“Defense.” That’s the one-word response when anyone says the center position has turned into an NBA anachronism. They are the tallest, sturdiest trees in the forest that is the NBA lane, and they can make or break a team’s chances depending on how much of a threat they pose to opposing slashers and ball handlers determined to foil a team’s defense with their alacrity to get to the iron.
And, really, the center is the last buffer between the basket and the offensive player. When a defense breaks down and teammates are clambering to jump out at shooters and recover if they then pump-fake, drive, and kick it to the next available offensive player — a series of dominoes that’s beautiful to watch when the defense has been bent into a scrambling, recovering mess — they’re the lodestone for the ball at the last moment, and the North Star for their fellow teammates looking for a way to get back into a play they’ve fallen behind on.
But like offense is for the other positions we’ve ranked, defense is just the easiest side of the ball to explain the consequence of a center in today’s NBA. Except, they’re also floor spacers, rebounders and offensive focal points in some cases. Which big can pick and pop? What player at the five can even drift out to the corner three and they’re enough of a threat from that distance as a catch-and-shoot option, the opposing big has to drift with them? Who can effectively spot and deliver the ball to back-cutters and players jumping open on weak-side flare screens as they hold the ball, lightly guarded near the elbow? Who uses their body as an effective battering ram for opposing guards and small forwards as their own teammate curls around them shoulder to shoulder, looking for a crevice to get a shot off?
This might sound old fashioned, but in a pinch, who can force a double team with the ball on the block and get that ball whipping around perimeter as the defense hustles to catch up? The center might not be the dominating position it was in the 1990s and early aughts, but it still might also be the most important position on the floor. Remember that as you’re lambasting your team’s own center if he misses a weak-side rotation. It’s the NBA’s most thankless spot on the floor at the moment, but you can’t win a title without an effective one, either.
20. Myles Turner
When Turner declared for the draft, the most positive image of him presented by scouts was of a true stretch five, a center with the height, length and bulk to be a defensive anchor and rim protector and the shooting form and release to honestly have three-point range. Well, as a rookie, it’s basically impossible to have the experience necessary to organize a defense, though he showed promise as a shot blocker. What’s more, Turner only attempted four three-pointers all season. But in year one, he’s already dangerous on both the pick and roll and the midrange pick and pop, and his form and quick release still point to potential three-point range down the line. Even without that, Turner has the makings of a very good to great two-way center.