Redefining The Center Position

Why didn’t Okafor work out for the Sixers?

Okafor is best with the ball in hands, posting up another player on the low block. His footwork around the basket is impeccable—it is what made him worthy of the third overall selection.

But, Okafor’s strengths are also his weakness.

Okafor only makes the team better when the ball is in his hand. He also is a defensive liability. And, he shoots a career 67% from the free throw line.

Do not be fooled: there have been great big men that were ball dominant, only shot near the basket, and also struggled mightily from the free throw line. Shaquille O’Neal. But unlike Okafor, Shaq was a destructive defensive presence.  

The evolving pace and nature of the NBA has made big men—limited in range and stamina—obsolete.

Jahlil Okafor is the first name that comes to mind—a player who has fallen short of expectations due to the paradigm shift. The current pace of the game is at a decade high. The number of three point shots per game is also at all time high. The “new” or current NBA is a “shooters league”; since 2014 the best two teams in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, have taken the most and second most three points shots per game. Both teams have employed a strategy known as “small ball”, where they play a stretch four instead of a center to maximize the number of reliable shooters on the court. Such strategy has allowed both teams to shoot more threes and also increase their efficiency from deep.

What all of this means is that to be successful in the current NBA a team must have a starting five all capable of knocking down the three point shot.

As a result, centers, not known for their three point shooting abilities, are forced to add it to their arsenal. Demarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Myles Turner, Marc Gasol, and Brook Lopez have all followed in step, recognizing that such addition is necessary for them to stay relevant in the NBA.

Although NBA fans may not realize, Joel Embiid is leading the charge to redefine the center position.

You may wonder why analysts and sports talk radio hosts glorify Embiid’s talent. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers both play a stretch four—a player of power forward size but has superior shooting skills (especially three point shots) while retaining the ability to defend the opposing center—instead of a real center. What makes Embiid unique is that he is not a stretch four; instead, he is an actual 7’2 center who is near automatic from mid-range, consistently knocks down three pointers, can drive to the basket like a point guard, and shoots 78% from the free throw line. On the defensive end, he rebounds the ball, blocks shots, and plays scrappy defense as expected from a center.

But, are the new demands from a center physically possible?

That is a question that remains to be answered. Joel Embiid is a freak of nature but has dealt with a number of injuries. When big men who typically don’t shoot the ball or drive to the basket begin to do so, it takes a toll on their bodies. Only time will tell whether these new expectations from centers are physically possible.

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