In a teaser for his Old Man and the Three Podcast, JJ Redick asked Houston Rockets‘ Alperen Şengün about being called “Baby Jokić”. Being compared to a two-time MVP and one of the best Centers in the game’s history, Nikola Jokić, not only speaks volumes about Şengün’s all-around play, but also serves as another example for how far the game has evolved when it comes to the league’s big men.
From the late 1950s through the early 1980s, Centers dominated the NBA world. To put into context just how many of the league’s best players were Centers, from the 1959-60 season through the 1982-83 season, Centers won 22 of 24 MVPs. However, superstar wings like Larry Bird and Michael Jordan entering the league in the 1980s, along with rule changes such as the introduction of the 3-Point line in 1979 and the elimination of the NBA’s Illegal Defense Rule, propelled the evolution of of the game away from traditional Centers.
Evolution of Center’s Play
Teams began spacing the floor more and taking more perimeter shots. The game evolved further in the 2000s, as sharp-shooters like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Damian Lillard became key players in the “small ball” movement. As a result, success became less reliant on big men bullying each other in the paint. Big Centers were drawn away from the hoop and, to put it simply, required to do more than just play with their backs to the basket in order to survive. Centers began to be asked to knock down perimeter shots in addition to having a post-game, to pass out of the paint in addition to protecting the rim.
On top of that, the most skilled big men would even initiate offense.
Today, arguably the league’s best two players, Jokić and Joel Embiid (winners of the previous three MVP awards), are Centers. Big men who can stretch the floor and protect the rim are much and more common in today’s game. So far this season there are nine Centers shooting at least 30% from three (minimum of one 3-point attempt per game), while also averaging at least 1 block. 10 years ago, during the 2013-14 season, only two players met these criteria.
Şengün Flourishing in Houston
Şengün is a prime example of where elite Center play is in today’s game. The budding superstar is averaging 22.1 points per game along with 9.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, the fourth-most among Centers.
He is currently one of five Centers averaging at least 20 points per game and 5 assists per game. Last year Jokić was the only Center to hit those marks.
Şengün is currently fifth in the league among Centers with 12.8 assist points created per game, Jokić is first with 22.7. To put in context how far the position has evolved on the playmaking front, 10 years ago Şengün would have been second in the league among Centers, trailing only Joakim Noah who had 12.9 assist points created per game that year. Over each of the following three seasons Şengün would have led his position group.
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