Big men entering NBA draft face steep learning curve
The days when giants such as Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing roamed the court are no more, having been replaced by the slashing drives of LeBron James or the drive-and-kick schemes of the Spurs. But much like paleontologists, who put in the painstaking work in brushing away layers of dirt to find a new T-Rex fossil, NBA front offices can't help but exhaust themselves in search of the next game-changing big man. It's the reason general managers make multiple trips to small gyms in Serbia, scouts attend Indiana Hoosiers games as if they were a 20-year booster and why a 19-year-old Nerlens Noel rehabbing from a torn ACL might be the No. 1 pick in the draft this year. No player offers the hope of renewal like a big man, someone who can provide shot-changing defense and high-percentage offense. But finding someone who embodies those traits has becoming increasingly difficult, involving not only a player's skills, but a team's ability to develop that talent for NBA play.
The problem starts with finding someone who can fill the role. Humans standing 6-foot-10 who can move with the grace of a dancer while exhibiting the strength of an ox are in short supply. The dearth of traditional centers and the rise of superstar cores built on talent regardless of position have many teams acquiring and developing players based on skill sets, not where they slot in the starting lineup
"We don't really have five positions in the NBA anymore," said Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting. "Dirk Nowitzki is not a prototypical big man compared to Andrew Bynum. And a Zach Randolph is different compared to an Al Horford. The key is, does he have the ability to play a position at the NBA level?"
Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon agrees.
"You have to play the game as a basketball player, not as a position," said Olajuwon, who has recently become a tutor of low-post skills to current players such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Amar'e Stoudemire. "Before my time and during it, if a big guy could at least run the floor, someone would draft you as a project. Now, you can't say, 'I'm only inside, I don't need a jumper.' ... Ideally, you should have a jump hook, a face-up game and a post game. It's like in golf; you have different clubs for different distances."
Acquiring the tools needed to play up front in the league today takes time absent a multi-year college career. "You have to give it two or three years," said Pistons general manager Joe Dumars. "Guys continue to get better: They start knocking down the little 18-foot jump shot, their free throws get better, they start rebounding more -- you have to give that time."
For big men in today's game, the process of becoming a pro has proved increasingly complicated.
The Learning Curve
"One of the things that jumps out at you most frequently when you're looking at a big man in the draft are the young bigs who can pick up concepts pretty quickly," Dumars said. "You can tell them something one time and they seem to have a good grasp of what you're looking for. If he can pick up the concepts of what the coach wants and what we're trying to do, that tends to speed up the process."
In doing pre-draft research on Andre Drummond (drafted ninth overall in 2012), Dumars found that though his skills were a bit raw after one year at UConn, Drummond was "an extremely good kid" and "extremely receptive to coaching."
"When I got to Detroit I studied a lot of film of what they did the year before," Drummond said. "The playbook we had at UConn was just a few plays; here we have hundreds. But when I started playing I picked things up a lot faster because I remembered watching it on film."
"We have a term in education called readiness," said Pelicans assistant coach Randy Ayers, who served as Davis' tutor. "Once someone is ready, they'll show you they're ready, and then you can expand on what they do. We're trying to build as he shows he's ready to build."
Part of that education came from film work and part came from getting Davis on the floor each night. And with each body blow and late rotation came a growing knowledge of the league and how to maneuver through it.
"He [was] finding out what he can and can't do," said New Orleans head coach Monty Williams. "Each night he [was] playing against a different guy, and finding out that he not only had to read the scouting report but understand each guy he was playing."
Williams' staff drilled Davis on reading defenses, who double-covers him and from what direction extra defenders are coming. And though Davis ranked 11th in the league in blocks per game, understanding how to swat the shots of veterans skilled in avoiding blocks also has been a process.
"Most guys know how to throw their body into you, so it's been hard to block shots," Davis said. "It's very different than what it was in college; you can't just sit there and try to block shots. You've got to move."
Drafted fifth overall in 2011, Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas debuted in 2012-13 with the fits and starts of any rookie, while also trying to immerse himself in a more physical style of play than he experienced in the Lithuanian League. After struggling early in the season, in part due to a broken finger, the Raptors pulled back on his minutes in an attempt to allow the 6-11 Lithuanian native to absorb the NBA in smaller chunks.
