Top 5 Centers in the NBA: Trust the Process

For the last decade or so, it looked like the traditional big man would disappear from basketball. You can thank Stephen Curry for that. The three-point shot has revolutionized the game, and virtually every team has an array of marksman at their disposal. Organizations are no longer looking to pay back-to-the-basket bigs, and instead, the game is dominated by perimeter players. Most bigs who do not possess the skillset to shoot and keep up with guards outside the paint are finding themselves on the end of the bench and, in most cases, out of the NBA.

If you haven’t already, checkout Lineup’s Point Guard and Shooting Guard rankings as you might want to compare your top five at those positions to mine.

Positions are determined before the start of the 2019-20 season. Injured players are eligible for my top five lists, assuming they make the cut. All rookies are disqualified for these rankings.

1Joel Embiid4423.411.81.30.947.434.881.4265.6
2Nikola Jokic6520.
3Karl-Anthony Towns3526.510.81.20.950.841.279.626.55.1
4Rudy Gobert6215.113.720.869.8N/A62.121.710
5Bam Adebayo6516.

5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

This pick might come as a shocker for most NBA fans, as Adebayo wasn’t even ranked among the top 15 centers coming into the 2019-20 season. I wanted to put Kristaps Porzingis at the five slot, but Adebayo’s growth combined with the Heat’s success this season is too significant to be ignored.

The 14th pick in the 2017 Draft, Adebayo entered the NBA as physically gifted as any big man in history. Most teams were drawn to his athletic and physical tools but questioned his ability to develop his raw skill set, myself included. Three years later, Adebayo looks like the driving force behind the Miami Heat’s resurgence into championship contention. Coupled with a great system and fit with the organization, Adebayo is my pick for MIP this season, as his averages have nearly doubled in every statistical category.

Adebayo’s averages this season include 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 5.1 assists. Outside of Nikola Jokic, Adebayo may be the best passing big man in the NBA. Adebayo’s increase in production was rewarded this season, as he made his first All-Star appearance.

His impact is greater than his numbers suggest. Miami runs a vast portion of their offensive sets through Adebayo at the elbows, including dribble-handoffs and Adebayo ball screens. Strangely enough, many of Adebayo’s strengths on offense are the same reasons many teams were hesitant to pull the trigger on him during draft night.

Adebayo’s defense and versatility are his calling cards for a place in the top five. At 6’9” he’s an undersized big who has the quickness to guard 1 through 4, but also has the bounce and strength to neutralize fellow centers. On numerous occasions, Adebayo finds himself switched onto smaller perimeter players but his agility has allowed the Heat to stick with him at the five. Although he lacks much of an outside shot (7.7%), Adebayo fits every other description for a modern-day center.

Adebayo will be critical to Miami’s success in Orlando, especially against teams like the Celtics and the Bucks, whom Miami is predicted to face. One stat on Adebayo has been his success against Milwaukee, as he ranks first in defensive rating against the Bucks (of all centers with at least 30 mins played). Adebayo has also been one of the few players with success guarding the Greek Freak.

Against Giannis, Miami held the MVP to his lowest scoring total of the season, 13 points on 6-18 from the field. With Adebayo as the primary defender, Giannis shot just 1-of-10 from the field, including 0-of-7 on contested shots. The sample size is relatively small, but Adebayo’s success against an elite team and a top-five player in the NBA bolster my argument for his place on this list.

4. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Gobert is the only traditional big on this list, and although he doesn’t pass or shoot as well as the other four, he’s one of the best defenders in the NBA. Before his infamous mocking of the coronavirus, Gobert was in the midst of his best season to date. The Jazz center was selected to his first All-Star Game with averages of 15.1 points 13.7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game.

Known as the Stifle Tower, Gobert is an elite rim protector and has averaged nearly 2.2 blocks per game in his seven seasons in the NBA. His best shot-blocking season came in 2016-17 when Gobert swatted away nearly 2.6 shots per game. Gobert is also a terrific rebounder and is fourth in rebounding this season per game (13.7 RPG). Gobert’s defensive efforts have been rewarded with multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards, making him 1 of 3 active players with two or more DPOYs (Kawhi Leonard and Dwight Howard).

Offensively, Gobert is a lock to score double-digit points on better than 60 percent shooting on a nightly basis. He’s second in field goal percentage this season behind the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson and led the NBA in field goal percentage a season ago. He can give you fits with his lackluster free-throw shooting (62.1 %) but more than makes up for it with his paint presence and stellar rebounding.

He might not be the scorer than players one through three are on this list, but Gobert plays his role perfectly for the Jazz and is a terrific centerpiece for head coach Quinn Snyder’s defensive-oriented system.

Heading into Orlando, Gobert’s play will heavily decide how successful the Jazz will be. We know of the rift between him and Donovan Mitchell, but Utah is already short-handed, having lost their second-leading scorer Bogdan Bogdanovic with a wrist injury. Gobert doesn’t yet have the offensive repertoire to become that second scorer that the Jazz need to push for contention, but he’s the anchor on one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. That alone gives him tremendous value, and his with an improved offensive game, Gobert makes a case to crack the top three.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Without taking Minnesota’s lack of team success into account, Karl-Anthony Towns’ career has been outstanding. Despite missing a large portion of this season, Towns has been super durable in his five seasons in the NBA, having played all 82 games in his first three seasons. As a 20-year-old, Towns dominated in 2015-16, winning ROY honors while averaging a double-double.

