Projecting the Top 30 centers for 2018-19

Projecting the Top 30 centers for 2018-19

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Projecting the Top 30 centers for 2018-19

The center position has seen a major resurgence over recent years, with an abundance of young phenoms joining the ranks to solidify what was becoming a pretty weak spot in the NBA.

And if anything, the new generation of centers are more versatile than ever before. In 2018, teams expect their centers not just to protect the paint and rebound, but to handle the ball, space the floor and even create looks for teammates. If your big man can’t do at least two of the aforementioned three things, you’re in trouble, because odds are, the guys he’ll be facing can.

The modern center may not be quite at the level of the position’s glory years, when the likes of Patrick EwingHakeem OlajuwonAlonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal battled it out on a nightly basis, but it’s certainly nowhere near as weak as some would lead you to believe, either.

Below, we project the Top-30 centers for the upcoming 2018-19 season.

30. BAM ADEBAYO, MIAMI HEAT

The Miami Heat surprised many when they made Bam Adebayo the 14th-overall pick of the 2017 draft. After all, they already had an established center on the roster, and had more of a need to fill on the wing, where a true difference-maker was (and still is) lacking. Nevertheless, Adebayo’s play during his rookie season made Miami look savvy for making the selection. In his first season, the Kentucky product put up 6.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest while playing fewer than 20 minutes per game. Per-36 minutes, Adebayo averaged 12.6 points and 10.0 boards nightly – giving us a glimpse of what his upside may look like.

The 6-foot-10 center is an absolute load in the post, can fly out of the gym and has deceptive lateral quickness. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has used that to his advantage, even deploying the big man to defend ball-handlers in certain high-pressure situations, like here, in these instances, against three perennial All-NBA guys:

Of course, Adebayo isn’t perfect; he struggles with finishing in traffic and hasn’t shown much as an outside shooter. But his blend of athleticism and high two-way basketball IQ gives the 21-year-old massive potential. The problem is, he may struggle to reach it next year, since he’ll be fighting for playing time with two other big men coming up on our list.

29. bobby portis, CHICAGO BULLS

We know, Bobby Portis has spent the majority of his career at the 4-spot. But with Jabari Parker’s arrival, and after the fantastic rookie season Lauri Markkanen had, we believe Portis ends up playing more center than in any campaign prior next year, simply out of necessity. Plus, in his first and third seasons, Portis did spend 51 percent and 47 percent of his time at the 5 respectively, according to Basketball Reference. So it’s not like he doesn’t have experience at the position.

Either way, if Portis maintains the trajectory he’s on, the Arkansas product may be in line for a big 2018-19. The almost 7-footer averaged 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.1 three-pointers nightly last season, blossoming into an adept outside shooter and providing solid scoring off the bench for the Bulls.

Portis does still have a ways to go defensively, as he contributes nearly zero rim-protection and isn’t fleet of foot enough to chase stretch-4s around the perimeter. Regardless, Chicago was an impressive 7.9 points per 100 possessions better with Portis in the game last season, so clearly, his bucket-getting prowess more than makes up for his defensive deficiencies. As an offensive-minded third big man for the Bulls, we expect Portis to be even more impactful next year.

28. KYLE O’QUINN, INDIANA PACERS

Despite not even being the starting center for the New York Knicks last year, Kyle O’Quinn was downright beloved by the advanced stats. According to Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), O’Quinn was the 39th-most impactful player league-wide in 2017-18, according to Box Plus/Minus (BPM), the 24th-most.

In just 18.0 minutes per contest, the 6-foot-10 bruiser averaged 7.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, shooting 58.3 percent from the floor and 77.2 percent from the foul stripe. For reference, per-36 minutes, that rounds up to 14.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game. Obviously, O’Quinn couldn’t maintain the same level of production in twice as big of a role, but nevertheless, he makes a fantastic impact in the role he actually has.

Also pertinent is that with O’Quinn in the game last year, the Knicks actually outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions. Considering that for the year, the Knicks had a -3.6 net rating, that’s quite the noteworthy mark, proving his two-way influence actually affected game outcomes.

Now a member of the Indiana Pacers, O’Quinn’s projection for 2018-19 mostly takes a hit for the same reason that Adebayo’s did: He’ll be splitting playing time with two other big men coming up on our list.

