Keeps Getting Better)

You might be surprised to learn that Bradley leads the NBA in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency, with an average of 1.35 points per possession, per Synergy. The Celtics had hopes of turning Bradley into a “capable backup point guard,” but he had trouble bringing the ball up past half court in his early career. That’s what makes his progression rather unprecedented: It wasn’t long ago that Bradley was a non-threat with the ball in his hands. “I worked on my ballhandling a lot,” Bradley said last week. “Instead of doing all the Kyrie Irving stuff that trainers have people do, I tried to focus on just one or two moves to perfect.”

<em>Data via stats.nba.com</em>
Data via stats.nba.com

Bradley has improved his assist-turnover ratio over four consecutive seasons and has continuously improved as a scorer, evolving from a player who rarely shot 3s from above the break to one who does it frequently. Bradley is averaging 19.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game so far this season. At this rate, he’s a surefire contender for Most Improved Player.

Jahlil Okafor’s Inaction Items

At Sixers media day, I asked Okafor a question that went something like this: You’re so light on your feet offensively, but you’re so sluggish on defense. Then the entire media room laughed. I sat there thinking to myself, “Shit. I just insulted Jahlil by accident.” But Okafor smirked and said, “You’re good.” So I continued, “So do you think it’s possible to translate that quickness onto the defensive end?”

Okafor gave a tremendously thoughtful response. “I think the biggest thing with me on the defensive end that I need to improve is knowing where to be. So many times I just remember not knowing where to be, and just hesitating,” he said. “So watching film, having a year in the NBA under my belt, hopefully that’ll help. I just need to be more confident in where I’m supposed to be and why I’m supposed to be there.”

Okafor is at his best when he’s decisive with his movements, on both ends of the floor. When he gets a touch and holds the ball, he sucks the life out of the Sixers’ already-anemic offense. When he’s defending a pick-and-roll, or helping, or boxing out, he often gets caught ball-watching instead of reading and reacting to the play. That inaction leads to moments like this:

The difference between Okafor and the players highlighted in this column is not only Okafor’s lack of a jumper but his inability to defend and rebound well. Okafor is only 20, so he has plenty of time, but unless he improves in these categories he’ll likely be limited as a role-playing big who comes off the bench and punishes second units.

For what it’s worth, if I were an NBA general manager I would be texting Bryan Colangelo daily trying to acquire Okafor. He could’ve given a cookie-cutter answer when pressed on his defense, but instead he displayed an understanding of his problem. Now it’s just a matter of putting him in a situation to improve and succeed, whether that’s in Philly or elsewhere.

We Should’ve Seen T.J. Warren Coming

“I think T.J. Warren has been our best player so far this season,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said last week on Arizona Sports 98.7. The Suns knew Warren could score when they selected him with the 14th pick of the 2014 draft. He had just won ACC Player of the Year after averaging 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game his final season at NC State. In his third year with Phoenix, his numbers are nearly identical, at 21.7 points and 6.2 rebounds.

Entering the draft, we knew Warren was a force in transition and was an instinctual midrange scorer. The questions revolved around his jumper, passing ability, and defense. Since entering the league, he’s smoothed out his shooting release, improved his decision-making, and competed harder on defense. All Warren had to do to find success in the NBA was become passable in those secondary areas, and he’s already done that. As he develops throughout his third pro campaign, the next step is to further enhance his already-versatile knack for scoring.