Last time, we talked about how centers were a dying breed in the NBA, drove nearly to extinction by the three-point revolution and the evolution of ball-handling in the NBA. Simply put, slow-footed big men who can’t keep up with the new demands on defense are going to be phased out, considered expendable by many teams nowadays.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all big men have been wiped off the map. There have been centers who have a polished old-school game that have garnered All-Star status. They’ve done this by incorporating a few threes into their game, but not completely abandoning their inside game, allowing them to breathe in this outside-heavy game. Two men that come to mind are Nikola Vucevic and Al Horford: bigs who still have a very good post game, but are able to stretch the floor when the team needs. There are also some who fully leaned into the three-ball, like Brook Lopez or, to a lesser extent, Aron Baynes.
However, there are two bigs in particular who have kept the center position alive for the past few years, forcing teams to respond to their sheer talent on offense. Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the 76ers have defied the odds completely, functioning as a (literally) large centerpiece for a contending team in a league where guards and wings are considered the foundation of a championship team.
Joel Embiid has been an enigma for the Sixers at some points.
Yes, the seven-foot Cameroonian is the Sixers’ ticket to success, drafted third overall in 2015 as part of the infamous Process by Sam Hinkie. However, Embiid has not been able to make the transition from All-Star to legitimate franchise cornerstone yet. His conditioning has been called into question multiple times, as he would often sputter during the fourth quarter and the Playoffs. Part of this is because of Embiid’s various injuries: oftentimes, Embiid would be rehabbing his lingering injuries in the offseason (and occasionally even in the middle of the season), leaving him no room to get into shape.
This season, though, Embiid has been able to put it all together for the new-look Sixers, bursting into the MVP conversation. He’s posting monster averages of 29.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game, along with 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. He’s also anchoring one of the top defenses in the league, giving up 107.9 points per 100 possessions. What’s crazy about this is that he’s doing this on nearly the same touches he’s been getting in the past seasons. (33.1 this season, from 32.9 last season and 33.1 in 2018-2019)
So how has Embiid advanced his game and elevated into serious MVP consideration? Notably, he has mastered his midrange game that it’s now a serious threat. The Philly center has always had a soft touch, but that came as a double-edged sword, as it often baited him into tossing up jumpers that didn’t fall that often. This time, though, he’s honed this shot into a dangerous weapon that adds pressure to the defense. He’s making 49.3% of his jump shots (up from 36.8 last season) and a ridiculous 59.6% (!!!) on his fadeaways. Of course, the fadeaway percentage is probably not sustainable, but his jump shot percentages indicate that he can make this a big part of his repertoire.
That jumper being now a consistent part of his game opens up other facets of his game. Embiid’s face-up game is now a lot more potent, as his pump-fakes now have a bite to them. His size and speed are matchup nightmares for opposing bigs, as he can take them off the dribble and score, or try to draw a foul (he’s leading the league in free-throw attempts at 228).
And of course, his defense is still top-notch. He can hang with guards on offense, and his rim-protection is one of the best in the league, combining reaction time, length, and foot speed to deter any shot attempts.
After a damn long time, the Process has been finally completed. Peak Joel has arrived, and he’s here to terrorize the league.
Sweet as (Big) Honey
Some things in basketball just don’t make sense.
Case in point: Nikola Jokic. How can a large, seemingly out-of-shape center be the focal point of one of the league’s deadliest offenses?
The answer: Basketball IQ and vision that rivals the best floor generals in history, and an off-tempo but effective offensive repertoire to torture defenses across the league. When the Joker emerged onto the scene for the Nuggets, the first thing that caught everyone’s attention was his magical passing. There has never been a center of Jokic’s size who could pass like him (perhaps Ardyvas Sabonis), and that has not changed at all this season.
This is not an easy pass to make, but Jokic’s size makes this dime possible. It’s also not easy to see on the court, but he knows that Holmes has to tag the cutting Morris, so he fires it early to Holmes’ man on the opposite corner. It’s a high-level read that is made possible by Jokic’s combination of game sense and size.
But what elevates Jokic this season is his aggressiveness in scoring. Long criticized (rightfully, at times) for being a touch too passive, Jokic is now putting his massive (and toned down, thankfully) body to use, asserting his presence on the court in a big way. He’s been hunting for his shots more, and his slimmer physique adds another scary layer to his strength and footwork.
His craftiness in passing also shines through when he’s in scoring mode. He can score from all sorts of weird angles or from awkward off-balance positions. Watch how it looks like he’s just throwing the ball up after a foul call. In reality, this kind of shot is make-able for him.
Aside from bringing the ball up on a transition attempt, Jokic is now looking to score in transition too. There’s nearly nothing more terrifying than a large seven-foot Serbian man running from half-court, and that craftiness and awkward but effective shot-making shows up again on that wild layup.
There are also substantial increases with his three-point shooting, now shooting about 39% from three after two 30% seasons. He’s also been drawing fouls better now, looking to take more contact instead of finessing it. All in all, Jokic’s game has been a lot more terrifying to face. Defenses before could rest easy knowing that Jokic would more likely facilitate than to try and score, but now, the Joker has a few new sharp tools in his back pocket, making him more dangerous than ever.
New Dinosaur Breed?
Jokic and Embiid have both kept centers in demand, forcing teams to find ideal matchups for them in the Playoffs. It’s clear that teams need to clear these teams if they want to make it far into the postseason, and that means adding big men to try and defend these players without exhausting their stars too much.
Will their ascent mean a return of the centers? Maybe. Both of them are anomalies, Embiid with his tremendous athleticism and Jokic with his passing sense. To say that a new Embiid or Jokic will come up in the next few years is a bit careless, because we may never see someone like them again to be honest.
But their rise to the top is significant nonetheless. It provides aspiring centers with a similar game a blueprint to success, and who knows? Perhaps one day, a new center comes and finds success as well with a different gameplan.
One thing is for certain though: Centers aren’t done quite just yet. And Jokic and Embiid are at the forefront of this revolution.