Understanding the evolution in the style of N.B.A. basketball since the 2007 draft helps explain how this Thursday’s draft is likely to unfold.
The increased reliance on the 3-point shot; the constant presence of the pick-and-roll, which can be easier defended with nimble big men who can defensively switch onto traditional ball-handlers; the increased use of spacing, which requires big men who can credibly draw their defender away from the basket on offense, all mean that some of the best contemporary big men are mold breakers.
They are players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 22-year-old, 6-11 All-Star from Greece who has been versatile enough to play point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, or gentle giants like the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert, a Frenchman who led the N.B.A. in blocks per game while ably switching onto smaller opponents.
“You’ve had a bunch of very athletic guys coming in from overseas — Giannis, Rudy Gobert,” said the player agent Marc Fleisher, “and you’re finding American players who are more skilled now, even though they’re big and lanky.”
So among likely lottery draft picks, it seems as if for every traditional center who is focused on protecting the rim and scoring down low, there are two Swiss-Army-knife-style big men who are as comfortable shooting 18-foot jumpers as five-foot bunnies.
So when the draft gets underway on Thursday night, expect the top-drafted big man not to be Texas’s bruising center, Jarrett Allen, but Arizona’s 7-foot forward Lauri Markkanen, who made nearly two 3-pointers per game for the Wildcats, or Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, a Durant-like athlete.
And describing Edrice Adebayo, whose nickname is Bam, the Kentucky freshman whose draft stock fell because of a subpar season with the Wildcats, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, in a conference call, outlined the very model of a modern N.B.A. big man: “You’re looking at 6-10, strong, athletic, runs the floor, can guard pick-and-roll, can ball screen and run to the rim and catch lobs, and he’s young.”
Fraschilla added, “Adebayo comes to mind as maybe someone that slipped in the so-called mock drafts that might be a good, really good, value.”
Fleisher, copping to personal bias, had another candidate for such a player, and for the same reasons. “Not to plug my own guy,” he said in an interview, “but that’s one of the reasons Jonah Bolden is so interesting to teams. He’s 6-10, 7-4 wingspan, and can play” small forward, power forward or center.
“That’s the prototypical player teams are looking for now,” Fleischer added. (Bolden, for those not in the know, is from Australia, played a year at U.C.L.A. and then moved to Serbia to play professionally.)
And then there are the elite point guards, with as many as five likely to be selected with the top 10 picks on Thursday: Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (U.C.L.A.), De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky), Dennis Smith (North Carolina State) and Frank Ntilikina (France). All were just freshmen (or the equivalent, in the case of the 18-year-old Ntilikina). And all can score as well as do the more traditional point-guard work of facilitating the offense.
What this mother lode of ball-handling talent reveals — along with a simple abundance of skill that happens to exist in this draft class — is the increased premium on that position.
“There’s no question having a really good point guard is pivotal in today’s game, whereas the center position has probably been a little devalued lately,” Fleisher said.
Indeed, the ever-idiosyncratic San Antonio Spurs might be the only team to make this season’s conference semifinals without an in-his-prime point guard, such as the Washington Wizards’ John Wall or the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas.
“If you look at the teams winning now,” King said, “look at the East, with Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas and John Wall. If you’re going to have a good team, you have to have a setup point guard or a scoring point guard.”
The fact that the Celtics possess a star point guard in Thomas, as well as the No. 1 pick (because of a fateful, four-year-old trade with the Nets) has created its own drama. The consensus best player in the draft is Fultz. So the word, first reported by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, is that the Celtics will avoid that redundancy by trading their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers (who will select Fultz) and with the third overall selection they will receive in return pick one of the two traditional wing players bound to go early in the first round — Josh Jackson (Kansas) or Jayson Tatum (Duke), and probably Jackson — plug him in immediately and try to get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in next season’s playoffs, which they failed to do this season.
Ball, too, is the subject of much speculation, some of it manufactured by his P. T. Barnum-esque father, LaVar, who has made clear he considers the hometown Los Angeles Lakers, selecting second, to have the only glass slipper that will fit his son’s otherwise ZO2-covered foot.
Still, recent chatter has the Lakers perhaps selecting Fox over Ball, and that is assuming Fultz does not drop to them.
Such details sound trivial, but they are not. The precise order of those high draft picks matters a great deal, as does good judgment. Consider what happened in 2009. That draft class was similarly stocked at point guard, with as many as five (depending on how you define them) taken with the first 10 picks that June.
The Minnesota Timberwolves used the fifth and sixth picks to select two point guards — Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn. Since that draft, the Timberwolves have never made the playoffs. With the seventh pick, the Warriors selected what ostensibly should have been the fourth-best point guard, Stephen Curry. They have had considerably superior results.
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