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The NBA Positional Census: Center

Three players who show where the 5 spot has been, is now, and is headed as the league grows more and more amorphous. Thon Maker, Jusuf Nurkic, and Willie Cauley-Stein all have the potential to thrive in modern schemes, but there are glaring questions about the role they play on the floor.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is becoming a positionless league. Coaches are more comfortable playing nontraditional lineups, cross-switching defensive assignments, and sliding players between positions. However, there are still five spots in a lineup, and what spot a player occupies still matters. Every five-man group needs someone to perform a few basic roles so everything one guy does (or doesn’t do) impacts his four teammates. That’s why who plays where is more important than ever. More positional flexibility means more diversity in the types of players at each spot. This series will take a look at how each position is changing, through the lens of three starters, each with a different skill set.

The summer of 2016 might have been as good as it gets for centers around the league. With the salary cap spike burning a hole in the pockets of NBA teams, even average big men were getting paid like stars. Timofey Mozgov, Joakim Noah, and Bismack Biyombo signed contracts worth a combined $208 million, while backups with little positional versatility like Miles Plumlee (four years, $50 million), Cole Aldrich (three years, $22 million) and Boban Marjanovic (three years, $21 million) cashed in as well. A lot of the contracts signed last summer look bad in hindsight, no matter the position. But few look worse than the ones given to the guys at what used to be the most important position in the game.

With so many teams playing small-ball and shifting 3s and 4s to the 5 for stretches of the game, traditional centers are losing playing time. More centers are available than the league can use, and a market correction is occurring. Nerlens Noel took a one-year qualifying offer from the Mavs when they wouldn’t give him a max contract. Mason Plumlee is much better than his older brother, yet has barely gotten a sniff in restricted free agency. Aron Baynes kept Boban Marjanovic out of the rotation in Detroit last season, and he’s going to be making nearly $3 million less than his former backup, even though he’s now the starter in Boston. Andrew Bogut, Tyler Zeller, Jordan Hill, Roy Hibbert, Jared Sullinger, and Tiago Splitter are all looking for work.

There will always be some value in big men who can wrestle in the paint and play above the rim, but those players are no longer hard to find. Teams might start following the lead of the Warriors, who gave out one-year deals worth a combined $8 million to their three-headed monster (Zaza Pachulia, David West, and JaVale McGee) at center. Just a year ago, that was the going rate for a backup center. While the best players at the position will still get paid, everyone else is becoming replaceable. Here’s a look at three young centers with three contrasting skill sets trying to find their place in the NBA and separate themselves from the pack:

Thon Maker

Maker was the mystery man in last year’s draft. No one was sure how old he was, much less if he was any good. He was a mixtape sensation in high school, but he never played in college, and declared for the draft after a post-graduate season in Canada. Eyebrows raised around the league when the Bucks took Maker at no. 10 overall. With three veteran big men (John Henson, Greg Monroe, and Miles Plumlee) ahead of him, the assumption was he would spend his rookie year on the bench. Instead, Maker became a starter right before the All-Star break, helping Milwaukee make an unlikely playoff push.

Milwaukee didn’t ask Maker to do much. He averaged only 13.7 minutes per game in 34 games as a starter, often playing only at the start of each half. Monroe got the majority of the playing time at center, but he was better as a featured player on the second unit rather than in a complementary role with the starters. The Bucks just needed their starting 5 to spot up on the perimeter and stay out of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s way. Maker won the job because he was the best shooter of the centers, knocking down 28-of-74 (37.8 percent) from 3. He rarely got to create his own offense: the ball was in his hands for an average of 0.3 seconds per touch. He was either shooting it or immediately giving it up.

At 7-foot-1 and 223 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, the 20-year-old is slender for a starting center, even in today’s game, and he might not have been able to survive a bigger workload in his rookie season. Maker wasn’t particularly effective when venturing into the paint. He was a below-average rebounder, corralling boards at a rate (11.8 percent) that was less than half of the league leaders at the center position. He was only in the 22nd percentile at finishing on cuts, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports. Maker struggled with gathering strong and finishing through contact. In this sequence, Amir Johnson bumps Maker and forces a miss, even though he gets a clean look at the rim:

A generation ago, a center with Maker’s frame would have been demolished in the post. However, even with how much size he was giving up, opposing teams still rarely attacked him in the paint. Opposing players took only 36 shots against him in the post last season, according to Synergy, compared to 167 in the pick-and-roll. Maker had trouble dealing with the size of Jonas Valanciunas in the first round of last season’s playoffs, but it didn’t matter because Valanciunas couldn’t keep up defensively. Milwaukee put him in screens and forced him to guard 25-plus feet from the basket. Toronto won the series by downsizing, putting another wing in the lineup and moving Serge Ibaka to center.

