Local High School Star
Join Date: Jun 2007
Lopez is 4th best "young" center
Lost in the rubble of the Hawks' blowout of the Bulls on Wednesday night and what it portends for Vinny Del Negro in Chicago was an always-compelling matchup at the center position. Al Horford and Joakim Noah are two of the many good young centers in the game and are especially fun to watch because they're both such team-oriented players.
However, the former Florida Gators teammates are having big individual years, too. Noah ranks fourth in the league in rebounding, at 11.6 per game, and is averaging double-figure scoring (10.2 ppg) for the first time in his career. Horford, meanwhile, rates seventh in the league with a 57.2 shooting percentage from the floor and is just shy of averaging a double-double himself, with 13.3 points and 9.5 boards per game.
But the two aren't the only young centers making strides this season. A profusion of young centers has stepped forward across the league with All-Star-caliber first months of the season. The result is the most promising batch of big men in the league since the mid-'90s.
So let's rank the best of the bunch, which features a dozen young pivot men who stand out above the crowd. "Young," in this case, means players age 25 or younger. (Sorry, David Lee and Nene, you just missed. And apologies to Zaza Pachulia, but nobody believes you're really 25.)
These are the players who will be fighting for All-Star berths and other such hardware over the next 5-10 seasons. And from what we've seen this season, it should be a heck of a fight for the top spot.
The honorable mention list of players who couldn't quite crack my top dozen includes Indiana's Roy Hibbert, Sacramento's Spencer Hawes, Toronto's Andrea Bargnani and Orlando's Marcin Gortat. Yep, we've got some pretty good centers right now.
12. Jason Thompson, Sacramento Kings
Sacramento's second-year center has impressed scouts with his quickness for his size. The 23-year-old likes to face up opposing big men from the block and drive past them as if he were a perimeter player, a strategy that's helped him average 17.0 points per 40 minutes this season. Thompson's rebound rate also is strong, and he should continue to improve given his age. The one caveat about listing him here is the question of his long-term position -- because he can face up and has some perimeter skills, some talent evaluators see his long-term position as a power forward.
11. Marreese Speights, Philadelphia 76ers
An explosive scorer who can rain in jump shots off pick-and-pop plays but also knows his way around the basket area, Speights kicked off a tremendous start to his second season before a knee injury sidelined him. Speights, 22, shot 60.5 percent in 10 games while averaging 22.2 points per 40 minutes, building on very strong offensive numbers in his rookie season (50.2 percent shooting, 19.3 points per 40 minutes).
His defense is miles behind his offense, and at 6-foot-10 with limited dexterity he'll continue to struggle on the defensive end of the court. Nonetheless, his exceptional promise as a scorer could land him in an All-Star Game down the road.
10. Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers
Oden is a more effective player than several of the ones ahead of him on this list, but the fact that he's played only one-third of his possible career games forces me to drop him to 10th. Before fracturing his patella this past weekend, Oden, 21, was enjoying a breakout season, averaging nearly a point every two minutes on 60.5 percent shooting and ranking third in rebound rate. Despite missing the past three games, he's still second in blocks (2.3 per game), which is pretty impressive considering his limited minutes (23.9 a game).
What holds down his minutes, however, is that Oden still has issues with committing fouls. Thus, his problems staying on the court exist on two levels -- staying healthy enough to put on the uniform and preventing the clumsy fouls that have plagued his career thus far. But when he plays extended minutes, he can dominate.
9. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks
As with Oden, Bogut might rank higher if not for the health worries. The 25-year-old played only 36 games last season and has already missed six games this season. Otherwise, he's having a career year. The Bucks are going to him in the post more and he's averaging a career-best 18.1 points per 40 minutes. Defensively, Bogut's willingness to play physically and take charges offset his lack of shot-blocking ability, plus he's a very good rebounder (9.3 per game). His ability to stay on the court is likely the key to Milwaukee's playoff hopes, as the Bucks' season went off the rails after he went down almost a year ago.
8. Kendrick Perkins, Boston Celtics
The classic "dirty work" guy, Perkins, 25, rates among the best low-post defenders in basketball and is quite possibly the best screener in the game. He picks up offensive fouls crushing opponents on picks, but otherwise he's a low-mistake offensive player with an improving post game. This season he leads the league in shooting percentage at 65.1 percent and has added nearly six points to his 2008-09 40-minute scoring rate of 11.5, a whopping increase that is one of the less-trumpeted reasons behind Boston's early-season success.
7. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Within a span of 24 hours this week, I had two different people tell me that Noah was the best defensive center in the league. While "best" may be a bit generous, there's no question that Noah's mobility makes him a tremendous pick-and-roll defender and that his effort level on D is near the top end of the spectrum. Noah, 24, fails to rank higher, however, because of his severe offensive limitations. He'll get points on putbacks and by running the floor, but he has no post game and a sideways-spinning jump shot of dubious accuracy.
6. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Horford outranks Noah thanks to his more refined offensive game. The 23-year-old can face up from 15 feet and has a strong enough low-post repertoire to take advantage of mismatches against second-rate centers. Horford's best asset, however, may be his ballhandling prowess. No center is better at dribbling his own rebound up the floor to start a transition opportunity, a skill that becomes incredibly potent with all the high-fliers Atlanta has to finish the break.
Additionally, Horford (6-10) defends well despite his short stature for a center. Given the Hawks' early success and the lack of compelling options for a backup center in the East, it's quite possible he'll make his first All-Star appearance this season.
5. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Pau's little brother might be the league's most unheralded player right now, posting All-Star-caliber numbers over the first month of the season to help the Grizzlies teeter on the brink of respectability. After losing a big slab of baby fat over the summer, the svelter Gasol is shooting 60.1 percent from the floor and threatening to average a double-double (14.4 points, 9.7 boards). Plus, he's a deft passer and an improved defender.
The scary part is that he could be doing a lot more -- the Grizzlies still don't get him the rock enough. At a paltry $3.3 million this season, the 24-year-old is one of the league's biggest bargains.
4. Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets
I thought Lopez, 21, got jobbed in the rookie of the year vote last season, and now we're seeing why. Although the Nets have been awful, Lopez has been fantastic. He's averaging 19 points and nine boards a night while ranking third in the NBA with 2.2 blocks per game.
Other than the fact that he shoots too many long jumpers instead of overpowering opposing big men on the blocks, it's hard to quibble with his offensive attack. Most impressive is the fact that he's more than doubled his free throw attempts from his rookie season, taking six a game. He's also one of the most accurate big men from the stripe, at 83.3 percent.
3. Al Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
At the moment, Jefferson isn't playing as well as the four players below him on the list. However, based on his spectacular output prior to tearing his ACL a year ago, his skillful low-post game should again make him one of the league's highest-scoring big men once he fully recovers.
Jefferson, 24, has tremendous hands and can loft in hook shots from incredible distances, enabling him to score effectively even when he's pushed out from prime post position. He's a very strong rebounder as well (14.8 rebound rate), and those numbers should bounce back as his knee mends. While Jefferson earns demerits for his shaky defense and dormant passing ability, he's still one of the game's most dominant post players when healthy.
2. Andrew Bynum, Lakers
Injuries are the only lingering concern with Bynum; he missed big chunks of the past two seasons with knee problems. Nonetheless, he's such a factor when he's on the court that it's impossible to place him lower than second. Bynum owns a soft touch around the rim, shooting 56.7 percent for his career while averaging a point every two minutes this season and last. That makes him one of the league's top low-post threats. Additionally, he's a deft passer from the block who can burn double-teams.
Bynum, 22, may provide even more value at the defensive end, where his size and mobility transform the Lakers from a decent defensive squad into a dominant one. L.A. was an elite unit prior to his injury a season ago. With him back in the lineup, the Lakers are doing it again, ranking second in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Orlando's overpowering center is unquestionably the dean of the league's young centers, leading the Magic to the Finals last season while winning the defensive player of the year award. This season he's redoubled his effort, shooting a sizzling 64.8 percent from the floor (second in the league) and ranking third in rebounding (12.0). Howard, 24, boasts the league's top defensive rebound rate among centers at 29.0, while his 10.5 free throw attempts per game rank second only to Dwyane Wade's 11.0. Sure, it would be great if Howard could make more than 58.3 percent from the stripe, but that's the only weakness in the man who has replaced Shaquille O'Neal as the league's most dominant physical specimen.