You hear it so often you just assume it must be true: Point guard is the toughest position to learn in the NBA. Well, it certainly is the most cerebral position, with the most information to absorb and the most responsibility for setting the pace and tone of an offense.
But toughest? In terms of difficulty of accomplishment, apparently not. Otherwise, we wouldn't be enjoying a golden age of precocious point guards, playmakers who quickly announced their ownership and command of the position, from Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005-06, up through 2008-09 Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook last season. This year, at least three point guards -- Minnesota's Jonny Flynn, Sacramento's Tyreke Evans and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings -- are expected to see significant time, with a half-dozen other first-rounders also in the mix around the league.
Compare that with the fact that only two centers were drafted in the first round this year -- Memphis' Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 and Oklahoma City's B.J. Mullens at No. 24 -- and both are considered longer-term projects. Landing a big man who can immediately master the intricacies of his position in the low block -- now that's tough.
The phrase "you can't teach height" cuts both ways. Now that college kids come out early, rookie NBA centers are often still growing into their bodies at precisely the time when an opponent's speed and size are erasing the physical advantage they have always enjoyed. For whatever reason, while productive rookie big men such as Atlanta's Al Horford or New Jersey's Brook Lopez occasionally come along, there haven't been any centers lately who have made a transformative impact like Paul or Rose, or like centers Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon did back in the day.
Becoming a quality NBA center is often a long, arduous process for player and team alike. With that in mind, let's check the progress of some of the more noteworthy young big men this preseason.
• Former No. 1 pick Greg Oden is averaging 14.2 points and 9.7 rebounds in 22.3 minutes in six games for the Trail Blazers. Oden has been rebounding more and fouling less, a sign that his knees are coping and his court awareness has improved with a year of NBA experience. Oden likely won't be getting as many touches during the regular season -- the Blazers have a lot of mouths to feed offensively -- but keeping his defensive prowess on the court is crucial for Portland's chances of taking that next step in the playoffs.
• Roy Hibbert, the Pacers' 7-foot-2 second-year center, leads the NBA with 3.4 blocks. But that stat is skewed by Hibbert's two monster performances against Denver in Taiwan and China, where he had a dozen swats combined. He also averaged 20.5 points overseas. He scored in single digits, and amassed just five blocks, in the other three games. Fouls are still a problem -- he's had at least four in every game but one -- but the good news is Hibbert is hitting the defensive glass for three-quarters of his boards, after getting barely half his total caroms at that end his rookie year. Splitting time with veteran Jeff Foster in the pivot still looks likely for 2009-10.
• Second-year Wizards center JaVale McGee was criticized for his lack of conditioning and focus by new coach Flip Saunders at the start of training camp, and may have trouble getting regular minutes on a team with Brendan Haywood, Fabricio Oberto and even Andray Blatche all able to play the pivot. But the 7-footer has potential to burn at the tender age of 21, and was Washington's best big man in a preseason game against Dallas earlier this month. McGee's ball-handling and coordination are excellent for such a young big man and his first and second leaps are impressive. With a little more strength and seasoning, McGee could be ready for his close-up when Haywood and Oberto come off the books at the end of this season.
• New Jersey's Brook Lopez is ready now. The second-year player, who was third in last year's Rookie of the Year voting after averaging 13.0 points and 8.1 rebounds, has rapidly emerged as his team's anchor. The plan is to situate him at the high post and the elbow, freeing up the lane for penetration by Devin Harris and Courtney Lee while also giving Lopez more room to wheel and deal. Lopez is averaging 17.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in 29.6 minutes this preseason, numbers that should rise to 20 and 10 as Lopez gets more minutes and touches.
• If any center is going to win Rookie of the Year (and it's a long shot), it will be San Antonio's DeJuan Blair, a second-round steal. The 6-7 low-post banger has followed up his eye-opening summer-league play with a strong preseason for the Spurs, averaging 14.2 points (on 61.4 percent shooting) and 7.8 rebounds in only 18.6 minutes. Even though San Antonio has a talent-laden roster and a championship-or-bust mind-set, Blair is earning the right to minutes in the rotation and will help ease Tim Duncan's workload.
• Anthony Randolph, 20, would seem to have limitless upside as he enters this year as the Warriors' starting power forward; however, Randolph still looks better on paper than he does on the court. The Chinese fire drill that passes for coach Don Nelson's system isn't going to hone the fundamentals of his post defense, or stop him from overestimating his passing and dribbling skills in transition. But on a team that isn't going anywhere this season, Randolph's raw skills are special enough to outweigh his foolish miscues. Three times in a recent game against Phoenix, he drew blocking fouls (and thus free throws) by getting into the lane a split-second faster than defenders could set themselves.
