With the 2014 NBA draft rapidly approaching, SI.com is providing positional rankings for the top prospects in this year’s class. We’ve already looked at the best point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. Today, we break down the top 10 centers.
1. Joel Embiid (7-foot, 240 pounds)
Kansas, freshman | Age: 20
2013-14 stats: 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 62.6 FG%
Strengths: Comparing Embiid to Hakeem Olajuwon may be a stretch, but — health permitting, of course — there’s no denying Embiid’s potential to become a top-flight NBA center. Embiid has been playing for only about three years, yet in his one season at Kansas he demonstrated a solid understanding of the game and good instincts. Embiid can maneuver past defenders on the low block with a variety of post moves, including drop steps and shoulder shakes — the type of stuff that makes the Olajuwon talk seem a bit more realistic – and step away from the basket to sink a jumper.
Shot-blocking is Embiid’s calling card, as he turned back nearly 12 percent of opponents’ attempts while on the floor. His mere presence deters ball handlers from driving into the lane. Embiid is also a terrific rebounder, particularly on the defensive end, where he corralled more than 27 percent of opponents’ misses, a top-12 rate nationally. Maybe the most alluring aspect of Embiid, though, is his potential for improvement: No one is quite sure how good he can be.
Weaknesses: Embiid this week suffered a stress fracture in his right foot that will require surgery, a major red flag that could cause him to slip several spots from his projected place in the top three. Teams will also be wary of taking a big man who sustained a significant back injury that caused him to miss his final six college games. There are some flaws in Embiid’s game, too. He committed turnovers at an uncomfortably high rate (24.1 percent) and needs to learn how to stay out of foul trouble. – Chris Johnson
2. Jusuf Nurkic (6-11, 280)
Cedevita Zagreb (Croatia) | Country: Bosnia | Age: 19
2013-14 (Adriatic League): 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 0.8 blocks, 54.5 FG%
Strengths: In a thin draft for centers, Nurkic has emerged behind Embiid as perhaps the second best. The big-bodied 19-year-old began playing organized ball only in 2009 and this year helped Cedevita to the Adriatic League finals, excelling in limited playing time (16.6 minutes per game in league play). Nurkic is a raw player with a big adjustment ahead of him, but with chops that suggest he has an eventual place in someone’s lineup. Adept around the rim with good post footwork, he’s been compared with the Timberwolves’ Nikola Pekovic, with enough strength to bang inside and the catch-and-finish potential to be a pick-and-roll weapon. He rebounds well with long arms and a thick frame, and could develop into a useful rim protector.
Weaknesses: Nurkic isn’t particularly mobile, and with the changing demands on centers in today’s NBA there are questions about his conditioning and whether he can get up and down the court. He’s relied on his size and strength to score and will have to learn how to finesse his way past defenders in a league where he won’t always be the biggest guy on the floor. There have been multiple reports pointing to a less-than-stellar on-court demeanor (arguing with refs, short temper), but remember, he’s just 19. With his body type and the need to develop back-to-the-basket skills, Nurkic is a project but could tempt a team in the latter part of the lottery. – Jeremy Woo
3. Mitch McGary (6-10, 263)
Michigan, sophomore | Age: 22
2013-14: 9.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 54.5 FG%
Strengths: McGary played only eight games last season because of a back injury, and if he had returned to Michigan he would have faced a year-long suspension for testing positive for marijuana. But the positives that made him a potential lottery pick not long ago remain the same: He’s a well-built, physical big man with a high motor who will be able to bang with NBA opponents. A good finisher around the rim, McGary doesn’t need his number called to be effective, as he’s aggressive on the offensive glass and converts his chances. He ran the floor for layups and moves surprisingly well for a guy his size, becoming a useful pick-and-roll option.
Weaknesses: Teams don’t have much of a sample size to evaluate, as McGary’s freshman year was up and down before he starred in Michigan’s tournament run. The back, of course, is a problem. McGary hasn’t displayed much of a jumper, and his brute force won’t be quite as effective in the pros. He’s big with good defensive instincts, but he’s not a shot-blocker or rim protector. After taking a prep year out of high school, McGary is already 22 and has only one full year of college basketball under his belt, and with the injury hanging over him, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting. — JW
4. Patric Young (6-10, 247)
Florida, senior | Age: 22
2013-14: 11.0 points, 6.2 points, 1.1 blocks, 54.1 FG%
Strengths: Young is a tenacious offensive rebounder who uses his size and strength to establish good position under the basket. During his senior season at Florida, Young earned the praise of at least one rival coach for his high-energy play — which includes frequent dives for loose balls and flex-and-scream celebrations – and was named the SEC’s defensive player of the year. He has plenty of upside as a defense-first big man, with a combination of strength, athleticism and aggressiveness that should play at the next level. Though his offensive game is far from refined, Young does a good job hunting missed shots and converting from close range.
