It's never been more difficult to be a big man in the NBA. Your coach probably doesn't want you to post up, partially because your teammates can't throw an entry pass and partially because your opponents will flop and get calls. Defensively, it's no longer enough to protect the rim and rebound; you're expected to fly all over the court and execute different pick-and-roll coverages.
If you're not a star and can't switch onto smaller players, you can play well every night and never stop hearing about how you might be played off the floor when it really matters. If you get drafted in the middle of the first round or you sign a non-minimum, non-maximum contract, analysts will say you're a perfectly fine player, but your team is misallocating its resources. Decent bigs are always available on the scrap heap, after all.
All of which is to say that the ones who are thriving in today's game are truly exceptional. The reigning MVP is a pass-first giant whose teammates orbit around him as he toys with opposing defenses. The runner-up is a 7-foot back-to-the-basket bully who took his game to another level by turning around and shooting right over people from the Dirk spot. All around the league, there are extremely tall dudes initiating offense, shooting deep 3s and defending on the perimeter. Specialists, even the more modern, stretchier ones, are all but extinct. The bar to earn minutes on a winning team is only getting higher.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks PF
|When Giannis signed his extension to stay with the Bucks last year, he did so with the express goal of winning a championship in Milwaukee. And that's just what he did, leading the Bucks to their first title in 50 years despite suffering a severe hyperextended knee in the Eastern Conference finals. He is an athletic marvel, a dominant two-way force and one of the fiercest competitors in the league, which is why he'll be in the MVP and best player in the world conversations for the foreseeable future. |
Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets C
|If he looks like he's playing a different sport than everybody else, it's because he's literally borrowing techniques from water polo. There have been point-center types before, but Jokic has the same command of Michael Malone's offense that Steve Nash and James Harden had under Mike D'Antoni. That is new, and there is no reason to expect the reigning MVP to be any less dominant this season. He has the post moves, soft touch and Hall of Fame processing speed to counter any type of defense. The only thing keeping him out of top five is his lack of scheme versatility on the other end. |
Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers C
| Joel Embiid was arguably the most dominant player in the league last season, and there's no reason not to expect the same from the Sixers big man during the upcoming campaign. He can do it all on the offensive end, and he's also a top-tier defender at the center spot. Embiid was the runner-up for the MVP award last season, and as long as he can stay healthy and out on the court for Philly, he'll be right back in that conversation again. |
Anthony Davis Los Angeles Lakers PF
|The question that will define the Lakers' season has nothing to with Russell Westbrook's fit or LeBron James' age. No, if the Lakers are going to reclaim the championship, they are going to need Anthony Davis to find his shot again. In the 2020 postseason, he channeled his inner Kevin Durant by shooting 38.3 percent on 3s, 49.6 percent on mid-range jumpers and 57.1 percent on all field goals. Last season, those numbers dipped to 26 percent, 34.8 percent and 40.3 percent, respectively. The truth lies somewhere in between, but despite his reputation, Davis has never been an especially effective long-range shooter … except for those few glorious months in the Orlando bubble. With Westbrook limiting the Lakers' spacing, he'll have to recapture that form if the Lakers are going to win their second title in three years. |
Zion Williamson New Orleans Pelicans PF
|I'm not big on using the word "scary" in a sports context. It shouldn't be a synonym for "very talented," and it's not as if professional athletes are literally frightened when they face great teams or players. For Point Zion, though, scary is absolutely appropriate. Sometimes, it is an understatement. Even from the comfort of your couch, it is jarring to see someone so massive barrel down the lane, elevate so high and finish so easily. Imagine how terrifying it is to be in between him and the basket. (Yes, the defense has been rough, but we're optimistic.) |
Karl-Anthony Towns Minnesota Timberwolves C
|Gone are the days of Karl-Anthony Towns as the young star most GMs would build a franchise around, but the precipitous decline was no fault of his own. Towns is now on his fourth coach, and, as of Minnesota's surprising decision to fire Gersson Rosas, his fourth lead basketball executive. Only once has a teammate of his made an All-Star Game, and that teammate, Jimmy Butler, departed after a bit more than one year. The one-of-a-kind offensive weapon that can bomb 3s as easily as he catches lobs and bullies switches in the post is still in there, but the longer Minnesota fails to capitalize on his skill set, the lower down these lists he's going to tumble. |
Rudy Gobert Utah Jazz C
