With the NBA evolving into a game increasingly dependent on three-pointers and playmaking guards, many believe the center position is dying in importance as well. This could not be further from the truth. Rather, the position is evolving along with the sport as the giants who were formerly asked to just sit in the paint, dominate the glass, and take on the role of inflicting punishment onto anyone who entered their paint, are asked to do so much more.
Two of the three MVP nominees this past season were centers and Nikola Jokic, the eventual winner, is a beacon of hope for those centers who still feel like they can impact the game as much as the exciting young guards who are taking over the sport. Although the position is hardly recognizable compared to a few decades ago, the center position is more important than ever, and this year’s draft has some incredible talent to look into.
1. Evan Mobley, 7-0 215 USC Trojans 20.1
One player who is fitting right in with the evolution of the center position is Evan Mobley. The 7’0 Trojan star has one true limitation coming out of college and it is the one thing that is no longer entirely required for a big man: brutality. Mobley showcases a rather lanky frame at 215 pounds, but he makes up for it with impressive ball-handling and playmaking abilities for a seven-footer. He already has great range and should be able to step onto an NBA court willing and able to knock down open threes at will. He also has great touch underneath and protects the rim with the best of them as he averaged nearly three blocks per game in his freshman campaign.
Mobley will undoubtedly find himself selected in the top five in this upcoming draft and all signs point toward him falling to the Cavaliers at the third pick. The Cavs already have a dynamic backcourt with Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, and while Jarrett Allen is more than a serviceable center, he does not compare to the potential that Evan Mobley has. Playing alongside his brother Ivan at USC, Mobley showed he is versatile enough to slide into a rotation with another big man and torment opposing offenses. Do not be surprised if Mobley immediately transforms the Cavaliers putrid defense and fights for a playoff spot in his first season in Cleveland.
2. Kai Jones, 6-11 220 Texas Longhorns 20.5
One of the most intriguing prospects in this year’s draft is the former Texas Longhorn, Kai Jones (pictured). A player who started more games as a freshman and who never averaged nine points per game in two season, Jones is somehow a potential lottery selection and there is a good reason why. The 6’11 forward is one of, if not the most, athletic specimen in the 2021 class. He can rise well above the rim for alley-oops or blocking shots, but he is also laterally quick enough to guard 1-5 on the court and do so effectively. He can be an immediate disruptor as soon as he steps onto the court as a rookie, but also provide an offensive spark with rim-runs and aggressive drives to the hoop.
The unique blend of size, athleticism, and range make Jones an ideal prospect who needs a little time to develop. It is unlikely that he is in the middle of any rookie of the year chase, but do not be surprised if this guy turns out to be one of the best rookies from this class. The tools are there for him to be a star in this league if he can stay patient in the process and find a coach who will refine his skills. The new Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle could be the perfect match for Jones. He has worked with Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis, and now Domantas Sabonis who are all versatile big-men who succeeded under his tutelage. Jones could be the next in line and with the Pacers picking in the late lottery, they might just want to call Kai Jones’ name.
3. Alperen Sengun, 6-9 240 Turkey 19.0
Sengun found himself declared the Turkish league MVP at the age of 18, an impressive feat, and it launched him into first-round projections for the upcoming NBA Draft. The big man struggled a bit from three-point range (20% on nearly one attempt per game), which could potentially lead to a slow start to his career given his young age and lack of exposure to premier talent. However, few can match Sengun’s upside and glaring similarities to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. It is not fair to compare the two, but Sengun’s style of play and dominance in the post is reminiscent of the Nuggets center who started his dominance overseas as well.
The draft stock for the Turkish MVP has fluctuated heavily, but most scouts agree on a first-round grade and expect his name to be called in the projected period. Sengun stands at only 6’9, so it is unclear if he will be able to replicate his paint success against taller, stronger, and more physical NBA opponents but he is mastering his craft and his skill is undeniable. I would not be surprised if the Thunder pull the trigger at pick #18 due to his potential and due to the fact that they have plenty of draft picks in the coming years and plenty of room for error in their attempt to rebuild. Sengun currently sits at #18 in our latest Mock Draft so keep an eye on this guy if he falls to the Thunder in the first round.
4. Charles Bassey, 6-10 230 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 20.7
A powerful center who could be a double-double machine in the NBA is the perfect definition we can provide for Charles Bassey. He averaged a double-double for his career at Western Kentucky and the only thing that seemed to slow him down was a leg injury that ended Bassey’s sophomore season after only 10 games. He likely would have been in contention to be drafted if he did not get injured, and he solidified this status the following season averaging over 17 points and 11 rebounds in 2021. He was also one of the premier shot-blockers in the nation averaging over 3 blocks per game.
Bassey fits most naturally in a traditional rim-protecting, interior force role for a center, but he worked on his three-point game and shot 30% as a junior on over two attempts per game. This potential to expand his range dramatically influences his draft stock as he seems ready to transform his game into a more modern NBA style. This ability to stretch the floor while also exhibiting the brutality and strength to dominate down low makes Bassey a hot commodity role player at the next level. Any team looking for depth in the post should be taking a long, hard look at the Western Kentucky product who can immediately enter an NBA rotation and make his presence felt.
