YOU’RE DRIVING TOWARD THE RIM FOR WHAT LOOKS LIKE AN UNCONTESTED LAYUP WHEN BAM! Out of nowhere a giant human leaps into the picture and swallows your shot hole, leaving you in his shadow. Before you can recover, you watch the shadowy figure lope down the court. Four steps to half court, four more to the rim, and there he catches an alley-oop over your poor, posterized teammate. You’re the latest victim of an NBA rim runner. Texas freshman phenom Jaxson Hayes has eaten you alive.
Jaxson Hayes stands almost 7-feet tall with a gigantic 7'3.5" wingspan and a ginormous 9'2.5" standing reach. He swatted 71 shots as a freshman this season and made 73% of his own shots, most of them lobs or dunks. Now Hayes enters the 2019 NBA draft as its newest sensation, a modern rim runner who blocks shots at one end and finishes them on the other.
There’s just one big problem — we might be vastly overrating rim runners.
In the modern NBA, centers can be divided into one of four buckets: offense-first, defense-first, rim runners, and balanced. Most centers fit naturally into one of these four buckets. Let’s study what players in each bucket look like and see why rim runner may be the NBA’s worst, not best, center archetype and why drafting Jaxson Hayes with a high first-round pick may not be as exciting as it first appears.
A quick advanced metrics explainer for centers
You’ll want to know a few things about the advanced metrics I’m going to use below. Feel free to skip this section if you’re familiar with OBPM, DBPM, and VORP. The numbers that look like +1.5/+2 are Offensive and Defensive Box Plus-Minus, a one-size-fits-all metric to measure everything a player does to help or hurt the team on each side of the ball. Any catch-all metric is flawed, but they’re a quick way to give us a good idea of what a player is.
For DBPM (the second number), an average modern, starting center is typically around +2 to +2.5. Anything above that means an above average defensive center, and someone in the +4 to +5 range is an All-Defense caliber player. Any center below +2 is below average defensively, and +1 or below is bad enough that you probably know them as bad defenders. Defense is most important for centers, so pay most attention there. For OBPM, most modern centers are in the 0 to +1 range, basically negligible to the overall offense. Anything below means they hurt the offense, and anything above adds value.
The last number is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). That takes into account a player’s performance along with how much they played that season to give them a grade on how much overall value they added to a team. An important thing to note here is that, counter-intuitively, a “replacement” level center typically rates around 1 to 2 VORP. With so many big men freely available in free agency, there are plenty of free players that can do a decent job and provide some value, so for a center to have real value, they probably need to be at least 2.5 VORP or above. A center with 4 VORP is an All-Star candidate, and once you get into the 5 VORP range, you’re All-NBA level.
The numbers listed with each player are typically from their best 3-year stretch as a pro and are rounded to make it easier on our eyes. We’re looking for patterns here, not precision. Let’s dive in.
The Balanced Centers
- Pau Gasol: +3/+2, 37mpg, 5 VORP
- Marc Gasol: +1/+3.5, 34mpg, 4 VORP
- Al Horford: +1.5/+2.5, 31mpg, 3.5 VORP
- Brad Miller: +2/+2, 35mpg, 3.5 VORP
- Steven Adams: +1.5/+1.5, 33mpg, 3 VORP
- Yao Ming: +1/+2, 35mpg, 2.5 VORP
- Andrew Bynum: +0.5/+2, 30mpg, 2 VORP
This is our shortest list because, surprise, balanced centers are hard to come by. Most of these players are around average defensively among starting centers and above average offensively. Basically, you fall into this group if you don’t take much off the table and can do a bit of everything.
And that’s valuable! Balance is good. These are guys Draymond Green would call “16-gamers,” aka guys that you want in the playoffs. They’re well-rounded guys that probably won’t get played off the court in the wrong matchup, retaining their value. These guys typically play a pretty heavy minutes load. They also tend to be a bit underrated and probably slightly underpaid relative to their actual value, almost never getting a full max contract despite their value. Their balance makes them put up lines like 16/8/4 and miss the awards lists, even though it’s incredible valuable to the team.
There aren’t really replacement-level guys available in this center group. If a player is balanced and good, he’s already signed. The closest we get are veterans like Davis West or the current Gasols in a ring-chasing situation.
These players are supremely valuable, even if they’re not deemed superstars. They’re probably going to cap out as non-All-NBA players with All-Star potential and unlikely to be the best player on a title team even at their peak. There are 4-to-5 VORP guys among other center buckets. Here it’s just Pau, who arguably wasn’t even a center.
