There were periods in the Western Conference Finals when PJ Tucker (6’5”) and Draymond Green (6’7”) matched up as undersized centers. Mismatch hunting from Houston and Golden State rendered max contract-seeking Clint Capela ineffective at times and thumbed out the occasional usefulness of the Warriors’ big men. The finals were a bit more conventional, but success in the present-day NBA is heavily dependent on versatility – defensive flexibility, switchability, shooting, playmaking. These skills have long been the domain of guards and wings, not the historically paint-bound big men.
Conversely, we’ve simultaneously entered the age of the supposed unicorn, the rare hybrid of massive size, length, and skill embodied by young men like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Less versatile, but similarly large and skilled, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns combine the physicality of throwback big men with the modern-day virtues of long-range shooting and ball handling. None of this is to imply that other players haven’t embodied these positionally-spanning combinations of size and skill. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh come to mind. Anthony Davis is part of this family tree and Kevin Durant is on an evolutionary branch all his own.
This summer league’s batch of big men appear to be following the paths blazed by the aforementioned bigs. It’s an interesting roster of youngsters exploding with potential and they’re not all from this draft class. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac and Sacramento’s Harry Giles, both of the 2017 draft, are part of the mix. Isaac missed 55 games due to injuries and Giles sat out the entire season as he rehabbed from ACL tears in 2013 and 2015. With Giles and Isaac are big men from this most recent 2018 draft class that foretell a future with a tangled infinity arms reaching up from all angles and blotting out the rim:
#1 overall pick: DeAndre Ayton
#2 overall pick: Marvin Bagley III (aka Bagels, aka I’m not convinced he should be on this list)
We’re not here fussing because there are a bunch of young centers and big forwards having good summers. I’m googly-eyed because these kids are arriving with the requisite measures: All of them 6’10” or taller, all of them with wingspans 7’1” or longer as simple baselines of entry which isn’t to say shorter players with less length are instantly excluded from future successes. These are physical table stakes, foundations on which everything else can be added and this is where we continue to see the evolution of this game.
It’s also not enough to be big and long. Zinger is a unicorn because he’s 7’3”, can block shots, handle the ball, and shoot threes with volume and efficiency. Giannis is a freak because he’s the size of your center, but he’s devastating on the wing or in the paint, on both sides of the ball. KD’s a great all-time scorer because at seven-feet and with a 7’5” wingspan he handles and shoots like an efficient guard.
The summer league players I’ve listed above vary in their strengths, but each exhibit evolutionary skills in enormous bodies and each, based on these microscopic sample sizes and exposures, appears to be adopting forward-thinking views on the role of the four and five man in the NBA. This acceptance and the acknowledgement that back-to-the-basket post play as an offensive bulwark is a role no longer suited for the current iteration of NBA basketball significantly increases the adaptability of these bigs. It’s not fair to single out players as symbols of a dying archetype, but Dwight Howard and Jahlil Okafor are somewhat representative of the NBA’s shift. Howard was never a great back-to-the-basket post player, but has long insisted on being an offensive focal point. Consequently, Howard will be joining his fourth team in as many years as he struggles to blend into modern teams and offenses – both on and off the court. In an ideal setting, Howard would adopt the hard rolling, rim-running of DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela. Instead, his is a skewed approach to offense which has long led to an outsized usage rate. In 2017-18, his age-32 season, Howard’s usage rate of over 24% dwarfs anything Capela or Jordan has ever put up. And that makes sense as they’re non-creators and, like Howard, are at their best playing off playmakers.
After averaging 17 and 7 as a rookie, Okafor, a throwback to the plodding back-to-the-basket post game of yesteryear, is on the verge of being out of the league. In a lot of ways, Okafor is the opposite of the players in this draft class: he can’t stretch the floor with his shot, doesn’t defend with consistency, relies on flow-stopping post-ups, and needs to be featured to deliver impact. Maybe there’s a time in the NBA’s future that the volume post-up experiences a renaissance, but it’s likely that will be long after Okafor’s physical prime.