Weaknesses: Heralded as a recruit, Young never lived up to the expectations that attended his arrival at Florida in 2010. His offensive game didn’t progress the way some hoped it would, as Young still does almost all of his work in the painted area. Young can catch and finish near the basket, but his post skills are rudimentary — and after four seasons at Florida that saw only marginal progress in this regard, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll ever develop a back-to-the-basket skill set that will work against NBA defenders. Young looks the part of an NBA big man, but his lacking offensive skills could limit his role at the next level. — CJ
5. Walter Tavares (7-3, 265)
Team: Gran Canaria (Spain) | Country: Cape Verde | Age: 22
2013-14 (Spanish League): 6.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 58.5 FG%
Strengths: Tavares, who like Nurkic started playing basketball in 2009, is largely an unknown. What we do know is that he’s 7-2 with a nearly 7-9 wingspan, hails from the tiny island of Cape Verde off the West African coast and goes by “Edy.” He’s coming off a solid season in the Spanish League, where he emerged as one of the top shot blockers overseas and a solid rebounder with a chance to contribute on the interior in the NBA. He logged only 21.2 minutes per game but was pretty productive on a per-minute basis. He’s also pretty mobile, though not as athletic as fellow seven-foot-plus European Rudy Gobert, who went in the first round last year. He’s enormous and projects as a useful defensive piece.
Weaknesses: His game is unpolished and he can’t create much offense for himself — he’s a project and will take a good amount of time to adjust and develop. Tavares is 22 and without a ton of pro experience under his belt. He’s a decent but not standout athlete, but guys that big are few and far between (he skipped the combine, but if he actually measures 7-foot-3 he’d tie Hasheem Thabeet as the tallest active player in the league). There’s enough promise for someone to take a flier on him. –JW
6. Artem Klimenko (7-1, 228)
Team: Avtodor Saratov (Russia) | Country: Russia | Age: 20
2013-14 (Russian SuperLeague): 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 54.3 FG%, 73.1 FT%
Strengths: Though Klimenko plays for a second-division Russian team, he made his way onto NBA radars at the 2012 Adidas Eurocamp, where his measurables alone stood out. A 7-4 wingspan, 9-4 standing reach and legit size with room to get stronger make him a tantalizing though largely unknown piece for teams to develop. Klimenko didn’t face great competition, but at least he was productive playing 21.3 minutes per game and displayed a solid free-throw touch. He’s agile and athletic, particularly for his size, and produced well last season on a per-minute basis. Klimenko is developing a mid-range game and shot free throws well, although he’s got a long way to go offensively. He projects well on the other side of the ball given his considerable tools. Seven-footers with his physical abilities are rare, and he’s achieved sleeper status as a result.
Weaknesses: Klimenko is all promise right now, unproven at high levels of basketball and in need of a lot of skill development. He’s very young basketball-wise, and the adjustment could conceivably take a while. Russia isn’t exactly a basketball hotbed, with Andrei Kirilenko and Timofey Mozgov the only two products to really stick in the NBA, and considering that, teams will want to do their homework on Klimenko before selecting him. He’s young and has a chance, but the room for variance in his development and the odds of a flameout don’t help his cause. — JW
7. Isaiah Austin (7-0, 220)
Baylor, sophomore | Age: 20
2013-14 stats: 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 44.7 FG%
Strengths: It’s rare to see a seven-footer with as refined a perimeter skill set as Austin’s. The outgoing Baylor big man has range out to the three-point line and a solid handle for his size. Austin clears space around the basket by drawing out opposing big men, can face up and knock down mid-range shots and is able to shoot over smaller defenders with his height and long arms — Austin’s wingspan and standing reach measurements at the combine were 7-4 ¼ and 9-4 ¼ inches, respectively. Austin’s mobility, length and ability to anticipate shots make him one of the top shot blockers in this draft class. He rejected 12.0 percent of opponents’ shot attempts while he was on the floor last season, which ranked in the nation’s top 20.
Weaknesses: If Austin’s lack of strength hindered him at the college level, how will he fare against bigger, stronger NBA big men? While he’s skilled enough to shake a defender and finish near the basket, Austin has trouble carving out solid post position. And if he is able to catch the ball near the basket, Austin tends to get bumped from his spot. His physical limitations also impede his rebounding ability, as he ranked fourth among his Baylor teammates last season in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. For Austin to become any sort of consistent offensive threat near the basket, he’ll need to get stronger. It was revealed in January that he is blind in one eye, a situation that was reportedly “common knowledge” among NBA teams. – CJ
8. Nikola Jokic (6-11, 253)
Mega Vizura (Serbia) | Country: Serbia | Age: 19
2013-14 (Adriatic League): 11.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 51.9 FG%
Strengths: After initially removing his name from the draft pool this week, Jokic stayed in at the last moment and now sits as one of the more intriguing second-round options in a shallow batch of centers. He’s a great passer who loves to make plays for teammates, extremely savvy for a 19-year-old and a creative offensive player in the Serbian tradition as pioneered by Vlade Divac. Somewhat of a 4-5 hybrid, Jokic can step out and shoot, play in the high and low post and find ways to get it done with an array of moves. A willing rebounder big enough to become at least marginally useful on the defensive end, Jokic is a unique prospect who in time could become a solid piece.
