The true center position is on life support. At the NBA level, guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, and Tim Duncan are proving that big men are adaptable now. Gone are the halcyon days of Shaquille O’Neal lowering a shoulder into feeble defenders in the paint and throwing down thunderous dunks. The same can be said at the collegiate level, where teams are winning national championships from the perimeter with speedy guards (Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, Ryan Boatwright and Shabazz Napier) or big men who used to be guards (Anthony Davis).
And looking at teams which qualified for the NCAA tournament last year, their own stylistic ways of winning are so varied that one thing is abundantly clear: the game is constantly evolving. Having that back-to-the-basket center on your team is no longer a prerequisite to being successful at the collegiate basketball level. Exploiting the inherent advantage in taking corner three’s (much like what the San Antonio Spurs and the Wisconsin Badgers do) is the new trend — a product of the statistical combing that paid basketball analysts bring to light for teams. Small ball is becoming more and more pervasive in basketball now, not just in name but in appearance on the court.
Nowadays, the focus of the game is so perimeter oriented that value in a big man doesn’t come from a plodding center that slows the offense down; big men who can move all over the court fluidly and step up to contest penetrating guards are far more important than power bigs. Maryland fans will remember Alex Len scoring 23 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and blocking 4 shots against a Kentucky team that didn’t even make the tournament — in a losing effort. Or going for 16 & 9 with 6 blocks in a loss against Iowa. Meanwhile Connecticut can barely beat a tourney-less Maryland, but win a national championship without suffering from a lack of low-post scoring.
Mitch McGary and Cody Zeller were the dominant bigs on the last two Big Ten championship teams, but no one is calling them true centers in the same sense that one would David Robinson or Tim Duncan. Their advantage stems from their versatility — be it post passing, rebounding, or quick rotations. Jared Sullinger and Evan Smotrycz (two guys barely over 6’8) shared a B1G championship before those two.
What is being proven time and again throughout all of basketball is that older positions are moot. The most efficient scorers aren’t the low post centers. The best rebounders on the court don’t necessarily have to be the skyscrapers of yesteryear. The way the game is played today, as long as your team follows the tenets of good basketball — defend, rebound, and don’t turn the ball over — having a true center is no longer a requirement. A team can still cater their offense around one, but the rest of the team has to be complementary to that piece.
Much the same way that the last two NCAA and NBA champions didn’t have a true center, teams are catering around their best strengths as constructed; not around an antiquated blueprint for success laid out in the earlier days of basketball.
Maryland lost one of their recruits in Trayvon Reed, a so-called traditional big man, but they gained a more modern one in Michal Cekovsky. Whereas Reed wouldn’t have been able to score from anywhere but below the rim, Cekovsky’s own range stretches all over the court. It affords Maryland and Coach Turgeon flexibility in their approach to the game, and one could argue that what they would have gotten in Reed, they already have in Dodd.
Rather than looking at what Maryland doesn’t have in their big men, look at what the do have: matchup nightmares. Evan Smotrycz, Jake Layman, and Michal Cekovsky ought to be able to extend the flooras far as any other front court in college hoops, which in turn is complementary towards the other guys on the floor who slash to the basket. Alex Len was the start of the “stretch five” movement, but Cekovsky might be the epitome of it.
The Terrapins are getting a more modern look that simply doesn’t fit a set standard of play, but should be better suited to withstand the rigors of today’s game that emphasize creativity and reward flexible approaches. The Terps can build around Dez Wells right now, but the rest of the team is just as important as he. They’ve got three or four guys who can play two or three positions on the court and fill a few different roles each night — including that point guard spot which is becoming more and more blurred.
That’s modern basketball.