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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5. JOAKIM NOAH
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.
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.
4. ANDERSON VAREJAO
Varejao is the only center on this list averaging less than four dimes a game per 40 minutes, per hoopdata, and he’s the only one that needs to be traded. So why is he even on here? His touch passes are the stuff dreams are made of, and he would have been a key cog on those 1980s Celtics teams that seemed to whip the ball around the interior like they were filming a Red Auerbach instructional video on the three-man weave. Varejao is particularly adept at the interior passing that’s a hallmark for passing centers; it’s not all just passes out to the three-point line for him. Plus, besides the top center on this list, he safeguards his passes and rarely turns the ball over, finishing second among centers averaging 30+ minutes a night for assist-turnover ratio (hoopdata).
(As an aside, I had a friend in college who is from Cleveland, and went back home to catch a Cavaliers game and kick it with Varejao in early 2004. This girl knew I was obsessed with LeBron James in college, and when she went out to the club that night with Varejao and his friends, LeBron and his posse came along — I still have a signed LeBron Cavaliers jersey she brought back for me. Point is, ‘Bron and Varejao are closer than you’d think, and Varejao ended up inheriting some of LeBron’s court vision through osmosis.)
He’s great at the middleman touch pass, where a back-court player hits Varejao cutting across the lane, and Anderson, a step ahead, flicks a quick touch pass to a cutting wing or a forward. Like he sets of Antwan Jamison for a lay-in here.
Or when he hits a cutting J.J. Hickson behind the defense here. Varejao seems to had a built-in sense of where the second pass should go before he even receives the first pass. Like he does here after receiving a dish from Kyrie Irving, he’s already spotted a cutting Tristan Thompson, and makes the extra pass for the easy dunk.
Of course, he had a pretty easy target for his first few years in the league, but Varejao has matured past his earlier time with LeBron, and now he’s throwing oops and making the extra pass on a Cavaliers team that’s still woefully outmanned against some of the league’s best. The Cavaliers need Varejao to be the best pest, but also make the extra pass that leads to some of their only simple, high percentage shots at the rim (1.3 of his assists a game come at the rim). Varejao learned from passing to the King, but now he’s one of the best.
3. GREG MONROE
The Detroit Pistons all-around center, Monroe, has developed into a triple-double threat every night, averaging 16.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game through the season’s first month. But he’s also one of the only Pistons to shoulder the responsibility for creating on a team with a dearth of offensive talent. Vince Ellis points out this much with his recent piece in the Detroit Free Press.
Discounting an oft-injured Andrew Bogut, the Pistons’ Monroe is third among centers in the league with 4.4 dimes per 40 minutes. Not only is he averaging the third-most assists per game among centers, but weighted for three-pointers, he’s still third. He’s sixth among centers for rate of assists, which is impressive because he’s averaging more than 33 minutes a night in just his third year in the league while also probably schooling new rookie, Andre Drummond, on NBA post play. Monroe didn’t pick up his knack for passing in the pros, though. It was pretty obvious during his time in Georgetown he had developed enough feel for the game to make a no-look pass seem like a natural component of his NBA maturation.
On average, Monroe passes for a couple buckets a night at the rim, and another hoop from beyond the arc. He’s comfortable passing out of the post and cutting across the lane, and he has no problems finding a three-point shooter on a skip pass when he’s doubled. In just three years’ time, Monroe is one of the NBA’s elite passing bigs, so much so, someone put together a YouTube video focused solely on his passing ability. Enjoy.
2. BORIS DIAW
When you mention Diaw’s name to NBA fans, it’s hard not to think of the portly forward/center combo who let his body fall apart after leaving Phoenix in 2009, and spending four long years in Charlotte eating everything in sight. Ever since Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford made him their reclamation project last year, Diaw has slimmed down — enough at least, to compete — and he’s put his elite level passing to use in a San Antonio offense that’s perfect for his unselfish vision. But, to be clear, Diaw has always shown he can dish the rock, even with lowly Charlotte.
Diaw is only averaging a little more than 24 minutes a night with San Antonio this season, but when you stretch out his production, he’s the second-best passing center over 40 minutes. It’s probably worth mentioning the law of diminishing returns would probably affect Diaw more than most because it’s not easy dragging his bulky body around for 35+ minutes a night, but he’s the second best passer in the league at his position during the half of the game he’s been playing in. He’s also second in assists per 40 minutes, second in weighted assists, and third in assist-to-turnover ratio, per hoopdata.
Diaw, like Varejao, beguiles opponents with deceptive passes that makes it increasingly difficult to predict where the ball is headed. Since Diaw is playing in a Popovich system that encourages cutting and movement, Diaw can pick his spots. He’s got a great flair to the way he’ll look off defenders before whipping a pass to the one spot his head isn’t turned towards. All it takes is a slight flick of the wrist, and Diaw’s got a cutting DeJuan Blair from this play during the first round of last year’s playoffs when San Antonio steamrolled Utah.
Perhaps most impressive is the high-low and pick-n-roll sets Diaw can run with Tony Parker, or alongside Tim Duncan as the other forward/center. He can send a quick touch pass down low when the defense over-rotates to corral an open jumper, like he does here against Indiana.
Diaw is slow and not very athletic these days, but his years with Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni‘s unselfish Phoenix teams at the height of the SSOL era, instilled in him a natural passing ability that he’s carried with him to his gastrointestinal years in Charlotte and his, now perfect fit, in San Antonio. He’s a big body that see’s the floor extremely well, and you can almost picture Popovich screaming at Diaw to “let it fly” because he loves passing too much. He might not grab many rebounds or score many points, but Diaw is almost the perfect passing big man.
1. MARC GASOL
Simply put: he’s the best passing big man in the game. We’d have him above his brother, Pau, even if we allowed power forwards to be included on this list. He’s a large reason Memphis is shredding much of the league right now, and it’s not really clear which frontcourt player is more important to Memphis: Zach Randolph or Gasol? But we do know that while — equally as vertically challenged–Randolph, gets much of the pub as Memphis’ double-double machine, and Gasol is in the lower half of the league for rebounding, the latter is the big man you’d want creating opportunities for teammates.
Gasol isn’t limited in his capacity to find the open man, either. Because Lionel Hollins has Gasol as the integral part of Memphis offense, he can spot a player on the perimeter for an open jumper, like does here:
Or, he can make the interior, extra pass, like he does when he finds his front-court mate, Z-Bo, for this layup:
Then, there’s always the touch pass, a staple of finding the extra cutting man to the basket, like he did earlier this year when he found a cutting Rudy Gay for a bucket.
Gasol is tops in the league for centers in every statistical category around passing, per hoopdata. He’s averaging 5.3 assists over 40 minutes, which is better than heavily-used guards Jason Kidd and Isiah Thomas. It’s also important to note he blows the rest of the big men away with the way he protects the ball even when he sees so many touches in Memphis’ frontcourt heavy offense. Currently, his assist to turnover ratio is an astronomical 4.15, with Washington’s Nene and San Antonio’s Diaw next on the list at 3.00 and 2.53, respectively. To put that in context, his ratio of assists to turnovers is actually second in the league for all players averaging over 20 minutes a night. Only Kidd, at 5.13, is higher, and he’s still Jason freakin’ Kidd.
Gasol’s passing leads to close to three buckets a night at the rim, and well over an assist a night from three-point range. Realize that there are very few players, not just centers, in the history of the game who get their teammates involved like that from all over the floor. If you’re playing with Gasol in Memphis, you gotta have your hands up at all times because he’s gonna spot you the moment you break free on the offensive end of the court. Through the season’s first month, Marc Gasol is the best passing big man in the league. And it’s not even that close.
What do you think?
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