Tempering the Big Expectations
Drafting a Big Man can provide a serious amount of hope for an NBA Fan Base. The truth that basketball fans need to realize is time...can be a precious thing.
Patience can drive a fanbase mad. Allow me to set an example of just the type of realistic scenario that can have a basketball fan struggling with the concept of “time.”
After a year of dealing with a season that is filled with “tanking” aspirations for your favorite NBA team, you suddenly find yourself foaming at the mouth for a day full of obsession over magical ping-pong balls. Some call this hope, others call it Lottery Day. If you’ve been a basketball fan for long enough, you should know that this day has a similar effect to Christmas morning.
You wake up with an extra pep in your step. Your morning cup of coffee seems to be just perfect today, as you lean back and start to dream of a new beginning for your favorite hoop squad. As you watch the clock throughout the day, it seems as if ten minutes feels like an hour. Suddenly, it’s showtime. You find yourself glued to the television watching with anticipation as the NBA Draft Lottery is getting prepared to potentially change the outcome of a certain franchise for the immediate future.
Sure, you understand the realization that no incoming Draft prospect is a “sure thing” when it comes to turning into a superstar. But you also realize that this is the year in which there’s a number of players that fit the mold of the type of player that your team desperately needs. Your team has an intriguing mix of young guards and wings, but what could really push the needle forward is a conductor of the paint.
You want a big man…and there’s a number of them that have some serious upside.
Fast forward to the conclusion of the Lottery and it happened. Your team has some “Lottery luck” and find themselves picking first overall in the Draft. Panic, anarchy, limitless joy…all emotions that start to franticly run through your body. You start to look back at some of the previous big man prospects that were selected first overall in their previous Draft classes. Names like Karl-Anthony Towns, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal continue to fuel the fire that this could be the type of franchise-altering presence that could set the tone for years to come. This could be it…this could be the missing ingredient. This could change EVERYTHING.
Fast forward to the middle of their rookie season and that hasn’t been the case. You quickly start to feel this uncertain level of concern. You look around the league and realize that players selected after your teams selection have been thriving with their play on the court. Sure, those players weren’t centers, but why should that matter? It’s all about who looks the best as a rookie right away right?
This is where we pump the breaks folks. This is where we realize we all need to take a deep breath.
Now that we’ve set the table and have you dealing with a case of PTSD, it’s time to have ourselves a little chat. This is a process that happens each and every year with a variety of NBA fans bases. The frustration with NBA fan bases is something I completely understand. At the same point, I’m here to put a stop to it. By the time you reach the conclusion of this article, I hope you realize that time…can be a precious thing.
Earlier this year, I took a look at why the point guard position requires patience, as I focused on some of the early “overreactions” when it came to rookie guards such as Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs. While that’s an entirely different position, I do believe that this topic plays in perfectly with young big men in the NBA as well. The big man is a mythical creature in the basketball world. No one truly understands what makes them “tick.” They are often weird, outspoken and generally flat out misunderstood.
NBA Front Offices and scouts fall in LOVE with them more than any other type of player. It’s not hard to understand why we are all drawn to players that are taller than everyone else and can dunk a basketball with vicious intentions. The fact that the modern big man is now showcasing the potential to dribble and shoot like a wing is something that makes us wipe the drool away from our mouths. The ugly truth we need to realize is that not every big man “gets it” right away. Some of these incredible physical specimens take years to finally hit their stride and experience their “breakout.”
We’re going to get a little educational here. Drafting a young center can get a fan base ready to jump out of their seats. You start to find yourself seeing visions of an athletic freak going up for vicious lob slams on a nightly basis. But the NBA big man is a developmental process that has a number of stages that require some serious loading time. An important note before moving forward…there’s going to be a number of various big men that I will mention that have various similarities and differences. It’s important to extend the range that it came to when discussing where these players were drafted, how long they played in college and how long it took them to “breakout” in the NBA.
Drafted 17th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft
Previous Team: Eau Clarie High School of the Arts (Columbia, South Carolina)
Rookie Year (1996-97):
4.1 PTS, 2.8 REB, 0.6 BLK, 45.1 FG%, 10.2 MIN
Breakout Year (2001-02):
12.9 PTS, 9.8 REB, 2.8 BLK, 46.5 FG%, 32.6 MIN
It felt necessary to start this one off with a little bit of a “wildcard” when it comes to looking at promising interior presences over the years. Now I can already here people shouting through the screen “Well, Jermaine was technically a power forward.” Fine if you want to go that route, I’ll still point to the fact that this was a 6’11” shot blocking presence. So let’s just focus on the bigger picture here.