In year five, Towns has improved his numbers in almost every statistical category. Towns is averaging a career-best, 26.5 points per game on a little less than 59 percent shooting from the field. Although he isn’t known as an elite defender, Towns has averaged 11.8 rebounds and about 1.5 blocks per game in his career. He fits the bill as a stretch big in the modern-day NBA and has a career three-point percentage of 39.6 percent.

In 2020, Towns has displayed an even better shooting touch than ever before, making about 3.3 threes on 7.9 attempts per game. He’s hitting his threes at a 41.2 percent clip and is one of the best shooting bigs in the league. Towns isn’t just a shooter, as he has shown he can bang down low with some of the best.

You could make an argument for Towns to be higher on this list, given his stats and progression. In addition to winning the ROY award in 2015, Towns is a 2x All-Star and 1x All-NBA Team member. He’s also been super-efficient in his short time in Minnesota, compiling a career 25.1 Player Efficiency Rating.

I am going to knock him for his lack of playoff experience, though. Towns has made the playoffs only once in his career, and that number should remain the same until the Timberwolves surround him with an adequate amount of talent. He’s made tremendous progress every season in the NBA, but I like him at number three until I see Towns take that next step into superstardom.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

The Joker emerged as one of the best centers in basketball during the 2017-18 season when he averaged 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists. Since then, Jokic has produced at the level of a top 20 player and is considered the best passing big man in the league.

The Nuggets center made his first All-Star appearance last season in 2019 and was again voted into the All-Star Game in 2020. This season he’s averaging a career-best 20.2 points per game to go along with 10.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per night. Jokic’s passing ability has unlocked new potential for the Nuggets, as his skill set is a perfect match for a team with a ton of young talent.

Jokic isn’t elite on defense, but he certainly has the lateral speed and IQ to be better than his numbers suggest. He’ll never be an elite shot-blocker by any means but makes his presence felt by his size and basketball smarts. Offensively, Jokic just might be the best big in the game besides Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He’s averaged the most assists at his position for the three consecutive years, and everything Denver does on that end of the ball goes through the 25-year-old from Serbia. Aside from Jamal Murray, Jokic has been the primary ball-handler in head coach Mike Malone’s offense.

In addition to his elite playmaking ability, Jokic has a devastating post game. He’s able to both faceup and beat slower bigs with his quickness, and back down smaller bigs on the block. Jokic is also an adept shooter for his position, as he shoots around 34 percent from three and better than 80 percent from the foul line in his career.

Most recently, critics have demonized Jokic for being out of shape. That’s certainly not going to be the case when the Nuggets head into Orlando later this month. Throughout the season and NBA hiatus, Jokic lost around 25-30 pounds and looks a lot leaner than his listed 284-pound weight. With his weight loss, Jokic should be more agile o the court than ever and I predict that his play will get better when the season resumes. In a few seasons, The Joker should push Joel Embiid for the title of the best center in the NBA.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

There might not be a more talented big man in the NBA than Embiid. When he’s been on the court, he’s arguably the most dominating player in the league. Through four seasons, Embiid has produced Hall-of-Fame-like numbers, and he still has a ton of room to grow.

Embiid has made three All-Star selections, two All-NBA Teams, and two All-Defensive Team appearances. While some centers have been known to fall asleep on the defensive side of the ball, Embiid is a shoo-in for Defensive Player in any given year. He’s an excellent rebounder, 11.5 rebounds per game for his career, and has averaged a little under two blocks per contest.

Offensively, Embiid is a dominant force down low. He uses a series of post moves and has elite footwork to carve out space in the paint. Even with a massive usage in his career (33.1%), Embiid has been extremely efficient, as he has a career effective field goal percentage on 51.4 percent. Embiid’s career PER (24.8) is almost twice the league average (15), and he has gotten more efficient in 2020 (26 PER).

Not only is Embiid capable down low, but the Sixers big man can also shoot it from deep. In 2020, Embiid is shooting just under 35 percent from deep on 3.7 attempts a game. He is even shooting it better than 81 percent from the foul this season on about nine attempts per game. Although I’m not too fond of the number of threes Embiid is hoisting up on a nightly basis, he does more than enough to keep defenses honest, and his shooting ability has opened things up for him inside.

The only thing Embiid has yet to show us is a dominating performance in the playoffs, and if he and Ben Simmons can get on the right page this year, I expect that to happen. There aren’t many centers, especially in the East, that possess the physical tools to keep Embiid in check.

With a steady diet of Embiid in the post, assuming Brett Brown doesn’t leave him at the three-point line, Embiid has more than enough talent to get the 76ers to the NBA Finals in the future.

Diehard Laker and Seahawk fan. I unfortunately witnessed the Seattle Seahawks passing the ball on the 1 yard line. I hope that sports can unite people and bring them closer together. Current student at Chapman University.

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