This is the list Wendell Carter Jr. appears likely to join, once he figures his game out. This is why he was underrated by many in last year’s draft (like me) and why he’ll continue to be underrated going forward. Players in this tier do not have superstar value, but they have star value and do not lose their value in the biggest games in May and June, like the superstars elsewhere all seem to do. These are the guys you want on your playoff roster.
The Offense-First Centers
- Nikola Jokic: +5.5/+2.5, 31mpg, 6 VORP
- Karl-Anthony Towns: +4.5/+1, 35mpg, 5.5 VORP
- Nikola Vucevic: +2/+3, 31mpg, 3.5 VORP
- DeMarcus Cousins: +2/+2.5, 35mpg, 3.5 VORP
- Amar’e Stoudemire: +2.5/+0.5, 34mpg, 3.5 VORP
- Greg Monroe: +1.5/+1.5, 31mpg, 3 VORP
- Mehmet Okur: +2.5/-0.5, 34mpg, 2.5 VORP
- Channing Frye: +1.5/+1, 29mpg, 2.5 VORP
- Brook Lopez: +1/+1, 29mpg, 2 VORP
- Enes Kanter: +2/0, 25mpg, 1.5 VORP
- Jonas Valanciunas: 0/0, 25mpg, 1 VORP
A lot changes as we enter this tier. Scroll up and compare if you like. Players here are above average on offense and below average to awful on defense (some more by reputation). Notice there’s a whole heap of guys in the 1-to-3 VORP range that are basically unwanted around the league. Who ever got excited about Mehmet Okur or Enes Kanter on the roster? (Sorry, Turkey.)
Atop of the list are Jokic and Towns, two superstars. Notice how valuable KAT’s offense is. Even with the negative defense, he’s still more valuable than anyone in the balanced bucket above. Offense matters even if the defense is bad, and KAT’s offense is far more than a net neutral. You might notice something else about the players atop this list — for Jokic, Boogie, and Vooch, you can reasonably argue that their defense metrics are good enough to move them into the balanced grouping. We saw how good Jokic was in the playoffs. KAT, Boogie, and Vooch we’ve seen very little playoff ball, and it hasn’t been pretty.
Indeed, outside of Jokic, these are not the guys you want in the playoffs. Typically, defensive value carries over into the playoffs or even improves as players focus more on D, while offense falls off even for the best players. For guys in this bucket, their defensive woes get them played off the court, especially with their offensive value more muted. They’re often not even guys you want for too long in the regular season — notice how everyone outside the best few tops out around the 25mpg mark. Think of this as the Can’t-Play Kanter tier. In the first round, an offense-first center might be fine. Roll them out against a top-five team and you’re toast.
And this is the big problem with Deandre Ayton. I wanted nothing to do with Ayton in last year’s draft, and this is why. Ayton is not a good defender, and I doubt he’ll ever even be average on that end. This is the bucket he’s going to fall into. And that means Ayton has to be KAT- or Jokic-level elite on offense to be a superstar, or at least Boogie- or Vooch-level just to be top-10. And those four are great at offense. We’re talking 25 and 12 with great shooting and efficiency. Anything less than and you bounce around the league on overpriced contracts teams are constantly trying to dump and get played off the court in the playoffs.
The Defense-First Centers
- Dwight Howard: +0.5/+4.5, 36mpg, 5 VORP
- Joakim Noah: +1/+5, 34mpg, 5 VORP
- Rudy Gobert: +1/+5, 33mpg, 5 VORP
- Andre Drummond: 0/+4.5, 34mpg, 4 VORP
- Marcus Camby: -1.5/+6, 32mpg, 3.5 VORP
- Joel Embiid: +1/+2.5, 32mpg, 3 VORP
- Andrew Bogut: -1/+5.5, 24mpg, 2.5 VORP
- Myles Turner and Jusuf Nurkic: around -1/+3, 28mpg, 2.3 VORP
- Roy Hibbert and Rasho Nesterovic: -1.5/+3, 28mpg, 2 VORP
- Willie Cauley-Stein and Dewayne Dedmon: -1/+2, 25mpg, 1.5 VORP
It turns out that just defense is enough for centers who are great at it. Even without contributing much offensive value, players like Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Rudy Gobert, and Marcus Camby were/are so elite at defense that their D alone ranks them among the league’s very best centers.
