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How to Evaluate Big Men in the NBA Draft

Jakob Poeltl and A.J. Hammons are on opposite ends of most big boards, but is the talent gap really that wide?

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Center has traditionally been the hardest position to assess in the NBA draft. A perimeter player drafted in the lottery is usually a safe bet to at least carve out a pro career, but the lottery’s history is littered with big men who have busted out of the league. Not only is the supply continually limited, the relative importance of the position used to mean that teams would reach for the ones who were available. Now that traditional big men have become less valuable, evaluating their talent and prospective fit on teams has only gotten more challenging.

Even in the NBA’s pace-and-space era, just about every team has at least one mastodon-size player who can move his feet. But for NCAA athletes, it’s a huge transition to go from being the biggest player on the floor to being just one of the guys, and not every player has the game to manage that shift that well.

It’s also much harder for a big man to affect the game at the NCAA level, because so much of their success depends on the quality of their teammates. Not many college teams run a good offense or space the floor properly, and even fewer have competent point guard play. Without a floor general who can control tempo, enter the ball into the post, or consistently hit the roll man, life is difficult for a pivot, no matter how talented. Conversely, a big man who plays on a well-coached team with proper spacing and facilitation can post statistics that overstate his talent level.

The perfect example came in last year’s draft, when Jahlil Okafor went no. 3 to the Philadelphia 76ers and Myles Turner went no. 11 to the Indiana Pacers. Okafor was the centerpiece of an NCAA champion, while Turner was a bench player on an underachieving team. If they had switched roles, though, Okafor would have struggled just as much with Texas’s frontcourt logjam and inability to space the floor, while Turner would have thrived in Duke’s four-out offense, surrounded by NBA-caliber perimeter players. Just because Okafor posted much better efficiency statistics at the NCAA level didn’t mean he was actually the better prospect.

So are there any lessons we can apply to this draft? And what do they say about Jakob Poeltl, the sophomore from Utah who is widely seen as the best available center?

Where does Poeltl fit in today’s NBA?

At 7-foot-1, 239 pounds, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he has the requisite measurables for a player at his position, but Poeltl will be drafted with the notion of being a traditional center, and in that context, he is relatively undersized. His build, which was imposing in college, will look average against starting centers like DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol, and DeMarcus Cousins. Teams will be drafting him with the expectation that he becomes a starting center, but his success in that role will rely on his ability to fully leverage his physicality, something he couldn’t consistently demonstrate in college game film. He’s not a stiff by any means, but he’s neither exceptionally quick nor strong, and he doesn’t play much above the rim. His effectiveness in the low post may not necessarily translate when going up against higher-level competition.

Poeltl was the Pac-12 Player of the Year at Utah, but he rarely went up against inspiring competition. The best guys he faced in the regular season were Colorado’s Josh Scott, Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, and Duke’s Marshall Plumlee. It wasn’t until the NCAA tournament that Poeltl matched up with another elite prospect. Poeltl’s battle with Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis was a matchup of two of the best big men in the West, and the result was as one-sided as any you will ever see.

Poeltl: 5 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 0 steals, 1 block, 2 turnovers on 2-of-5 shooting

Sabonis: 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 3 turnovers on 8-of-12 shooting

Even with a height-and-length disadvantage at 6-foot-10 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Sabonis was able to prevent Poeltl from sealing him in the post, and he was strong enough to push him way out on the perimeter. Without the overwhelming advantage in size and coordination he enjoyed for most of the season, Poeltl was unable to consistently create offense. Sabonis outworked him on both sides of the ball, to the point that Poeltl was gasping for air and asking to be taken out of the game. Sabonis had the edge in smarts, athleticism, and desire — and so will many of the NBA big men whom Poeltl will face next season.

None of this is to say he’s undraftable. There is a lot to like about his skill set. Not many 7-footers have his feel for the game or his ability to manipulate the defense with the ball in his hands down low. If he can extend the range on his jumper, he could be an above-average offensive center. He was a good team defender who knew how to play to his strengths, but he’ll have to improve his conditioning and coordination if he’s going to keep up in one-on-one play. He also has the playmaking ability to make the right decision when rolling to the rim, which may be his bread and butter in the NBA. Poeltl reminds me of Tyler Zeller, who will probably have a solid, unremarkable 10-plus-year career. That’d be an accomplishment, but it’s not the stuff dreams are made of, especially for a team drafting in the top 10.

Might there be a superior prospect lurking in the back end of the draft?

The difference between Poeltl and some of the lesser-rated centers in this year’s draft isn’t as wide as the college statistics might indicate. Take A.J. Hammons, widely projected to go in the middle of the second round. Hammons is an older prospect with some off-the-court questions, but he has way more physical tools than Poeltl, and a big portion of his lack of success in the NCAA can be attributed to the incredibly difficult situation at Purdue.

As a 278-pound 7-footer with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Hammons is everything that Poeltl isn’t physically. He’s a legitimate giant who has the girth to play with even the biggest NBA centers, and he’s surprisingly light on his feet. He plays higher off the ground than Poeltl, which says something when you consider that he has nearly 40 pounds on the Utah prospect. Hammons wasn’t given as much time to shine as Poeltl, having to share frontcourt minutes with two other NBA-caliber players in Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan. It’s only when you look at Hammons’s per-minute numbers that you see how dominant he was. His production becomes more impressive when you consider how poorly Purdue ran its offense. He spent most of his time on the floor playing next to Swanigan, another low-post presence most effective in the paint, and Hammons never had the benefit of playing with an actual point guard.

Per game: 15 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.3 steals, 2.5 blocks, 2.0 turnovers on 59.2 percent shooting

Per 40 minutes: 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.4 steals, 4.1 blocks, 3.2 turnovers

Unlike Poeltl, Hammons shined in the rare opportunities that he got to go up against high-level competition. He had impressive outings against Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis, Maryland’s Diamond Stone, and Vanderbilt’s Damian Jones, all of whom are projected to be drafted higher than Hammons. Last season’s late-December matchup against Jones was a good representation of how Hammons tended to fare against true peers.

Hammons: 21 points, 10 rebounds, 7 blocks, 2 turnovers, 4 fouls on 9-of-16 shooting

Jones: 6 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 5 fouls on 3-of-7 shooting

Jones, who checks in at 6-foot-11, 244 pounds, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, wasn’t used to going up against someone as big as Hammons. His drives and his post-ups were swallowed up, and he couldn’t just depend on outjumping his competition to get rebounds. Conversely, Hammons was able to score over Jones in the paint, and he could score when Jones pushed him out on the perimeter. Hammons has developed into a decent shooter in four years at Purdue, even managing to step out and shoot 6-for-11 on 3-pointers in his senior season. Plus, for a center his size, the 71 percent he shot from the free throw line is nearly as valuable as anything else he provides on offense.

Hammons may never have the foot speed to switch screens, but he’s big enough to drop back, be a rim protector, and cut off penetration. Poeltl, in contrast, may be a man without a country on defense — not fast enough to guard on the perimeter, not big enough to protect the rim. He’s going to be drafted much higher than Hammons because of his superior per-game numbers, but if Poeltl isn’t a primary option in the NBA, he doesn’t have as many secondary skills as Hammons to become a consistent contributor. Just because a big man is better than his competition in the NCAA doesn’t mean he’ll have the same superiority in the NBA. Recent history has taught us this; when will evaluators adapt?