Are true centers and back to the basket ‘bigs’ becoming a dying breed? Take one look at this list and you’d likely think so. Most of the guys below aren’t household names with four of them being International born players and with the other six being far from what we’ve been used to seeing out of this position in recent years. Since 2011, there have been 16 players drafted in the lottery that were classified as ‘centers’ which equates to roughly 23% of all lotto picks during that time. Considering that this has become a guard/wing dominated league in recent years, that number is a lot higher than most would think. The likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid and Steven Adams are all guys that come to mind as guys recently drafted in the lottery who are considered true centers. And while there are those that would point to the likes of Golden State as a prime example of not needing an elite level center to compete in the NBA, they aren’t the rule, but rather an exception to the rule. The reality of it is that while the position is without a doubt one of need for teams, the talent pool at this position isn’t what it was during the days of Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq, etc. So without further ado, we end our positional rankings series by analyzing the guys who will look roam the paint over the next few years.
1. Jakob Poeltl – Utah
One of the biggest ‘risers’ in this group from one year to the next, Poeltl is your prototypical back to the basket center. He’s not going to stretch the floor very much with his jump shot but he’s got some intrigue as a two way starting center. Watch film on him and the biggest thing that stands out to me is his ability to get out in transition. He runs the floor better than any big man on this list and has surprisingly quick feet for a guy his size. He’s a true back to the basket player with an improving offensive game. He doesn’t really have a go-to post up move just yet, but he really put in work to develop his post moves from his freshman year to this season. He’s a load on the block and can finish with both hands, and has begun to master some up and under moves. Once he gets inside position on you, there isn’t much most defenders can do to defend him. He’s not a dominant athlete, but he’s very solid by NBA standards. He really took off during his sophomore campaign averaging over 17 and 9 per game after going for 9 and 7 as a freshman. The most glaring statistic for him a season ago was his abysmal free throw numbers. He shot less than 45% from the stripe last season which was a hug red flag for scouts but he worked on those numbers over the summer and came back to shoot a very respectable 69% as a sophomore. I worry about his ability to play against smaller lineups at the next level. He may be relegated to the bench at times as teams go small a la Andrew Bogut. He needs to develop some sort of 18 footer to keep defenders honest as he’s almost zero threat to do anything from beyond 15 feet at this point. He brings a blue collar approach and is a willing pupil, but there’s a sense that he doesn’t have the attitude and confidence to be a star at the next level. Regardless, he’s the class of this year’s centers and a likely lottery pick.
2. Deyonta Davis – Michigan State
Davis is one of the more raw players in this entire draft. His size, length and athleticism are the types of things that scouts drool over, especially given his age. I, for one, think that he could have solidified himself as a guaranteed lottery pick with the potential to be in the top five range, but he had such and up and down freshman season that was marred with inconsistency, that he will be one of those fringe lottery players. He refused workouts with teams outside the top 9, so it will remain to be seen if that was a good decision. He’s got plenty of upside and potential and is the type of big man that, when motivated, could anchor your offense and defense from inside the paint. Defensively he was one of the better shot blockers in the country even though his overall averages of 1.8 per game don’t really jump out at you. But he only played around 19 minutes per contest as he was prone to foul trouble late in the season which really hurt his numbers. He’s got all the physical tools to be a great player at the next level but some scouts have concerns about his motor and his tendency to disappear for stretches. He isn’t much of an offensive threat away from the basket and is far from a finished product inside five feet. He’s a strong and quick leaper and gets a good portion of his scoring opportunities off of put backs and offensive rebounds. He doesn’t really have a go-to post move currently and his footwork needs work, as does his general feel for the game. He’s got the physical tools to be a stretch four, but he can’t really shoot and has trouble defending smaller bigs even though he’s got quick feet and recovers nicely when beat off the dribble. He’s shown that he can be an impact player on both ends of the floor at times so a team that feels that they develop players well and can get the most out of him shouldn’t have any issues taking him. A real boom or bust type of pick, whose success likely will be contingent upon landing in the right situation.