The key for Maker is getting stronger without losing any quickness. He defended the two-man game well for such a young player: he was in the 65th percentile league-wide when defending the ball handler, and in the 74th percentile against the roll man. He has unusual foot speed for a 7-footer, and he could develop into a player capable of switching screens and guarding all five positions. Not many centers can stay in front of Kyle Lowry on a switch like Maker does here:

The most intriguing aspect of Maker’s game is his ball skills. He’s not the next Kevin Durant as the mixtapes made him out to be, but he can put the ball on the floor and get by bigger defenders when they crowd him. A 7-footer with a jumper, handle, and quick first step is almost unguardable, and Maker showed flashes of all three as a rookie. It’s easy to see his potential on plays like this, where he faces up Johnson, gets to the rim and finishes on the move:

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Maker. How will his body hold up to the physical pounding at center through an 82-game season? Can he become a good enough decision-maker to be a primary playmaker? Can he punish smaller defenders when they switch pick-and-rolls on him? A 7-footer with his versatility is exciting, but Maker needs to find one or two things that can become the backbone of the rest of his game. He wasn’t a standout shooter as a rookie, and he didn’t make much of an impact on defense.

Maker could become a victim of a numbers game in crunch time. After all, Giannis is 6-foot-11 and he can do everything Maker can—except shoot—so why not play him at the position where it’s easiest to hide a non-shooter? Moving Giannis to the 5 would allow the Bucks to keep their best role players on the floor. Is playing a center worth taking out your best 1-on-1 scorer (Jabari Parker), perimeter defender (Tony Snell), all-around wing (Khris Middleton), or 3-and-D guard (Malcolm Brogdon)? Maker can’t settle for being average. A 7-footer has to be exceptional at something to stay on the floor these days.

Jusuf Nurkic

It was a tale of two seasons for Nurkic. A short-lived experiment put Nurkic and Nikola Jokic together in Denver’s starting lineup, but Nurkic became the odd man out when it was clear the two centers couldn’t coexist. He never accepted a role off the bench, and his play slipped across the board, all but forcing the Nuggets to trade him. Then, after being sent with a first-round pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee, Nurkic regained the form he showed in his rookie season two years ago, when he looked like one of the most promising centers in the league:

Team Points FG% Rebounds Assists Blocks
Team Points FG% Rebounds Assists Blocks
Denver 8 50.70% 5.8 1.3 0.8
Portland 15.2 50.80% 10.4 3.2 1.9

The trade shook up the playoff race. Portland went on a 14-6 tear with Nurkic and finished one game ahead of Denver for the no. 8 seed. The difference in the standings was a 122-113 victory for the Blazers on March 28, when Nurkic destroyed his old team with 33 points on 12-of-15 shooting and 15 rebounds:

Nurkic wound up missing the final seven games of the season with a broken leg, and only played 16 minutes in a first-round loss to the Warriors, but he still made a huge impact on his new team. In 584 minutes with Nurkic playing, the Blazers had a net rating of plus-9.6 and the highest offensive rating (113.7) and lowest defensive rating (103.7) of any of their rotation players. The player with the next highest net rating was Maurice Harkless at plus-3.4.

Nurkic filled a giant hole in Portland. The Blazers had one of the smallest starting lineups in the NBA: two combo guards (Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum), two combo forwards (Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu), and a glaring need for two-way play in the paint. The problem was Plumlee, the starting 5 before the trade, was a limited offensive player who couldn’t anchor a defense, and Festus Ezeli, who was supposed to be the primary rim protector, couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t play a minute all season before getting waived in June. They also rotated through Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, and Ed Davis in that spot, and none of them could survive as the lone big man on the floor.

At 7-feet and 280 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Nurkic is light on his feet for such a massive human being, and has a good feel for the game and a soft touch around the basket. Even though he struggled defending the pick-and-roll, he still improved Portland’s defense by locking down the paint and clearing the defensive glass, which were two issues for the Blazers’ undersized big men. He was more locked in defensively after the trade, and his block rate jumped from 3.5 percent with the Nuggets to 5.4 percent with the Blazers. Look how easily he’s able to get off the ground to block Russell Westbrook:

And while he was a black hole by the end of his time in Denver and often reluctant to kick the ball back out, he was a changed man in Portland. He played like a Bosnian version of Jokic: finding the open man when he was rolling to the rim and threading passes through traffic with his back to the basket. He pulled off the rare double of boosting his assist rate, from 11.1 to 17.7, without a corresponding rise in his turnover rate, which actually dropped from 18.9 to 18.2. Nurkic is an excellent post scorer, but it’s hard to run offense through a big man inside if he can’t (or won’t) facilitate. Lillard and McCollum will have no trouble feeding him if he continues to make plays like this:

Nurkic can sign an extension on his rookie deal before the start of the season, though Portland may wait to make sure he can sustain his magical 20-game run through the course of a full season. However, the move to dump Allen Crabbe (and his $75 million contract) to the Nets was probably made with Nurkic in mind, since the Blazers couldn’t afford to extend him without clearing some cap space.

