Previewing the 2016 NBA Draft True Centers

The traditional center is a fascinating player in today’s NBA. The ability to switch pick-and-roll on the defensive end and space the floor on offense has become so coveted that interior focused big guys who can’t really move on the perimeter have become marginalized. Rim protectors still have a lot of value, as we saw with the drop-off Golden State experienced from Andrew Bogut to Festus Ezeli/Anderson Varejao, but guys who can’t guard on the perimeter have become matchup dependent role players, not 30+ minute a game guys.

Depending on how a given “traditional” 5 guards on the perimeter and just how much value they bring on offense they might be able to carve out a truer starting role, but all are fighting an uphill battle. I’m going to analyze the players in order of their DraftExpress rankings before re-ordering them into my own rankings.

Jakob Poeltl – Sophomore – 20.6 years old – Utah

Most draft prospects deal with lots of speculation about just how good/bad a certain skill of there is, and how valuable their total profile can be. Poeltl is the rare prospect who even a couple days from the draft is still facing questions as to whether his lateral mobility is a strength or weakness. Draft writers that I respect have framed it both ways, and obviously, it is a central question for his future success.

After pretty extensive watching, I come down slightly on the positive side of the debate. Poeltl has a lot of natural mobility for a 7’1 guy, and when he actually gets into a stance and focuses he can capably hard hedge or even switch. He is not quite as quick as someone like Steven Adams, but he is quick enough to at least play in the switch-happy schemes teams are turning to.

When you throw in the fact that Poeltl has the size to protect the rim and an advanced understanding of verticality he looks like a pretty elite defensive prospect. However, as we saw in the matchup with Domantas Sabonis, Poeltl can struggle quite a bit with both short area quickness and physicality. Guarding on the perimeter Poeltl is big enough to slide with guys and contest, but when defending on the interior he struggles because he tends to play too upright.

Some combination of standing upright, a naturally weak frame, and possible lack of toughness also causes Poeltl to struggle with opponents getting into his body. His lack of natural physicality is the key flaw in his defensive profile. He’s smart, mobile, and long, but he’s not elite enough in any one of those categories to overcome his inability to handle people playing through his body. He certainly could improve as he adds weight over time, but his defensive projection is average at best due to his lack of any great strengths and some real questions.

On the offensive end, Poeltl has phenomenal hands, touch, and feel for scoring around the basket. He is about as polished a pick-and-roll prospect as you will ever see coming out of the college level, and he can even hurt teams with his passing. His post game was effective at the college level due to his sheer size, but at the NBA level, he will be mostly a pick-and-roll guy. He can be a plus offensive player on his pick-and-roll ability alone, but since he’s not a vertical or perimeter spacing threat he is not going to add that much value to an offense.

As a solidly good offensive player and meh defender, Poeltl can be a pretty high-quality backup center. However, since the modern NBA doesn’t really need good backup traditional centers he is more of a mid-first round pick than the lottery one he is being projected as.

Ivica Zubac – Croatia – 19.2 years old – Mega Leks (International)

Zubac has dealt with extensive foot injuries the past two years – which is pretty concerning for a young 7-footer, but again something I’m not fit to work into my evaluation. At 7’1 265 lbs with a 7’4 wingspan Zubac has the necessary girth and length to be a difference maker in the paint. He’s not an elite leaper by any means, but he’s a solid enough one to be a minor lob threat due to his sheer length and block some shots.

It’s pretty easy to compare Zubac to Poeltl since they play such similar roles. Zubac’s bigger and stronger frame is a big deal, it allows him to bang people around in a way Poeltl just can’t. However, in every other aspect of their portfolio’s Poeltl is at least slightly better. Poeltl is more mobile guarding on the perimeter, a smarter team defender at this stage, faster running the rim in transition in pick-and-roll, a little more adept at finishing on the move, a much better passer, and has more promising signs of a jump shot.

Zubac is a solid prospect in his own right because he isn’t awful in any of those categories – he just isn’t particularly exciting either. There’s some chance Zubac ends up as the better player than Poeltl because their difference in physicality allows Zubac to translate his game in a way Poeltl cannot. I’m betting on Poeltl’s superior overall profile, but if Zubac ends up better I will learn from it. Zubac projects as a solid offensive and not-awful defensive center, worthy of a late first-round pick.

Damian Jones – Junior – 20.9 years old – Vanderbilt

It’s hard to look at Jones’s pure tools profile and not think he’s deserving of a lottery pick. He is 6’11 with a 7’4 wingspan, solid strength, and elite physical attributes. He has the leaping ability to be a big-time lob threat and rim protector, and the type of mobility to even switch screens on the perimeter. He even has a budding mid-range jump shot that he could legitimately turn into a weapon. Basically, he is a bigger and stronger version of Deyonta Davis – a guy who I have in my top-10.