3. Damian Jones – Vanderbilt
Jones certainly hasn’t been a disappointment, but struggled to fully realize his abilities in his 3 year career at Vanderbilt. He hasn’t progressed as much over the last two seasons as scouts expected him to. He’s got the body to play at the next level, is a good athlete with long arms and the ability to be a two way player. He just didn’t take over games the way you would want a guy with his physical tools to do. Is that a product of a kid with a lack of desire, or are there other factors such as system, coaching and expectations that affected him? Jones showed very well in both last summer’s Nike Skills Academy, outperforming #1 on this list Jakob Poeltl, and also in his Pro Day workout in LA in front of numerous teams where he shot extremely well from the perimeter. A big puzzle is Jones lack of production on the glass. His 6.9 per game averages just aren’t very good for a strong, athletic 7 footer with as much length and ability as Jones possesses. Rebounding is mostly effort and when you are a player like him and it is clear that he lacks that relentless effort on the glass that can be the calling card for athletic bigs (see Tristan Thompson). Much like most of the guys in this group, he needs to work on his post game as he’s far from a finished product. He showed better touch around the basket this year, and even extended his range out to 18-19 feet, thus making him an intriguing prospect with the value put on centers in recent years that can spread the floor for slashing wings and dribble penetrating guards. A team in the mid-late first round figures to fall in love with his body, skill set and upside, making him a likely first rounder.
4. Ivica Zubac – International
Zubac was considered on the fence to stay in the draft and the fact that he kept his name in is probably a good indication that he has some type of promise in the late teens to early 20s. He’s not nearly as ready from a physical standpoint as his countryman Ante Zizic (further down the list), but his upside is far greater as he shows the better phsyical and offensive potential. Zubac has had some very solid offensive performances late in the year and projects as a possible NBA starter in a few seasons. He’s got very good fluidity and a body that should be able to add and carry weight going forward. He’s a bit of a hot head and will need to learn to control his emotions, but that is favorable to the alternative of not showing enough emotion. Zubac has the makings of a two way player that can alter and block shots as well as play in the post and hit mid range shots facing up. Some felt he was a year away from showing lottery talent, so he could end up being a very solid upside play in the late teens to early 20s of this year’s draft.
5. Stephen Zimmerman – UNLV
Zimmerman has good height and length for an NBA five man but currently lacks the muscle to bang with NBA centers. He’s thin and will need to add a lot of muscle before he will be ready to contribute at the next level. Another year at UNLV would have benefitted his transition. From an offensive standpoint, he has range and could project more as a stretch four rather than a true five as his jump shot continues to develop. He’s a willing passer and is one of the better rebounders on this list as uses his length and is active on both the offensive and defensive glass. Adding bulk to his frame will help him box out as he can get pushed around a bit by bigger, stronger centers. He’s a better athlete than most give him credit for and he really shows it when he gets some space and explodes to the basket. Physicality can be a problem at times as he doesn’t really like to mix it up as much down low. If you watch film on him, he’s extremely left hand dominant and will force shots with that hand instead of going to his right when necessary. There are reports that he can’t extend his right elbow all the way, due to a childhood injury, which could explain why his shots short when going to that hand. At the end of the day, Zimmerman is going to be a project big man. He likely won’t come in and be a big contributor from day one, but could be a nice piece for a team in need of size in a year or two.
6. Diamond Stone – Maryland
Given his age and where he is developmentally, Stone is arguably the most polished offensive post player on this list. He can play in the post, score off of pick and roll/pick and pop situations and he can step out and hit jumpers with some range. He’s not a finished product but he’s just a freshman and won’t turn 20 until mid-way through his rookie season. His numbers aren’t eye popping but he was surrounded with talent at Maryland and didn’t get as many looks as most players that have his talent level would get. His one breakout 39 point performance raised eyebrows as he carried his team to a win over Penn State in the process. He’s a load on the block, and if he can keep his weight in check, he’s going to be that much more of a complete player who can stay on the court for long stretches. His lack of athleticism is what keeps him from being a lottery pick. He’s not going to be as versatile as some of the other guys on this list, especially on the defensive end as he’s going to have trouble guarding anyone away from the basket. He doesn’t have the quickest of feet and he can be a tad slow when moving laterally. He showed promise at Maryland but he also had his "WTF" moments: see the Wisconsin game. His body language was not always positive, but then again he was a freshman and kids mature. He can be a hothead at times and as we’ve seen this postseason, incidents where players can’t keep their cool end up hurting their teams in big situations. Stone will without a doubt have a place in this league, but what place that is and how large of a role he’ll have remains to be seen. He’s got the tools, now he just has to put it all together on the court. He’s going to get plenty of looks in the mid-late first round where he’s projected at this point, but he could fall to the early second and end up a steal.
7. Ante Zizic – International
Zizic was one of the top performers to play over the weekend at the adidas Eurocamp. He got injured (minor shoulder injury) and played just half a game but impressed in the minutes he got. He has had a very productive season this year playing for Cibona. He’s a high energy bigman with a solid skill set and really excels as a rebounder. His 7-foot-3 wingspan allows him to corral rebounds out of his area and also finish around the rim without needing great lift. His explosiveness is just average, but he runs the floor hard, and plays his role well. He figures to be a role player in the NBA off the bench, giving hard nosed toughness and energy. His touch is decent (70% from the FT line) and his offensive game lacks a lot of upside but is solid. At 19 years of age, he started for a top European team averaging 13 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes. Obviously he can continue to get better, he just lacks the upside of some of the other players on this list, as he seems to have matured earlier both physically and skill wise.
