At the risk of jumping to conclusions after just one week of NBA regular season basketball, we’re ready to declare that a new wave of NBA big men has arrived in the form of 7-foot centers who play like shooting guards. The “stretch” four or “small ball” four has been around for a long time now, and refers to power forwards who can shoot from outside and thus “stretch” the defense. Over the course of the past 10 years, players with those skill sets became more prevalent since the league as a whole began trending toward small ball for a variety of reasons.
For one, the league reintroduced zone defense as a legal strategy, eliminating a lot of the “hero ball” isolation plays that had dominated NBA offenses throughout the 90s. Around the same time, the league’s front offices were starting to buy into advanced statistical analysis of their teams in every facet of the organization: scouting, salary cap management, and especially on-court strategy. Teams understand now that scoring from the post isn’t a very effective type of offense.
It doesn’t take a fancy formula to determine that 40% of a 3-pointer is worth the same as 60% of a 2-pointer, but the reliance on fancy statistics did eventually lead to teams deciding to place more emphasis on shooting three-pointers. Thus, stretch fours like Dirk Nowitzki became increasingly valuable as their unique ability to stretch the defense from the power forward position led to increased offensive production. The “classic” type of bruising power forward began to fade from the spotlight, and now we are seeing the same thing happen at the center position.
The Dirk Effect
Due to a recent influx of young talent at center, starting with DeMarcus Cousins in 2010, and followed by Anthony Davis, Myles Turner, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid in more recent years, this trend has become all the more obvious. The other night, Anthony Davis scored 50 points as he drained 17 shots, picked up 5 assists and 7 steals. Turner had 30 points on 13-of-19 shooting, and Towns and Embiid each had 20 points in their own season debuts. However, it’s not just the statistical output of these players, but the way in which they are scoring their points. They’re playing on the perimeter, using fancy footwork and point guard-esque dribbling skills to create their own shots—which they tend to hit, looking like they are Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce reincarnated. It’s no longer just throw the ball in the post and clear out – we now have Anthony Davis running off screens.
Oh yeah, that’s another reason why these young players have these guard-like skill sets.
Spoiler alert: Anthony Davis wasn’t always 7 feet tall. In high school he came up as a guard, as did many of these players as they ascended through AAU and other leagues until entering the NCAA basketball ranks. These are now some of the most dangerous players in the league. They grew up playing point guard and emulating stars like Kobe, Pierce, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade and Tracy McGrady. Like any other kids that dreamed of being NBA stars, they emulated the styles of the players they grew up watching.