Monday, November 28 2022
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Reports of the death of the NBA center have been greatly exaggerated. Case in point, the top two MVP vote-getters in each of the past two seasons have been centers, and just this summer, Rudy Gobert — as traditional of a center as they come — was traded for an incredible haul of players and high-value picks.

Just because the NBA game is getting smaller and more versatile, doesn’t mean that the big man has no place in the modern association. Quite the contrary, analytics continue to show the importance of having a strong rim protector defensively, and the diversification of skills at the center position has been truly remarkable, as showcased by the two best examples in Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.

Our NBA writers here at CBS Sports have put together a list of the top 22 centers in the league as we approach the 2022-23 season, and a quick look will show you just how varied the position is. We have guys who shoot 40 percent from 3-point range and some who have barely taken a 3 in their entire career. There are a few traditional post scorers and others who couldn’t even tell you what a jump hook is.

The biggest debate on the list comes at the top, where three of the very best in the league stand on a level of their own. Enjoy the list, and viva la big man.

A fan-favorite, super sub in Milwaukee, Portis was thrust into the starting lineup for most of last season due to an injury to Brook Lopez. The 27-year-old responded by averaging career highs in points (14.6) and rebounds (9.1) while shooting 39 percent on nearly five 3-point attempts per game. His defensive shortcomings were sometimes exposed as a starting center, but his energy and scoring ability make him a key part of the Bucks‘ sustained success. — Colin Ward-Henninger

Wendell Carter Jr.’s first full season in Orlando was the most productive of his career. He averaged career highs in points (15), rebounds (10.5) and assists (2.8) last season, and he was one of just 10 players to average over 15 points and 10 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Still just 23, Carter Jr. still has a lot of room to grow along with his young Magic squad. The next step will be to become more proficient beyond the arc, where he attempted a career high 3.5 shots per game last season, but connected at a rate of just 32 percent. –Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Poeltl averaged career highs across the board last season — 13.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 blocks. And he was one of just four players in the league to average over 13 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting over 61 percent from the floor. These highs came as the result of him being a full-time starter for the first time in his career, a role that he projects to have again this season in San Antonio. The Spurs aren’t expected to be especially formidable, but Poeltl should have ample opportunity to grow his game and put up numbers. –Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Nurkic’s ranking as the 19th-best center on our list is a bit deceiving; he can be a lot more effective than that suggests. He’s a limited drop defender and can be pretty sloppy with the ball from time to time, but he’s a huge body who averaged 15 and 11 last season while posting 1.19 points per possession as a roll man, per Synergy. When the Blazers aren’t going small this season, Nurkic — who signed a four-year, $70 million extension this summer — has to play big for them to have a shot at a decent playoff seed. — Brad Botkin

Valančiūnas is a double-double machine. Last season, only two players, Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert, posted more total double-doubles than Valančiūnas, who had 50, which was more than the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic. He was also one of just six players to average at least 17 points, 11 rebounds and two assists per game last season. He provides New Orleans with solid, reliable interior production, which pairs nicely with the team’s perimeter threats like C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram. The Pelicans are potentially posed to take a step forward this season, and Valančiūnas’ production figures to be central to that. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

We know Steph Curry is the engine, but I’m confident in saying the Warriors don’t win the 2022 title without Looney, who enters this season as the clear starting center even with James Wiseman‘s return. If you want statistical support for your Looney takes, you’ll need to delve into the nerd realms of screen assists (3.4 per game) and offensive rebounding percentage (13.9 in the playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass, the best mark of any player who advanced past the first round). People who watch the Warriors know that’s not necessary. Stats don’t do enough to quantify Looney’s impact. After all these years, he just gets the Warriors’ system. He anticipates Curry’s movement better than anyone not named Draymond Green and is a quick-thinking passer and screener. For a team always strapped for size, Looney has proven to be indispensable. — Brad Botkin

If you were going to build a modern center from scratch, Wood would be a great place to start. He’s mobile, athletic, can finish above the rim and stretch to the 3-point line, where he knocked down 39 percent of his attempts last season. He also has the potential to switch defensively and his length has allowed him to be one of the best rim protectors in the league (73rd percentile, per Synergy). The question is whether he can consistently put all those talents together, but playing next to Luka Doncic offensively and in Jason Kidd’s defensive scheme should help. — Colin Ward-Henninger

Yes, there are other centers on this list who are far better defenders and rim protectors than Vucevic. However, as teams are constantly looking for more players to space the floor, there aren’t a ton who can do it as well as Vucevic can. His ability to score out of the post allows guys like DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball to attack the rim without the paint being clogged by a big man. — Jasmyn Wimbish

You can say this about Capela: He knows who he is. In an era where big men are encouraged to step outside for 3-pointers and try to switch defensively, Capela remains a true rim-roller and lob threat while protecting the rim on the other end. As a result, he’s one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the game (offensive rebounds included), and he gives Trae Young a necessary option out of pick-and-rolls that help spread the floor for their shooters. — Colin Ward-Henninger

There have been times when categorizing Porzingis as a center would be controversial. In Washington, though, he almost exclusively played center. (Of his 479 minutes, he played 14 next to Daniel Gafford.) I bring this up not because I’m interested in antiquated labels, but because, as far as Porzingis is concerned, the position conversation has always really been about defense. As the lone big, can he protect the rim like he did at the beginning of his career? Can he hold up when opponents put him in pick-and-rolls? If he’s mobile enough, there could even be hope for the double-big lineup, with Porzingis roaming off non-shooters. But that’s a big if.  — James Herbert

