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In past seasons, center used to be the shallowest fantasy position. It still is, but the gap isn't nearly as large as it used to be thanks to the ever-growing list of players with power forward and center eligibility. Still, given the depth at point guard this season and the lack of shot-blockers overall, we'll need to place a premium on the center position in 2011-12.
This season's group of centers seems to be a nice mix of proven veterans, up-and-coming youngsters, high-risk/high-reward gambles and sleeper candidates to consider on draft day. Let's take a look.
Say what you will about Dwight Howard's free throw percentage, but few can match his dominance in scoring (22.9), rebounding (14.1), shot-blocking (2.4) and field goal percentage (59.3 percent). Be aware that you'll need a specific strategy (punting or surrounding him with high-volume plus-80-percent free throw shooters) to win with Howard, but if you are willing to commit to a strategy, there is no reason you can't take Howard near the end of the first round in roto fantasy drafts. There aren't many players who can block shots and hit their free throws, but Pau Gasol does both with 1.6 blocks per contest while shooting 82.3 percent from the line. Amare Stoudemire's numbers dipped when Carmelo Anthony joined the Knicks, but he still averaged 23.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 49 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the line in 25 games. Those numbers are more than enough to consider him an elite talent at power forward or center.
Al Jefferson became Utah's go-to player once Deron Williams was shipped to New Jersey, averaging 21.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks after the All-Star break. The Jazz are filled with young talent in the frontcourt, and they will lean heavily on Big Al's scoring and rebounding in the paint in 2011-12. Al Horford's numbers might not look special at first glance until you realize that he contributes in nearly every fantasy category. With 15.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 55.7 percent from the floor and 79.8 percent from the line, Horford finished last season ranked 21st on our Player Rater. A consistent contributor across the board, Horford makes for a fine Tier 2 big-man selection. LaMarcus Aldridge stepped his game up in nearly every area last season, averaging 21.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. At age 26, Aldridge is in the middle of his prime and should continue to be a dominant fantasy force.
Andrew Bogut has averaged a double-double with at least 2.5 blocks in two consecutive seasons but has managed to suit up in an average of only 67 games per season during that time. It is clear that Bogut is one of the league's best fantasy centers, but his inability to stay healthy is a major red flag, particularly in a shortened season in which there will be increased back-to-back games. Joakim Noah always has been a favorite of mine because of his defensive prowess and ability to put up big numbers in rebounds and blocks, but I'm starting to lose trust in his ability to stay healthy for a full season. Noah has averaged a double-double with at least 1.5 blocks two straight seasons, but he's played in an average of only 56 games per season. Brook Lopez looked timid under the glass last season but seemed to benefit from the addition of Deron Williams, putting up 22.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks after the All-Star break last season. Lopez may have burned some fantasy owners last season but could be in line for a bounce-back with Williams at the helm. Any list of high-risk/high-reward centers wouldn't be complete without Andrew Bynum. Injuries have plagued him throughout his career, but there is no denying that he can be a special fantasy player when at 100 percent. Last season, he averaged 11.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks but suited up for only 54 games. Given that he's played in an average of 55.3 games per season in his six-year career, I'm not optimistic about his ability to shake the injury bug in the future.
After a trade sent him to Phoenix, Marcin Gortat was one of fantasy's best big men with averages of 15.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks after the All-Star break. It's always risky to predict a breakout based on half a season, but when looking at his per-minute numbers from Orlando, everything he did leading up to this point suggested that he had this type of potential once he earned a starting gig. Now that he has clearly separated himself as the center of the future in Phoenix, we can expect big things from the 27-year-old. Although he is still incredibly raw and inconsistent, JaVale McGee displayed incredible upside with 10.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in his third professional season. The 23-year-old is still improving and has a seemingly limitless ceiling. Fantasy owners are still waiting for Roy Hibbert to put together a full season of quality play. A dominant shot-blocker who is plagued by inconsistency, Hibbert averaged 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in just 27.7 minutes per game last season. Given his per-minute production, any increase in minutes would do wonders for his fantasy value. As of press time, DeAndre Jordan's contract status is still up in the air, but that doesn't mean that we can't consider him a future fantasy star at center. Jordan took advantage of injuries to Chris Kaman to post 7.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 66 starts for the Clippers, and the 23-year-old flashed tremendous upside in his third professional season. Jordan should be in line for increased playing time wherever he lands, and he figures to be a big-time rebounder and shot-blocker when he gets an opportunity to be a full-time starter. Don't mistake the absence of Serge Ibaka and Greg Monroe in this section as a slight against them. Both were covered extensively in the power forward preview and should provide fantastic return on investment in 2011-12.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com and was named the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2011. He can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @bmckitish.