Jermaine O’Neal was drafted right of out high school as a young 18-year-old “big” that had plenty of upside. If you might start to catch a hint about the direction of this segment, you should go back and look at the fact that O’Neal was sharing the NBA court with grown men at the age of 18. Although O’Neal was extremely young, he was still a player that went on to be selected 17th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft. Although O’Neal had some serious potential with his game, not every young talent hits their stride right away.
The Blazers stressed patience with Jermaine, but his breakout seemed to never happen. After four years in Portland, the organization traded O’Neal to the Indiana Pacers for Dale Davis. O’Neal had simply struggled to get consistent minutes with the Trail Blazers and it looked as if a fresh start was in the best interest for both sides. Did that mean O’Neal wasn’t any good? Absolutely not, but sometimes big men just click at unexpected times. O’Neal was already in his fifth NBA season, but still was just 22-years-old. That’s when the breakout started to happen, and O’Neal saw his confidence start to surge with Indiana. He went on to win the NBA’s Most Improved Award in the 2001-02 season, earning himself his first NBA All-Star appearance as well.
Drafted 16th Overall in 2011 NBA Draft
Previous Team: USC (2008-2011)
Rookie Year (2011-12):
5.5 PTS, 4.8 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.7 BLK, 45.0 FG%, 15.9 MIN
Breakout Year (2012-13):
13.1 PTS, 11.9 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.0 BLK, 51.9 FG%, 33.2 MIN
Yeah, now we are REALLY having some fun in the kitchen. Let’s rewind the tape a little. Nikola Vucevic has always continued to be one of the more underrated big men throughout his career in the NBA. What many people don’t realize is that “Vuc” was dominating the PAC-12 throughout his collegiate career. During his junior season, Vucevic went on to average 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds for the USC Trojans.
The Philadelphia 76ers went on to select the USC big man with the 16th overall selection in the 2011 NBA Draft. Although Vucevic was a junior, he was still just 21-years-old during his rookie year with the 76ers. He would go on to struggle throughout his rookie year, only averaging 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 15.9 minutes of action. The 76ers could have stressed patience with the young big man, but another opportunity presented themselves that was too enticing to pass up on.
Vucevic would eventually be traded in a four-team trade that involved Dwight Howard heading to the Los Angeles Lakers and Andrew Bynum going to the 76ers. The Orlando Magic would slide in and acquire the 22-year-old big man, and it didn’t take long for him to have his breakout year. In just one year, Vucevic saw his points per game jump from 5.5 to 13.1 as well as his rebounds per game jump from 4.8 to 11.9.
Drafted 2nd Overall in 2006 NBA Draft
Previous Team: Texas (2004-2006)
Rookie Year (2006-07):
9.0 PTS, 5.0 REB, 0.5 AST, 1.2 BLK, 50.3 FG%, 22.1 MIN
Breakout Year (2007-08):
17.8 PTS, 7.6 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.2 BLK, 48.4 FG%, 34.9 MIN
As I stressed earlier in the segment, I wanted to make sure to extend the overall “range” when it came to where some of these players where selected in their NBA Draft. Now we are trending towards the top. Insert former Texas Longhorns big man LaMarcus Aldridge, who went on to be the 2nd overall selection in the 2006 NBA Draft. Aldridge spent two years at the University of Texas and went on to average 15.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game during his sophomore year.
During his rookie year, the Blazers had a plan for Aldridge and didn’t force the issue when it came to their new talented big man (Warriors fans, please read that sentence again.) Remember, this team was featuring a number of impressive players already such as a young determined Zach Randolph, who would go on to average 23.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game that season. The team also had a rising star in Brandon Roy, who was a bucket getting machine. Aldridge showed promise during his rookie year, but the following season is when the Blazers finally let him run wild. That’s why it’s so crucial for teams to allow some of these young big men to get valuable playing time during their rookie years. Install some confidence, trust the process and once you see that the game is starting to slow down for them…unleash the beast.
Drafted 35th in 2008 NBA Draft
Previous Team: Texas A&M (2007-08)
Rookie Year (2008-09):
4.3 PTS, 4.5 REB, 1.1 BLK, 63.3 FG%, 14.5 MIN
Breakout Year (2013-14):
10.4 PTS, 13.6 REB, 2.5 BLK, 67.6 FG%, 35.0 MIN
Now we are getting a little crazy with the range difference when it comes to draft position. Let’s take a look at DeAndre Jordan. Remember DeAndre being drafted out of Texas A&M? Well if not, you’ve come to the right place. DeAndre was a walking freak-of-nature athlete who was potentially “lightning in a bottle.” The thing was that every NBA team realized that Jordan would require patience to develop over the years. He was a prospect that needed to let the game slow down, but he had the rare athleticism to simply dunk over everyone with relative ease.
The Los Angeles Clippers took a flier on DeAndre, selecting him with the 35th overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft. Playing limited minutes as a 20-year-old rookie, Jordan went on to average 4.3 points and 4.5 rebounds for the Clippers in 14.5 minutes per game. It wasn’t until the 2013-14 season in which DeAndre would start to find his groove. After seeing his minutes per game jump to 24.5 in 2012-13, Jordan was quickly becoming a crucial start for the Clippers and went on to average 35.0 minutes per game in 2013-14. He would finish his sixth year in the NBA with averages of 10.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.
It’s a rare example of a team not panicking when their young big man hasn’t seen a massive jump in their play immediately. Instead, the Clippers allowed Jordan to continue to work on his craft throughout his young career and unleashed him when he was ready. Following his breakout year, Jordan would go on to average 12.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game over the span of the next four seasons.
Drafted 9th Overall in 2012 NBA Draft
Previous Team: UConn (2011-12)
Rookie Year (2012-13):
7.9 PTS, 7.6 REB, 1.6 BLK, 60.8 FG%, 20.7 MIN
Breakout Year (2013-14):
13.5 PTS, 13.2 REB, 1.6 BLK, 62.3 FG%, 32.3 MIN
While many of you might not believe this, there is a wide range of raw “one-and-done” big men that have gone on to have successful careers in the NBA. What’s even more fascinating is that they don’t have to come in and dominate immediately. If you stress patience and time, you can be celebrating down the road when you realize the long term profit. Insert Andre Drummond, who went on to be the 9th overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft. After playing just one year at UConn, Drummond put up the eye-opening numbers you would typically think from a Top-10 pick. While wearing a Huskies uniform, Drummond went on to average 10.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.
After being selected by the Detroit Pistons, the 19-year-old big man went on to post averages of 7.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in 20.7 minutes. But during his second year, the light started to come on for Drummond who saw his numbers jump to 13.5 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in 32.3 minutes.
Drafted 2nd Overall in 2020 NBA Draft
Previous Team: Memphis (sort of)
Rookie Year (2020-21):
11.5 PTS, 5.8 REB, 0.9 BLK, 51.9 FG%, 21.4 MIN
Yes, now we are getting to the REAL JUICY STUFF. Now I understand that every fan base out there is going to have an uncomfortable feeling when drafting a “raw” big man. It’s definitely had a shaky history of results. For every successful young center that has gone on to find their way over a lengthy career, there’s also been the busts that never pan out. But if this article can educate you on anything, it’s the truth that each one of these players has found their groove at different times throughout their career. Each big man requires a different amount of patience when it comes to developing their craft.
Insert last year’s 2nd overall selection James Wiseman. Golden State took a big swing drafting Wiseman, who had a fascinating combination of athleticism and mobility for a player of his size. The problem with Wiseman is that the expectations were too high. If you just looked at EVERYTHING I’ve shown you when it comes to previous big men who have gone on to have outstanding careers in the NBA, then Wiseman’s rookie year production should have you more than excited.
The guy played three games of college basketball. THREE GAMES. Imagine if Deandre Ayton only played three games at the University of Arizona before being selected first overall. Do we think he would have had some more struggles early on in his career? Wiseman is going to be fine and he’s about to be reinstated to a situation that is MUCH more promising than his first year in the NBA. Stress patience Warriors fans and buy into the long term profits.
Drafted 6th Overall in 2020 NBA Draft
Previous Team: USC (2019-20)
Rookie Year (2020-21):
4.6 PTS, 3.3 REB, 0.7 BLK, 64.4 FG%, 12.0 MIN
Another big man that I believe has his best basketball ahead of him. After being selected 6th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks, there was some serious buzz that Onyeka Okongwu could be the missing piece for Atlanta. That was until the machine of Clint Capela continued to impress with his play for the team. After a number of annoying injuries presented some “setbacks” in Okongwu’s development, he still finds himself waiting for his opportunity to “breakout” with the Hawks.
