Year of the big man
MADRID (Spain) - The post-up is dead, long live the post up. The days of the post-iso, '90s back-you-down, big man, are dissipating into memory like the last plumes of smoke from a neglected bonfire. The reign of the classy, multi-skilled, leader of men, is in full flow. Admittedly, I am biased because Marc Gasol is easily my favorite athlete in any sport right now, but every team needs a big bloke, with an even bigger character. The kind that they can rely on to hold stuff together when the cracks start to appear.
If we look at the Basketball Champions League to illustrate or support this narrative, we probably have the deepest and most diverse class of big men to date. I already wrote about the way AEK uses different positions to create from the post, and how Dimitris Mavroeidis is providing assists and decision making from the center position. If we look at AEK in isolation as a relevant example, 30% (!!) of their assists are provided by the center position - basically, every third AEK assist comes from a center.
Of course, passing isn't the only trait that enables us to distinguish the way teams are starting to employ their big men. Or in fact, the different types of bigs that we are seeing teams employ. I must also stress that we can't expect every team to have a Marc Gasol type that can literally do everything. However, if you have read Igor Curkovic's column on the MVP race you will have seen listed among his top 10 candidates to win the 2019/20 MVP award, are three big men; Nemanja Radovic (Casademont Zaragoza), Moustapha Fall (Turk Telekom), and Giorgi Shermadini (Iberostar Tenerife). Three very different types of center, that impact the game in three very different ways.
So what is my point, I hear you asking. Fair question. But the point I am trying to make (and somehow working my way back to) is that in order to survive in the modern game, the role of the big man is having to evolve and take many different forms (passing is huge, though) and bigs often don't get the attention they deserve. In Europe, MVP races are ruled by ball-dominant, shoot-too-much types, that mostly occupy the wings. So I want to highlight some of the different types of centers we have and take a look at who is doing it best.
The Undersized Hustler
Almost ironically, as I just finished talking about centers not getting the love when it comes to MVP races, the best example we have seen of the undersized big man was Vince Hunter at AEK last season. It's either ironic because Hunter was a leading candidate for MVP (disproving my point), or because he didn't win when he was the clear favorite (thus proving my point). Anyway, that doesn't matter. Back to this season, the best exponent of the heart-over-height style so far this season, has to be Jasiel Rivero of San Pablo Burgos. Rivero is averaging a double-double 10.5 points and 11.5 rebounds, and almost everything coming exclusively from graft and hustle. The clip below shows you what you need to know about Jasiel Rivero; he reacts first, pulls the offensive rebound, spins, and finishes in traffic. When he catches that rebound there are five Anwil players in the key and only one man in grey.
Side note: If you love to watch post players play their craft, Burgos may be the team for you. Goran Huskic, Augusto Lima and Earl Clark all pose very different threats in the frontcourt.
Another team that has dramatically increased the percentage of assists from the center position is Iberostar Tenerife (up to 14.5% of their assists, from 8.6% last season). This is thanks to the addition of Giorgi Shermadini. The big Georgian's name sounds like he should be a magician or an escape artist: "Everybody gather round and witness The Great Shermadini!!"
Some of the finishes in the paint we have seen from Tenerife's new center have been reminiscent of a magician at work, and the pass in the first clip below was almost certainly the craft of an escape artist. Watch how the double team arrives early when he catches it in the post. The trap is tight and well set. Shermadini spots the screen on the weak side to get his teammate open and flings a hook pass over the trap and over everyone. That is a much harder pass than it looks.
The Gravitational Pull
Moustapha Fall is probably as close as you can get to that '90's style, dominant behemoth. The giant French international is putting up a scary 12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and swatting 1.7 shots out of the sky. At 7'2" (2.18m), if Fall catches it in the low post or after a roll to the rim, he's pretty much unstoppable. The inevitable outcome of that is opposition teams feeling they have no choice but to send a double.
Much like Shermadini, however, Fall is also a legitimately skilled passer from the post, but such is the nature of his ability to pull defenders towards him, the likes of RJ Hunter and Muhammed Baygul will be enjoying open looks from deep all season, without him even having to make the pass. Watch the last clip in the video below to see how his gravity creates a wide-open 3-ball for RJ Hunter at a crucial time in the game.
The Smooth Manoeuvre
Unlike the other men in this list, this isn't Miro Bilan's first season in the BCL. The last time we saw the 7 foot (2.13m) Croatian was with SIG Strasbourg, where he put up double-digit scoring in a team stacked with offensive firepower. This time around Bilan looks set to increase his output even further - 12.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 assists so far, on a dangerous Dinamo Sassari team. The two clips below are great examples of what we have grown accustomed to seeing from Bilan - smooth footwork and a soft touch around the basket.
At first look, David Kravish looks like the no-nonsense type of big man every team needs. He crashes the glass for putbacks, rolls to the rim and finishes when the point guard gets him a look. You wouldn't necessarily categorize Kravish as multi-skilled. However, when you look again and see the role that Coach Pedro Martinez has Kravish playing in Manresa, you start to see the American in a different light. 10.3 points and 7.3 rebounds are exactly what you'd expect to see. 2.7 assists, though, is a new development and if he maintains it, Kravish is on track for a career-best season passing the ball.
Unlike the low post scorers and passing pivots like The Great Shermadini and Moustapha Fall, Pedro Martinez seems to have unlocked Kravish as a face-up passer from the trail spot. Because Kravish is a non-shooter, teams seem happy to stand off him on the perimeter. With space to make a decision, Kravish has been picking defenses apart with precision bounce passes or "free hit" dribble-hand-offs.
There are plenty of other big guys that could have also got a mention on this list. In particular, Alec Brown (Nizhny Novgorod) has been lights out as a stretch 5 for the Russians, and Zach Hankins (Era Nymburk) has been a revelation as a high motor, rim-runner type. And I didn't even get round to discussing Nemanja Radovic who has been excellent for Casademont Zaragoza, or Stephen Zimmerman (Telekom Baskets Bonn), or Jerai Grant (Strasbourg), or Shevon Thompson (Filou Oostende).
The list goes on but, for now, this column piece is only meant to be a 5-minute read designed to refresh your focus. No doubt we will have plenty of time to revisit the topic if this year's crop of big men continue to perform as it appears they will.
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