Who said the center position was dead? Coming off a third season in a row with an MVP coming from the center spot (Joel Embiid), not to mention a Finals MVP and Nikola Jokic announcing himself as the best player in the world. The position is evolving more than it’s dying and we see that here with the sensational Wembanyama whose skillset feels unprecedented. The clear prize of the draft , obviously, at the top spot here, but don’t sleep on the rest of this list, which is filled with productive and intriguing big men who all have a chance to make a name for themselves in their professional careers.
1. Victor Wembanyama, France
The “sky is the limit” truly applies here as Wembanyama is the type of talent that only comes around once in a generation. It doesn’t get much easier than this with Wembanyama establishing himself this year as not just the best center in the draft, but the best prospect of the past 20 years. With his generational skillset, length and feel for the game, Wembanyama could be an All-Star as soon as his rookie season and develop into one of the best players the sport has ever seen. Add into that the fact that he’s going to the best team to nurture his upside, and anything is possible. The one concern is how he fills out his body, whether his lower body can stay injury free, in order to reach the immense expectations. Wembanyama had some injury concerns going into this past season having missed 43 of the team’s 76 games last year with ASVEL. With Metropolitans 92, this season, there was a concerted effort to keep him healthy and things should stay the same playing for the team that revolutionized the concept of load management, Coach Pop and the Spurs. Look for Wembanyama, barring injuries affecting him, to revolutionize the center position, similar to Nikola Jokic, only with the ability to dominate on both ends of the floor.
3. Noah Clowney, Alabama Crimson Tide
Clowney edges out Lively and Jackson-Davis by a hare due to offensive upside and age. The near seven-foot freshman possessed outstanding mobility and athleticism allowing him to play as the starting four alongside Charles Bediako, who we’ll talk about later. He’ll likely play both positions at the next level and ultimately settle into being a 5. This versatility and comfort letting it fly from beyond the arc bodes well for the South Carolina native in his transition to the modern professional game that plays well to his unique strengths at his size. With excellent form, his numbers weren’t as efficient shooting as the eye test suggests he can become. While Clowney lacks the length of Lively, he shows even more ability to shoot the three ball and superior offensive feel.
3. Dereck Lively, Duke Blue Devils
Not even Lively (pictured) could have imagined his name being as high on draft boards at this point after such a sluggish start to his highly anticipated freshman season. It was a major struggle for him to stay out of foul trouble and produce consistent minutes, but as time went on, Lively emerged as the anchor to Duke’s suffocating defense with his immense size and length in the middle of the floor. There isn’t much to his offensive game as things stand, however teams liked the shooting potential he flashed in workouts, but the defensive upside and size has him trending towards the late lottery as the draft approaches. The fact that he only averaged 5 ppg at Duke and under 10ppg (8.7) in EYBL seems to no longer be of any concern considering his draft projection. His wingspan was measured at 7-foot3.5 heading into college so the figure that Duke put out 7-foot-7 is uncertain, so hopefully whichever team that drafts Lively actually gets him and knows exactly what they are getting with him.
4. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana Hoosiers
TJD may not have the same projected role as the young centers in front of him, but in terms of overall ability to impact an NBA team heading into next season, Jackson-Davis is second only to Wembanyama. Indiana’s four-year star displayed tremendous defensive versatility and athleticism in his time in Bloomington, giving him a defensive rating that is a lot closer to the imposing seven-footers behind him. The lefty has better than advertised touch and some upside to extend his shooing working with NBA teams. Combine that with an advanced post scoring arsenal and sensational court vision and it’s clear why Jackson-Davis dominated the college game and figures to impact the next level with his package of skills, athleticism, and determination.
5. Tristan Vukcevic, Serbia
The Sweet shooting Serbian bigman by way of Italy is one of the more intriguing Europeans available for this year’s draft. He put on a shooting display at the NBA Draft combine and decided to keep his name in the draft. Vukcevic is likely to hear his name called somewhere in the mid-second round area. He’s soft, lacking much strength and toughness at this point, but the fluidity and shooting make him an intriguing gamble. Best case scenario, he could develop into something like Mehmet Okur in his prime playing with Utah.
6. James Nnaji, Nigeria
Nnaji is an absolute specimen in the post with a filled out, bulky frame that makes it extremely difficult for anyone to move him on the low block. While just 6’10, Nnaji makes up for it with ridiculous length (a reported 7’5-7’7 wingspan) and a powerful lower half, which will allow him to compete with the best centers in the world from a physical standpoint. Despite little to no offensive progress, Nnaji is an athletic marvel who projects to be a second-round lock at the very worst with a chance to climb higher.
7. Adama Sanogo, Connecticut Huskies
An impressive showing at the 2023 NBA Combine scrimmages did enough to convince both scouts and Sanogo that it was time for the NCAA Tournament MOP to move on. Sanogo makes up for his shorter height (6’7.25” barefoot) with an imposing frame (7’2.75″ wingspan) and a seasoned hook shot in the post. granted he’s limited athletically with just a 31 inch max vert and below average foot speed. Despite this, he developed into one of the premiere rebounders in college basketball with a relentless motor and mindset that will do him well in the NBA even if he figures to struggle with the transition with the speed of the game as an undersized center.
8. Azuolas Tubelis, Arizona Wildcats
No big men in the college game ran the floor or established post position as consistently well as Tubelis. Tommy Lloyd’s fast-paced offense ran through their big man as he averaged 19.8 points and 9 rebounds per game with the Wildcats. While the are clearly some holes to his game, including defensive ability and shooting, the basketball feel and impact give him intrigue. His mobility and offensive skillset should carry him into some kind of role at the next level.
9. Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky Wildcats
There are an endless supply of questions surrounding Tshiebwe and his unpredictable production at the next level, but one thing no one can question is his work ethic and rebounding. The former NPOY grabbed 16 rebounds in just over 17 minutes in his first scrimmage at the combine against the competition he’s fighting with in this draft. Anyone who played with him knows that he is a selfless leader who will give his all for every minute he’s out there. It’s hard to pass up on a guy like that at the end of the second round.
10. Drew Timme, Gonzaga Wildcats
After a legendary career in Spokane, Drew Timme is now setting his sights to the NBA, much to the pleasure of opposing WCC fans whom he tormented the past 3-4 years. His skillset doesn’t project to the next level, but his non-stop motor and leadership certainly will. All Timme did was put up points in college and it’s hard to see him struggling to contribute an efficient supply of them in the NBA. The trick will be preventing teams from exploiting his defensive and athletic shortcoming and developing some sort of perimeter shooting game.