|Don't be fooled by the way Utah went out against the Clippers: Gobert deserved his third Defensive Player of the Year award, and he had a lot to do with the Jazz's fourth-ranked offense, too. He has quietly improved his mobility over the last few seasons, and now it's on him to punish switches the way he did with the French national team. It's also on Utah to make sure that, the next time it's in a do-or-die scenario, it doesn't play the worst perimeter defense imaginable. No one could have cleaned up that mess. |
Bam Adebayo Miami Heat C
|Adebayo was better last season than he was in 2020, but didn't receive the same recognition because he wasn't the fresh new star anymore and the Heat weren't in the spotlight in the same way. That should be the last time he flies under the radar. He gives you everything you can ask for from a big man defensively and has blossomed into a unique offensive player, thanks to his playmaking and finishing ability. |
Domantas Sabonis Indiana Pacers PF
|The only player in the NBA to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds last season, Sabonis is also one of the best playmaking bigs in the league. He averaged a career-high 6.7 assists per game and was in the 84th percentile in offense including assists, per Synergy, ranking him right next to offensive masterminds like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Trae Young. An excellent finisher around the basket, Sabonis increased his 3-point volume last season with mixed results. If he improves in that area, he'll become one of the most complete offensive players in the NBA. |
Julius Randle New York Knicks PF
|No player in the NBA improved their game as much as Randle did last season, earning him his first All-Star nod, the league's Most Improved Player of the Year award, All-NBA honors and carrying the New York Knicks to their first playoff appearance in eight years. His play on both ends of the floor set the tone for the Knicks hard-nosed, defensive mentality last season, and his 41.1 percent from 3-point territory showed that there's still levels to his game waiting to be unlocked. |
Nikola Vucevic Chicago Bulls C
|Vucevic is a big-time offensive talent who, as a give-or-take 40-percent 3-point shooter, theoretically meshes well with Zach LaVine, keeping the lane open and representing a dangerous pick-and-pop weapon. The small-sample returns, however, weren't great after Vucevic was moved from Orlando last season; With LaVine and Vucevic on the court, the Bulls were outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions with just a 108.8 offensive rating, per CTG. We'll see how much adding two more shooting/scoring threats in DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball helps Chicago find its offensive groove this season. |
John Collins Atlanta Hawks PF
|Collins secured the bag, as they say, after another wildly efficient offensive season for the Hawks in which he ranked in the 96th percentile with 1.177 points per possession, per Synergy, while putting up 56/40/83 shooting splits. The 24-year-old, who signed a five-year, $125 million extension with Atlanta this offseason, was one of the best finishers in the league around the rim with his explosiveness and touch, while knocking down 40 percent of his 3-pointers for the second straight season. Collins' counting stats went down a bit last year, but his role on the Hawks and contributions to winning are as valuable as ever. |
Deandre Ayton Phoenix Suns C
|Ayton has averaged a double-double in each of his first three seasons in the league, but last season is when he really started putting things together. He's a decent face-up shooter, but trimming those long-mid-range attempts in half (15 percent of his shots to eight percent, per Cleaning The Glass) for more higher-percentage looks at the rim netted him 131.7 points per 100 shots on a 63.0 effective field-goal percentage, both career highs and ranking north of the 85th percentile among centers, per CTG. Ayton has also made great strides defensively. He isn't going to be schemed off the court with his ability to drop for rim protection and also hold his own on higher pick-and-roll coverage. Ayton will always be the guy who was drafted No. 1 over Luka Doncic, but he is starting to live up to the hype in his own right. |
Christian Wood Houston Rockets C
|Wood looked like a potential All-Star during his first season with the Rockets. He averaged 21 points and 9.6 rebounds per game for Houston, and he was one of the lone bright spots for the team during what was an otherwise forgettable season. He will continue to play a big role for the Rockets moving forward, and at 26 years old he could still get even better. |
Myles Turner Indiana Pacers C
|Here's the list of players who have averaged at least 1.5 made 3-pointers per game and 3.4 blocks: 2020-21 Myles Turner. Oh, is that distinction a bit arbitrary for you? Let's lower the threshold to one made 3 and three blocks. Here's the list: 2020-21 Myles Turner. Oh come on! Fine, let's lower the blocks threshold to 2.5. Finally, we have a non-Turner player to include on the list: 2001-02 Raef Lafrentz. Yet Turner still makes up more than half of it because we also have to mention, you guessed it, 2019-20 Myles Turner. You get the picture. This combination of shooting and rim protection has never existed in NBA history, and even if the rest of his game is limited, Turner's wholly unique skill set makes him perhaps the NBA's most underrated center. |
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