The way back-to-the-basket centers have vanished from the game of basketball in the past decade, you’d expect to see a display soon at the Naismith Hall of Fame in memory of the era when giants used to dominate the sport in the paint.
The age of traditional centers is gone. Guards rule. But uber-talented big men still exist, especially in college basketball this season.
Just check out some of the top teams in the country right now. You’ve got Purdue relying on 7-footers Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms complementing a deadly three-point shooting attack. Duke’s 6-11 freshman Marvin Bagley III is in the conversation for national player of the year as a high-scoring double-double machine. Kansas and Michigan State both have centers among their top scorers, including the Spartans’ 6-11 freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., who is the best pro prospect in the Big Ten.
When it comes to remembering the great NBA centers of the 1990s, the conversation always includes Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal.
Did you know Arizona’s 7-1, 260-pound freshman Deandre Ayton is being compared to a young Robinson? His athleticism and physical tools are off the charts with chiseled biceps, a 7-6 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical leap. Ayton has range out to the three-point line like Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, but he prefers to do most of his damage closer to the basket with rim-rattling slams like the Admiral.
Ayton’s not alone when it comes to true 7-footers from the 2017 high school class who have NBA potential. In early December, he went head-to-head against 7-1, 250-pound Nevada-Las Vegas freshman Brandon McCoy, who had 33 points and 10 rebounds in the overtime loss to Arizona. Ayton had 28 points in what was as close as this generation is likely to get to an old-school Ewing vs. Olajuwon college matchup.
There’s even 7-1 former McDonald’s All-American Mitchell Robinson, who could be a lottery pick this year despite sitting out and training on his own instead of playing college basketball this season.
Where did all these big men come from? I thought all players 6-10 or taller nowadays were trying to be stretch power forwards like Kevin Garnett or sharpshooting wings like Kevin Durant.
Not so fast. These new age big men can step outside but love to dunk, block and dominate inside. NBA scouts are salivating. According to 2018 NBA draft projections, nearly half of the first-round picks (13 of first 27) are 6-9 or taller, including eight lottery picks.
Texas’ 7-foot freshman Mohamed Bamba might be the draft’s most intriguing prospect with a 7-9 wingspan. Ayton and Bagley are the two favorites for the No. 1 overall selection in June.
Small ball worked for the Golden State Warriors. Teams from all levels have tried to mimic that style. But this college hoops season proves that size and length inside can still be major factors — going against the myth that today’s game dominated by guards has made centers obsolete.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
Marcus Fuller’s rankings, with five teams to watch:
1. Purdue (20-2, 9-0)
2. Ohio State (18-5, 9-1) How long could the No. 13 Buckeyes stay undefeated in league play? Not long, as Penn State upset Ohio State 82-79 on Thursday.
3. Michigan State (18-3, 6-2) Every time you watch Jaren Jackson Jr. drive and dunk on someone as a 6-11 freshman, you can’t help but say, “Did he just do that?”
4. Michigan (17-6, 7-3)
5. Maryland (15-7, 4-5) The Terrapins were already down two frontcourt players, so Bruno Fernando’s ankle sprain Monday in a loss at Indiana continues injury woes.
6. Nebraska (15-8, 6-4) Tim Miles has the easiest remaining Big Ten schedule with no matchups with the top four teams and mostly winnable games, which helps the NCAA tourney chances.
7. Indiana (12-9, 5-4)
8. Northwestern (13-9, 4-5)
9. Penn State (14-8, 4-5)
10. Minnesota (14-9, 3-7)
11. Rutgers (12-10, 2-7)
12. Wisconsin (10-11, 3-5) The Badgers already have one more loss than they did all of last season when they finished 27-10 and second in the Big Ten.
13. Iowa (11-11, 2-7)
14. Illinois (11-11, 1-8)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Udoka Azubuike, C, Kansas
The 7-foot sophomore has NBA potential, but he’s shooting an awful 37.5 percent on free throws. After Azubuike went 1-for-7 from the foul line in an upset loss to Oklahoma, a disgruntled fan reportedly entered KU team’s dorm to offer him “free-throw advice,” which led to campus police being called.
Game of the weekend
(2) Virginia at (4) Duke
1 p.m. Saturday, CBS: Could the Cavaliers eventually reach their first No. 1 ranking since Ralph Sampson was the best player in the country in 35 years ago? Beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time since 1995 would get Virginia on that path.
Izzo’s shocking fumble
Tom Izzo seemed before as though he could write the book on ethics. But Izzo rightfully took heat after saying “hope the right person was convicted” in the sexual assault scandal of former Spartan and USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Izzo later changed his stance, but why did it even come to that?