5. Isaiah Jackson, 6-10 205 Kentucky Wildcats 19.5
A late season surge by the former Wildcat rejuvenated his draft stock and earned him a selection the NBA Draft Green Room on the day of the draft. This invitation is a great sign for Jackson as the NBA teams vote on the top-20 players who will be live in attendance on draft night. This is not a guarantee that he will be selected in the top-20, much less the first round, but it is definitely a good sign. Coach Calipari fell in love with this guy due to his incredible leaping ability and rim-protecting instincts at 6’10 with a 7’2 wingspan. He put on a show in the Champions Classic against Kansas with 8 blocks and proved why scouts are drooling over his length and instincts around the rim.
He does not provide a ton of help on the offensive end other than rim-runs and finishes around the rim, but he started to show some comfortably in his mid-range game and a 70% free-throw percentage proves he has what it takes to expand his jump shot. The Pacers and Spurs are two late-lottery teams who are desperately looking for interior defensive help after finishing in the bottom five in the league in opponent points per game in the paint. Jackson should still be on the board when these picks come around and I would be shocked if either of them let him slip out of the lottery and into the arms of another team.
6. Usman Garuba, 6-8 230 Spain 19.4
The Spanish big man is quite different than the ginormous point-forwards we have seen come from overseas in recent years. Garuba only stands at 6’8, but he has a bulky frame and is one of the best defenders, if not the best, in this year’s draft. He went toe-to-toe in matchups against some of the NBA’s best players during the USA vs. Spain pre-Olympic friendly a few days ago and showed off why he is going to be a premier defender in the league.
While he may be closer to 6-7 than 6-8, Garuba moves his feet extremely well and is just as capable of defending shifty guards as he is defending the rim. You can switch every screen he is involved with, and the mismatch could always be in his favor. He started to expand his range this past season on the offensive end and will be far from a liability when he is plugged into the lineup for the NBA team he finds himself with. If Garuba falls out of the lottery, he will be selected in the top-20 and Tom Thibodeau would be drooling if he is able to work with the 19-year-old Spanish phenom. This guy will fit in well on any team as he can immediately provide impactful minutes off the bench and try to disrupt another team’s star. The Spanish national team coach was not afraid to pit him up against America’s finest stars and I don’t believe any NBA coach will be afraid to do the same.
7. Jericho Sims, 6-10 250 Texas Longhorns 22.8
We have another Texas Longhorn on this list, but Sims’ game looks a lot different than the potential lottery selection Kai Jones. Sims is an outstanding post player who has great touch around the rim and significantly boosted his draft stock at the NBA Combine by dominating other centers in the vertical leaping and agility drills. Sims topped the other centers in the three-quarter sprint, lane agility, standing vertical leap, and max vertical leap in an outstanding display that saw him jump into most mock drafts.
Sims played all four years for the Longhorns and attained double-digit starts in all four of these seasons. He struggles with just about any shot that is not within the painted area, but he makes up for it with constant energy and hustle at both ends of the floor and sensational rebounding skills. He is almost always in the right place going up for rebounds and leaped just as high, or higher, than his teammate Kai Jones all season long for the Longhorns. A 69% shooter and dominant rebounder will find a spot on any NBA team and anyone who is looking for frontcourt depth in the second round should take a look at this experienced, 6’10 big man who gives everything he’s got on every single play.
8. Neemias Queta, 7-0 250 Utah State Aggies 22.0
Queta is a traditional, rim-protecting big who does not find himself outside of the paint very often. He only took eight three-pointers in his three-year career at Utah State and his limited mobility and below average free-throw shooting does not show promise for this to change. However, Queta does dominate at what he is good at and that is hanging in the post, blocking shots, and scoring around and above the rim. The former Aggie will become a force in the league if he is able to find a perimeter jumper, but that is a major “if” and may never come true. Early in his career, he will likely be a short-burst player off the bench meant to protect the rim and help win the rebounding battle. Queta is just one of those guys who was made for a different era of basketball but could still find his way on a roster due to his natural talent and strength on the interior.
9. Day'Ron Sharpe, 6-10 265 North Carolina Tar Heels 19.7
Speaking of players caught in the wrong generation, Day’Ron Sharpe fits that description, potentially even more than Queta. Sharpe is a brute force in the post who banked off of offensive rebounds and put back dunks for the Tar Heels this past season. Sharpe averaged more than three offensive rebounds per game and seven rebounds total in only 19 minutes per game in a deep rotation in Chapel Hill. What he lacks in shot-blocking ability, he makes up for on the other end with great anticipation and decent accuracy on passing from the low block. His passing and impressive ability to clean up messes on the offensive glass will earn him a paycheck or two and at least a few chances to earn some minutes for an NBA team. How he takes advantage of these opportunities is completely up to him and he will be an interesting career to follow to say the least.
10. Filip Petrusev, 6-11 235 Serbia 21.3
After two successful seasons as a star for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Filip Petrusev started playing professionally in the ABA and success followed him. He ended the season as the league’s leading scorer (23.6 PPG) and showed off the hard work he put in the offseason to become a true stretch-five. Petrusev mainly stayed in the post and displayed excellent touch around the rim in his Gonzaga career, but last season he averaged three shots from beyond the arc per game and knocked down 42% of them. His post instincts and prowess were always a part of his game, but now Petrusev is a true stretch-five who can attack opposing defenses from beyond the arc and in the paint.
Given his age and late blooming perimeter jumper, Petrusev still only has a second round grade, but like most other centers at the bottom of this list, he should be able to make a name for himself as a rotational player early in his career. As one of the most NBA ready bigs in the class, contending teams looking for depth and outside range from their centers will be looking to pull the trigger on Petrusev. He has won everywhere he has been and could be the piece to take a team from good to great in the long run.