However, there is a difference between raw athleticism and athletic fluidity. Jones has a lot of raw speed/strength/leaping, but he is a stiff mover without much bodily coordination. That lack of fluidity is compounded with an awful basketball IQ – which hurts him all over the court.

Jones has no understanding of team rotations on defense, and even when he is in position to block a shot he isn’t as good as he should be because he lacks coordination and timing. Guarding on the perimeter he manages to do a pretty good job despite his tight hips since his raw mobility is just so good, and that is the one part of his defensive game that projects as a plus at the next level. Without the ability to pick-up on rotations Jones is never going to be a good NBA defender, and nothing he’s shown to date suggests he has the requisite awareness.

On offense, his lack of fluidity is starkly apparent. Whenever he’s not dunking the ball he looks stiff and awkward, and he’s not very good at navigating defenders and finishing non-dunks. Vanderbilt didn’t make much use of him as a lob threat in pick-and-roll, so he could bring some value in that respect in the NBA, but the rest of his offensive game is full of bad decision making and awkward shots. Jones has the raw physical tools to make me look silly, but his feel for the game and stiffness are pretty big barriers to overcome. He should be an early/mid second gamble, not a top-20 pick.

Ante Zizic – Croatia – 19.4 years old – Cibona Zagreb (International)

Many statistical models suggest both Zubac and Zizic should be top-10 picks, and those same statistical models have done a good job of identifying past Adriatic League big men studs Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. Part of me wants to rate both Zubac and Zizic higher as a result, but two players aren’t really enough to call something a trend and my model-independent evaluations of each of them are not so high.

Zizic has a strong frame, solid athleticism, and plays with crazy amounts of energy, but nothing about him screams NBA big man. On the offensive end, he’s good at rolling to the rim and creating opportunities on the offensive glass, but he has very little court vision and isn’t as refined around the rim as either Zubac or especially Poeltl. He really knows how to roll down the lane hard, so he will at least belong on the court as a center on the offensive end.

More worrying is the defensive end, where Zizic is pretty fast but a bit awkward in the way he hedges, and a below par rim protector for a big man. Again, he’s not awful in either area, but he’s a bit below-average. An amalgam of below-average–average traits without much versatility on either side of the ball means Zizic might carve out a role in the league, but not as anything more than an 8th or 9th man. He’s got enough better chance of sticking in the league that he should be picked ahead of Jones, but still not until the early second round.

Diamond Stone – 19.3 years old – Freshman – Maryland

Stone came into the year projected as a lottery pick, and has slipped to the end of the first round in most places. Draft models actually kind of like him, but I’m of the opinion that he only remains on the first round bubble because of his high school ranking and that he is still vastly overrated.

Stone is a fairly skilled post scorer, a pretty good shooter for a big guy, and a decent college rim protector because of his size and okay leaping ability. At the NBA level, his rim protecting will be below-average, and his ability to create shots for himself isn’t elite enough to translate. That leaves you with a player who can’t do any one thing to help a team on either side of the floor.

He projects as a comfortably bad to potentially disastrous pick-and-roll defender and doesn’t have the speed, leaping, or passing vision to be much of a pick-and-roll threat on the offensive end. The NBA is a pick-and-roll centric league, and Stone isn’t anywhere near elite enough at non-pick-and-roll things to make up for his weakness in the most important action in the modern NBA.

The one hope for Stone’s NBA success is that he really improves his range and becomes a plus three-point shooter. He didn’t take any threes in college so it’s a fairly big stretch to project, but he has solid form and shot an impressive 76% from the line. If he adds consistent three-point range he still will be a negative defender, but could at least add enough value on offense to deserve NBA minutes. That is a long bet though, and not one worth taking a shot on until the very end of the second round.

Zhou Qi – China – 20.4 years old (Possibly) – Xinjiang Tigers (International)

It’s nigh on impossible to evaluate Zhou Qi without knowing his true age. For those who haven’t heard about the situation, this article does a great job of diving into the issues surrounding Qi’s age. The article concludes it is likely he is nowhere more than 1 or 2 years older than his listed age, if at all, but also doesn’t rule out the possibility of him being 3 years older like many places have rumored.

If I knew Zhou Qi was his listed age he would absolutely be top-10 on my board, and would have a good argument for the #4 spot. He combines off the charts length with acceptable athleticism and great natural timing to be a truly elite rim protector, and that same length makes him a lob threat on the offensive end. If Qi was just a lob threat on offense he would be a solid prospect, but he also has beautiful touch on mid-range jumpers that extends out to the three-point line and some actual fluidity in scoring on the move.

Qi has three main flaws in his profile – two of which are directly related to the age question. Qi’s biggest weaknesses are his mobility guarding on the perimeter, his feel for the game, and his rail-thin frame. Qi’s ability to move his feet and guard is the one thing that is least affected by his age, he’s going to struggle with containing NBA pick-and-roll players no matter how much time his game has to mature.

Qi’s mobility is a weakness, but it is good enough he could effectively execute a drop scheme if he knew how to play angles properly. That is where the questions of feel for the game come in. Qi at times operates like a pretty sound rotational defender, yet also makes some glaring mistakes and seems to just give up on plays. The fact that Qi has flashes of competence means he could realistically improve, and in that case, whether he is 20 or 23 makes a pretty huge difference. Qi’s feel for the game is also at question on the offensive end, where again he sometimes flashes decent vision but other times looks completely lost with or without the ball. The same age-related questions pertain to his development on the offensive end.

The final, and most obvious question, is with Qi’s body type. At 7’2 and <220 pounds Qi would legitimately be the skinniest player in the NBA if he came over today. Qi’s lack of strength affects him all over the court, particularly in his ability to finish and to contain opposing big men. If Qi is only 20 the frame is still a huge issue, but there’s a lot more reason for optimism than if he’s already 23.

I’m operating under the rough assumption that Qi is 22 in my analysis. The uncertainty surrounding his age certainly gives him some added upside/downside though. If Qi is already around 22 it becomes increasingly unlikely he can add strength, and his awareness issues become more pressing. His raw skills of shot blocking and shooting mean he still might be able to carve out a bit role in the NBA, but he lacks the physicality or feel to be much more than a back-end of the rotation guy. Normally someone like that would be a mid-second round pick for me, but Qi’s plethora of upside to turn into a two-way force makes him worth a late first round selection.

Chinanu Onuaku – Sophomore – 19.6 years old – Louisville

There are a number of indicators that suggest Onuaku could be severely underrated. His Box Plus-Minus of 13.6 is absolutely elite for a college sophomore, particularly one who is the age of an average freshman (note that he’s younger than the freshman who is next on this list). The fact that he is so young for his grade is also really impressive – managing to look like a prospect playing in a grade of guys a year older than you is super impressive. The degree to which Onuaku improved from his freshman to sophomore season also suggests that as he catches up to the competition in age he could be really good.

Another two flags in Onuaku’s profile suggest he may have elite instincts, which can be the easiest thing to miss when evaluating. First, he had a 2.2% steal rate across his two seasons of college, and he posted an impressive 12.9% assist rate this past season in college. For a guy playing in a freshman age season this past year, those are pretty elite numbers and both intimate that his feel for the game is elite.

Elite feel can take a center pretty far, but Onuaku’s raw tools are pretty poor. He’s a touch undersized for a center, only an average vertical athlete, doesn’t have a jump shot, doesn’t have much fluidity or touch on the offensive end, and has somewhat questionable hands. His clear plus tools are his vision, his feel, and his mobility. His mobility is interesting; he’s not super fast, but he’s very light on his feet and when he’s engaged on defense he does a pretty good job containing ball handlers. He’s not quite fast enough to consistently switch on guys, but he can certainly do a good job in pick-and-roll defense.

It is odd that Onuaku combines great feel with sometimes poor effort, but I attribute his lack of effort at times more to poor conditioning than effort. Onuaku isn’t big enough or elite enough an athlete to project as an elite NBA defender, but he can be a very good one due to his solid physical tools.

On the offensive end, he’s pretty clearly going to be a negative. His passing is a real boon, but he’s not going to be much of a scorer in pick-and-roll situations and his decision making is questionable enough that he can’t help a team with his passing as much as his raw vision suggests. The upside with Onuaku is probably a slightly more athletic Joakim Noah on offense, but he’s got a ways to go in terms of improving his decision making and hands, and he’ll probably never be as good a ball handler.

Profiling as a strong defender and a negative, but not terrible, offensive player looks like a very good backup center for years to come, with some chance of developing into a starter quality player if he were to improve a lot on offense or become truly elite on defense. I have him ahead of Poeltl and in the late lottery.

Stephen Zimmerman – Freshman – 19.7 years old – UNLV

For more extended thoughts on Zimmerman, read my scouting report on his game over at Upside & Motor. If you read the scouting report, you would see that I’m an absolutely huge fan of Zimmerman’s game. He’s got the skill and athleticism package of a borderline all-star, and while he does have some mental and physical questions, they’re not overwhelmingly negative.

