Today's NBA center is no longer the type of player that stays in or around the paint as the team's go-to easy bucket on offense and reliable anchor on defense. These two functions by an NBA center are still relevant today, but with the emergence of big men who have more complete skill sets, a strong seven-footer who can dunk the basketball just won't cut it anymore.
Which is why, even as a Laker fan, I wasn't too excited when my favorite NBA team recently signed Andre Drummond in a buyout deal. Don't get me wrong - Andre Drummond is an absolutely talented player, well deserving of his two All-Star selections. He's also 8th all-time in career rebounding average which makes for a good case of him being the best rebounder in the NBA today.
But for what Drummond has as upside, I can' turn a blind eye on what he doesn't have, which are more relevant in today's game more than ever - a respectable jumpshot, passing skills, and ability to guard quick perimeter players. In olden days of NBA basketball, all of what Andre Drummond currently has used to be enough. And so it's worth looking back at the players (specifically centers) who were predecessors of the same type of player this new Laker is.
For the purpose of this list, I've decided to include Centers only - so players like Blake Griffin and Shawn Kemp, who played Power Forward for most of their career - will not be included. And I've also taken the liberty to include at least one player per decade, for us to go further back.
Andre Drummond was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 2012 at nineteen years of age. When Blake Griffin was traded to the Pistons in 2018, my initial thought and excitement was that the East was going to have its own version of lob city. And it did seem that way at first - both Blake and Andre were catching lobs, and their whole team was promising.
But as we would know, Blake would lose a lot of his athleticism after about a year, and so Drummond was left in the paint as that one althletic big man the Pistons had. Drummond at first was merely a prospect - he didn't get heavy minutes as a rookie as most of the names did on this list. Early in his career he played as Greg Monroe's backup. But despite the limited 20 minutes per game that he played as a rookie, he managed to average 7.9 points and 7.6 rebounds - numbers he would double as he became a full-time starter the seasons after.
At 27 years old today, Andre Drummond is still in his prime and his athleticism is still pretty obvious. Had he played a decade earlier, teams would salivate his the level of athleticism and rebounding skill, while having the frame and bulk that could go head-to-head with Shaq.
In today's game however, with NBA offenses centered on opening up so much space through outside shooting so that guards can attack at will, Andre Drummond's functionality has become somewhat confined. Yes, he would still be ideal as the receiver in a pick-and-roll scenario and yes, I would trust him to guard the paint all game long. But the lack of an outside shot, which limits his offensive capacity, makes me think he might not play heavy minutes for an elite team in this generation.
Dwight Howard is among the few former superstars who played in the early 2000's and managed to extend their careers past the 2010's and into the 2020's. There's still no news whether this will be Dwight's last season but with the way he played in last year's playoffs and this season as Embiid's backup, he's still good enough to be on any NBA team's rotation.
Drafted in 2004 by the Orlando Magic with the first overall pick, the super athletic center did not disappoint. Especially that he played for the Magic and he had a collection of monstrous dunks coupled with the athleticism to sprint like a guard, immediate comparisons to Shaquille O'Neal were inevitable.
And leading a really good Orlando Magic team to the Finals in 2009, it looked like Dwight Howard would be a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer. In his golden years with the Orlando Magic, he was so good that he was in the conversation for best player in the league. He played like the prototypical center for his generation - lob catcher, pick-and-roll finisher, rim protector.
When he was acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers and was about to play with multi-time MVPs Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, everyone thought Dwight would usher in a new dynasty with the Lakers. But injury derailed him, as with most of the names on this list - an ongoing theme for centers who were once considered super athletes.
Has Amar'e Stoudemire, the man they used to call STAT, fallen to obscurity?
For me at least, I'll never forget the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns of the late 2000's whose play style is especially alive and well in today's NBA. Amar'e in his prime epitomized the ideal offensive big man for his era. He was the perfect pick-and-roll partner for one of the greatest point guards of all time, and he was also able to develop a respectable jump shot later in his career.
