Those seeking a telling snapshot of the NBA’s positional landscape need look no further than Team USA’s pre-FIBA training camp.
If that sounds like a lot of top-tier point guards, well, it is.
Over the last 20 years, the NBA had seen a dramatic shift in its strategic orientation, from the center-centric days of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing to a more guard-friendly, perimeter-focused style of play.
Heading into next month’s FIBA World Cup in Spain, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond highlight a thin frontcourt depth chart with little in the way of margin for error, foul counts or otherwise.
As such, how these three perform—both in competition and against one another—could prove an encouraging bellwether for a big-man renaissance.
That’s not to discount the importance of Kenneth Faried or Paul Millsap, both of whom made it to the final cut of Mike Krzyzewski’s final 12-man roster. But in terms of both size and skill sets, it’s Team USA’s three youngest bigs who stand to make the most significant impacts.
Of the three, Davis has received by far the most heaping praise—a product of both the former No. 1 pick’s stellar second season and redoubled efforts in the weight room, per NBA.com.
He’s also one of the most uniquely versatile players on the roster, with Davis’ defensive quickness, leaping ability and ever-expanding offensive repertoire, he's certain to give the competition endless fits.
You can tell he’s getting bulkier, getting bigger, more confident. You can tell he’s working. I’m excited for him. He’s a good friend of mine. I’ve seen him since he was a junior in high school. His growth from then to now is just phenomenal. He’s just growing every single day. He’s moving up the ladder every single day. It’s scary. Scary.
While not quite at Davis’ athletic level, Cousins offers perhaps the most faithful facsimile of the center position’s bygone exemplars.
His footwork isn’t quite as fleet as Hakeem’s; his passing ability a bit shy of Rik Smits; his outside touch a tad or two below Ewing’s. What Cousins does have, at 23 years old, is enough upside to fill the Burj Khalifa. Channeled properly and minus the histrionics, his abilities scream franchise cornerstone.
That brings us to Drummond, the 20-year-old Detroit Pistons pivot who has drawn comparisons to Dwight Howard. Sound absurd? See for yourself:
Drummond’s defensive presence and rebounding alone should be enough to garner significant minutes, especially against big-bodied teams such as Spain and Brazil. Faced with a skill level not often seen from NBA centers, Drummond’s first, second and last priority will be staying out of foul trouble.
He might not possess the posh and polish of his frontcourt cohorts. As a potentially perfect archetype of the NBA’s steadfast emphasis on hyper-athletic rim protectors and pick-and-roll finishers, however, Drummond could wind up being the most strategically valuable.
That these three rising stars combined barely meet the minimum age of a Social Security recipient is certainly encouraging for Team USA’s future. At the same time, it underscores an important fact of the NBA’s ever-changing landscape—one that Kevin Fixler highlighted in a 2012 piece for The Atlantic:
The problem has been exacerbated by younger and younger players entering the NBA, which is one of the reasons Clifford Ray, who is considered one of the foremost authorities on coaching centers, said fewer teams now have this essential rim protector. Little or no time in college has prevented these big men from gaining this specific skill set, while at the same time growing physically, mentally and technically.
Since 2006, the league has prevented players right out of high school from becoming available in the draft. Now they must wait a full calendar year whether they play in college or not.
Ray thinks the rule is still not enough to bring players up to the same speed on playing the middle as most of the centers of yesteryear. ‘All the young centers need to be developed,’ said Ray. ‘Not everybody can teach. That's what people don't get.’
The days of the full-term collegiate superstar are long gone, and with it the undeniable basketball benefits of having an entire offense—an entire program, really—built around the express purpose of getting you the ball as often as possible.
Players like Davis and Cousins, who arrived campus-side with plenty in the way of self-taught versatility, understandably have a better chance of adjusting to the NBA’s changing positional landscape.
Drummond, on the other hand, remains as raw as they come. He's much like Howard, who at 28 years old has barely developed a baby hook shot, let alone a reliable 15-foot jumper.
Lest we put too much stock on the importance of specific positions, it’s worth noting that even the NBA is beginning to acknowledge the position-less resolution: Just this past season, the league introduced new All-Star voting measures, replacing the traditional taxonomy with two and only two designations: guards and “frontcourt” players.
Basketball, like any other sport, is ever-evolving. If the days of the all-powerful center are long gone, there's likely a good reason, or many reasons, for that fact.
Still despite an increased emphasis on spacing and shooting, it’s not as if we’re trending toward a future where every player will stand between 6’5” and 6’7”. The demand for 7-footers isn’t disappearing; it’s changing, guided by a gospel preaching everyone, from floor general to rim protector, be a five-tool talent.
In Drummond, Davis and Cousins—and the latter two in particular—the NBA boasts both its best trio of young bigs in years and a harbinger of what could be the league’s next great renaissance as well.
That, in turn, should spark more distinct rivalries between the three, Davis and Cousins’ Kentucky ties being an obvious flame-fanner.
That’s not just good news for budding big men everywhere; it’s great news for the NBA, looking as it always is for the next generation of stars to carry the game’s now global torch.