8. Thon Maker – International
Having gotten the chance to see him on multiple occaisions within the past year, there is no doubt that Thon is both a very intriguing prospect, but one with major concerns. He’s a good kid who competes hard and has excellent length and solid shooting ability. He gets off the floor well off one foot and is an explosive athlete, provided he doesn’t meet contact. At 7-1, he’s also a very good outside shooter if left open. One team went as far as to say that he was the best shooter that they have had in for a workout. He shows alot of promise if he can get stronger. But there in lies the problem. Being Sudanese, there are concerns that his body may never get much stronger than it currently is. His legs have made little progress (he actually lost a 5-6 lbs from last year’s Hoop Summit to this year’s combine) and he really struggles when he is forced to explode against contact or fight for position. The decision that was made for him to graduate high school early, without announcing it, and then go through the recruiting process, which now has become obvious that going to college was never part of the plan, has left a cloud of skepticism around him. Would going to college have exposed him? We’ll never know. But he will likely be a project that will require a team believing in him and his ability to add weight and carry it without it limiting his quickness or making him injury prone.
9. AJ Hammons – Purdue
Hammons came in with a lot of size and raw talent and improved upon every aspect of his game in each of his four years at Purdue. He’s been able to slim down a tad and steadily hone his skills. He’s got solid footwork in the post and possesses some of the better post skills on this list. He even stepped out every now and then during his senior season to beyond the three point line. He was 6-11 from distance which is an extremely small sample size, but it does show that he has improved his range and is at least a threat from 20-22 feet. He has a large frame and really uses his size to his advantage when posting up. He excels as a shot blocker and has gone down as one of the best shot blockers in Big 10 history ranking 3rd all time in blocked shots in the conference. Even though his team was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Arkansas Little-Rock, Hammons was a force down low. He was tremendous on defense, rotated well to cut off driving lanes and carried the team offensively for stretches. It was their inability to get him the ball that ultimately led to them not getting it done in OT. He’s likely going to be a second round pick but for a player with his size and shot blocking ability, there is always room on an NBA roster.
10. Zhou Qi – International
Zhou is an intriguing player due to his incredible size and fluidity, not to mention his solid touch and feel for the game. While there are definitely some huge obstacles that have made it difficult for his countrymen to make it in the NBA (currently there are no Chinese born players in the league), some feel that Qi may have the goods to make it in the league. The biggest obsitacles are cultural, body strength, and simply having the quickness/reflexes to react to the speed of the NBA game. It is a big adjustment to coming to the US and learning the language and adapting to a much different culture. Chinese players, depending on the region they are from, generally grow up predominantly on a rice diet, which produces a skinnier body and makes competing with athletes raised on wheat diets more difficult. Chinese players are also routinely listed at 2-3 years older than their actual age. So there is reason to believe that the 20 year old (listed) Qi is actually closer to 22-23. If that is the case, the odds of him putting on significant weight/strength has a lot less probability. Qi also didn’t finish the season off well and hasn’t gotten to the level where he is impacting games the way Yao and Yi did before coming to the NBA. He has had some real flashes, but curiously has really struggled when NBA scouts have been on hand to watch him. Qi is worth a gamble at some point in the 2nd round to see what happens with his body and skills, and most scouts feel he will land somewhere in the first half of round two.
Zach Auguste 6-10 245 PF Notre Dame Sr., Gracin Bakumanya 6-11 220 C Congo 1997, Jaleel Cousins 6-11 255 C South Florida Sr., Andrey Desyatnikov 7-3 230 C Zenit St. Petersburg 1994, Moussa Diagne 6-11 225 C FC Barcelona 1994, Prince Ibeh 6-11 260 C Texas Sr., Stefan Jankovic 6-11 235 PF Hawaii Jr., Mamadou N'Diaye 7-6 300 C California Irvine Jr., Chris Obekpa 6-9 240 C UNLV Sr., Georgios Papagiannis 7-2 275 C Panathinaikos 1997, Cameron Ridley 6-9 285 C Texas Sr., Kaleb Tarczewski 7-0 245 C Arizona Sr., Shevon Thompson 6-11 240 C George Mason Sr., Mike Tobey 7-0 250 C Virginia Sr., Wang Zhelin 7-0 251 C Fujian 1994
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