BY: COLIN KRAUSS
In the modern NBA, we often think of the stars as guards and wings. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard. Each are incredible talents, but what truly makes a star in today’s NBA is your skill level. Under the radar, a wave of super skilled bigs are making their way up the NBA’s ladder of stars. One of these is Anthony Davis.
Davis has entered the super-duper-star discussion, and has overall become a defacto top 5 player in the NBA. Since it’s already universally accepted Davis is an MVP caliber talent, I will focus on what I believe are the next three great centers.
My discussion today surrounds three bigs with immense skill levels and a career trajectories that should land all of them in MVP discussions within 5 years. For a couple, those discussions are taking place now. These three bigs are Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Karl Anthony-Towns.
Let’s start with the underdog of the league, Nikola Jokic.
Nikola Jokic has been described by people not named me as a “7-foot tall bag of milk” and I have to say it’s true. However, Jokic has been unquestionably an MVP-level performer this year. The 23-year old Serbian has led his Denver Nuggets to the first seed in the Western Conference, and we’re almost halfway through the season! His season averages 18.8ppg, 10 rpg, and 7.5apg on shooting splits of 50/31.8/83.6 are difficult to comprehend.
What could be most impressive is that the Nuggets are 26-11 and they’ve had major injury problems. Defensive specialist Paul Millsap has missed 8 games. Gary Harris has missed 13 games. Their go-to scoring wing Will Barton has played in only 2 games. Their rookie Michael Porter Jr. hasn’t seen the court. Yet, the Nuggets are the third best team in the NBA. And the credit falls on Jokic.
Jokic has the skill of a point guard in the body of a bruiser. He often takes the ball down the court, and in transition, defenders need to be on their toes at all times. Jokic is one of only a few passers in the league that can make a teammate open simply through where he decides to pass the ball. Most notably, this happens on cuts and in transition to Harris, Murray, and Mason Plumlee, but he can pass from anywhere to any spot on the floor with LeBron-level accuracy, even if the player isn’t open yet. This year, he already has 9 games with 10 or more assists, including 3 with 15 or more. And he’s a center! But the praise does not end there.
Jokic is also a solid shooter as well. While his percentage has dipped this year from three point range (31.8% on 3.6 attempts per game), last year he was at 39.8% on 3.7 attempts per game, and his average is probably right inbetween at 36%. But I could also see him being a regular 40% shooter from deep. He’s a shooting threat from anywhere inside the arc as well, and particularly dangerous deep in the paint.
Jokic is so huge that contesting his shots is impossible for anybody not named Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert. This size also makes him a rebound magnet. He’s monstrous, yet agile and crafty, making him one of the premiere offensive weapons in the entire league. The only area Jokic has had trouble in his career is on the defensive end, where he has been inconsistent, but improving rapidly.
For the last two years, the Nuggets were bottom five in defense, lots of which falls on Jokic’s lack of quickness and verticality. He couldn’t switch onto guards, but also was too unathletic for someone like Towns or Embiid or even Javale McGee. This year, he’s turning that around by leveraging his exceptional IQ into defensive positioning and using quick hands, and the results have put Denver into the top ten in defensive rating. He does have a knack for poking the ball away from others and playing straight up to reach blocks. Where he can’t dominate athletically, he dominates with his intelligence of the sport. Also, his defensive rebounding is far too strong for opposing bigs to attack the offensive glass. When they decide to, they end up allowing Jokic to run the transition offense, which is scary good.
At just 23 years old, Jokic is one of the very best offensive options in the NBA, and a rapidly improving defender. As he enters his prime, it’s a mystery where he will end up as a big, since he’s so well-rounded and skilled. What is for certain is that this guy is insane at basketball, and should command MVP attention for several more years, including an argument to be made for even this season.
The next of these big men is Joel Embiid.
Embiid has the scariest frame in the NBA. At 7-foot-3 and 260 pounds, there’s no stopping Joel. While we normally link Embiid to Twitter beefs and his Cameroonian accent, the man has been an MVP candidate this season since day 1. His per-game numbers are ridiculous, at 27 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, with 2 blocks as well.
Philadelphia has resorted to an old-school style of basketball reminiscent of Shaq. This is “I am unstoppable. Give me the ball. We will win.” And it’s hard to argue against it. Some of his big-time games are just stupid: 42 18 and 4 against Charlotte, 42 18 and 2 against Phoenix, 40 21 and 3 against the Pacers, 33 11 and 7 against Detroit, 30 19 and 6 on Milwaukee, and 41 13 and 1 against the Clippers. The list goes on.