27. MARCIN GORTAT, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Between his dip in production (8.4 points, 7.6 rebounds per game last season) and the weird, unhealthy dynamic he had with star floor general John Wall, it’s safe to say Marcin Gortat didn’t have the best 2017-18 campaign. And to add insult to injury, it culminated with him getting traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Besides his locker-room issues, it’s not hard to surmise why Gortat got dealt. Once his biggest strength, Gortat was brutally ineffective finishing out of the pick-and-roll last year, scoring a meager 0.88 points per possession (PPP) on such looks (14th percentile), per Synergy Sports Tech. That was a worse rate than Bismack Biyombo, one of the least-effective bucket-producing centers in the league.

Moving to the west coast may be a breath of fresh air for the Polish Hammer, and could even help him revitalize his career. But because it’ll be his age-34 season, we’re not expecting much.

26. jarrett allen, Brooklyn Nets

The 22nd-overall pick in the 2017 draft, Jarrett Allen is another young big man who quietly had a great year in 2017-18. Allen averaged 8.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks nightly last season, shooting a tidy 58.9 percent from the floor and 77.6 percent from the foul stripe.

To go with his monstrous 7-foot-6 wingspan and freakish athleticism, Allen was also able to display good hands for a big man, which made him a very productive finisher out of the pick-and-roll. Per Synergy, Allen was in the 69th percentile as the roll man last season – a healthy mark, and the best among first-year contributors. With more time to acclimate playing alongside D’Angelo Russell, a creative distributor at lead guard, Allen should be even more productive next year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him outplay his place in this ranking.

25. DOMANTAS SABONIS, INDIANA PACERS

Domantas Sabonis bounced back nicely after a tough rookie campaign, averaging 11.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game in 2017-18. He’s a great finisher in the paint, a decent defender – even despite not racking up many steals and blocks – and a great passer for a big man.

As he continues to get more comfortable with his outside shooting (his form is far from broken, and he did convert 13 of his 37 three-point attempts last season), Sabonis’ impact will grow more and more potent. Ultimately, however, the most important thing for Sabonis will be to improve his synergy with Myles Turner, the Indiana Pacers’ most important young piece, and a big man the team hopes they can build around.

If the two centers can learn to coexist, Indiana’s ceiling as a team – and ability to contend for the East – would greatly change, for the better.

24. JAKOB POELTL, SAN ANTONIO SPURS

One of the best backup centers in the league last year, Jakob Poeltl moved from the Toronto Raptors to the San Antonio Spurs this summer as part of the Kawhi Leonard deal. The sneakily athletic 7-footer is poised to take a leap in 2018-19, as one couldn’t have scripted a better landing spot for him than playing for the legendary big-man whisperer Gregg Popovich.

Already, Poeltl has proven to be an apt rim-protector, a fantastic finisher around the rim and someone who can hightail it down the open floor for easy buckets. In 2017-18, the Utah product ranked in the 98th percentile (albeit on a smallish sample size of 45 possessions) in transition scoring, dropping an insane 1.51 PPP on such looks. What’s more, Poeltl’s defensive metrics and consistency on offense put him in special company last season, according to NBA Math:

Poeltl still needs to work on being less jumpy defensively – well-timed ball fakes were his kryptonite – and on his rebounding, but the Austrian center has the upside to make some serious noise next season, and could eventually even make a push for the Spurs’ starting center job. We’re that confident in his abilities.

23. BROOK LOPEZ, MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Merely two years ago, Brook Lopez was putting up over 20 points nightly for the Nets. After a one-year trip to play for the Los Angeles Lakers where his numbers took a hit, Lopez is back in the Eastern Conference, set to suit up for the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s not a lock, but it’s probably reasonable to assume the Stanford product should be considered the favorite to start at center for head coach Mike Budenholzer’s men next year.

Lopez’s ability to space the floor from three will undoubtedly help open up space for Giannis Antetokounmpo to attack the rim, while his rim-protecting prowess will only add to Milwaukee’s freakishly long and disruptive core group of players. Over the past two seasons, Lopez is the only player league-wide with at least 240 three-pointers and 220 blocks, which goes to show just how effective he is as a floor-spacing shot-blocker.

