The New and Improved NBA Bigman
Writer: Caleb Akpan
Small ball is the norm for today's basketball teams. Carmelo Anthony is about to play a full season at the 4, Kevin Love is gonna play center most of the time, and three-guard lineups aren't at all out of the ordinary. Many would say this new normal is killing the league's history of dominant post players, as everybody shoots 40 threes a game and maybe keeps one traditional big on the court at most, but that couldn't be further from the truth. A renaissance is taking place for NBA bigs, and while their playstyles are definitely drifting from the eras of Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, it's creating some of the most interesting players the league has ever seen.
Jesse D. Garrabrant NBAE via Getty; Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty
Guys like Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis just shouldn't exist, at least as basketball players. At 7'3, Porzingis can cross up centers like he's doing the best Allen Iverson impression of all-time, which is fitting, as KP wore AI-style braids as a kid in his native Latvia to honor the now Hall of Famer. A terrible haircut choice? Maybe, but he's easily living up to it with the moves he can make, putting the ball between his legs and pushing the pace as a ball handler with ease. What's even crazier is that AI isn't the only NBA legend Porzingis can emulate on the court, as his steadily progressing post game seems to be modeled after a certain thirty-thousand point scorer in Dirk Nowitzki. Yup, Kristaps Porzingis is a combo of an All-Star shooting guard and a seven-foot sharpshooting, post playing monster. After averaging 18, 7, and 2 blocks in his second season, he's got a team all to himself to show off some more, and the craziest thing is he's probably not the most skilled player in this article.
That honor might have to go to Denver's Nikola Jokic, simply for the fact that he plays point center (4.9 APG in 16-17), a term that wasn't really even a thing before the Serbian stepped onto the scene. Growing up as a point guard, Jokic has still got the magical touch he possessed in his youth, at least we assume it was always there, as you just can't teach some of the passes Jokic makes on a nightly basis. What's even more weird is, outside of his Steve Nash-esque passing and solid handles, Jokic is probably the closest thing to a traditional big listed. His body's burly, his post game is patient and powerful, and he's not exactly the fastest player in the NBA, but Jokic just makes it work. He can dish off a no-look or put up a slow hook, Jokic is a gap between the old and the new big man, showing what makes both playstyles so great.
One may say that Porzingis and Jokic do what they do thanks to the years they spent in European systems prior to joining the league, but American-born, college-playing players have proven to be just as unique. Anthony Davis came out of the Kentucky One and Dones as a defensive presence, but quickly mastered the mid-range and started taking his defenders off the dribble, finishing at the rim like the point guard he once was when he started getting recruited in high school. Karl-Anthony Towns was in the same boat when he left the Calipari crew in 2015, but he went even further and got a consistent game from behind the line (37% in 16-17) while still being able to dominate the low post and play the mid-range game to the tune of 25 and 12 last season. In limited playing time, Joel Embiid joined in on the trends, blocking LeBron James like he was former 76er and fellow African-born player Dikembe Mutombo, and hitting threes and clutch jumpers like fellow Kansas Jayhawk Paul Pierce. If Embiid can play more than the 31 games he played in last year, he could easily take over this new space of multi-talented big men the NBA is introducing to basketball.
Being a power forward or center in the NBA isn't the same as it used to be, but that isn't a bad thing. Big men are more skilled than ever before and are quickly filling up the lists of the best players in the NBA, and if they have the same influence as the dominant players in generations prior to them, the players that enter the NBA in the future should be taking some inspiration. The NBA can go as small as it wants to, but you can't ignore these highly skilled fours and fives. As long as players like them continue to enter the league, the big man will never die.