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Two of the Best Centers in the NBA Draft Have Never Played Center

Draymond Green has established the NBA’s new standard at the pivot, and teams will have to adjust their understanding of positions to keep up. It might be hard to envision right now, but Jonathan Isaac and OG Anunoby could be the future of the 5 spot.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Traditional centers are dropping like flies in this year’s playoffs. Enes Kanter was the first to go, with TV cameras catching Billy Donovan telling one of his assistants that Kanter “can’t play” in the Thunder’s first-round series against the Rockets. Even big men who can protect the rim are feeling the pinch. Jonas Valanciunas was benched for large portions of games by the Raptors in two consecutive series. Isaiah Thomas has left tread marks on the bodies of Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat on his way to the basket. The Rockets beat the Spurs so badly in Game 1 of their second-round series that they forced the famously stubborn Gregg Popovich, who has favored using huge front lines for two decades, to play a smaller lineup. A center who can’t move his feet laterally has no chance of defending a guard who can shoot off the dribble in space. A coach can’t make a player any faster. The only thing he can do is bench them or give them a blindfold and a cigarette.

The job description for the position has changed. Instead of Dwight Howard, Draymond Green is now the prototype. There aren’t many players at any level with his combination of lateral quickness, core strength, and freakish wingspan, and there are even fewer with Green’s ability to process information at such a high speed, to be in two places at once, or to give up his body and bend the rules of the game to get stops. However, even a poor man’s version of Draymond, a long and mobile defender who can switch screens, protect the rim, and still clean the glass, is incredibly valuable. The Cavs wouldn’t have won a title without Tristan Thompson. It’s probably not a coincidence that each of the NBA’s two best teams feature a center who would have been dramatically undersized a generation ago.

The Warriors’ original plan with Draymond was to use him as a wing. They even drafted a traditional center (Festus Ezeli) five spots ahead of him in 2012. He was a power forward in his four seasons at Michigan State, and most people figured he would have to move down the position spectrum in the NBA, not up. Instead, the rise of the spread pick-and-roll offense meant defending on the perimeter was more important than banging in the post. While most big men look like fish out of water when guarding players at the 3-point line, Draymond is completely comfortable getting down in a stance and sliding his feet. There were also offensive benefits to having a smaller center: Draymond can put the ball on the floor and dissect a defense like a guard, which opens up a lot of possibilities for how the Warriors can use him as a roll man.

In all likelihood, the next Draymond didn’t play as a center in college. NCAA coaches have been much slower to embrace the small-ball revolution than their counterparts in the NBA. Many of the top programs in college basketball have bigger front lines than NBA teams, playing two or even three traditional big men together at a time. As a result, the biggest market inefficiency in this year’s draft is wings who might be able to play as small-ball centers, if not next season then down the road. Two guys in particular stand out to me as theoretical 5s.

Jonathan Isaac, Florida State

The idea of playing Isaac at center would have been laughed out of the room even a couple of years ago. At 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Isaac is rail thin, and he often got pushed around by older players in his only season at Florida State. He will need to add strength to reach his ceiling in the NBA, and selling him on bulking up and banging with bigger players won’t be easy. However, the real question isn’t how Isaac will be able to handle guys like Valanciunas and Gortat in the paint. It’s whether players like those two will even be relevant by the time his rookie contract is over.

Bulky centers hurt more than they help when it comes to beating Golden State. As Cleveland proved last year, the best way to beat the Warriors is to be the Warriors. Over the past few seasons, teams have repeatedly tried and failed to play bigger players against Draymond and brutalize him with size. The only ones that have had much success have flipped the dynamic: Instead of trying to go bigger to beat Draymond, they have gone smaller. What’s Draymond doing with a size advantage? Calling for the ball on the block and jump-hooking guys to death? Or, to put it another way, what if the Thunder had matched up with the Lineup of Death last season by playing Kevin Durant at the 5? A player like Durant might not be able to survive the physical pounding against guys like DeAndre Jordan or Jusuf Nurkic in the same way that Draymond can, but it doesn’t matter if teams can play Jordan and Nurkic off the floor.

There’s a ratchet effect at work. Every time a slender athlete like Nerlens Noel or Clint Capela becomes a full-time starting center, the need for size at the position becomes less important. As the job description for a position changes, the types of players who can play it changes as well. If the best teams in the NBA are playing five wings at a time, their centers will be supersized wings who can replicate the traditional functions of a big man while still being able to play on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. That’s Jonathan Isaac in a nutshell.

Isaac averaged only 26.2 minutes per game on a Florida State team that gave regular minutes to 11 players, so his per-game statistics (7.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.2 steals a game) undervalue his defensive impact. His rebound (16.7 percent), block (6.2 percent), and steal (2.4 percent) rates compare favorably to any perimeter player in this year’s draft. He covers up a lot of space when he’s in the paint, and he can come out of nowhere to block a shot. In this sequence, he blocks fellow lottery pick Jayson Tatum at the top of his jump:

Isaac is already a great pick-and-roll defender. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he was in the 71st percentile in the country in defending that play type, giving up only 0.667 points per possession. That’s particularly impressive for such a young player, and Isaac should be comfortable either switching the screen or trapping the ball handler at the next level. No one can shut down someone like Steph Curry or Isaiah Thomas when they are coming off a screen, but a defender on the switch has to at least make their lives difficult. Isaac is very light on his feet for a 6-foot-10 guy, allowing him to stay in front of much smaller players:

Playing him at center would also make Isaac much more intriguing offensively. The biggest knock on him is his lack of aggressiveness, which is partly an issue of his relatively limited role playing alongside Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, and partly because of his lack of an elite first step or handle for a perimeter player. Move him from the 4 to the 5 and he goes from being an average wing to a dynamic big man. He shot 34.8 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game at Florida State, which is much more impressive for a center than a power forward. FSU coach Leonard Hamilton had an intense obsession with playing the biggest lineups possible, pairing Isaac with Michael Ojo (7-foot-1 and 304 pounds) and Christ Koumadje (7-foot-4 and 233 pounds) rather than playing him as a small-ball 5 — even when FSU was struggling with zone defenses and needed more perimeter ability up front. Most 3s and 4s can attack a close-out and get all the way to the rim, but few 5s can, even at the NBA level. Playing Isaac with four shooters around him would make an offense near indefensible:

Isaac will never be a full-time center, but neither will Draymond. The Warriors played their hand perfectly this season: They brought in a bunch of big men on cheap salaries (Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, and David West) to fill the position in the regular season, and saved their Lineup of Death for the playoffs. Traditional big men have become like innings eaters in baseball. No one really needs a no. 4 starter in October, but there’s still plenty of value in having a guy who can reliably throw 200 innings from April to September. If Isaac is a small forward who can play power forward in certain matchups, he’s probably fairly valued by most draft sites near the bottom of the top 10. If he’s a power forward who can play some center, he could end up being the steal of the draft.

OG Anunoby, Indiana

Anunoby is one of the most mysterious players in this year’s draft. No one even knew who he was two years ago, when he signed with Indiana despite not being ranked in the top 250 in the country by the national recruiting services. As a freshman, he averaged only 13.7 minutes a game, not breaking out until the NCAA tournament. He played in only 16 games as a sophomore before a knee injury knocked him out for the season. He may not even have declared for the draft if his coach (Tom Crean) had not been fired. Whatever team drafts Anunoby will be gambling on his jaw-dropping physical tools and the hope that he can maintain his steady rate of improvement in two seasons at Indiana.

Because he didn’t play on the all-star circuit in high school, there are no official measurements for Anunoby. Indiana lists him at 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds and its coaching staff claims he has a 7-foot-6 wingspan. I talked to one NBA scout who thinks it’s probably closer to 7-foot-4, but either way, Anunoby’s preposterous reach, when combined with his elite athleticism, makes him a potentially revolutionary defensive player. In this sequence, Anunoby effortlessly switches onto Kansas point guard Frank Mason III, who was the consensus national player of the year this season, and blocks his shot off the glass:

Like Isaac, Anunoby had elite defensive metrics for a wing player, with a block rate of 5.5 percent and a steal rate of 3 percent, although his rebound rate (12.5 percent) is only average. Unlike Isaac, he won’t need to get stronger to play at the next level, even at center. Anunoby has as NBA-ready a body as any NCAA player in recent memory. Look at him box out Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (no. 35 in this clip), who is listed at 7 feet and 280 pounds. I watched Azubuike manhandle Bam Adebayo (6-foot-10 and 260 pounds) in the practices for the McDonald’s All American Game a year ago. Anunoby is not going to be bullied by anyone:

Anunoby is much less polished than Isaac offensively. In two seasons at Indiana, he shot 27-of-74 from the 3-point line (36.5 percent) and 47-of-90 (52.2 percent) from the free throw line. He was rarely asked to create his own shot or set up one of his teammates — he mostly attacked closeouts, ran the floor, and crashed the offensive boards. He shot 70.1 percent on 2-pointers this season because he dunked everything in sight. He was essentially DeAndre Jordan with the ability to dribble:

According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Anunoby was used as a roll man in the pick-and-roll only twice this season. He spent most of his time on the floor next to Thomas Bryant, a more traditional center expected to be drafted in the second round. Indiana didn’t have a point guard who could get him the ball, either, as they were never able to replace four-year starter Yogi Ferrell. Anunoby’s injury might have cost Crean his job: They were 13–6 with wins over North Carolina and Kansas when he went down, and they finished the season at 18–16 and missed the NCAA tournament.

His size, athleticism, and nonstop motor mean Anunoby has a high floor in the NBA. Even in a worst-case scenario, he will have a long career as an energy big man who can rebound and defend in space. He has an average outside shot and handle for a perimeter player, so he still has a lot to work on offensively, but those become much less pressing issues if he’s playing at center. If there are no long-term issues with his knee, Anunoby’s freakish physical dimensions mean he will be able to handle more minutes in the middle than even Draymond. There will still be plenty of giants at the position, but anyone bigger than Anunoby is going to have trouble staying in front of his point guard in the pick-and-roll. That’s why there aren’t many traditional big men left in the NBA playoffs. In a game without centers, the 6-foot-8 man is king.