22. PAU GASOL, SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Spanish basketball legend Pau Gasol saw his numbers fall across the board last season, and it’s tough to really fault him. He’s been in the league for 17 seasons already – anything else he does before he retires will just be the cherry on top of a Hall-of-Fame career.

Either way, Gasol still put up a decent 10.1 points and 8.0 boards per contest in 2017-18, proving that in a diminished role, he can still be effective. Additionally, in the Spurs’ defensive system, the six-time All-Star isn’t a total liability defensively. And as a 35.8 percent three-point shooter, he spaces the floor from three pretty well.

Gasol’s most important contribution in 2018-19, however, may be playing the role of mentor for the incoming 22-year-old Poeltl, who has the potential to be a starting-caliber center in the NBA. The young big man could stand to learn a lot from the two-time champion Gasol.

21. KELLY OLYNYK, MIAMI HEAT

If he were a member of a less crowded frontcourt, there’s a good chance Kelly Olynyk would have fared even better in these rankings. The Canadian 7-footer is coming off the best year of his career, according to multiple advanced metrics, and his raw numbers – 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.4 triples nightly – were equally as impressive for a backup big man.

Offensively, there’s not much Olynyk can’t do. He’s a more than capable outside shooter (37.9 percent from three in 2017-18), he has a tight ball-handle that makes it difficult for opposing traditional bigs to stay in front of him on the perimeter and he’s a greatly underrated playmaker. Olynyk’s 18.7 percent assist rate was a higher mark than multiple primary ball-handlers like Jamal Murray and Malcolm Brogdon, so even if he’s not the flashiest distributor in the league, his ability to drive the ball, suck in defenders and hit teammates for easy looks clearly gets results.

It’s the less glamorous side of the ball where Olynyk struggles. He provides Miami with next to no rim protection, and though he does have the agility to stay in front of opposing floor-spacing big men, he’s not exactly great at it.

Still, overall, Olynyk is a vitally important piece for the Heat as his +9.5 net rating would prove, and next year should be more of the same for the Gonzaga product in South Florida.

20. DEANDRE AYTON, PHOENIX SUNS

Throughout the course of this series, we’ve made it a point to project the incoming rookie class conservatively. That sort of went out the window with Deandre Ayton, though.

Despite the Phoenix Suns’ clear lack of even a starting-caliber point guard (they could have gone for one in free agency, but instead opted to further muddle up their wing rotation by signing yet another small forward), Ayton is talented enough to put up huge numbers without having a pure floor general to feed him easy looks.

Seeing the Arizona product’s performance in Summer League did nothing to dispel that notion, either:

The 20-year-old possesses great size, length and athleticism, to go with soft touch both in the paint and from the short midrange area. His defensive awareness and effort still need to get better, but there’s no doubting Ayton’s vast potential. The big man is in line for a huge rookie season.

19. DWIGHT HOWARD, WASHINGTON WIZARDS

It’s now or never for Dwight Howard to prove his naysayers – those that believe he can no longer be an important piece on a winning team – wrong.  Howard was able to put up decent averages (16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game) last season, but they were of the empty variety for the Charlotte Hornets.

It’s almost like the eight-time All-Star is clinging to the idea that he’s still an elite player, capable of leading a team on his own using a plethora of nightly face- and post-ups, instead of accepting that he’s nearly 33, and should be focusing on doing the dirty work.

Howard posted up more than all but two players in 2017-18 (LaMarcus Aldridge and another guy coming up on our list), and in those possessions, he was terribly ineffective. According to Synergy, among players with at least 200 post-ups on the season, Howard’s 0.83 PPP was the third-paltriest mark, and his turnover rate (17.6 percent) was the worst.

Add in the fact that his finishing out of the pick-and-roll (1.04 PPP, 43rd percentile) was also pretty mediocre, and that’s enough to raise questions about whether Howard will even be an upgrade over Gortat.

Nevertheless, teaming up with a creative distributor at point guard like John Wall should help Howard better those pick-and-roll marks, and as long as he rebounds and defends like he did last year with Charlotte, he should, at worst, live up to the two-year, $11 million price tag Washington signed him to.

18. HASSAN WHITESIDE, MIAMI HEAT

When he’s in prime form, few big men can match Hassan Whiteside’s level of dominance on the glass and as a rim-protector. The year before last, the Marshall product led the league in nightly boards (14.1), and the season prior to that, he had the Association’s top nightly rejections average (3.7).

The thing is, Whiteside, whether due to injury or other issues, wasn’t close to that form in 2017-18. What’s worse, the 7-footer went from sort of ineffective to downright unplayable in the postseason, where he only saw the floor for just over 15 minutes per outing, averaging merely 5.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per contest, and getting completely outperformed by one of the NBA’s top young centers.

If Whiteside can leave last year’s consistency-related issues in the past, he could make this ranking look bad. Who knows? Maybe the knee troubles that forced him to miss 28 games in the regular season really did linger throughout the playoffs, causing him to perform so poorly. But lacking definitive proof that that’s the case, and with Whiteside having to split playing time with two big men – Olynyk and Adebayo – who are just as talented as he is, there’s really no reason to be positive he’ll bounce back in 2018-19.

We’re going to have to see it to believe it.

17. ENES KANTER, NEW YORK KNICKS

His lack of a defensive presence is well-documented, but regardless, Enes Kanter blossomed into a double-double machine with the Knicks last season. The Turkish big man put up 14.1 points and 11.0 rebounds per contest in 2017-18, ranking in the 80th percentile (1.27 PPP) as a roll man out of the pick-and-roll, and the 74th percentile (0.96 PPP) on post-ups.

Even though their long-term future remains in flux with Kanter set to hit free agency in 2019, Kristaps Porzingis and his frontcourt partner proved to be pretty synergistic last season – one, a floor-spacing shot-blocker and the other, a rebound vacuum who provided the team with toughness down low.

Additionally, even if it’s not good to put too much stock into offseason footage, Kanter at least trying to extend his range to the three-point line this summer is a welcome sight, as that would be the final frontier to turn him into a multi-dimensional offensive weapon:

We’ll see if he translate that to actual game action. If it does, Kanter could be in line for a major 2018-19 campaign.

16. NIKOLA VUCEVIC, ORLANDO MAGIC

A fellow archaic big man, but one who has began to turn the corner into modernization last season, Nikola Vucevic is coming off a year in which he averaged 16.5 points and 9.2 boards nightly  Formerly just a post-up, put-back specialist, Vucevic extended his range in 2017-18, attempting a career-high 204 triples and converting a career-best 64 of them.

Like Kanter, he struggles defensively due to slow feet and lacking explosion as a shot-blocker (though, to be fair, Vucevic is a far superior rim-protector to his Turkish counterpart), but his impact offensively outweighs that – at least to an extent.

It’ll be interesting to note what happens to Vucevic next season. After all, the Orlando Magic drafted his long-term replacement when they took Mohamed Bamba. Plus, 2018-19 is the final year of Vucevic’s current deal. He could be a prime trade target for a playoff team looking for more scoring out of their frontcourt at the deadline.

15. JUSUF NURKIC, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Following a mid-season 2016-17 trade to the Portland Trail Blazers, it appeared that Jusuf Nurkic found the perfect landing spot, and was ready to reach the next proverbial step as a player. Last season proved that wasn’t the case. The Bosnian big man finished 2017-18 averaging 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per contest – decent marks, but a far cry from what a player with his tools should be putting up.

Nurkic’s 50.5 field-goal percentage is far too poor of a mark for a big man who doesn’t space the floor from three whatsoever. At times, the 7-footer throws up awkward flip shots in the paint instead of going up strong and drawing fouls. And his propensity for launching long mid-range jumpers instead of taking a few steps back and shooting threes is a killer for his efficiency.

Nevertheless, though there’s a lot Nurkic has to work on, he provides Portland with productive two-way play. He simply has to get more consistent.

14. MYLES TURNER, INDIANA PACERS

A third-year regression prevented Turner from faring better on this countdown. After impressing in his second season, averaging 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, Turner’s marks fell to 12.7 points and 6.4 boards per contest in 2017-18. He was still quite effective, but it was disappointing to see him fail to continue on the upward trajectory he appeared to be on.

Nonetheless, Turner is still quite the rare talent, fitting the archetype of a floor-spacing rim-protector beautifully. The former Texas Longhorn made a decent 35.7 percent of his threes last season, blocking 1.8 shots per contest along the way. Only two other players averaged as many three-pointers and blocks as Turner did last year; they were Kevin Durant and a guy who will finish pretty high near the top of this ranking.

