Ranking the NBA's Best Young Big Men
It's time to give these overlooked pivots their proper due. Here are the league's best big men 27 years old or younger, including some players already in their prime with room to improve, and others just coming into their own.
Top Tier: It's Lonely at the Top
Being an All-Star is one thing; being the most dominant big man around is another. Dwight Howard is in a class all by himself.
1) Dwight Howard, 6-11, 24 years old, (Orlando) -- A rare combination of size, power and agility, Howard has it all -- on the defensive end. He's led the league in rebounding the last three years, and he's blocked the most shots the last two. His defensive ability shuts down the entire painted area. He's won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards and should stay in contention for the award his entire career.
Howard's challenge, though, is to become a consistent go-to scoring option. He has such quick feet that he can rely on his overwhelming explosion, but with his back to the basket, he's still very much in the early stages of his growth. He needs to develop more finesse, because right now he's all power, and when things aren't going his way, he can literally be taken out of the game by foul trouble.
His free-throw shooting is another weakness -- and a real issue for the Magic in the playoffs. Teams often foul Howard and make him earn his points at the line, where's he's converted just 59.9 percent of the time for his career -- and only 37.1 percent of the time during Orlando's first-round sweep of the Bobcats. For Howard to contribute in close games in the playoffs, he simply needs to get better.
Second Tier: Best of the Rest
The second tier of big men includes players already established but still improving. Many of these players may eventually reach the first tier, and are all great options as building blocks for the future.
1) Chris Bosh, 6-10, 26 years old (Toronto) -- Bosh's left-hand and immense skill set give him an instant advantage over defenders. His shooting range (18-20 feet) coupled with his dexterity (the only big man you'll see drilling step-backs from the high post) and overall quickness (which rivals that of a young Kevin Garnett) is a lethal combination.
But while Bosh may be the most versatile big man on the offensive end, he lacks the ability to dominate defensively. Even though he's likely to command a max contract this summer, he can't affect the game on both ends of the court like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Unlike James, Bosh needs a lot of help around him because he's not the kind of player who can carry a team deep into the playoffs.
2) Brook Lopez, 7-0, 22 years old (New Jersey) -- Perhaps the most well-rounded big man in this tier, Lopez is a true center in every sense of the word. Despite playing for the awful Nets, he was a bright spot in east New Jersey all season long, flourishing in his second professional season. Defensively, he's a shutdown block artist (1.70 per game) who utilizes his tremendous length to clog driving lanes and force errant shot attempts.
He runs the floor well, either filling the lane on fast breaks or creating excellent low-post position. He has terrific hands, the type of huge oven mitts you want from a big guy. He can score from either block and has a surprisingly useful left hand for such a young player. Plus, he's an 82 percent free-throw shooter, ensuring he'll be on the floor late in games. Unlike many of his peers, Lopez's game is predicated off of footwork and a diverse skill set. His combination of hooks, up-and-unders and overall cleverness around the basket make him the best young center in the game today not named Dwight Howard. If the Nets acquire a gifted passer like John Wall or Evan Turner in the draft, there's no telling how good Lopez can be.
3) Josh Smith, 6-9, 24 years old (Atlanta) -- Smith isn't your conventional four-man because he spends a lot of time on the perimeter, but his ability to defend multiple positions, rebound the basketball and run the floor make him one of the most exhilarating young players in the game today.
Occasionally a liability on offense last season because of his poor three-point shooting, Smith showed restraint this year, attempting just seven attempts from beyond the arc all year. He is now consistently attacking the rim with a vengeance, putting pressure on the defense while simultaneously creating both shooting and passing lanes for Atlanta's guards. He also averaged 4.3 assists per 36 minutes, ranking among the league's leaders for big men.
Smith averaged 15.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.1 blocks per game this season, making him one of the most versatile players we've seen this side of LeBron James. While this remains Joe Johnson's team, Smith is a crucial reason why Atlanta is contending in the east. He'll likely challenge Dwight Howard for Defensive Player of the Year honors for the next decade.
4) Amar'e Stoudemire, 6-10, 27 years old, (Phoenix) -- His explosive, rim-rattling dunks are scary enough, but it's how he gets them that is so impressive: Stoudemire may be the best screen-slipping big man in the game today. He understands precisely when to slip away from the screen and where to roll to provide Steve Nash with the best possible passing angle.
Blessed with tremendous leaping ability and great hands (and, of course, the good fortune of playing with the NBA's premier passer), Stoudemire simply has to catch, gather and dunk -- and he does this very, very well. Stoudemire is also a capable shooter from the high post but often gets into trouble by over-dribbling or losing sight of his teammates. Even so, his capacity to face up, quickly jab right and spin back to his left is deadly.
Stoudemire's biggest weakness is his lack of defense and desire to rebound. In terms of physical ability, he's more than capable of being a shutdown defender and a league-leader in rebounds. His most productive rebounding effort came during the 2006-07 season where he averaged 9.6 rebounds in 32.8 minutes, good for 17.0 total rebounding percentage (TRB%), a statistic that estimates the percentage of available rebounds a player grabs while on the floor. He was more aggressive, more tenacious and more willing to rebound.