I can’t stress enough that this is based on small sample size theater, but Ayton, JJJ, Bamba, Carter, Robinson, Giles, and Isaac appear to be fully modernized NBA bigs. They can operate outside of the paint, they willingly switch (to various degrees of effectiveness), they protect the rim (with varying levels of success), and, most impressively for me, they play hard. It’s weird to write that, but after a season of watching LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sit out entire defensive possessions, of seeing players fail to get back on defense because they’re too busy arguing for whistles to which they feel entitled, it’s been enjoyable to see effort layered in with so much potential and skill.
(At this point, it’s probably worth acknowledging that the above thoughts on effort are starting to feel like some get of my lawn sentiments. It’s a reasonable observation and when looking at the defensive efforts of Westbrook and Bron, it’s fair to wonder if it’s more indicative of the imbalanced offensive loads these players shouldered. It’s also entirely possible, and likely, that as these rookies get into 82-game marathons of their own and international duties that limit summer recoveries, that they too take off the occasional play. The flipside of effort is balance and depth. Boston and Golden State have an embarrassment of both and it results in two teams collectively being able to play hard throughout games. There are team cultures playing a role in effort as well, but this is a separate topic worthy of its own discussion.)
The below gives time and space to selected traits of each summer league standout.
Fluidity: Based on the broad shoulders and little mustache, a lot of people have seen David Robinson parallels in DeAndre Ayton. My own first impression was that he had a “David Robinson/Ralph Sampson physique.” Aside from the unfairness (of which I’m completely guilty) of comparing an NBA Hall-of-Famer to a 19-year-old, and beyond the big, broad-shouldered build, Ayton doesn’t resemble the Admiral at all. He lumbers where Robinson glided. Instead of the number-one overall pick being the freakiest of the athletic freaks of this class, Harlem’s own Mo Bamba has, in these limited Las Vegas contests, shown himself to run more like Robinson with grace, light feet, and long strides. I watched Bamba at Texas and maybe it was the baggier jerseys or effort or mood or my eyesight, but I didn’t see this type of graceful athleticism. Also, Bamba has the longest-recorded wingspan in the history of the combine at 7’10”. I’m used to seeing 19-year-olds with max length as gangly beings, still awkwardly growing into their bodies. Bamba is gracefully grown and even showed off a magnifique baseline turnaround with flawless footwork. To quote the great Bill Walton, Bamba has, “won the genetic lottery.”
Mobility: Of this group of eight big men, Ayton is the most Goliathan of the bunch. He’s listed at 7’1”, 261 pounds and carries a chiseled frame. He’s not as graceful as Bamba or as bouncy as Robinson, but he’s far from conventional. In a game at Arizona, I saw Ayton stretching coming out of a timeout and this young man, this huge mountain of a young man-kid/kid-man kicked his foot up above his head. I strained a hamstring just recalling this memory. Kicking over your head in and of itself isn’t useful in basketball, but it’s indicative of flexibility, of a limber core and hamstrings which, when re-applied to basketball, can be a hell of a weapon. I saw him apply this flexibility at Arizona and in summer league I’ve seen Ayton sit deep in a defensive stance on the perimeter and leverage that mobility (when engaged) to stay in front of perimeter players. He’s not the quickest of this bunch, but if he’s willing to put out consistent effort, he has the type of physical ability that can keep him on the floor when teams start mismatch hunting.
Length: It’s hard to highlight length when six of the eight players you’re looking at have wingspans between 7’4” and 7’10”. If being a part-time boxing fan has taught me anything, it’s that not every fighter with a long reach knows how to use it to his advantage. Ayton’s listed reach is somewhere between 7’5” and 7’6” while Jaren Jackson Jr’s is 7’5.25”. Blocking and altering shots isn’t just about wingspan, but when being long is bolstered with defensive instincts, effort, positioning, and quick reflexes, then you have the potential to be a hell of a shot blocking defender. This is JJJ, not Ayton – though of course, like many things in life, if you embody foundational ability, you can learn and improve. Jackson has Ayton’s mobility, but he also has a higher defensive IQ and intensity, and a better read on spacing. These secondary attributes allow him to utilize his long arms and big hands in ways that make him a pain in the ass on the defensive end. He’s comfortable switching and if a smaller man beats him off the dribble, his ability to recover with come-from-behind blocks (without fouling) means he’s rarely out of a play. Even Bamba with his 7’10” reach hasn’t quite figured out how to apply it as effectively as the shorter-armed Jackson. (Worth noting, Bamba averaged 4.2 blocks/36 in Vegas compared to JJJ’s 3.7/36. [Part II: since I initially wrote this, JJJ blocked 11 more shots in Memphis’s subsequent two games including a summer league-record seven in one game.])