Not bad company for Turner to be in.

Still, after seeing his development stagnate a bit last season, we need improvement in 2018-19 before ranking him more favorably among the top centers in the league.

13. JONAS VALANCIUNAS, TORONTO RAPTORS

Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas was an excellent three-point shooter in 2017-18 – if we discount for sample size. The 7-footer shot 40.5 percent from deep last season, but the high rate came on just 74 attempts in 75 games. Even so, it was progress for the throwback big man, and it helped him post his best season of his career, according to both VORP and BPM.

More than anything, Valanciunas provides the Raptors with toughness in the paint, thanks to a brutally effective post-up game. Per Synergy, among players with at least 150 post-ups last year, Valanciunas’ 1.09 PPP was by far the best rate in the league, with the second-place finisher (LeBron James), producing just 1.04 PPP on the same looks.

He may be more of an old-school big, but in a 20-minute-per-game role, Valanciunas can be exceedingly impactful.

12. MARC GASOL, MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

2017-18 was a rough year for Marc Gasol. He didn’t get along with his head coach David Fizdale (eventually leading to his firing), and the Grizzlies were one of the worst teams in the league. A lot of Memphis’ troubles had to do with Mike Conley’s injury-related absence, but even so, the campaign overall wasn’t a great look for the big Spaniard.

To his credit, Gasol did suit up for 73 games on the season, even despite the team clearly being in the gutter by the All-Star break. What’s more, he finished the year averaging 17.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.5 three-pointers per contest, proving that he’s still an elite big man.

But the Grizzlies were statistically worse during his time on the floor, and that, coupled with the fact next year will be his age-34 season, caused us to knock him down a peg on these rankings.

11. DEANDRE JORDAN, DALLAS MAVERICKS

After being spurned in free agency a few summers ago, Mark Cuban finally got his guy.

Following 10 seasons with the Clippers, DeAndre Jordan joined the Dallas Mavericks this offseason. The athletic big man should immediately help boost the team’s efficiency on the point-scoring end (Dallas ranked 23rd in offensive rating in 2017-18) thanks to his hard-nosed screen-setting and prowess as a finisher in the paint.

Jordan ranked in the 83rd percentile as the roll man last season (1.25 PPP), according to Synergy, a skill that should translate wonderfully to running pick-and-rolls with Wonder Boy and passing savant Luka Doncic. Jordan’s presence should also help Dennis Smith Jr. improve after an up-and-down first season.

Will Jordan’s addition help the Mavericks reach the playoffs in 2018-19? Probably not. But his pickup definitely makes them better, and he’ll help the young backcourt properly develop.

10. STEVEN ADAMS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

New Zealand native Steven Adams had a fantastic 2017-18, averaging 13.9 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals per contest while shooting 62.9 percent from the floor – the sixth-tidiest mark in the league. Over the past few seasons, Adams has proven to be one of the most selfless players league-wide, one who is willing to do the dirty work and let his teammates get all the shine.

Per Synergy, Adams placed in the 78th percentile as the roll man (1.22 PPP) last season, in the 91st percentile on post-ups (1.08 PPP) and the 92nd percentile (1.37 PPP) in transition scoring – is there any doubt he could be putting up huge numbers on a different team?

Whether it bothers him or not (odds are, it doesn’t at all), Adams’ raw stats won’t change much next year since he’ll still be a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Hence, his spot on our list. Still, ranking among the Top 10 centers in the league is nothing to scoff at, and Adams definitely deserves the honor.

9. CLINT CAPELA, HOUSTON ROCKETS

Whether it was due to playing with one of the two-best backcourts in the NBA or not, Clint Capela deserves a ton of credit for his breakout 2017-18 campaign. The Swiss big man averaged 13.9 points, 10.8 points and 1.9 blocks per game, leading the league in field-goal percentage at an absurd 65.2 percent. Sure, most of his chances were dunks set up by Chris Paul and James Harden, but Capela did a great job of making the most of every opportunity.

Perhaps even more impressive than the career-high marks in points and rebounds, however, was the fact that the bouncy center was able to play 27.5 minutes per game last season – something that would have been impossible a few years ago due to Capela’s poor stamina. That, plus his much-improved hands, have turned Capela into the perfect complementary big man – one who doesn’t do much as far as shot creation, but does finish nearly every chance he gets, an important skill in its own right.