In three seasons since, he hasn't matched that intensity. He averaged 8.9 rebounds in 34.9 minutes per game this year, and his 14.5 TRB% ranked 35th in the league. Until he shows the same commitment on the defensive end and the glass as he does scoring, he can't be considered the No. 1 option on a championship-caliber team.
5) LaMarcus Aldridge, 6-11, 24 years old, (Portland) – Aldridge is one of the most intriguing young players in the league. He's an outstanding shooter for his size, comfortable out to 18 feet. Because of it, the pick-and-roll combination of him and Brandon Roy has quickly become one of the game's best.
For Aldridge to make the next step and reach All-Star status, he must improve two things. First, he needs to become a more willing rebounder. With his size, athletic ability and wingspan, he should be a top 10 rebounder every season. Instead, he averaged just 8.0 rebounds per game this season (13.3 TRB%).
Secondly, he should work out of the block more often. When Greg Oden was healthy, Aldridge drifted away from the paint and spent most of his time in the high post. As a result, his numbers were down (15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds) compared to playing without Oden, when he stayed on the block and averaged 19 points and 8.2 rebounds. He's great shooter so he shouldn't go completely away from that, but by continuing to develop his low-post game, he'll have more opportunities to knock down his patented, high-releasing jumper, as well as create opportunities for others.
6) Andrew Bogut, 7-0, 25 years old, (Milwaukee) -- Five years after the Bucks took him first overall, Bogut finally lived up to the billing. The learning curve for Bogut has been brutal at times -- mainly due to a lack of physical play and consistent scoring -- but this season he put everything together and enjoyed his finest season yet for the upstart Bucks.
A true seven-footer, Bogut is a terrific rebounder (10.2 per game this past season) and a fine scorer (15.9 per game on 52 percent shooting). Bogut is also a superb defender, averaging 2.5 blocks per game, the result of superior on-ball defense and the aptitude to rotate as well as anybody.
He was brilliant all year until suffering a brutal broken arm just before the start of the playoffs. The question becomes, even if he returns completely healthy, can he repeat his success next year? Given his wide variety of skills and overwhelming size, this past season does not look like a fluke. The 25-year-old Bogut appears to be well on his way up the NBA big man ladder.
7) Al Horford, 6-10, 23 years old, (Atlanta) -- A wide-bodied player who loves to bang, Horford is the type of four-man you can build a team around -- and in fact, he's so rugged he can even play out of position at center, like he has for the Hawks.
His rebounding (9.6 per game for his career) is consistently among the league leaders, and his offensive production and field-goal percentage has increased all three years he's been in the league. He scores off put-backs, but he's become a reliable low-post option for one of the NBA's most improved teams. He can step out beyond 16 feet where he has become a consistent threat off the pick-and-pop, although he prefers to work on the block where he strong-arms defenders and battles on the glass.
I've heard grumblings about Horford saying he can't really score, but he has relatively good footwork on the block and is nimble for his size. He's also unselfish, and realizes that on a team that already features several gifted scorers, his role is to clean up the glass first. He averaged 10.5 shots per game, and converts 55.1 percent of the time, one of the best rates in the league. He's easily the best fourth option in the game today, and would be a solid No. 2 or 3 on most playoff teams. In Game 7 against the Bucks, he converted 6 of 8 shots, finishing with 16 points and 15 rebounds, controlling the paint despite a lack of touches.
After making his first All-Star appearance this year, Horford should continue to increase his range and has an opportunity to elevate himself into the upper level of this tier. He won't ever be the presence of Lopez because he doesn't have the size, but Horford reminds me of a young Karl Malone with his physical nature and soft touch. There's no reason why he can't further develop his offense and become a 20-10 guy, even on a team as offensively diverse as Atlanta.
8) David Lee, 6-9, 27 years old (New York) -- Lee is everything right with basketball: intelligent, unselfish, hardworking and a joy to watch. He's improved every year he's been in the NBA -- it's as if he enters each summer with a distinct component of his game he wants to improve, and come October, he's a new player.
This past season was his offense. Already a decent offensive player, he increased the range on his shot and is now capable of scoring all over the floor. His tremendous rebounding didn't suffer with the added workload, and he became one of just three players to average 20-10 this year. He's also become one of the best passing big men in the game, averaging 3.6 assists per game.
The odds are good the Knicks will renounce Lee's rights and let him walk to clear the salary cap space to sign two maximum contract players, meaning Lee is all but certain to sign with a new team. Lee is best suited in an up-tempo offense that values his ability to run the floor and finish at the basket. But he's just as good (if not better) in the half-court. His mid-range game wildly improved this year as he torched other bigs off the screen-and-roll. He can also fade and drill 16-footers, and his ambidexterity around the rim is unparalleled. Just when the opposition thinks they have him in trouble, he pulls out a left-handed scoop that may look ugly but is definitely effective. His quick leaping ability, especially off his second jump, allows him to corral rebounds and tip-ins at a very high rate. He's just a very efficient player.
