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The Sideline Observer

Sports and Culture Commentary

The Future of the NBA Big Man

NBA Summer league has emerged as one of the more entertaining off-season events in modern sports today. Last year alone the NBA had two Las Vegas Summer League games attract over 1 million viewers on ESPN. The whole NBA family comes together: general managers mingle with players courtside, agents, players, coaches and TV stars hop onto broadcasts and commentate live games.

The City of Sin has a budding summer basketball addiction.

Young players from number one overall pick DeAndre Ayton (Phoenix Suns) to undrafted Icelandic center Tryggvi Hlinason (Toronto Raptors) showcase their skills in front of NBA personnel. Players want to prove they belong in the NBA, even for a few games.

There has been plenty of discussion within the NBA recently on whether or not “small ball” is phasing out the prototypical big man. This summer, four prospects are attempting to succeed in a league where big men have to make threes, block shots, and guard perimeter players away from the basket. And if they can’t?

They’ll end up like Jahlil Okafor — post up powerhouse, rebounder… and unemployed.

Orlando Magic – Mohamed Bamba, 7’1”

The Orlando Magic should feel comfortable with how Mo Bamba was performed this summer. Statistically, he’s performed well. With his limited 19:44 minutes per game, he is producing 8.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.

When we take his numbers and stretch them for a full 36 minutes, he’s putting up 15 points 10 rebounds and blocking 4.2 shots a game. His three point shot is still more theoretical than tangible, but his athleticism has been on full display offensively. With an infamous 7’10” wingspan, Bamba is always a lob and put back threat, which makes him a low-usage big man providing immediate value to an NBA roster.

At this point in time, Bamba is terrible as a screener which does not project well for the NBA, where the pick and roll is a critical component to any team’s offense. He lacks go-to scoring options in the post, and recorded zero assists in two of his three games. DeAndre Ayton worked Bamba like the 225lb center was a rag doll, leaving Ayton open to hunt for blocks. Bamba is raw, but summer league has confirmed his potential as a starting center in the NBA.

Memphis Grizzlies – Jaren Jackson Jr., 6’11”

Triple J is a freak. We have not seen another player like him before.

He won’t turn 19 until September making him one of the youngest players in the NBA. He is 6’11¼” with a 7’5¾” wingspan, and blocked 14 % of all shot attempts while leading the entire NCAA in defensive plus-minus. We should be talking about how phenomenal he is defensively, instead, it’s his ass kicking offense that includes step back threes and overpowering double teams in the post.

The Grizzlies have fed the ball to Jackson to see how he responds. He absolutely struggles with physicality and his assist numbers (0.6 per game) do not strike confidence in his playmaking, but his shot making out of the pick and pop have been encouraging to say the least.

Chicago Bulls – Wendell Carter, 6’10”

Sharing the front court at Duke with #2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III cut into Wendell Carter’s offensive possessions and forced him into the elbows and out of the post. His 6’8¾” height measurement at the NBA combine scared teams and his lateral quickness was a lingering question.

Now Wendell is in the NBA. He’s out to make the six teams who passed on him look like fools. He’s blocking a fantastic 3.6 shots a game in only 27:43 minutes a game. When we pull his stats up to 36, he’s blocking nearly 5 shots a game while shooting 50% from three, although he only attempted 2.59 three-pointers per 36 minutes in Las Vegas.

What separates Wendell Carter from other rim protecting big men is his phenomenal instincts on defensively. Carter keeps his head on a swivel, both looking at his man and the offensive action. He physically prepares himself to contest the shot even before the offensive player commits. By delaying his help until the last possible moment, Carter defends both his man and builds the team’s defense which is an astounding display of basketball intelligence by a 19 year old rookie . His defense is already elite (he had a higher block and steal percentage than DeAndre Ayton!!!) Oh, and the lateral quickness concerns?

Not a problem.

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Struggling in summer league is normal – after all, you’re lumped up with a team who you’re with for a few weeks, with players you’ve never played with who were all elite collegiate or international players. It’s okay to struggle. These games don’t matter; but, it’s always comforting seeing glimpses of greatness from young prospects rather than looking out of place, timid and, well, bad.

Most of these prospects play anywhere between three and six games— their statistics are guaranteed to turn out differently in the regular season of the NBA, where they have a larger sample size to produce. All we can do is wait for the season to start to have these young men play meaningful games.

But it’s safe to say the future of the NBA big man is in good hands.

Is it NBA November yet?

-Kieran

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