The unfortunate thing for Portland is Nurkic’s injury prevented them from seeing how he would look against Golden State in the playoffs. Every team in the West is trying to knock off the Warriors, and no traditional center has been able to keep up when they go to the Lineup of Death. The hope for the Blazers is that Nurkic is such a physical presence that he would get Draymond Green and Kevin Durant into foul trouble if they tried to bang with him in the paint, forcing the Warriors to stay big with either Pachulia or West. Nurkic is never going to be able to play on the perimeter. Going against the Warriors, the goal for him—and any other bulkier 5—will always be to become dominant enough in the lane that he forces small-ball teams to adjust to him.

Willie Cauley-Stein

Cauley-Stein is another big man rejuvenated by a trade last season, although in his case it was because the star in front of him was dealt. His playing time nearly tripled after DeMarcus Cousins was traded at the All-Star break; Cauley-Stein went from averaging 13 minutes per game before to 30.9 minutes after, and he showed flashes of why the Kings picked him no. 6 overall in 2015. He will be their starting 5 this season, and they have to figure out the best way to use a player with his unique combination of strengths and weaknesses.

At 7-feet and 240 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Cauley-Stein is an absolutely freakish athlete. He runs like a gazelle, and he has a future in the decathlon if basketball doesn’t work out for him. His most memorable play in college came at the end of a Sweet 16 game, when he tracked Jerian Grant the length of the floor and prevented him from getting a clean look at the basket. You can count the 7-footers in the NBA who can do that on one hand. Cauley-Stein’s physical tools give him the potential to be a game-changing defensive force: he was in the 100th percentile of isolation defenders in the league last season, albeit on a limited sample of 37 possessions. Efforts like this against Anthony Davis—he’s able to crowd his Kentucky counterpart 20-plus feet from the basket, stay with him all the way to the rim, and still contest his shot—show what Cauley-Stein can do when he’s dialed in:

The knock on Cauley-Stein in college was that he had a tendency to float through games. There’s no reason a 7-footer who can run and jump like he can should have an average rebounding (13.8) and block rate (2.8). And for all his potential, he didn’t make much of an impact on the Kings defense last season. Their defensive ratings with him in the game (108.8) and without him (109.3) were practically identical. It’s unfair to ask a 23-year-old to carry a defense as bad as the Kings, who were no. 27 in the NBA last season. But that’s the side of the ball Sacramento has to improve to get out of the cellar out West, especially since they no longer have a star like Cousins to build their offense around.

Young 7-footers typically have an easier time impacting the game on offense, but Sacramento had no idea how to use Cauley-Stein last season. He would be at his best as a roll man in a spread floor catching lobs from an elite point guard, à la DeAndre Jordan, but the Kings had one of the worst point guard situations in the league, and they were only 23rd in the NBA in 3-point attempts. Cauley-Stein was in the eighth percentile of post scorers, yet he still took 73 shots in the post. He doesn’t have the frame to establish deep post position, nor the feel to score with his back to the basket. Dave Joerger can safely take plays like this failed isolation on Marreese Speights out of the playbook:

Cauley-Stein should benefit from playing with De’Aaron Fox, the blindingly fast point guard the Kings took with the no. 5 overall pick in June. Sacramento ranked 23rd in pace last season, and Cauley-Stein could be lethal next to a pass-first guard who wants to push the pace. A 7-footer with his speed and finishing ability should get more than 9.1 percent of his shots in transition. He can get three to four baskets a game just on plays like this:

It’s a new day in Sacramento as they begin their first season in eight years without Cousins. While Cauley-Stein could never fill his predecessor’s shoes, the Kings were also never able to build a successful team around a ball-dominant center either, so it was time for a change. A rim-running 7-footer like Cauley-Stein could have an important role on a good team, but only if he can get better at the basics: crashing the boards, communicating on defense and running the floor. Even when he doesn’t score in transition, he will create open looks for his teammates if he’s the filling the lane. The more he can play with energy and harness his athleticism, the better he (and his team) will be.