It’s like a slow loading process that continues to build with anticipation. Okongwu continues to show outstanding signs of development on the basketball court and it’s important to remember that there’s still a serious upside with his game that is waiting to be reached. If Okongwu can stay healthy, it’s only going to be a matter of time before he’s unleashed. As said before, be patient Atlanta Hawks fans…this one has the chance to be VERY fun.
Drafted 16th Overall in 2020 NBA Draft
Previous Team: Washington (2019-20)
Rookie Year (2020-21):
7.9 PTS, 6.7 REB, 1.3 BLK, 55.3 FG%, 21.4 MIN
I’m a sucker for big guys that play like their hair is on fire and that’s just the type of player that Isaiah Stewart is. Although Stewart’s numbers might not wow you, I still believe that he’s on the right path towards becoming a crucial piece for the Pistons rebuild. After showcasing some fantastic two-way versatility at the University of Washington, the Detroit Pistons went on to select Stewart with the 16th overall selection in the NBA Draft after a Draft day trade.
Stewart continues to show that he has the ability to become a serious interior presence and his best basketball days are still ahead of him. So far this season, the energetic big man is averaging 8.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in 26.0 minutes. It seems as if this is going to be a young player that is destined for a potential “breakout” season in year 3.
Drafted 3rd Overall in 2021 NBA Draft
Previous Team: USC
Current Stats (3/3/22):
14.7 PTS, 8.1 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.6 BLK, 49.9 FG%, 34.1 MIN
It didn’t feel right to not give Evan Mobley some love in this segment. We all know that Mobley has been absolutely sensational with his play throughout this season. What’s fascinating is to compare the pre-draft hype compared to what Mobley has actually done on the court this year. Coming into the 2021 NBA Draft, many were intrigued with Mobley as a potential dominant defensive presence.
But there still remained some questions about the thin-frame and offensive upside that Mobley had. Hmmm…sounds familiar. Mobley was an athletic marvel at USC but also played the game with some underrated nastiness. He understood that defenders might try to bully him because of his frame, but there was often more times than others that Mobley was dishing out the punishment. After being selected 3rd overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, many were wondering when Mobley would be ready to play extended minutes. It didn’t take long before everyone realized that Mobley was a special talent with his play on both sides of the floor after he quickly started to see his confidence build. Now, it looks as if the Cavaliers have an absolute monster developing in Cleveland.
Drafted 16th Overall in 2021 NBA Draft
Previous Team: Besiktas (Turkey)
Current Stats (3/3/22):
8.8 PTS, 4.9 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.9 BLK, 47.2 FG%, 18.7 MIN
SENGUN! How can you not be excited about the long term potential that the Turkish monster has. Heading into the 2021 NBA Draft, there was PLENTY of skeptics when it came to Turkish big man Alperen Sengun. There’s always some folks out there that get a little nervous when it comes to an international prospect that is dominating a lower level of competition. Sengun drew plenty of criticism. Is he that good of an athlete? Is the shot going to come around? Can he hold his own as an NBA defender?
It hasn’t taken long for Sengun to show that he has a special combination of playmaking and floor awareness on the basketball court. Sengun is off to a great start for his NBA career and he’s looking like another player that could experience that second year “jump” like so many previous big men mentioned on this list. Rockets fans…get ready for liftoff.
So let’s put a ribbon on this bad boy shall we?
The 2022 NBA Draft class is going to feature a number of prospects that are going to find themselves entering this exact same conversation. The most obvious one on your mind is going to be Memphis big man Jalen Duren. One of the most explosive athletes in this class, Duren is going to be a sure bet to be one of the first big men selected on Draft night. But Duren is going to be a player that requires a serious amount of patience.
The tools are freakish…and boy do I mean freakish. Listed around 6’10”, 250 pounds, Duren will quickly have you foaming at the mouth with his ability to run the floor and attack the basket with vicious intentions. The realization here is that patience and time are going to be the most important parts of unlocking his potential. The Memphis freshman is still just 18-years-old and will be 18 when he suits up for his first NBA game (hello Jermaine O’Neal vibes).
There’s also going to be a number of other centers in this class that could offer fascinating upside when it comes to becoming an anchor in the middle of a defense. Players such as Walker Kessler (Auburn), Mark Williams (Duke), Ismael Kamagate (Paris Basket) come to mind when we are talking about traditional centers. Each Center is going to have their own path. Each of them will find their groove throughout different times in their basketball careers. I leave you today with the hope that you will realize that time is a precious thing.