The future of the NBA big man. This is a topic that has been discussed extensively for years now, and for good reason. Big men dominated the league from its inception and were arguably the most important players for the entire history of the NBA until recently. Around the time of the early and mid-2010s, there was a shift, and big men were not as prevalent as they once were. I won’t get into why that was, but recently there has been a resurgence of bigs. These big men, however, aren’t the same bigs that dominated the league before. For the majority of NBA history, big men dominated in the post. Now, since most teams don’t want to run their offense through a post-centric big, big men had to evolve to adapt to the changing NBA. Instead of just describing basic skills that big men are learning now that they didn’t before, I’m going to break down what I see as the 4 styles for big men in the modern NBA using 4 players from the upcoming 2021 draft, each of whom fit one of these 4 styles. The 4 players I will be using are: Evan Mobley, Alperen Sengun, Kai Jones, and Isaiah Jackson and the four archetypes they belong to are: versatile hybrid defender, traditional with a twist, high upside raw athlete, and rim-running big, respectively. Let’s get started.
The first style to look at is the versatile hybrid defender with Evan Mobley. This is a rare archetype that has incredible potential. As the name suggests, these are players whose calling cards are being great, versatile defenders who usually have great complimentary offensive skills. These guys are nice rim protectors, but are also very mobile, which helps them guard smaller players and lets their team play a switching defensive system. Some prime examples of this type of player in the NBA are Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis. I’m not saying that these are player comparisons for Mobley, I’m just saying that they completely fit the broad archetype of big man that Mobley falls under. Offensively, players of this archetype usually have great complementary skills but won’t be the offensive engine on the team. For example, Anthony Davis is a good shooter and very savvy off-ball, Bam is a great passer, and Mobley projects to have a little bit of all of that. These players are typically the best ceiling raisers, and I expect to see many more of them as the league progresses.
Next up is traditional with a twist with Alperen Sengun. Honestly, this category is the broadest one and kind of hard to define, but the main trait of these players is that they thrive in the post. That post-scoring is where the “traditional” part of this style comes from, but just being a post-scorer is not enough in today’s NBA. These players have to have something else, too. Players that fit this are Jokic and Sabonis with their passing as well as Embiid with his defense and shooting. These are obviously very different players, and each of them is also different from Sengun, which goes to show how broad this category is. For Sengun, his main extra skill is his passing. These players are pretty rare and need more skills other than just scoring out the post, but they have the potential to be extremely effective.
Now let’s look at the high upside raw athlete archetype with Kai Jones. This archetype is the most interesting in my opinion and also the most volatile. Usually, these players have incredible athletic abilities and show flashes of having skills such as a jump shot and the ability to put the ball on the floor, but neither are polished enough at a prospect level. Also, as the name states, players of this archetype have to be great athletes. The fact that these potential skills are so unpolished is why this is such a volatile archetype. At its best, in the right situation with a development team that can nurture these players’ athletic abilities, players of this archetype can be some of the best players in the league. However, if something goes wrong, they can turn out to just not be very good players. Successful examples of this archetype include Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pascal Siakam, while an unsuccessful player would be Marvin Bagley. Giannis and Siakam were able to develop their raw skills, such as their ballhandling and playmaking, while Bagley has not been able to put it together, in part because of injuries but also because of his shooting, ballhandling, and defense haven’t panned out. Successful players of this archetype usually are fantastic defenders because of their great physical abilities. Kai Jones fits this archetype perfectly; he can play both big positions, is an extreme athlete with great defensive potential, and has shown flashes of shooting and being able to put the ball on the floor.
Now it’s time to look at the last archetype, which is the rim-running big man with Isaiah Jackson. This archetype has been around for a long time and is pretty easy to understand. On offense, these guys’ main role is to just set screens, roll to the basket, and finish at the rim. Defensively, they are usually anchoring their team’s defense. Their defensive prowess can either come from rim protection, which is the case with guys like Clint Capela, or it can come from being versatile and switchable, as is the case with guys like Nicolas Claxton. Isaiah Jackson sort of fits both the switchable defensive style and the rim protector style. Players of this archetype are kind of the opposite of the high upside raw athlete players because, whereas those guys are extremely volatile, the rim-runner archetype is definitely the least volatile. Players in this category don’t have extremely high ceilings, but they are practically guaranteed to be productive players in the NBA.
After ups and downs for big men over the last few years, I think big men have finally rediscovered their place in the NBA and are here to stay. This is a pretty common take at this point, but whereas many people think big men are going to have to become less like traditional big men, I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think there are many avenues to succeed for big men in this day and age, and I hope I explained them well enough in this article.