But when you give a guy a max contract, you generally expect him to be the best player on your team. However, I'm not sure that will be the case with Lee, who appears set on going to a contender after five losing seasons in New York. The best-case scenario for him is to sign with a playoff team that has a steady frontcourt and an upper echelon point guard already in place.
His defense leaves much to be desired -- as quick of a leaper as he is, Lee is rather slow laterally and not quite big enough to guard the thicker or longer fours and fives around the league -- but he's a fighter who will always give max effort -- and having just turned 27, entering the prime of his career.
9) Al Jefferson, 6-10, 25 years old (Minnesota) -- The 6-10 behemoth personifies the term power forward. A bruiser, bully and all-around force in the paint, Jefferson has stayed under the radar playing for an abysmal Timberwolves team, but don't let his lack of media buzz fool you.
Still recovering from knee surgery early in the year, Jefferson had a difficult start to the season before playing his way back into shape, showing off the range of tools and deadly explosion we remember pre-injury. Aside from a poor five-game stint in April playing for nothing, his numbers after November were stellar. Jefferson averaged nearly 18 points (51.4 percent shooting) and almost 10 rebounds per game, evidence that he attacked the rim more and finished at the basket in his typical fashion.
When healthy, Jefferson is a relentless rebounder who loves to fight for position and jostle for loose balls. His offensive skills are very good, especially when he can turn to his left shoulder and utilize his baby hook. His conditioning still needs work, and his propensity to pick up fouls is a small worry, but the talent and production is there. It would be nice to see how he functions on a good team. He didn't go to college and has never been to the playoffs in six NBA seasons, so we don't know how he functions in the clutch.
Jefferson has a nice counterpart in the frontcourt in teammate Kevin Love, who isn't the same physical presence or scorer but is four years younger and undoubtedly a better rebounder. Interestingly enough, team president David Kahn has said the two can't function together on the floor and that the Wolves need a true center. I couldn't disagree more, but it's a situation worth watching.
10) Chris Kaman, 7-0, 27 years old (Los Angeles Clippers) – Talk about a resurrection. After missing 77 games the previous two years, Kaman responded to his critics in a big way, averaging 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 75 percent from the stripe. Credit his terrific set of skills -- mainly a soft touch around the hoop, very good post moves and range out to 15 feet -- for his improvement. Along with his bruising size (I highly doubt he weighs his listed weight of 265 pounds), he presents a ton of match-up problems.
The problem with Kaman, even when he's playing well, is his low basketball IQ, often making mistakes in crucial late-game situations, either turning the ball over or lowering his shoulder for unnecessary charging calls.
Kaman is a very talented player who could start anywhere, but given his mental distractions, can you really win with him as a top two or three option?
Third Tier: Make or Break
Both Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden are intriguing -- but while they have shown flashes of brilliance (more so Bynum than Oden), they are far too inconsistent and injury prone.
1) Andrew Bynum, 7-0, 21 years old, (Los Angeles Lakers) -- Bynum is a highly skilled, highly effective player with a beautiful high-releasing set shot and the ability to finish with either hand at the basket. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to stay in the lineup, only once having played a full season in five years. Even so, his blend of size and amazing length are too tantalizing to ignore. Bynum has already showed glimpses of his defensive prowess, averaging 1.5 blocks in 23.6 minutes for his career, but as is always the case with him, we need to see more: more demanding the ball in the post, more anger, more emotion and more assertiveness. Just plain more.
Bynum has all of the tools, but something seems to be missing. Unlike Aldridge and Jefferson, Bynum doesn't bring the same effort or production on a nightly basis. Perhaps as long as Kobe is the alpha dog for the Lakers, Bynum won't be able to maximize his array of gifts simply because he won't have the chances. This season, he averaged 15 and 8, when he could easily be putting up 18 and 10.
Bynum is more naturally talented than most of the big men on this list, but between his injuries and inconsistent production, he rarely shows it. If he can stay healthy in the playoffs, his ability to defend and score on the block could prove the difference for whether or not the Lakers repeat.
2) Greg Oden, 7-0, 21 years old, (Portland) -- He is a ferocious rebounder and imposing defensive center. In 22 games this season, he averaged 2.3 blocks in just 24 minutes. He also averaged 11 points on an insane 61 percent shooting. The problem, of course, is that even more so than Bynum, he can't stay healthy. Dating back to his lone season at Ohio State, he's battled one ailment after another, including repeated knee injuries, which is a major concern for a player who relies so heavily upon his leaping ability.
When he is healthy enough to play, Oden is still very much a work in progress on the block and is nowhere close to being the type of offensive player as Bynum. He just gets the ball and goes, quick to panic with his back to the basket and rarely taking his time to evaluate the defense. He hardly ever makes a sound move followed by a quality look or pass. In addition, he's struggled to avoid foul trouble, picking up frustration fouls at an alarmingly high rate. He's averaged 3.9 fouls despite playing just 22.1 minutes per game.
That said, he can still be a valuable asset to a playoff team with his ability to defend the paint and rebound at both ends of the floor. He probably won't ever justify being the No. 1 pick and franchise savior as Blazers fans once hoped he would, but if he can simply manage to stay relatively healthy, Oden can have a productive -- if not spectacular -- career.