The NBA’s Top 5 Passing Centers

By: 12.04.12
Joakim Noah

Joakim Noah

The current iteration of the NBA places very little onus on a big man. Even the All-Star game is now bereft of the one player who used to be thought of as indispensable to a basketball team: the center. Such is the increasing push toward smaller, faster, more dynamic multipurpose players. But centers still exist, and they’re not all obsessed with Superman, lob dunks, and living in LA. Contemporary big men must account for the trend toward quicker line-ups, and that means possessing some finesse from a position that’s more about plodding than prompt. The centers today need to be able to defend the rim and make the slip-pass to a cutting wing player. They need to be just as skillful at a give and go as they are at crashing the glass.

Here are the best centers in the league at passing, and we said centers, so when you’re getting all self-righteous about Pau Gasol in the comments, remember he’s playing PF next to Dwight Howard.

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The former two-time champion Gator turned Kevin Garnett instigator, Noah has picked up his passing since coming into the league in 2007. The Chicago Bulls are lucky to have Noah with Derrick Rose injured. He’s one of the most all-around talents in the league, regardless of size; he’s able to rebound, defend, shoot (as long as you’re not hung up on the exquisite beauty of a one-handed set shot), but primarily pass. With a Bulls team that looks increasingly like the mid-aught Pistons teams, complete with Rip Hamilton running off a gantlet of picks before launching a 17-foot jumper, Noah’s interior passing is a must if they’re going to create easy buckets in the mid court offense.

Even if his haircut makes you think of lazy rock star, Noah is pinpoint accurate with his passing. He’s probably the best at taking a dribble towards a wing player from just below the top of the key, then showing the fake on the pass up top before hitting his cutting teammate on the back door. Pete Carril would be smiling from ear to ear.

Here he is hitting Rose with this backdoor pass.

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And finding Keith Bogans with an almost identical backdoor cut as the one by Rose.

Noah, through 12 games, is ranked fifth in the league in assists among centers (per hoopdata), and he’s averaging about an assist a game in the 16-23 foot range, which is best among centers who average more than 15 minutes a game. It’s the little-used and highly inefficient long-range two-pointer where Hamilton thrives, so it makes sense Noah would have a higher average in that spot on the court. Noah is also fifth in assist rate (number of assists vs. possessions used) and AST+, which weighs three-pointers more. Noah is as good a passing big man as there is in the game, and we’re sure his old coach at Florida, Billy Donovan, is proud of his former NCAA champion.

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