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Traditional big men, nearly extinct in the NBA, nevertheless pack the 2018 draft class

Can Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, a top NBA draft prospect, fit into the league’s up-and-down style of play? (Gerry Broome/AP)

The need for speed and threes has left the NBA and its 2018 draft class in a peculiar position. Seven of the class of 2018’s top prospects are traditional back-to-the-basket power forwards and centers auditioning for a league that has mostly chosen not to cast that part in recent years.

The Golden State Warriors’ “death lineup” places 6-foot-7 Draymond Green, a career 33-percent three-point shooter, at center. The Cleveland Cavaliers roll with 6-10 Kevin Love, 36 percent all-time from three-point range, in the middle.

And with defenses happy to hack the likes of DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond — both traditional, on-the-block bigs — the nature of power forwards and centers is entirely different than even five years ago, when the plodding Roy Hibbert led the Indiana Pacers to a division crown, and Jordan helped the Los Angeles Clippers to one. Hibbert, an all-star as recently as 2014, is now out of the league.

Now the changes in the key tasks of pure post-up players have come into focus the same year the coming draft class features a glut of those players. 

Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton is a freakish athlete, but has repeatedly declared he belongs below the rim. Duke’s Marvin Bagley III has been dominant in the post, but scouts are wary of his jump-shooting game. Texas’ Mohamed Bamba has a 7-9 wingspan and averages nearly four blocked shots per game, but barely scores in double-digits.

Further complicating matters: This year’s crop of bigs is markedly better than what NBA teams had to choose from last season, when 15 still went in the first round.

Player/Stats FG% 3pt FG% FT% Asst. per game
DeAndre Ayton, Arizona 61.9% 30.4% 70.8% 1.7
Marvin Bagley III, Duke 63.0% 35.7% 60.7% 1.6
Mohamed Bamba, Texas 50.9% 21.7% 60.4% 0.3
Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State 46.9% 36.8% 81.5% 1.3
Robert Williams, Texas A&M 58.2% 0.0%* 44.4% 1.9
Wendell Carter Jr., Duke 61.0% 50.0% 63.6% 1.9
Brandon McCoy, UNLV 61.3% 100.0%* 67.1% 0.5
2018 prospect average 57.6% 34.9% 64.1% 1.3
2017 college average of PF/C first rounder 56.6% 27.0% 69.5% 1.3

* Note: Robert Williams has not attempted a three-pointer, and Brandon McCoy has only attempted one three-pointer. 

On average, the 2018 bigs are much better long-range shooters. Four of the seven average more assists than the class of 2017’s average.

Arizona has used Ayton all over the floor in pick-and-roll sets and as a primary option on the break. It will throw the ball into him on the post and run its offense using him as a primary passer. His jumper is good around 17 feet from the rim with an occasional three-pointer, something that will improve as he gets to the NBA, Wildcats Coach Sean Miller has said.

Bagley has a bag of tricks for post moves and has spent his freshman year facing off against undersized opponents. But he’s struggled against those same smaller forwards when guarding the perimeter. And though he’s excelling in Duke’s classical three-guard, two-forward set, his frame translates as a huge small forward or a developing center. In short, the guy with the 7-foot wingspan is somehow stuck between positions.

With Bamba’s supreme length, he’s dominant all over the court defensively — averaging 4.27 blocks per game — and he’s an NBA-ready rebounder. If he makes a mistake defending on the perimeter, he’s able to make up for it with those long arms and quick feet.

So what are teams to do with all these awesome-yet-awkward-fitting power forwards and centers?

Draft ’em. Take a chance.

“I do think it’s important to have an open mind and think about what can a player become,” said Jeff Peterson, the Atlanta Hawks’ assistant general manager. “Maybe you take the approach of, this guy has a back-to-the-basket game, that’s a great starting point. What if he works and is receptive to coaching? Can he develop a midrange jump shot or a three-pointer?

“Then it’s all about baby steps. Let’s say this guy can’t shoot at all. The next offseason, maybe you get a shooting coach and all you do is work on form shooting. Then he can shoot from five or six feet. That’s valuable.”

Tim Duncan, after all, became a legend shooting 10-foot bank-shots from the low block. Bigs that play in pick-and-roll offenses can earn more playing time with a consistent baby-jumper from inside the paint, Peterson said. And reports of the back-to-the-basket game’s death in the NBA are still premature and overblown, he added.

“The traditional big man approach is not completely extinct from the game today,” he said. “There are some bigs who are pretty damn good with their back to the basket.”

And upon entering the league, there are some constants, players and coaches said. Playing consistent defense is chief among them, though even those responsibilities have changed.

The NBA is less reliant on blocks than ever, and depends on forwards and centers to defend point guards in pick-and-roll situations, or to contest perimeter shots.

That means league prospects have to show more than just the ability to win individual defensive matchups. They have to be able to play team-oriented defense all over the floor to stop a fast break, close out on a shooter or defend passing lanes in the post.

League evaluators constantly search for prospects with the combination of the physical ability to make those plays and the perceptiveness to adapt to the NBA’s more rapid pace. Ayton, Bagley and Bamba all present those skills.

Coaches and teammates, though, continue to lean on on-court production to judge when prospects are truly prepared for the NBA’s game.

“One thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of defense,” Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said. “Obviously you have to be able to do more things defensively. There’s a lot more switching involved and different stuff.”

Offensively, Gasol has been forced to adapt his game to meet the demands of a more up-and-down tempo. In Gasol’s first two seasons in the NBA, he attempted two three-pointers and missed both. Through 37 games this season, he has attempted 157.

“I’m having to take shots that I normally wouldn’t like to take because it’s not what I consider great shots,” he said. “But it’s what the team needs.”

New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis has also adjusted his game. When he entered the NBA in 2012, the Kentucky big man took six three-pointers all season and was still considered a power forward with decent shooting range.

“Even when I got in the league, there was already stretch-fours,” he said, referring to shooters the NBA crammed into the power forward slot, “so I never really had to play back to the basket as much.”

In his sixth year, his shooting range has extended considerably. He’s taken 60 three-pointers this season, making 22 of them.

The Pelicans, hovering around .500, play at the sixth fastest pace in the NBA (103.5 possessions per game), and that’s with Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, two perennial all-stars at forward and center.

Those success stories will make NBA front offices feel more at ease drafting Ayton, Bagley, Bamba and the rest of the power forwards and centers in the class of 2018, said Peterson, the Hawks’ assistant GM. The game is headed in a predictable direction — faster — and there’s plenty of precedent for “traditional” bigs to develop a softer shooting touch and more defensive awareness.

“There are countless examples of guys who have grown and developed during their careers,” Peterson said.

Halfway through the season, the Hawks have a solid chance of landing one of the top draft picks and the opportunity to select one of those big-name forwards. Peterson, the team’s former director of scouting, has spent a good part of the season evaluating college basketball’s top players and who could make the biggest impact for the Hawks.

Maybe a more classic power forward wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Atlanta, Peterson said. He’d be something different for teams to defend.

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