Reminders of Pogo-Stickery: If JJJ is this group’s posterchild for defensive versatility and Bamba is what post-Gobert defensive rim protection looks like, Mitchell Robinson is a high-powered, propulsive tower driving around on daddy long legs. His strides are Antetokounmpo-esque. He plays with an urgency that seems intended to remind everyone that Robinson was a top player in this class before his college basketball odyssey resulted in no one seeing him play for a year. His motor stretches him horizontally and bounces him vertically with a quickness only matched by Bagels – but he’s taller, longer, and more intense than Marvin. Robinson has tallied 20 shot blocks in 124 minutes – nearly six-per-36. He’s also averaging nearly seven fouls-per-36, but that’s probably what happens when your motor lives in the red and you’re trying to convince everyone that just because you left for a season, you were never gone. Everything seems to matter to Robinson. He’s emotional, feisty, expressive and his basketball style: sprinting, stretching, and reaching to block or dunk every damn ball he can is an expression of that mania.
Reminders of Basketball IQ: For altogether different reasons from Robinson, no one’s seen Harry Giles play basketball since he was with Duke during the 2016-17 season. He’s torn both ACLs and spent his rookie year in Sacramento getting stronger with pro-level strength and conditioning program. Like Robinson, Giles was one of the top players in his class and seeing him in Vegas, it’s for completely different reasons from the kinetic Robinson. Giles’s feel for the game, at just 20-years-old, is completely unexpected. Last summer when I scouted Giles for our draft coverage I saw a player who always went hard and was happy to play physical. He was fluid, despite the injuries, but didn’t contribute much on the offensive end. Seeing him a little over a year later at Vegas and where he was an offensive afterthought at Duke, he was a multifaceted piece of the Kings offense. At times he attacked off the dribble, frequently made the right play and read, and even facilitated the offense at times with De’Aaron Fox and Bagels sitting. Unlike a lot of young players, Giles’s brain and his body are in sync in decisive ways usually reserved for NBA vets.
2nd Year Reminder: Of all these big men, Jonathan Isaac is probably the smallest and definitely the most perimeter-oriented. With a 7’1” wingspan, he’s the stompiest of the bunch as well. Missing 55 games as a rookie, I honestly didn’t catch much of his season and so summer league was a chance to get reintroduced to Isaac. When I previously scouted him, like Giles, I saw a player more advanced defensively than offensively and while that’s still the case, Isaac’s offense is quickly catching up to his defensive skill and ability. He only appeared in 82 minutes in Vegas and in those limited minutes he was just 1-8 from three and shot 41% from two. Despite the poor percentages, Isaac showed great form on his catch-and-shoot threes and a decisive pull-up jumper off the dribble. He attacked with confidence on offense which is the kind of development I want to see in a second-year summer league player. And defensively, Isaac is still a force. He defended well on the perimeter, getting low and using his length to poke away at would-be dribblers. He averaged 3.5 blocks/36 and nearly two steals/36 before ultimately being shut down for just being too good for the level of competition.
Total Package: For all of Giles’s IQ and JJJ’s length, for Ayton’s strength/mobility combo and Robinson’s motor, Wendell Carter Jr late of Duke looked like a player who had been underutilized in Mike Krzyzewski’s system. In 144 Vegas minutes, he showed an advanced range of offensive versatility including ball handling and offensive creation, court vision and execution, and a thinking man’s footwork. It’s hard to draw deep conclusions from such limited minutes, but Carter showed glimpses of an ability to be an offensive focal point in both scoring and creation. He took just seven threes, but hit three of them and got to the line nearly five times/game. Defensively, his rim protection was on display with over three blocks/36 including five blocks in his first game. Carter appears to be always at the ready. His knees are always bent which puts him position to react – to boards (he’s disciplined at boxing out), help defense, making plays off the dribble. And like his peers, he has a whopping 7’4.5” wingspan. I’ll leave the final note on Wendell and this piece to one of my favorite hoop writers/thinkers, Ben Taylor of top-40 GOAT fame: