“You can’t teach height” used to be a key mantra of the NBA Draft, especially to explain selections that, to the casual fan, don’t seem to make much sense. It was a phrase oft-uttered to explain how big men were so highly valued in the NBA Draft and later on.
In 2016, that seems to be old hat. It almost seems to be less of a cliché and more of an outdated idea. At least, that’s what we can gleam from the 2016 NBA Draft.
The NBA has certainly changed. Not even a generation ago, the idea was that you needed a big man to win. It didn’t have to be a Hall of Famer – the Bulls of the 1990s won with big men who were basically serviceable more than anything – but you had to have someone who was competent in the middle. A history of the champions shows this, going back to the great Celtics teams with Bill Russell, then the Celtics and Lakers of the 1980s with Robert Parish and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, respectively, the Pistons and Bulls of the 1990s, the Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, the Spurs with David Robinson and Tim Duncan, the Lakers again with Shaq, and more recently, with rim protectors who weren’t always centers like Kevin Garnett with the Celtics and Chris Bosh with the Heat.
For years, height gave players extra chances. If you were a seven-footer and had even a decent college career or showed a little bit of skill or ability to protect the rim, you got a look. You probably got more chances than a 6’3″ shooting guard who could make shots all day – not unlike how left-handed pitchers in baseball often get a few more chances to stick than right-handers of similar abilities. It didn’t mean players made rosters, but they had more chances in part from scarcity.
This year, not so much. Big men slid from where they were projected left and right. While five true centers went in the first round, two were among the final three picks. That only begins to tell the story. And while Thon Maker, who one might put at any of the three frontcourt positions depending on how you view him, went perhaps higher than expected at number 10, the reality is that projections and opinions on him have been all over the place all along, even before some wondered about his age in recent days.
If you put Henry Ellenson – who might be more of a stretch power forward – in that category, he is the first slider. Thought by many to be a top ten pick, he didn’t hear his name called until the Pistons took him at 18. Skal Labissiere, who is long on potential but was short on results in his one year of college, was thought by many to still be a borderline lottery pick solely on potential and physical gifts; he ended up going 28th.
The second round tells the story, though. The first 16 picks saw five true centers, while two other long power forwards who are in a similar category – Deyonta Davis and Cheick Diallo – also went early in the second round. Many thought Davis would be a borderline lottery pick and Diallo would go somewhere in the first round, especially since the prevailing view is that Diallo would be a lottery pick next year had he returned to Kansas. In a past life, Diamond Stone (No. 40), widely viewed as a sure one-and-done before he got to college, would have been a lottery pick, and someone might have taken a flyer on A.J. Hammons (No. 46) earlier. Even Stephen Zimmerman, who was taken right after Stone, might have gone in the first round on perceived upside alone.
The success of the Golden State Warriors the last two years in going small is perhaps the biggest evidence of how the NBA game has changed. Whether or not it is an enduring part of it remains to be seen; the Warriors did draft a big man in the first round, Vanderbilt’s Damian Jones, and like current Warrior big man (and another who played at Vanderbilt) Festus Ezeli, he’s an athletic big man. The Warriors were beaten on the glass in the championship series, including a 48-39 margin in game 7. They probably won’t change their overall style, but it’s entirely possible that they don’t go small as often as they have the past two years.
Nowadays, players and teams want to play at a fast pace. The game is often played that way, with teams looking to run and then get shots more quickly when in a halfcourt set. Point guards and wings are having their day as a result. In fact, point guards now might be looked at similarly to how centers used to be, in that an elite one is highly coveted and a competent one is absolutely essential.
Big men still have a role to play on NBA teams. Thursday night’s draft might only be an aberration. If so, it’s one worth noting, because it was the bigs, not the guards, who were sliding down the draft boards this time around.