Around this time last year, I ranked the Top 10 players at each position covering the NBA, college and high school ranks for the just-completed season. Welcome to the second annual edition: first up was two-guards, now the centers.
To clarify (again), “Top 10″ is different from “10 Best.” So if you see Cole Aldrich ranked ahead of Brook Lopez, I’m NOT saying the incoming rookie is better than the NBA vet — I’m saying Cole had a better season than Brook. Accomplishments at the highest level of the game (NBA) obviously will hold more weight than others, but this is about who made the biggest impact on their respective level, and who made the ’09-10 season their own:
10. Brook Lopez
He’d rank higher if the Nets weren’t so bad. Lopez averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 boards and 1.7 blocks in his breakout pro season, only nobody was paying attention because New Jersey spent most of that time threatening to become the worst NBA team of all-time.
9. Chris Kaman
Kaman suffered from the same problem as Lopez; his team was so bad that his breakout season was completely forgettable. Kaman made his All-Star Game debut in 2010, and for the season averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. However, the Clippers went 29-53, finishing 21 games out of a playoff spot, and Kaman’s production took a dive from about March through the rest of the campaign.
8. Cole Aldrich
The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year (second straight honor) blocked 3.5 shots per game to go with 11.3 points and 9.8 boards. His Kansas Jayhawks were ranked in the top two nationally for most of the season, won a Big 12 championship and went into the NCAA Tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, but lost in the second round to underdog Northern Iowa. Aldrich was then taken with the 11th pick in the ’10 NBA Draft.
7. Joakim Noah
How good was Noah this year? He took some of his biggest haters and made them at least give him (begrudging) respect. Noah’s numbers (10.7 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 1.8 bpg) didn’t even reflect his true impact as Chicago’s defensive lynchpin and primary energy source. In the Bulls’ first-round playoff loss to Cleveland, Noah put up 14.8 points and 13.0 rebounds per game and hit 94 percent of his free throws. He also turned in a 21-point, 20-rebound effort in Game Four.
6. David Lee
Playing outside of his natural position, the first-time NBA All-Star put up 20.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, one of only three players in the League (with Zach Randolph and Chris Bosh) to average at least 20-and-10. Critics will say Lee’s numbers were simply inflated by playing in New York’s system, and his move to Golden State this summer — made possible with a six-year, $80 million contract — won’t do anything to prove them wrong or right.
5. Andrew Bogut
Before an elbow injury ended his season, Bogut (15.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.5 bpg) was the best player on Milwaukee’s playoff-bound squad. The former No. 1 pick will probably never live up to the standard set by Draft classmates Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but he’s becoming one of the top centers in the League.
4. Al Horford
In his first NBA All-Star season, Horford averaged 14.2 points and 9.9 rebounds and helped lead the Hawks to the second round of the playoffs. He was the MVP of Atlanta’s first-round series against Milwaukee, dropping 15.6 points, 9.9 boards and 2.1 blocks on 56 percent shooting.
3. DeMarcus Cousins
In just 23 minutes a night, DMC was good for 15.1 points, 9.8 boards (leading the SEC) and 1.8 blocks as a Kentucky freshman. Despite some controversy and clashes with Coach Cal during the season, Cousins helped get UK to the Elite Eight, and despite some character-issue and conditioning concerns, was picked No. 5 overall by Sacramento in the NBA Draft. If his Vegas Summer League performance was any indication, Cousins will contend for Rookie of the Year in 2011.
2. Jared Sullinger
The Dime/2K Sports National High School Player of the Year destroyed the prep scene at Northland H.S. (Columbus, Ohio) before taking his game to Ohio State University. Sullinger averaged 24 points, 13 boards and 5 blocks as a senior, connecting on 76 percent of his field goals. In two ESPN games against national powers Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and Findlay Prep (Nev.), Sullinger hit the game-winning free throws, and preserved the W against Oak Hill with a block at the buzzer. He also took co-MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-American Game, scoring 22 points while playing with the flu, then posted 20 points and 4 blocks at the Jordan Brand Classic.
1. Dwight Howard
With the older guys on the way out, the younger dudes not ready yet, and Yao Ming a constant health question mark, it looks like Dwight’s spot as the top center in the game will go unchallenged for a while. The Centaur led the NBA in rebounding (13.2 rpg) and blocks (2.8 bpg) for the second straight season, and won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award by a landslide. Howard led Orlando to a dominant run through the first two rounds of the playoffs, going 8-0 before running into the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. In a do-or-die Game 4, Dwight put up 32 points, 16 boards and 4 blocks, and averaged 27.0 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in three elimination games.
Honorable mentions — Andrew Bynum (Lakers), Kendrick Perkins (Celtics), Marc Gasol (Grizzlies), Hassan Whiteside (Marshall), Jarvis Varnado (Mississippi State).