Like Damian Jones, Zimmerman has questionable awareness on both ends of the floor. The good news is his awareness wasn’t as overwhelmingly bad on either end as Jones, and he was playing on a dysfunctional UNLV team that raises the possibility his issues were mostly due to poor coaching. Additionally, Zimmerman has flashed some real passing ability, so though he struggled with consistently reading the floor well, there is more hope he has innate floor awareness once he adjusts to the speed of the game better.

In terms of physicality, Zimmerman faces similar questions to Poeltl as someone who struggles to deal with body to body contact. He didn’t finish well in the paint on offense and got pushed around on the other end pretty frequently this past year. Compared to Poeltl, Zimmerman has naturally wider shoulders and combined with his younger age it is more reasonable to expect him to add strength to his frame.

Questions of physicality and awareness are concerning, but neither are so bad for Zimmerman to justify where he is currently being mocked. Zimmerman is a plus athlete with the potential to protect the rim, guard decently in pick-and-roll, space the floor as a shooter, add value as a passer, and be a threat to finish around the rim athletically. That type of upside is almost unseen in this draft. Zimmerman’s questions mean he projects much more realistically as a low-end starter rather than an all-star, but that is still a whole lot better than most of the players in this draft. I would take Zimmerman in the back end of the top-10, #1 among all the true centers – and his current mid-second round projections seem ridiculous to me.

A.J. Hammons – Senior – 23.8 years old – Purdue

I just wrote a scouting report on Hammons yesterday, so I won’t go too into depth here. Basically, Hammons is Zubac sized with even more girth, a little more athletic pop, and about the same lateral mobility. He is also even more skilled than Zubac on the offensive end and has a very promising mid-range shot that has a real chance at turning into NBA three-point range.

Unfortunately, he is also plagued by questions of effort level and awareness and has some of the court concerns. He kind of “put things together” this past year at Purdue, but still wasn’t as dominant as his raw tools would suggest, and at almost 24 years old it’s difficult to expect all that much more improvement. He’s going to struggle to guard on the perimeter a bit, and his mentality questions are real, but he’s so damn talented I still expect him to be a solid NBA backup. I’d take him just above Zubac because I think his advantages outweigh the mental concerns, but he’s still a late first rounder who should be a lottery pick if he wasn’t so maddeningly inconsistent.

Georgios Papagiannis

Papagiannis is a giant (7’2) with a decent frame (240 lbs) and an impressive combination of speed and athletic pop. He’s not an elite athlete but combined with his size he is a real threat for lobs and can really protect the rim. His speed also allows him to get downhill in pick-and-roll, and since he also has good hands and decent touch he can be a real threat rolling to the rim. The rest of his offensive game doesn’t amount to much, but he at least doesn’t have disastrous feel that potentially submarines his positives.

Defensively, he has some real questions with both mobility guarding on the perimeter and his effort level. He’s always been bigger and stronger than his competition and is yet to show that he can really work on either end. Though he’s relatively mobile for a 7’2 guy, he’s still a 7’2 guy and is going to struggle to defend on the perimeter at the next level.

I have him between Qi and Zizic in my rankings. He’s not quite as solid on both ends as Hammons/Zubac and doesn’t have Qi’s upside, but I like his potential as a solid backup more than Zizic. I see him as a little underrated, with a late first/early second profile.

Prince Ibeh – Senior – 22.0 years old – Texas

I have Ibeh right around where he’s projected to go (I have him 48 DX has him 51), but he still warrants a mention. He has absolutely zero offensive game, like significantly worse than rookie year Nerlens Noel offensive game, but he’s the closest thing to DeAndre Jordan in terms of physical tools the league has seen in awhile. He’s not quite as big or quite as athletic as DeAndre, and even worse in terms of feel/awareness, but the athletic tools to serve as a rim protector, lob threat, and switch on pick-and-rolls could easily allow him to carve out a role in the NBA. He’s got far enough to go in terms of understanding of the game that I’m not too excited about him, but he’s an intriguing gamble.

My Rankings (suggested draft range in parentheses)

Tier 1 – High-End Backups – Starters

#1 Stephen Zimmerman (7-13)

#2 Chinanu Onuaku (9-15)

Tier 2 – Solid to High-End Backups

#3 Jakob Poeltl (12-22)

#4 A.J. Hammons (21-30)

#5 Ivica Zubac (21-30)

#6 Zhou Qi (21-31)

#7 Georgios Papagiannis (28-37)

Tier 3 – End of the Bench to Solid Backups

#8 Ante Zizic (33-45)

#9 Damian Jones (36-45)

#10 Prince Ibeh (43-55)

#11 Diamond Stone (55-Undrafted)


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