Weaknesses: He’s not an exceptional athlete, doesn’t really block shots and has to rely on his craftiness to get things done at times. In the NBA, it’s hard to know if that style of offense will translate or if he’ll have trouble against length. Jokic will have to prove himself at the next level and continue to expand his game, with his already-improving jumper a necessity to create space for teammates to benefit from his playmaking skills. It’s tough to say what degree of success he’ll have in making the jump across the pond. — JW
9. Jordan Bachynski (7-2, 254)
Arizona State, senior | Age: 24
2013-14 stats: 11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4 blocks, 54.5 percent FG%
Strengths: Teams will be tempted to take a flier on Bachynski based on his size alone. He ranks among the tallest players in this year’s class and boasts a 7-4 wingspan and 9-0 ½ standing reach. It should come as no surprise, given his measurables, that Bachynski finished his career at Arizona State as the Pac-12’s all-time leader in blocked shots. Bachynski moves well up and down the court, logged the second highest percentage of minutes on his team last season (behind only point guard Jahii Carson) and is a serviceable offensive option near the basket, even without an advanced back-to-the-basket skill set. It’s a bit puzzling that Bachynski isn’t more effective on the glass, but it should be noted that he posted the highest defensive rebounding percentage of his career (20.8) last season.
Weaknesses: At 24, Bachynski is one of the oldest players in this year’s class, which suggests he may be close to a finished product. He also has a history of ankle problems that could resurface at some point down the road. For all of Bachynski’s shot-blocking prowess, he may struggle to handle elite post scorers in the NBA due to a lack of strength, explosiveness and lateral mobility. Will the interior defense that drew positive reviews in college translate at the next level? His shortcomings as a rebounder could also give teams pause. — CJ
10. Khem Birch (6-9, 209)
UNLV, junior | Age: 21
2013-14 stats: 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.8 blocks, 51 FG%
Strengths: The former McDonald’s All-American has seen his star fade somewhat since high school after transferring from Pittsburgh early in his freshman year, sitting out a season and initially fighting for consistent minutes at UNLV. But he’s still a physically gifted big and was second in the NCAA in blocks last season, behind only Bachynski. His combination of 7-1 wingspan and 35.5-inch vertical allow him to defend the rim effectively, and although his size would suggest power forward, his skill set is best suited for the five, at least initially. He’s scrappy, mobile, doesn’t need the ball in his hands to impact the game and possesses an elite skill with his shot-blocking. Birch could become a useful role player at a second-round price.
Weaknesses: Birch didn’t show as much offensive improvement as you’d like throughout his college career, lacking much of a back-to-the-basket game and scoring mainly off put-backs and shots created by teammates. If he can bulk up, it’ll help him gain position down low on both sides of the ball — gaining weight will be a huge key for his success in the NBA. Still raw offensively despite three seasons of college ball, Birch isn’t much of a jump-shooter, either. You’re gambling on his athletic ability and potential if you draft him, and even if Birch pans out, it’s going to take some time before there’s an impact at the next level. — JW
Just missed the cut …
Alec Brown (7-1, 231)
Wisconsin Green-Bay, senior | Age: 21
2013-14: 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 48.4 FG%, 44.6 3FG%
Strengths: Big guys who can step away from the paint and shoot it are in vogue in today’s NBA, and Brown fits that bill. A true seven-footer, Brown knocked down 44.6 percent of his 92 three-point attempts last season and posted solid effective field goal (55.0) and true shooting (58.5) percentages. Getting shots off shouldn’t be an issue for Brown at the next level, as few defenders will have the length to contest his high release. Brown made an impact defensively, too, blocking 9.7 percent of opponents’ two-point attempts while he was on the floor – one of the top 40 marks in the country.
Weaknesses: Brown may be able to stroke it from deep, but he’s hardly an offensive force on the low block. Brown tends to get muscled off his spot, which goes a long way toward explaining both his subpar rebounding percentages (7.7 offensive, 12.6 defensive) and lack of consistent post scoring. Brown is more of a specialist at this point, a three-point happy big who needs to bulk up to be able to compete against NBA-caliber forwards and centers on both ends. — CJ