The Best Young NBA Big Man

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DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 28: Karl-Anthony Towns (32) of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts to a foul by teammate Gorgui Dieng (5) against the Denver Nuggets during the second half of the Nuggets' 105-103 win. The Denver Nuggets hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, December 28, 2016. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The NBA‘s small-ball movement has caused the roles of the league’s best big men to change considerably. This current era places the unprecedented expectation that all positions need to convert open jump shots. This includes big men. Not only is this added expectation on the offensive end of the court, but on defense as well. The best big men are now able to switch on pick-and-rolls and stay in front of quicker guards.

Three of these big men are the very best at their young age, and are among the first of this generation to revolutionize the center position.

The Best Young NBA Big Man

For all intents and purposes, young will be defined as players under the age of 22. This excludes talented players like DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, who are still developing their ever-impressive games. The following three big men show the most talent at the center position, and their ceilings are incredibly high.

Joel Embiid

The 7’2” Cameroonian rookie has shown all Philadelphia 76ers fans that the long-awaited process is finally coming to fruition.

His overall potential may be among the highest in the league. Unlike many other NBA players, Joel Hans Embiid did not start out playing basketball, as his natural height suited him to play volleyball. After developing under Bill Self as a member of the Kansas Jayhawks, Embiid now exudes potential in all parts of his game.

After two foot surgeries, the average big man’s ceiling would have dropped exponentially. However, Embiid is no average big man. During his two years on the sideline, Embiid took the time to develop a lethal shot from long range.

Embiid has developed a shooting touch that was not seen at the NCAA level. Opposing big men cannot leave Embiid alone behind the three-point line, which spaces the floor nicely. When centers start pressing out to prevent the three ball, Embiid has often shown off his driving ability. Whether it’s a Hakeem Olajuwon dream shake or face-up jump shot, Embiid has provided ample offense to the Sixers.

However, offense is not Embiid’s biggest strength. His best attribute while in college was his defensive prowess. His agile footwork and fierce shot-blocking ability dissuades opposing teams from the paint. Philadelphia has the best defense when Embiid is on the court, and the fifth-worst when he is on the bench, showing how immense he is to the team.

Embiid struggles finding open teammates out of double teams, and is not quite as athletic as the big men below. However, he can improve on both of these aspects of his game with more time in the league.

Self-nicknamed “The Process” to embody the rebuilding process that former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie set out, Embiid’s game is still undergoing the developmental process through his first season competing at the top level. For this reason, Embiid comes in as the third best young (under-22) big man in the NBA.

Kristaps Porzingis

“The Unicorn” is as rare of a commodity as they come, as his pairing of athleticism and finesse is beyond his years. The second-year New York Knick has become a fan favorite, and rightfully so.

Scoring around 20 points per game, the Latvian is a scary cover. His freakish length allows him to get to the rim from the top of the key. He can be such a great outlet in both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop because of his leaping ability and shooting touch.

Unlike Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis has shown the ability to finish athletic alley-oops as well as convert more contested three-point shots. The 21-year-old also has immense potential, and could very well be a leading candidate for the Most Improved Player award this season.

Perhaps playing with Carmelo Anthony gives an added advantage to Porzingis over Embiid. It will be interesting to see how much Ben Simmons can elevate Embiid’s game when he returns from injury.

Karl-Anthony Towns

The most mature young star in the league is most certainly Karl-Anthony Towns. The former Kentucky Wildcat impacts the game in so many ways at such a young age that it is bewildering.

Although both Embiid and Porzingis play great defense, neither impacts the game quite like Towns. He is a double-double machine and puts his fingerprints on all parts of the game. His triple-double against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night just goes to show his abundance of all-around abilities.

Towns played his rookie season under the mentorship of veteran Kevin Garnett, which was huge for his development. However, Minnesota’s early season struggles with inconsistency can undermine his impact on the court. He has an innate knack to constantly make the right play, even if it’s not recorded by statistics. Directing his teammates, setting solid screens, and making the right pass are the immeasurable importance that makes him so great. Even on poor shooting nights, Towns’ maturity and instinct to make the right play makes him the best young big man in the game.

With a great defensive coach like Tom Thibodeau, Towns will learn to consistently defend at an elite level. Towns can cover guards on switches, and he has the strength to deal with big centers. His basketball I.Q. is through the roof. His shooting touch and basket penetration is more refined than that of Embiid and Porzingis.


All three big men will contend for their respective conference All-Star rosters. The debate of who the best big man in the league is will carry on throughout their careers, and it will be interesting to see their development. For now, it is Towns’ maturity and refined overall game that sets him over the edge as the best young big man in the NBA.

 

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