OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Steven Adams is invaluable to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He’s also a reminder: Big men in the NBA are still vital.
The imposing 7-foot center from New Zealand is helping change the recent narrative that NBA centers are an endangered species, something that — based on spending and drafting this summer — is evidently not the case.
The perimeter-oriented and defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors landed All-Star DeMarcus Cousins this summer, albeit on a $5.3 million bargain deal. NBA teams went big at this year’s 2018 draft, with Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley going No. 1 and No. 2 and centers taking four of the first seven spots. And this summer, $285 million worth of contracts went to three centers — Nikola Jokic, Clint Capela and Jusuf Nurkic.
Not bad for often underappreciated guys.
“I just think guys are just getting more opportunities to play their game, play outside the box,” Detroit’s Andre Drummond said.
Adams is a great example.
He doesn’t get many, if any, plays called for him — but he’s essential, setting effective screens for Russell Westbrook and Paul George and gobbling up rebounds. He’s a 255-pound bruiser and enforcer, though the Thunder rave about his ability to move.
“The one thing that enables Steven to be so effective is his overall athletic ability and his quickness and his foot speed for a guy his size,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “At times, we’ll have him switch onto guards, and we feel pretty good about that. He runs the floor and gets offensive rebounds. I think his feet — as good as his feet are, will allow him to play in a game that has gotten a lot smaller.”
True, big men everywhere are reinventing themselves.
Drummond, Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, Boston’s Al Horford, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Denver’s Jokic, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Houston’s Capela and Utah’s Rudy Gobert are all key to their respective teams’ hopes this season. And Washington is counting on Dwight Howard, when his injury woes allow his debut season with the Wizards to begin.
They all have extended their defensive range while still protecting the rim. They all shoot jumpers, and yes, some knock down the occasional 3-pointer. And they do it while often feeling a bit disrespected.
“It seems like they don’t want us here,” Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee said, talking about his perception of a league-wide lack of love for big men . “They’re trying to get us out of here. The prime example is them taking us off the All-Star ballot. They literally took the whole position off the All-Star ballot. So just think about that.”
McGee’s right. Probably no more than one or two true centers will be All-Stars under the current voting format.
But chances are, no team will get to the NBA Finals without a good big, either. That’s why Thunder general manager Sam Presti holds someone like the 25-year-old Adams in the esteem that he does.
“Steven’s got like five years before he’s in his prime,” Presti said. “You think about the centers in the league that are still going to be in their prime five years from now — it’s a small group.”
Much of the newfound big-man versatility comes from the 3-pointer.
Cousins made 11 3s in the first five years of his career, and then began shooting them regularly. His 2.2 made 3s per game last season were a career high. He also averaged a career-best 5.4 assists. Embiid has become the face of the 76ers with his versatility — he dominates inside, shoots 3s and averaged 3.2 assists per game last season.
Drummond said Embiid is a perfect example of the new center.
“He came in and started shooting 3s and handling the ball and the next year, everybody’s doing it,” Drummond said. “Everybody’s doing a good job of evolving to the new style of basketball.”
At 6-foot-10, Jokic is part of that new wave of centers, earning a $148 million, five-year extension with the Nuggets.
Last season, he averaged 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, good numbers for a big. But he also shot 40 percent from 3-point range on 3.7 attempts per game and averaged 6.1 assists.
“I don’t know if he’s reinventing the game or not,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “All I know is he’s a Nugget and he’s going to be here for a while.”
Adams said the biggest change defensively is that centers are more likely to pop out on pick-and-rolls than in the past.
“The main thing was just changing foot position and kind of habits coming off the pick-and-roll defense,’” he said. “Other than that, mate, it’s just all the same stuff, because that’s where probably — yeah, probably all of them really, they get their shots off just pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, stuff like that.”
It’s not a mandate that bigs must shoot 3s in this NBA. But it helps, especially with everyone in some sort of pace-and-space game.
“You leave me open, I’m shooting,” Drummond said. “I’m going to make it eventually, so you keep leaving me open, I’m going to make them.”