2012 NBA Draft Primer: Better, not bigger, is better

By Matt Moore | NBA writer
Those arms are what matter in the NBA now. (Getty Images)

The NBA draft will be held Thursday night, and you can follow all the action with our draft tracker and our NBA Draft Show Live starting Thursday night. We'll bring you up to date analysis of all the picks with Jeff Goodman and Matt Moore along with host Adam Aizer.

For more on the draft, check out what the kids themselves had to say at media availability. With that, a brief primer on what to expect Thursday night...

When Anthony Davis walks across the stage Thursday night to the awkward and yet oddly enjoyable handshake of one Mr. David Stern, he's not just entering the league as the next franchise player for the Hornets. He represents the shift that has occurred in the NBA over the past four years in the context of the league and its approach to positions and size.


To sum up before we begin? Size does not matter. Ability matters.

This is not to suggest that Davis is small. 6-10 and a half with a 7-5.5 reach is quite a lot of kid in those shoes. But Davis is not a hulking monster, he weighed in at just 222 lbs. He is not seven feet tall, he's not packing junk in his trunk to slam into his opponent. He's just long. Super, really, incredibly, crazy long. He's also more athletic than just about anyone on the planet outside of maybe ten guys.

And that's the new NBA model.

As the league has run out of legitimate centers, there's been a gradual evolution in the league towards a blurring of the frontcourt lines (and sometimes crossing the backcourt line as well). But that has also been accompanied by the destruction of traditional archetypes at the small forward position. If you want the furthest extension of this, look no further than the reigning NBA Finals MVP, LeBron James, who at times in the playoffs guarded the 1,2,3,4, and 5 positions, and offensively operated as point-center, point-forward, small-center, power-guard, and any other combination of phrases associated with basketball roles you want to throw out there.

James represents the new reality at the small forward position. In the past, small forwards were traditionally either tall shooters or small rebounders. Now they've come to embody the spot for the most hyper-athletic combination of talent and size available. Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, and other reveal this new trend, and the results are evident in the draft class filling the boards on Thursday night.

Michael Kidd Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, even Harrison Barnes to a degree, all possess the size to play power forward, but the skillset to operate on the wing. Their quality as prospects is determined not by their adaptation at any one particular skill (shooting, rebounding), but by their usefulness in being deployed at multiple positions. Some of this is nothing new. But some is representative of how the evolution of player athleticism is taking shape.

So, too, is the big man crop altered by these new elements in play. Across the league, players at 6'10 and sometimes even 6'9 are playing center. The Eastern Conference Finals matched Kevin Garnett against Udonis Haslem and eventually Chris Bosh at the center position. These are the starting centers of the NBA Eastern Conference finals.

And in the draft, Davis is 6-10.5, Andre Drummond 6-11.75, John Henson 6-10.5. You have your Tyler Zellers, your Fab Melos, your Meyers Leonard coming in at 7 feet or above, but in truth, the value for these players is not in their true size. For Zeller it's his savvy and court intelligence, his touch around the basket. Leonard may be the only pick in the top 20 whose size is the biggest determining factor in his selection.

We're seeing a new model being formed daily, and may have witnessed the fullest of its extension in the NBA Finals at the cost of the ideal of quality big men. The next era in the NBA will be defined not by the amount of muscle you pack down low, but by their skill and ability to read and react in making the right play. Having the size to box out your opponent is no longer as valuable as having the timing and athleticism to tap the ball into a point guard's (or small forward's) hands to start the fast break.

Davis represents this nexus, the mythical guard who grew to be a power forward. It's not his offensive game that grounds the dreams the Hornets have for him, not the concept of him playing point forward. Instead it's that timing, that basketball intelligence that comes from running the guard position translated into a machine with helicopter arms, able to read and react to plays at both ends. It's skill and ability over brawn and height, and it's a fascinating example of how the league no longer simply throws out stiffs to hammer away at each other. You have to be tough to play down low, still, but even Tyson Chandler, Defensive Player of the Year, and the difference for the Mavericks in their title run a year ago, succeeded not on his size and height, but with his presence and ability.

The small forwards are player center and the centers are all power forwards and the point guards are shooting guards and the shooting guards all look like small forwards. Positions have always been slightly arbitrary, but now they're headed in a direction that reflects an entirely new NBA.

Thursday night shows that better than anything.

Other important draft notes:

  • The Hornets have taken the right approach to the gift this draft has presented them. Clearing the decks of Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor paves the way for them to start fresh with their two picks. Anthony Davis goes No.1 and that allows them to either add a second big (Tyler Zeller is a popular choice) or a guard with the 10th overall pick. It's a dream scenario, a tabla rasa + Eric Gordon and Jarrett Jack, essentially.
  • The Bobcats are in a bit of a pickle, and that's why you hear so much noise about what they'll do. A trade down makes the most sense, but in uncharacteristically smart fashion, they're waiting to the last minute to see if a better offer comes along. A trade down to No. 4 with Cleveland gives them the best of both worlds, but they may hold out to make sure they get MKG.
  • The Kings somehow can take anyone available and it will simultaneously be an acceptable yet totally horrible choice. The Kings, everyone!
  • Houston has executed two trades in two days and managed to move all the way up to... twelve. At this point they'll have the No. 2 overall pick in hand just in time for the guys who are actually 28 and ineligible to be drafted in the second round to come up.
  • No player excites league personnel outside of Davis like Andre Drummond. No player terrifies league personnel outside of Jared Sullinger like Andre Drummond.
  • Austin Rivers is not short on confidence. He's being considered a point guard by half the draft evaluators and a shooting guard by the other half. This is not the positional flexibility I was talking about. You know what you call a guard with a ruthless scoring approach who can't effectively run the offense? All-Star Russell Westbrook. Oh. Nevermind. (Note: Rivers is not at all as athletic as Westbrook.) (Note 2: No one is at all as athletic as Westbrook.)
 
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