What Embiid is best at is his deep-post and mid-post skill set. At 24, he already has an arsenal of nifty post moves to get him where he wants to go. Once he’s deep in the paint, he’s going to dunk all over anyone in his way. In the mid-range, his jumper is good enough to force bigs to stay close. But when they do, he can blow right by. The key to unlocking his offense is the three ball. It’s been ugly (31.7% career 3P%), but it’s just effective enough to make defenses guard him, which helps open the offense for Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler.
Embiid is an underrated playmaker as well. He does tend to dominate the ball, but he makes intelligent reads for cutters and shooters, which has helped him average his career-high in assists. If Philly had a roster more suited for Embiid, I’m sure he could average 5 or more. However, sharing the court a lot with Simmons and Butler does not make for a three-happy offense, even if JJ Redick is having a career year as well.
Perhaps the most exceptional skill of Embiid’s is his defensive prowess. Philly is the fourth seed in the East in the cluster of Eastern powerhouses that has included Boston, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Indiana. Last season, the 76ers were the fifth best defense in the league, according to basketball-reference.com and this season, they are 13th, but there’s an argument to be made that there have been extenuating circumstances on and off the court, including the Fultz drama, injuries, the Butler-trade, and some Simmons drama as well. By the playoffs, they should be performing at a top-5 defense once again.
Embiid himself scares guards away from the paint and opposing players know they’re likely to be on Embiid’s highlight reels if the try to score on him. He has improved as a switching defender on the perimeter, and this talent is what will make him the undisputed Defensive Player of the Year if he improves. Last year, if I had a vote, I would have voted Embiid as DPOY since he can’t be schemed off the floor the way Rudy Gobert was in last year’s postseason.
Of course, Embiid has deficiencies like any other star. He’s turnover prone. His conditioning is average and leaves him gassed at the end of tight games. His efficiency definitely should be higher, and he takes too many threes. I expect these all will improve over time.
Just like Jokic, Joel Embiid has the size, intelligence, and skill set to have both an MVP and DPOY-level ceiling. We can’t know if he’ll stay healthy forever, but we do know he lives for basketball and he’s only scratching the surface of what he will be in a couple years.
Lastly, we have the most gifted of the bunch athletically, Karl Anthony-Towns.
I have to admit personally, I was out on Towns last year and the season prior. It looked like he didn’t care about basketball half the time. He ran like a 60 year old man. His effort was poor, and he didn’t even try on defense. Coming into this season, with Butler single handedly torpedoing the franchise, I was certain KAT would underperform once again.
But the exact opposite has happened. Before Butler was shipped to Philly, KAT had averages of 21-11-2 on 46% shooting. That’s respectable, but not better than last year. But since the trade? 23 ppg, 13 rpg, and 3.5 apg on 51%. And the shooting is what is really frightening for the rest of the NBA.
Since 2016-2017, KAT is a 39% three point shooter on just under 4 attempts per game. That’s absurd. That’s Damian Lillard level accuracy. Last year, in terms of True Shooting %, Towns was THIRD in the entire NBA. As a center. Curry and Kyle Korver were in front of him. Who are they? Two of the greatest shooters ever. After them? Anthony-Freaking-Towns.
He can score like Jokic, but is way more efficient on more usage. He’s got the jumper, he’s too big to stop down low, and his mid-range game is on point as well.
Where we’ve seen the biggest leaps from KAT is in the effort department. All the way back in 2015, we all remember that one clip on Twitter of KAT locking down Steph Curry on the perimeter and the internet went insane, claiming Towns definitely has DPOY potential after seeing that. But ever since that one possession, it was downhill. He’s turned it around this year. The effort is there. The intelligence on where to be on defense is improving. Last week, he had a monster game over Miami with 33 points, 18 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 blocks, and 3 steals to go along with 3 threes. To me, this was both the game of his career and the game of the 2018-2019 season in the NBA. It showed exactly what a motivated Towns can be.
As just a 23 year old, the potential of Towns is this: superstar rim protector that switches to the perimeter to stop point guards, hits threes at superstar guard accuracy, scores everywhere inside the arc efficiently, gets assists, and eats up every rebound. Outside of Anthony Davis, Towns has the most tantalizing mixture of athleticism, frame, and skill in the whole NBA. Unfortunately, a lot of this potential is just that, a theory. He has a lot of work to do to become one of the better rim protectors, and even more to learn about positioning on the perimeter. However, there’s a fair shot that Towns becomes everything Davis is with a blistering three point shot included.
To summarize, I think the three most intriguing bigs outside of Davis can be ranked like this: Jokic, Embiid, Towns. But the more I watch of Towns, the more I expect he can steal the title of best big in the NBA if he puts in the work.
The league is run by high-volume perimeter players for now, but the wave of incredibly skilled and versatile centers is coming, and it’s coming fast.