Lopez missed most of last season with a back injury, and the Bucks never quite looked like themselves until he returned. While they’ve expanded their menu since being bounced in the bubble, the Bucks’ base defense has had the same formula since Lopez and Mike Budenholzer arrived in 2018: Physical perimeter defense + Giannis Antetokounmpo flying around + Lopez patrolling the paint = lots of winning. For a “stretch big,” Lopez isn’t the greatest shooter (34.4 percent on five 3-point attempts per game over his four years in Milwaukee) but he knows this team needs him to let it fly.  — James Herbert

Turner remains in Indianapolis for now, but the trade rumors won’t stop until he’s dealt or his contract comes to an end. An elite rim protector and solid 3-point shooter, Turner is one of the league’s better stretch bigs. Over the last four seasons, he is the only player in the league with at least 250 made 3-pointers and 600 blocks. He has struggled with injuries, though, playing just 89 games over the last two seasons.  — Jack Maloney

Even when he was a perennial All-Star, Horford approached the game like a glue guy. He always anchored his team’s defense, rarely made mistakes and never averaged more than 18.6 points. This does not mean, however, that it has been easy for him to transition to a 3-and-D-and-whatever-else-is-needed role. Playoff opponents left Horford alone behind the 3-point line. The Celtics left him alone guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. Neither is a comfortable place to be. At 36 years old, the guy who has been called an “old soul” since he was in college has become a thoroughly new-age big man, switching all over the place, spacing the floor and making plays off the bounce. — James Herbert

In many ways, Ayton is a throwback center. He’s comfortable playing down low and with his back to the basket, but he doesn’t really try to expand his range out to the 3-point line. He’s only made 14 shots from long range over the course of his career. Phoenix doesn’t really need him to do that though, as he’s valuable to them as a screener, finisher and rim protector — all things he does well. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Williams’ talent and athletic ability have been obvious since he was in college, and last season he finally put it all together to become a key part of the Celtics’ core and one of the league’s most fearsome rim protectors. He would have led the league in field goal percentage at 73.6 if he had taken enough shot attempts to qualify, and he finished second in blocks at 2.2 per game. The biggest challenge left for Williams is staying healthy.  — Jack Maloney

Allen doesn’t yet have the varied offensive game that some of the other centers on this list do, but he’s great at what he does — protecting the rim on one end, and finishing at it on the other end. He shot 67 percent from the field last season, and also finished in the top 10 in offensive rebounds per game. He extends possessions with his ability to crash the boards, and he provides Cleveland’s ball handlers with an excellent alley-oop target. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Give Sabonis the ball in the middle of the floor, and good things typically happen. This is why he finished third in the NBA in frontcourt touches last season, behind the MVP and the runner-up. He dialed back his 3-point attempts after the trade to Sacramento, but otherwise remained the same kind of offensive hub he was in Indiana — unlike most “passing bigs,” he is also a dynamite one-on-one scorer, combining brute force and a soft touch. Sabonis has his limitations defensively, both on the perimeter and as a rim protector, but he’s a monster on the glass.  — James Herbert

Adebayo is once again among the favorites for DPOY, and for good reason. He’s just about as versatile as it gets for a big in today’s game in terms of his ability to bang down low, block and alter shots and defend on the perimeter. Adebayo is a walking double-double who averaged 19 points and 10 boards last season while operating as Miami’s high-post hub. When he’s not finding backdoor cutters or executing impromptu handoffs, he most often operates as a scorer in the short midrange, where he has improved greatly over the last two years as a face-up shooter. — Brad Botkin

It’s hard to argue against Gobert being the best defensive center in the NBA — and one of the best of all time — but his lack of offensive versatility drops him below some truly magical big men on this list. Gobert is a rim protector in the truest sense of the term, allowing just 1.004 points around the basket last season, per Synergy, as he lingers in drop coverage out of the pick-and-roll. He’ll have to get used to a new system in Minnesota this season, but the track record from Utah is clear: When Gobert is on the floor, your defense is good no matter who’s around him. — Colin Ward-Henninger

It’s hard to picture a basketball universe where a player of Davis’ skill set is the third-best center in the league, yet here we are. When healthy, Davis is everything you want in a modern center, starting with defense. He’s an elite rim protector who has perfected the cat-and-mouse game when defending pick-and-rolls. He’s also mobile enough to switch onto virtually any guard effectively. On offense, he’s unstoppable around the basket (95th percentile last season, per Synergy), and he becomes a cheat code when his jumpers are falling — though they did not fall much last season. Ultimately, when Davis is on the court, he’s in the running for the best player in the entire NBA, but he just hasn’t been on the court very often the last two seasons. — Colin Ward-Henninger

Embiid is the most complete center in the NBA — he really doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He’s made Second-Team All-Defense three times in his career so far, and last season he became the first center to lead the league in scoring since Shaquille O’Neal, and the first to average 30-plus points per performance since Moses Malone. Perhaps most importantly, he played a career-high 68 games last season. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

It wasn’t that long ago that Jokic needed to be prodded to be more aggressive, that it wasn’t all that unusual for him to take less than 10 shots in a game. Even in his first MVP season, he was reluctant to use the word “dominate” to describe how he picked opponents apart. But while he imposes his will on the game differently than other superstar centers, it is undeniable that he does it. Outside of Golden State, no team has built a system around the particular skills of its franchise player as effectively as Denver. And in much the same way, Jokic’s Nuggets keep opponents on high alert at all times. He is a threat to score from everywhere, and he sees everything. — James Herbert



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