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The Top 5 Bigs in the NBA

The big man has come a long way in the modern NBA. With so many versatile contenders, who topped the list?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. All rankings were voted on by The Ringer staff unless noted.

Below is our list of the top five bigs in the NBA today. For this ranking, positions are defined by Basketball-Reference’s designation for the 2019-20 season. For example, LeBron James is listed as a PG, so he’s a guard. Paul George is an SF, so he’s a wing. Giannis is a PF, so he’s a big. Injured players are also eligible. Here are the results.

5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Towns is perhaps the most polarizing player on this list, and that’s because he’s so ridiculously talented. Ever since he came into the league as the no. 1 pick in 2015, people have had great expectations—ones that haven’t been met. There have been calls for more effort, better defense, and all-around greater commitment to winning (whatever that means). But on paper, there are few players who project to be as dominant as Towns given his age. What makes Towns so unique is his 3-point shooting ability. He shot 40 percent from 3 last season on 4.6 attempts per game, which were already astounding numbers for a 7-footer. Somehow though, Towns averaged three more 3-point attempts per game this season, and his percentage went up to 41.2 percent. Unlike most floor-stretching bigs, Towns is as comfortable beyond the arc as he is inside the paint.

The Wolves hold the keys to Towns’s future, and they can only hope to build a supporting cast around him that eventually leads to wins. Otherwise, they may be left wondering what went wrong as Towns flourishes and fulfills expectations elsewhere.

4. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

It is important to note that the voting for this ranking was done before pictures of Slim Jokic surfaced last week:

If we had seen this beforehand, I’d like to think that my Ringer colleagues and I would have been enamored enough to put him in the top three.

To be clear, there’s an argument that Jokic is already at that level. But I have to play devil’s advocate for a second. Jokic’s, shall we say, extra weight wasn’t just part of his charm—it helped him succeed. His game has never been predicated on speed, quickness, or even strength. It’s always been about his ability to be slow, prodding, and yet still extremely effective with his passing and scoring. So what will happen to Jokic when the NBA returns next month? Will he change how he plays? I doubt it. Will his style be held back in any way? I suppose there’s a chance he becomes even better than he already was. If the Nuggets want any shot at taking home this year’s title, they’re certainly going to need him to be a cut above the rest.

3. Joel Embiid, 76ers

Even more so than Towns, Embiid can have games in which he looks like the most unstoppable player in the world. His ceiling is just that high. To watch him operate when he’s truly on is to see not just a modern big, but a big who has found a way to bring old-school moves to this current NBA environment. Embiid might be better used from the inside out, but asking him to play from the outside in isn’t an issue either. He relies on his 3-point shot far too often, but he was shooting nearly 35 percent from deep on 3.7 attempts per game before the season was put on pause.

The downside with Embiid is that he always seems to be held back by injury. He has yet to play 65 games in a single regular season, and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to (or should) across the rest of his career. Still, his talent is so high on both ends of the floor that he affects games in ways only a handful of players in the league can. He’s like a living boulder with a feather-light shooting touch, and if he ever stays healthy through a Sixers playoff run, it won’t matter whether he’s playing next to Ben Simmons or whomever the Sixers might trade him for. Philly will have a shot.

2. Anthony Davis, Lakers

Watching Davis play basketball live is both an amazing and confounding experience. A player like LeBron might generate respect when you watch him; a player like Steph Curry might generate joy; but Davis projects something more like bewilderment. You spend most of your time watching him trying to make sense of what you’re seeing. How does he get from here to there and block a shot when he wasn’t even in the picture? Where does he come from on that alley-oop? And how are the same long arms that stretch out miles to catch that pass also able to cross over guards on the perimeter?

It sometimes seems like Davis has been in the league for a decade, but at just 27 years old, there may still be another decade of playing ahead of him. His partnership with LeBron has worked to perfection. They not only have great on-court chemistry, but you can tell that LeBron already trusts him and wants him to play like the best big—the best player, even—in the league.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

What is there to say about Giannis that hasn’t been said? If Embiid is the boulder with the feather-light touch, Giannis is the boulder that doesn’t need to have much else because no one can stop him. He’s the most dominant player in the league right now, a surefire two-time MVP, and the future face of the NBA. What’s incredible is that there’s still plenty of room for him to improve. His 3-point shot is unreliable—I might argue that making it reliable is unnecessary given how dominant he already is—and he’s still averaging only 31 minutes a game during the regular season. This season, he’s scored nearly a point per minute along with nearly 14 rebounds and six assists a game. And that’s without mentioning the fact that he probably deserves to be named Defensive Player of the Year.

The Bucks have constructed the perfect team for Giannis to thrive. The question now is whether they’ve constructed the right team for him to win—and, eventually, stay.

Others receiving multiple votes: Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo