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As basketball’s big men play more like guards, high school coaches face a dilemma

Flint Hill Coach Rico Reed says of his star center Qudus Wahab: “I think primarily from December to March, he understands that his team needs him to be effective on the inside. And I think he has been willing to accept that role.” (Will Newton/For The Washington Post)

Qudus Wahab stood with his back to the basket at the top right corner of the paint, before turning to face his opponent. Wahab, a 6-foot-11, 230-pound senior for Flint Hill, was squaring off in this late November scrimmage against DeMatha junior Hunter Dickinson, who measures 7-2 and 255.

It was a marquee matchup of two of the top big man prospects in the country, and as Dickinson shifted his feet, Wahab maneuvered through the lane to score with a quick, right-handed jump hook.

It was a simple move, one that Wahab’s coach emphasizes as part of a traditional big-man skill set. It also set him apart from Dickinson, whose game, while still rooted in the basics of playing the center position, is increasingly defined by his ability to stretch defenses by shooting three-pointers.

Together, they represent a conflict that faces many coaches of big-bodied basketball stars at the high school level: Do you coach big men to thrive in the “positionless basketball” that is taking over the professional and, at times, collegiate levels, with centers asked to shoot from the outside, handle the ball and defend multiple positions? Or do you leverage the obvious tactical advantage of having the tallest player on the court near the rim, prioritizing winning high school games ahead of individual player development?

“I think you get stuck between doing what is best for you to win games as a coach and doing what is best to help the young man develop,” said Doug Martin, an assistant coach for Team Takeover, a Washington-based AAU program. “But I also feel like if you help them enough, you are going to win games regardless.”

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Both Dickinson (ranked the No. 4 center nationally in the Class of 2020 by 247 Sports) and Wahab (the No. 7 overall prospect in Virginia for 2019) are trying to become more adaptable to the changing sport that awaits them in college and, they hope, the pros. They are aware of the versatile skill sets of NBA stars bordering 7 feet, such as the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid.

The top two prospects in the 2019 high school class, James Wiseman of Memphis East in Tennessee and Vernon Carey Jr. of University School in Florida, have been labeled “unicorns” by scouts for their guard-like skill sets and big-man size.

“No kid wants to be called a center anymore,” said Jim Carr, the high school coach of Carey, who committed to Duke this month.

But for coaches, this can be a complicating factor, and each one takes a slightly different approach to their big men. Mike Jones, Dickinson’s coach at DeMatha, says part of the reason he was able to convince Dickinson to play for him at the school was by promising to give him flexibility to produce away from the basket.

“Everybody would love to coach a Shaq,” Jones said. “But even if a Shaq were to come along these days, you would want Shaq to be able to shoot and dribble more than the original Shaq did.” 

Jones, who is a coach for USA Basketball, said the organization’s growing vision is to introduce the idea of free-flowing basketball at the youngest levels, with all players. Dickinson said he “always” used to shoot three-pointers when he was 8 years old, but as he moved into fifth grade and had an obvious size advantage over other kids near the basket, he stopped. Now he’s trying to get back to learning how to become the best overall basketball player — one who can play a game similar to many of the NBA’s best big men.

“Just think about if those guys did that from the time they started playing,” Jones said.

Flint Hill Coach Rico Reed said he believes in developing Wahab for the next level, but puts more stock into how he can use Wahab’s valuable size as an advantage over opponents who can’t match him physically. Reed said his job as a high school coach is to get kids to buy in for the best opportunity to win on any given night. 

“I think primarily from December to March, [Wahab] understands that his team needs him to be effective on the inside,” Reed said. “And I think he has been willing to accept that role.”

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Wahab said he understands the shift at his position in the NBA but also knows what is best for his team. The scrimmage against Dickinson and DeMatha aside, there aren’t many games in which Wahab faces an opponent who can measure up to his size and skill level down low. Additionally, Flint Hill operates a more traditional offense that runs through Wahab’s scoring and passing out of the post, not the pace-and-space offenses common in the NBA that emphasize outside shooting and create driving lanes for guards.

“When it comes to game day, we arrive at the game plan and our kids are going to stick with the game plan despite the outside influences,” Reed said.

Wahab still works on broadening his offensive toolbox, hoping this season to take more than one three-point attempt, like he did last year. To his credit, he made the shot.

Wilson Coach Angelo Hernandez, who has two highly regarded big men in 6-foot-9 twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, both of whom are committed to Maryland for the Class of 2019, said he recognizes the evolution of the position but also thinks the emphasis on outside shooting can be overblown. He wants the Mitchell twins to be effective rim-runners on the fast break, ballhandlers against the press and passers on screen-and-rolls. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he wants his two centers hovering on the perimeter and taking a plethora of three-pointers.

Carr said that allowing Carey, a 6-foot-10, 275-pounder , more freedom offensively has led him to play a more disciplined game overall. With Carey playing more on the perimeter, it also gives his body a break from the physical toll of being double-teamed by opponents in the post.

“It is very selfish to put wins over long-term growth for guys,” Carr said. “Especially if you understand that there is a correlation that you would have a much better team.” 

Of course, not every coach has a big man with the talent of Carey, or players who project as the next Davis or Embiid, and many coaches acknowledge they fear that kids who watch those NBA stars will spend all their time learning to play on the outside without developing the proper fundamentals down low. Martin said some kids believe shooting from the outside means they’re working on their game, when they should really be practicing a wider range of skills.

“I think kids sit and watch Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant and how much money they are making, doing the things they are doing, and they feel like they need to incorporate that into their game and make it that way,” Martin said. “But you can’t say one is right and one is wrong.”

For a lot of high school centers who are in line to earn scholarships at mid- to high-major colleges, but who would face an uphill climb to reach the NBA, there is still great value in having a polished, traditional big-man skill set. While some colleges, such as Villanova, have become known for versatile systems, not all Division I programs mirror professional trends.

Hernandez said that while the “positionless” game might be right for some centers, it shouldn’t be the formula for all big men.

“If you can make the shot, step out and shoot,” Hernandez said. “But if you can’t, don’t go away from your bread and butter.”

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