When he was acquired by the New York Knicks, there was that period of time where he was a heavy MVP candidate, averaging 25 points an 8 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. His first season with the Knicks however, seemed to be the last he was ever considered 'superstar relevant.' While he was able to come back to superstar form from arthroscopic injury with the Suns, further injuries with the Knicks derailed him and eventually lowered his value.
But unlike Knicks fans at the time who could only judge him by his value as a member of the Knicks, I choose to value Amar'e as a generational type of player. When I see the small-ball centers of today's era, immediately I remember Stoudemire. There are players like Amar'e - athletic but a couple inches from being a true seven-footer - Bam Adebayo and Clint Capela to name a couple, who are today's version of Amar'e Stoudemire. It's sad that he never managed to land at another good opportunity to win a title when he left the Suns. But that's just how a player's career goes sometimes - great, but no luck.
Shaq's the one player on this list that needs no further explaining. If you don't know about Shaq being a four-time NBA champion and a Hall-of-Famer, you would certainly know about him being the guy who broke an NBA rim more than once in his career. Apart from Wilt Chamberlain, there has probably been no more athletic center in his prime than Shaquille O'Neal.
When Dwight Howard self-gifted the 'superman' moniker during the Slam Dunk contest, it was not surprising that Shaq would take offense to it. Having seen Shaq play in his prime, it's easy to say that he set the trend of NBA teams salivating after athletic centers. And it was natural for NBA teams to go after Shaq-like players despite the skill set they lacked - they were finding ways to compete against him.
Those lottery picks which turned out to be horrible busts don't sound too impractical now when you think about the era the NBA was in. Kwame Brown and Michael Olowakandi don't sound that bad anymore when you think that Shaq was the reason for drafting these players ahead of anyone else in their draft pools.
Like Howard and Stoudemire who came after him, the tail end of Shaq's career was riddled with injuries. Injuries late in a player's career are not surprising, band Shaq's situation was even more expected given his lack of regard for fitness.
Darryl Dawkins, after Amar'e Stoudemire, is probably the most obscure name on this list. But had he played in today's era, he'd be one of the more popular players. 'Chocolate Thunder' was his nickname and he earned it because of his thunderous dunks. Before Shaq came into the scene a decade later, Darryl Dawkins was already breaking rims.
But he's probably the one big man in this list who never averaged a double-double for a season, while also having the lowest scoring average. In Dawkins' time, athletic centers weren't really the norm, as most starting centers had an array of sill sets - versatile post moves, a solid jumpshot and passing skills.
You can't have a historical perspective of centers in the NBA without ever mentioning Wilt Chamberlain. His playing position aside, he makes a good case for 'most athletic player' in NBA history. Of course, perimeter players like Jordan and LeBron are always in that conversation.
But even if Wilt was a flat six-footer in some other universe, he would still be one of the best athletes in the world. If he hadn't had such a bad winning record compared to guys like Kareem and Jordan, he would probably be in the GOAT conversation more often than not.
Injuries did derail his career in the end, but it wasn't like Wilt was totally out of prime shape like the other guys on this list. He was the first NBA Center with an elite combination of size, strength and speed - a protoype of the Andre Drummond line of NBA players.
An Evolving Breed
The Center position in the NBA is one which has experienced a dramatic change in the laat decade. Centers were suddenly taking and making three-point shots and stretching the floor. There were more pick-and-rolls than post-ups called. And the under-skilled big man was relegated to being an energy player coming off the bench.
Will we see a further evolution of the NBA Center? Will NBA teams continue to favor smaller but more skilled big men over true seven-footers who can only dunk? The trend became so alarming that we had to watch a 6'5" PJ Tucker play center for the Houston Rockets - we certainly don't need that. But 6'8" and 6'9" starting centers are emerging, and it seems the NBA is heading in that direction.