8. DEMARCUS COUSINS, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Like Porzingis on the power-forward rankingDeMarcus Cousins’ spot on this list took a hit due to the injury concerns surrounding the enigmatic big man.

It’s not known when exactly Cousins’ return from a torn achilles will take place – there was talk it could happen by training camp, with other chatter placing the date closer to the All-Star break. The last we see Cousins on a basketball court, he looked to be moving decently well all things considered, but was still clearly hampered by the injury:

Chances are, the Golden State Warriors will push for Cousins to delay his return as long as needed for him to come back as close to fully healthy as possible. It’s not like they need him before the postseason rolls around, anyway.

Once he does return, Cousins will probably make Golden State even more ridiculous than they were before, as his outside shooting, playmaking and toughness in the paint could help them reach an even higher plane.

How fair does that sound?

7. ANDRE DRUMMOND, DETROIT PISTONS

It was a career season for Andre Drummond in 2017-18, even if it was already the second time the UConn product made an All-Star team and led the league in rebounding. Drummond hit an even higher level last year than in his first All-Star campaign, averaging 15.0 points, 16.0 boards, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks and, most impressively, a career-high 3.0 assists per contest.

It was that much-improved playmaking that helped Drummond see an uptick in most of the important advanced metrics, including BPM and VORP, and made him a more well-rounded player. We’ll see if Drummond keeps any playmaking duties next season with Reggie Jackson returning and Blake Griffin’s arrival, but even if he doesn’t, it was important for his development that he got a season under his belt where he did have to do a bit of everything.

The only reason Drummond isn’t ranked higher on this list is because over the past two years, even despite the big man’s impressive raw numbers, the Pistons have been outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. It’ll be pertinent for Detroit’s playoff chances that that changes next season, otherwise, the Dwane Casey era may get off to a rough start.

6. AL HORFORD, BOSTON CELTICS

A defensive ace, a fantastic distributor and a floor-spacer, Al Horford checks just about every box necessary to be an elite modern big man. The Florida product averaged 12.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game in 2017-18, on healthy 48.9/42.9/78.3 shooting splits.

As a spot-up shooter, Horford placed in the 94th percentile (1.25 PPP) last season, above the likes of Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, which is insane for a big man. Horford’s shooting, as well as passing and ability to defend on the perimeter, makes him special, even if he doesn’t put up 20 points per game – his impact goes beyond just scoring.

In the regular season, Horford boasted a +8.0 net rating – a stunning enough mark in its own right, if not for the fact that in the playoffs, it got even better. Throughout Boston’s surprising 19-game postseason run, which came to within one victory of a Finals berth, Horford had a +12.3 net rating, proving that he’s without question among the best big men basketball has to offer.

The only thing really hurting Horford’s spot in this ranking is his how old he is; 2018-19 is set to be the well-rounded big man’s age-32 season. Even then, we may even be underselling him at No. 6.

5. NIKOLA JOKIC, DENVER NUGGETS

It’s hard to surmise why Nikola Jokic is such a contentious player when it comes to online basketball discourse.

For one, his game is especially aesthetically pleasing, so whoever’s seen him play has to have a huge appreciation for how his otherworldly offensive talent impacts outcomes.

Secondly, for those that are more analytically inclined, Jokic’s numbers – both standard and advanced – are completely bonkers. The big Serbian is coming off a season in which he averaged 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.5 triples per contest, shooting 39.6 percent from three and 85.0 percent from the striple. Jokic was also fifth league-wide in VORP and sixth in BPM.

Just insane.

With all that said, you may be surprised that Jokic ranks just fifth in our countdown. But with so many stupendous young centers coming up, someone had to fall a bit, and Jokic, due to his limitations defensively (yes, he makes up for it some with great positioning and quick, swiping hands that help him rack up steals) and the fact he hasn’t been able to lead the Denver Nuggets to the playoffs yet (granted, tough to knock him for since the West is absurdly stacked), Jokic ended up being our choice for the big man who fell.

4. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Another extremely gifted young scorer at the center position, Karl-Anthony Towns edges out Jokic for the fourth spot in our ranking. The former Kentucky Wildcat averaged 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.5 threes per contest in 2017-18, helping guide the Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. Towns also became the first player in league history to shoot at least 42 percent from three (min: 75 attempts) and block over 100 shots in a single season.