"There are so many skills in basketball and in the NBA that just don't come up in stat sheets," said Raptors veteran center Aaron Gray, who was Valanciunas' unofficial big-man guide. "As a big, you need to be physical, you need to dominate in a way of getting to your spots, getting into position to rebound. You also need to know when to back off. But as you become a more dominant shot-blocker and screen-setter, you can get away with a little more body contact and little maneuvers that get you into the position you want to be.
"Jonas [was] learning those [tactics] slowly and he did a great job of staying in games and not getting into foul trouble. We forget that he's only 20, 21 years old going up against 32-year-old men who have 15 years of experience not only on a basketball court, but in a weight room with strength and conditioning coaches. As he continues to get more experience he'll be even better."
Valanciunas saw his minutes and scoring rise over the final two months and in April averaged 14.9 points and 2.4 blocks per game, both season-highs. "I was trying to learn a lot of things," Valanciunas said. "I was still missing a lot -- game reading, strength, post moves, so I was trying to get something from every game. Everything is coming."
Know Your Role
One of the things coaches find most difficult to instill in young players is the ability to understand their limits while playing to their strengths. Teams want players who can make an impact in some capacity. And with all there is for a rookie to absorb, trying to do too much often leads to sitting on the bench.
"You can talk about what you can do as a player all you want, but until you can actually get on the floor and consistently produce, you're not going to be evaluated by the league," said an NBA advance scout. "Young bigs come into the league -- every player does -- thinking they can do something with the ball, but it starts with defense and rebounding. Those are two things that if you're doing them at a high level, there are very few NBA teams that are going to be able to keep you off the floor."
Those are also things a rookie can provide even if he lacks an understanding of a team's system.
"Defense requires knowledge, certainly, but hustle and effort is involved more than skill," said Raptors assistant Johnny Davis, who spent much of last season tutoring Valanciunas. "Defense is about understanding the team concept and then defending your man individually with as little help as possible."
To that end, the Raptors, like other teams with young big men, worked from the feet up with Valanciunas -- stressing how to get a position on the floor advantageous to defending an opponent or grabbing a rebound and holding that position. Part of that process was spent walking through the steps on the court in practice again and again and again; part was asking him to utilize those moves.
"The only way to really learn is by learning from the games, learning from the mistakes," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "You cringe. You grit your teeth, but you still have to leave him out there. That's why it's hard to win and develop in the NBA."
Big men need to have the bulk to defend close to the basket while also being quick enough to move out to guard a mid-range jumper. "Everyone at my position can really shoot," said New Orleans' Davis. "So instead of them driving to the basket, they're popping out a lot. When you get used to stopping the pick-and-roll, they get [the ball] all the way back to a shooter."
New Orleans' coaching staff encouraged Davis to use his speed and quickness as a weapon on both ends of the floor, a tactic that took advantage of Davis' natural gifts while buying him time to learn the tendencies of opponents.
"From a coaching standpoint, you try to simplify things and lower expectations -- not put a lot of responsibilities on him," Ayers said. "This is a whole different environment for a guy like Anthony, who played strictly in the paint in college. But he developed a really good understanding of how to play the game within the game, how to set up a play and how to sell the play."
After watching his shot attempts and scoring drop through the first two months, Davis slowly increased those numbers every month from January through April last season. He finished with 13.5 points per game on 51.6 percent shooting while posting the best Player Efficiency Rating on the club. More impressive was his work on the other end of the floor. Though limited to 64 games as a rookie, Davis posted a top-10 defensive rating (a measure of a player's blocks plus steals plus charges taken), according to HoopData.com, besting the likes of LeBron James, Rajon Rondo and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Despite his progress, Davis' impact was muted by New Orleans' overall subpar defense, which ranked 28th in the league in terms of defensive efficiency.
Team success is a luxury afforded to few lottery-bound rookies. And while it may be a new experience to lose so much, it generally ensures young big men the playing time necessary to get accustomed to the league.
Before last season, Dumars laid out a curriculum for Drummond that didn't hinge on wins or losses. "We basically said we wanted him to be able to do three things: Defend your butt off, rebound and be as athletic on both ends of the court as you can possibly be. Those are things we're expecting immediately. We're going to hold you to that. And we said we would be patient with other parts of his game."
Drummond made the most of his 20.7 minutes per night, crafting the best rebound rate among all rookies and the fifth-best in the entire NBA. He also blocked 1.6 shots per night despite the limited time.