• Meanwhile, Randolph's teammate Stephen Jackson continues to add to his checkered reputation with trade demands, bench exits and other petulant antics. Rumors that the Cavs may be interested in acquiring the disgruntled Jackson indicate just how desperate Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry is to surround LeBron James with as much talent as possible -- chemistry be damned -- before the King decides where he will play next year and beyond. On the plus side, if his head is on straight, Jackson would give Cleveland a big, aggressive defender on the wing.
• He hasn't played a meaningful NBA game yet, but the Blake Griffin buzz has reached potent proportions. The viral video of the Rookie of the Year favorite posterizing Lakers backup center DJ Mbenga can be minimized as mostly marketing hype -- call us when he does it to Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol or even Lamar Odom. But when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called Griffin "a monster" after the power forward scored 23 points (on 10-of-14 shooting) in 29 minutes against San Antonio last week, it was cause to pay attention. Popovich has always been both a keen observer and a brutally straight shooter about opposing personnel. His hollering about the Lakers' highway robbery of Memphis in the Gasol trade certainly proved to be accurate.
• Anyone who watched Shawn Marion dismantle Dallas' first two preseason opponents in transition knows that the Matrix has landed in an ideal atmosphere to resurrect his game. (Marion has missed the last three games with a calf strain but hopes to be ready for the season opener.) The energy and athleticism Marion provides at either forward slot is a tough matchup, especially with Dirk Nowitzki forcing double teams, Jason Kidd dropping passes and Jason Terry spreading the floor on the perimeter. Marion also supplies the Mavs with much-needed defensive mobility. With Shaquille O'Neal (Cleveland), Rasheed Wallace (Boston) and Richard Jefferson (San Antonio) all joining championship contenders, the importance of Marion-to-Dallas has been lost in the shuffle. But if he can stay healthy, people will be lauding the acquisition come playoff time.
• Detroit's defense has been so porous in exhibition games that new coach John Kuester has been talking about starting Kwame Brown and Ben Wallace on his front line. Meanwhile, last year's pretense that Rodney Stuckey could be a distributing point guard has been abandoned. In six games, Stuckey has led the team in shot attempts while compiling nine assists and 16 turnovers.
• New Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis is predictably having early trouble installing some modified elements of the triangle offense he learned under Phil Jackson and Tex Winter in Los Angeles. The Wolves are next to last, ahead of only Miami, in assists, and relating the difficulty of "learning a new system" has become a postgame mantra in the locker room. The triangle requires spontaneous reads of opponents' reactions, nuanced adjustments that take months for even the smartest, most talented players. But the greater question is whether the Wolves have the personnel to make even rudimentary parts of the system work. The triangle is generally thought to require accurate perimeter shooters and a big man who can foster ball movement. Minnesota is shooting 28 percent (21-of-75) from behind the arc, and low-post stud Al Jefferson has only four assists in 116 minutes.
• Hack-a-Superman? Dwight Howard has lived at the line during the Magic's five preseason games, going 31-for-57 (54.4 percent) in 123 minutes. Meanwhile, Shaq is just 7-of-13 in 98 minutes for Cleveland.
• When discussing how the Bulls will replace departed free agent Ben Gordon, critics grant that Chicago has plenty of spot-up shooters -- John Salmons, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, even Brad Miller -- but wonder if any of them can produce in the clutch the way Gordon did. According to 82games.com, Salmons is a worthy heir to Gordon's crunch-time primacy. Defining "clutch" as shots taken with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter or overtime with no team leading by more than five points, 82games.com shows Salmons hit 50 percent of his attempts (and at a high volume, 18.9 per 48 minutes) and 42.9 percent of his three-pointers (at 6.6 per 48) last season. By contrast, Gordon converted 46 percent of his clutch field-goal attempts (24.5 per 48) and 43.2 percent of his threes (12.4 per 48).
• Is there such a thing as too much depth? We may find out this year in Portland. The Trail Blazers have to worry about their shiny new free agent, point guard Andre Miller, disrupting the ball-centric rhythms established by do-everything shooting guard Brandon Roy. Assuming power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is the second option, and Oden and Joel Przybilla man the pivot, how does coach Nate McMillan divvy up the small-forward minutes among Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Nicolas Batum and even Rudy Fernandez? And does McMillan stunt the development of second-year combo guard Jerryd Bayless for the sake of getting Miller and last year's starter, Steve Blake, enough time at the point?
• The Wizards' depth issues are a little less severe -- especially if the injuries that have ravaged them the past few years continue. But the potential for chafing in Washington's locker room is greater, as, unlike Portland, there is no coherent history of roles and minutes among the personnel, and a new coach, Flip Saunders, is on board. Brendan Haywood and swingman Mike Miller have expiring contracts, combo guard Randy Foye can become a restricted free agent after the season, shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson has a player option for 2010-11, and all of them -- throw in third-year guard Nick Young -- must deal with being at least fourth in the pecking order behind Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.