Towns is an obscenely unique talent – one that any team would kill to build around. Still just 22 years old, it’ll be fascinating to see the heights the big man can reach.

In fact, the only reason we didn’t rank Towns higher is due to his somewhat clunky fit with Jimmy Butler. Though the duo did manage to lead Minnesota to the playoffs for the first time in forever, this offseason has seen the two seemingly take subtle shots maybe not directly at each other, but at the team dynamic overall. It’s a hard to explain, weird, and ultimately, concerning situation, and it’ll have to be monitored as we approach 2018-19.

Not to mention, in a purely basketball sense, Butler’s arrival hurt Towns’ output, as the big Dominican was putting up over 25 points per contest prior to the star swingman joining the team.

Still, Towns was magnificent last year, and that won’t change next season.

3. RUDY GOBERT, UTAH JAZZ

In 2016-17, the Utah Jazz exceeded expectations, won 51 regular-season games and then reached the second-round of the playoffs, knocking off CP3’s Clippers along the way. Then, All-Star wing Gordon Hayward left for Boston, and everyone expected Utah to fall to the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Except they didn’t. And although rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell deserves a ton of credit, as the Jazz would have been in trouble without his perimeter scoring, it’s Rudy Gobert who was the primary reason for that. The French 7-footer put up 13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest last season, while shooting 62.2 percent from the floor. Utah were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with the defensive stalwart on the floor. And despite playing just 56 games, his point-stopping impact was so great that Gobert took home 2018’s Defensive Player of the Year honors anyway.

He may not be much of a scorer, but Gobert’s improved his offensive game enough to place in the 87th percentile (1.28 PPP) as the roll man last season and the 80th percentile (1.26 PPP) in transition scoring, per Synergy.

Essentially, Gobert is a more than capable offensive player who doubles as the most impactful defender in the league, making it not-so-surprising that Utah has ranked fifth in net rating in each of the last two seasons.

With more growth out of Mitchell, it’ll be interesting to see how much better the Jazz can be in 2018-19, with Gobert providing his usual, out of this world two-way influence.

2. JOEL EMBIID, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

The second-place finisher in Defensive Player of the Year voting for 2017-18, Joel Embiid got the edge in our list over Gobert because he nearly matches Gobert’s defensive impact, while contributing much more on the offensive end. The Cameroonian big man put up 22.9 points per game last season, to go with 11.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 blocks nightly.

Along with his 7-foot, 250-pound frame and freakish athleticism, Embiid can handle the rock beyond well for a center, dragging opposing bigs out on the perimeter and usually forcing them to foul in order to slow him down. Embiid has averaged over seven free throws nightly in each of his first two seasons, shooting a healthy 77.4 percent once he gets to the stripe. Additionally, his three-point marks may not be great, but the fact he can shoot from out there at all gives opponents something to think about when defending him, giving him yet another edge as a scorer.

Overall, Embiid isn’t just an entertaining figure on social media who puts up empty statistics – he’s an absolute game-changer, a two-way force, a future potential MVP candidate and one of the best centers in basketball.

1. ANTHONY DAVIS, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

What’s there to be said about Anthony Davis that hasn’t already been said countless times? Simply put: Davis is so insanely good that he has a chance to take the mantle as the best player in the league once LeBron finally starts to regress.

The Brow averaged 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and a league-leading 2.6 blocks per contest last season, while posting career-best marks in effective field goal and true-shooting percentage, thanks to his somewhat improved (34.0 percent) three-point stroke. In the postseason, those numbers actually got even better – to 30.1 points and 13.4 boards nightly, including a 47-point, 11-rebound outing in a closeout victory over Portland in Round 1:

He performs uber-effectively on both ends of the floor, he’s improved as a playmaker, his three-point shot has gotten better… there’s just not much Davis can’t do. As long as Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle provide complementary play at the 4-spot (shouldn’t be an issue), there’s no reason to think A.D. won’t be even better in 2018-19, playing center again, except this time, in his prime, entering his age-25 season.

Frank Urbina joined Alex Kennedy on the HoopsHype podcast to go into further detail on his center rankings. Click play below for his reasoning behind each selection:

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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