"At 19-years-old, there's no rush to put more on his plate," Dumars said. "If you can keep it simple with these young guys, give them a few things where they can have some success and start feeling good about themselves on the court, that's a big part of their growth."
Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Indiana center Cody Zeller spent two years getting dissected by Big Ten coaches intent on stopping him and NBA scouts intent on drafting him. Yet for eight weeks leading up to the draft, Zeller has been regularly working with personal trainer Robbie Davis (a former Clippers trainer who now runs his own athletic performance center in L.A., where he has tutored Lamar Odom and Emeka Okafor among a host of NBA players) on his strength, movement mechanics and quickness. All this comes in an effort to convince NBA decision-makers that Zeller not only can jostle with fellow bigs in the paint but keep pace chasing smaller ones outside of it.
"One of my strengths is my quickness and agility for a big guy," said Zeller. "But in talking to [brother and Cavs center] Tyler, the NBA is unbelievable with how physical it is. So I want to put on weight and strength but I don't want to lose any of my quickness."
Though Zeller tested well at the NBA combine, helping solidify him as a lottery pick, rare is the rookie who doesn't experience a whiplash-inducing realization about his physical limits.
"I noticed I'm not as big anymore as I used to be," the 6-10, 270-pound Drummond said. "There are guys who are taller than me and jump higher than me. And a lot of the guys are stronger."
All young bigs -- Drummond, Davis, Valanciunas included -- experience an often difficult transition getting accustomed to physical play against men sometimes more than a decade older. "The pushing, the shoving, playing in traffic around bodies, knowing you're going to get hit every night in the paint and being able to take a hit and play through it, [it's] a grind," said Ayers of the NBA growing pains Davis specifically has experienced.
The weight room helps, but there's only so much muscle you can add while running up and down the floor more than 82 nights a season. And bulk only goes so far. The type of bigs many GMs like Dumars played with in the 1980s and '90s, lumbering beasts skilled at grappling in the low post, are a bit of a liability compared to the type of bigs they must build rosters around today. Nimble feet and athleticism are as important as size.
"To back guys down, I can't do what I did in college because guys are so much stronger," Davis said. "But with my lower body I can hold my position. It doesn't matter how big you are, you just need to try to create a little space and get as close to the basket as possible. That's when your footwork really comes into play; that's how you can get position."
The preponderance of pick-and-roll basketball and frontcourt players who can stretch the floor from mid-range and beyond also means there are plenty of players young bigs are going to have to chase who are faster than them.
"One of the biggest adjustments is getting out, guarding the screen-and-roll and rotating back to the basket," Dumars said. "In college you don't see the type of speed and quickness of a Russell Westbrook flying off a screen where you have to move your feet fast to show on him and then recover and get back before they swing it back to Serge Ibaka."
More than most, Olajuwon is a template, of sorts, for the modern frontcourt post player. In his prime he had the size to bump with the David Robinsons and Ewings but the soccer-inspired footwork to move around them. "The big man has to play to his strength -- size -- and maybe not against the man who is guarding him," Olajuwon said. "If you don't take advantage of your size, you're like everybody else. So you have to develop your physical strength and develop the moves to take advantage of your height. You have to learn moves to create opportunities; what can I do to get my guy off balance? You've got to learn to make that adjustment by reflexes. That's why you play the pickup games, AAU, college -- you get to feel it more, and if you feel it you will create it."
The standard for post-play has grown more varied as playbooks extend their reach over the court. Further complicating matters is that players such as Davis or Drummond or Zeller are reaching the NBA with only one or two years of college game experience, leaving NBA coaching staffs to complete their development while, at the same time, trying to win games. Most teams understand the dueling forces at work and at least preach patience.
"First of all, you have to see how he handles his rookie year," Dumars said. "Does he carry himself in a professional manner? Is he one of the first guys to practice? Is he coachable? Is he putting in extra time? Is he a good teammate? Then you come back and want to see if he takes [his game] to another level. Even then it would be premature to stop and judge and say this is who a player is going to be, because guys continue to get better."
The clock is about to start ticking for this year's crop of big men, and Zeller said that even with the preparation he received at Indiana, with its NBA-like playbook, and twice-a-week chats with his brother, he knows there's a lot he doesn't know. "There's a lot to get adjusted to and I think it will take some time," Zeller said. "It'll be a learning process this first year. I'll fight and scrap for every little bit of it; that's what I'll do at the next level."