Era of the postmodern big man
Evidence of evolving nature of the college big man on display in the Sweet 16
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Adreian Payne accents his postgame threads with a pair of chic black glasses that resemble the specs worn by Clark Kent, Superman's secret identity. The fashionable frames convey sophistication for the 6-foot-10 specimen.
If you'd watched the Michigan State sophomore fly through the air on monster dunks that rocked Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, during the Spartans' wins in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament last week, you'd have wondered if he deserved an "S" on his chest, too.
That height. That length. That bounce.
They all suggest that the former five-star recruit will soon dominate the paint for the Spartans after Draymond Green graduates following this season. Payne is the type of talent that makes coaches drool over his potential to rule the post.
There's just one problem.
Payne has other ideas about his future.
"I really don't think I'm a center. I think I can play a little bit of 3, too, if Coach Izzo ever gives me a little chance," Payne said between laughs. "My teammates, they'd say I think I'm a 3, too. But I think I can play the 3, 4 and the 5. I don't think I'm just a back-to-the-basket type of player."
The concept of a young man Payne's size operating anywhere but inside would have seemed ridiculous 20 years ago. Today, however, it's not uncommon.
Payne is not alone in his desire to explore the floor.
A glance at the Sweet 16 field offers evidence that the true center in college basketball may be nearing extinction. A multitude of programs reached the second week of the NCAA tournament without the services of a back-to-the-basket stud.
The stars on the rosters of Florida and Marquette shoot and slash. They don't just post up or rely on hooks. Jared Sullinger is one of the field's most vivid examples of a true post player, but he started Ohio State's round-of-32 win over Gonzaga shooting 3s. And Sullinger isn't alone. Cincinnati's Yancy Gates is most effective out of the low-block; the Zeller brothers, Tyler (North Carolina) and Cody (Indiana) give their teams 7-foot anchors in the post. But in speaking with coaches in Columbus, it's clear the concept of the traditional big man is an idea whose time has passed, for reasons that have as much to do with the lure of the NBA as it does with the evolution of the position.
To beat Syracuse, Wisconsin will have to hit shots against that strict zone. It helps to have Jared Berggren, a 6-10 center who's shooting 36 percent from the 3-point line this season.
Anthony Davis' shot-blocking prowess demands comparisons to the defensive repertoire of Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal and other lane-stuffers from the past. But he's not a pure center. He can step out and knock down jump shots. The former high school point guard doesn't mind handling the ball, either. And he's more likely to score on an alley-oop than with a drop-step move.
The increased versatility of the 6-9 or taller athlete in the NBA has impacted the development of big men at the collegiate level. Today's bigs would rather emulate Kevin Garnett than Kevin Willis.
"The NBA, this is one place I think they caused our problems. No matter who you talk to, every 2-man wants to be a point. Every 3-man wants to be a 2. Every 4-man wants to be a 3 and it's illegal to want to be a 5-man," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "That means you're some big guy that can't do anything but sit in the post. There [are] some pretty good guys making pretty good money that just sit in the post."
Henry Sims plays for a Georgetown team that produced Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Mourning. But when the 6-10 post man was asked if he viewed himself as a true center, he cringed as if he'd just eaten some bad seafood.
"I've never, I've never seen myself as a true center. I feel I can do a lot of things on the court. I feel I can just call myself a basketball player," Sims said. "To me a true center is [going on] the block, left hook, right hook knock people out. It's just I feel like a true center doesn't encompass a lot of things that a basketball player would be able to do."
Georgetown's progression from those phenomenal centers of the '80s and '90s to players such as Sims and Greg Monroe showcases the transformation of the position.
Ewing, now an assistant with the Orlando Magic, led the Hoyas to three Final Fours with interior mastery that helped Dwight Howard evolve into the NBA's best center.
But Sims led the Hoyas in assists this season.
It's easier to find a player like Sims, who'd rather earn kudos for versatility than specialization, than one who has committed himself to developing as a post player alone.
"Nowadays, everybody wants to shoot jumpers or dribble or do other stuff that's really not in their game. If you're 6-11, why are you trying to dribble? It's only a few Kevin Durants out there or Dirk Nowitzkis," Michigan State post player Derrick Nix said. "I guess that's the new era. All the big fellas want to show that they can shoot and put it on the floor, be so finesse."
One NBA All-Star inadvertently fueled that change.
Kevin Garnett debuted in 1995 as a scrawny rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even in his first year, he clearly possessed a unique skill set. He could hit jump shots. He handled the ball well. He was comfortable inside but could operate outside of the paint, too.
A multitude of young players who watched him develop into a future Hall of Famer were charmed by the possibility that the big man could play like a little guy and become a more valuable option for NBA general managers.
Garnett proved that big men didn't have to stick with tradition.
"People look up to KG. People in my generation look up to KG tremendously, especially bigs," said Sims, an All-Big East third-teamer. "We want to emulate him as much as possible. So I think that kind of affected an entire generation of kids, KG's play."
John Thompson III said the players who competed for his father would have thrived in his system and vice versa. Both he and his father placed responsibilities on their centers that were just as relevant in the '80s as they are now.
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He recognizes the expanding résumés of post players worldwide, but the centers/power forwards who operate within his system must focus on the post, he said.
"What I think is important is not whether Henry [Sims] considers himself a true center or not, that Henry and every person that plays that position for us can do things that a true center does. So it's not just a question of floating out on the perimeter and doing perimeter things. It's great, and we've been fortunate enough -- Henry being the latest to be able to be a facilitator -- to be comfortable at every spot on the court," Thompson said. "I think what happens a lot of times when people, when big guys say, 'I don't want to be a center, I just [don't] want to be stuck down there,' they forget they have to be effective down there. I think with Henry and with everyone else that has played with us, you'll see although they do other things, they're effective on the block also."
But today's bigs, even those who may not have a future in the NBA, want more than the traditional role.
Richard Howell's inside game helped NC State reach the Sweet 16. He bullied San Diego State with 22 points. He had nine points and nine rebounds in a win over Georgetown.
Howell is not a throwback big man. He's 6-8, 250 pounds. It's hard to envision the forward playing anywhere but the paint in college.
So the center is somewhat of a dying position. And it's not a fun position. The center is also the lowest selling shoe, by the way.
--Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus
And yet, the junior joined his colleagues in their resentment of any tag that places limitations on their skill sets.
"I don't want to be a center, either," he said. "I think it's just the word 'center,' I guess. I really don't know."
Thirty years ago, Rick Majerus' coaching career began during an era that literally made the post man the center of many systems. Even Majerus' late '90s Utah teams were anchored by 6-11 Michael Doleac.
Similar players, however, are tougher to recruit today, Majerus, now at Saint Louis, said last week. He noted the unsexy reputation of the traditional center as one of the reasons for the disappearance of pure bigs.
"I notice everyone wants to be identified as a forward. And what these guys don't realize is the real money in the NBA is centers and longevity in the NBA is bigs. Bigs are the No. 1 longevity in the NBA," Majerus said. "So really they would want to be, if they're good, labeled as centers and as bigs, because they're so difficult to find."
Majerus also added: "So the center is somewhat of a dying position. And it's not a fun position. The center is also the lowest selling shoe, by the way."
The coaches who find players with the body, talents and mentality of a pure big man don't keep them long. Even center prospects who've failed to star at the collegiate level can make millions in the NBA. In recent NBA drafts, Daniel Orton (Kentucky) and B.J. Mullens (Ohio State) were first-round picks after mediocre freshman seasons.
"I think the fact that most of the big kids that are really talented, they enter the draft early. We're all in this room old enough to remember Patrick Ewing going against Hakeem Olajuwon as an upperclassman in a Final Four. Whether they were a junior and a senior, I can't remember, but they weren't freshmen," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. "They were older. But, as a matter of fact, when 'Never Nervous' Pervis [Ellison] was a freshman, it was a big deal because he was a freshman. Those guys leave. They're not in college basketball very often. So the big guy in the college game is rare, and a lot of guys that are 6-8, 6-7, they have to play the post. And it's just a different game now."
Last week, Izzo sat at a podium at Nationwide Arena and fielded questions about a squad that's equipped to make a run to New Orleans.
A reporter informed the longtime Spartans leader that Payne would like the coach to consider using him at different positions.
"Did he say 3? He was a point guard last week. I guess we've downgraded a little bit," he said. "He's phenomenal in the post. He's got a right hand. He's got a left hand. He's got everything. And he can stretch. I think next year he'll be our stretch 4. He can shoot a [3-pointer], legitimately. He's got a very good-looking shot if he spends some time on it. But you've got to have bread and butter moves and you have to have things you can do. If you can do a bunch of them, then that's what gets you to another level. But if you do a bunch of them average, that's not good enough."
Somehow, Izzo and Payne will decide the proper position for the talented player next season. But even Izzo recognizes that any effort to pull Payne into the paint full-time would be futile.
Payne, like a growing list of collegiate big men, wants to diversify.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Spartans.
Izzo could use the extra point guard.
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