Notice the influx of guys in the 1.5 to 2 VORP range. There’s an endless supply of quality defense-first centers hanging out on the fringes, waiting for an opportunity. If it’s not Nesterovic, WCS, or Dedmon, then you can turn to players like Ed Davis or Erick Dampier or someone like Jakob Poeltl, D-first guys in the 2 VORP range. It’s pretty easy to find a 7-footer that can play defense 25mpg without contributing much on offense.
That reduces the value of the guys above the replacement players. Notice players like Myles Turner and Jusuf Nurkic just above them. Both are young and could improve but, for now, are on hefty contracts that are far more expensive than their value above a replacement-level D-first center. The $15 or $20 million a year contract isn’t worth the minimal value add when you can spend $3 to $5 million on the next guys down. That also makes these guys not worth a high draft pick — unless of course they’re elite defensively. Then they’re worth everything. Just defense alone is enough if it’s in the +5 DBPM range or better. Elite defense tends to carry over to the playoffs too. These guys don’t really get played off the court in the playoffs. Defense is more important than ever, and while they’re less effective against elite offensive players and teams, so is everyone.
This is the bucket Jaren Jackson Jr. falls in. If JJJ is just a good defender, then taking him as a top-five pick ahead of Luka Doncic is an egregious mistake. But if he’s the elite defender many expect, his defense alone could make him one of the top centers in the league. Defense still matters, and it matters especially at center where rim protection reigns supreme. If your center is good enough at defense, nothing else matters.
The Rim Runners
- DeAndre Jordan: +0.5/+3.5, 34mpg, 4 VORP
- Tyson Chandler: +1/+2.5, 32mpg, 3 VORP
- Clint Capela: +1/+2, 30mpg, 2.5 VORP
- Jarrett Allen: -0.5/+3, 26mpg, 2.5 VORP
- Robin Lopez: +0.5/+1.5, 29mpg, 2.5 VORP
- Mason Plumlee: 0/+3, 23mpg, 2 VORP
- Cody Zeller: 0/+2, 25mpg, 2 VORP
- Hassan Whiteside: -2/+2.5, 28mpg, 1.5 VORP
- Andris Biedrins, Brandan Wright, Larry Sanders!, Nerlens Noel, Chris “Birdman” Andersen, JaVale McGee: all in the 1 to 1.5 VORP range
And here we come to the crux of it all: the rim runners. Rim runner has become an increasingly popular designation for centers, the sort of center every fan thinks they want. Maybe it’s because it’s so easy to define as a role. Take a tall, athletic, pogo-stick dude and let them block shots on one end and catch lobs on the other. Done and done.
But take a look at the numbers and compare them to the other center buckets, and you’ll immediately see a lot of problems with rim runners. They are clearly the worst center type. Why? Look at the list. The first thing you notice is the lower VORP numbers. Only DeAndre Jordan qualifies as a great center from this bucket, and he still falls short of superstar level (even if he made First Team All-NBA in a weird year). Even the best modern rim runner is still just very good at defense and minimally impactful on offense. From there it drops off quickly to lots of guys in the 2-to-2.5 VORP range, which, remember, is not far from a replacement-level center.
It gets worse. Check out the minutes per game. Most of these guys fail to cross the 30-minute mark. And if you checked their games played, you’ll find that many frequently miss time to injury — which makes sense when you consider the sort of body frame a typical rim runner has, a slender 7-foot frame without a ton of muscle or weight compared to the other centers. Suddenly you’re getting 27mpg for 60 games instead of 32mpg for 75, so the bigger centers are playing almost 50% more minutes in a season.
Notice the overall lack of production, too. Most of the good rim runners fall in the 2-to-3 DBPM range. That makes them average to above average among centers on defense but falls well short of great. Offensively, no one here clears a +1 OBPM, meaning the best outcome is average, mostly forgettable production, while some are worse than that. Add it all up and you get average defense and average or worse offense for limited minutes in limited games. Woof.
It gets worse, still. Many of those rim runners took awhile to hit their lenghty stride in the NBA, probably because it took awhile to gain enough strength for their bodies to hold up. Some of them didn’t provide any real value on their rookie deal. Many bounced around as journeymen. Most of them also saw a sharp decline and shorter overall careers once the injuries added up and their freakish athleticism waned. Even the two best rim runners fit. DeAndre Jordan was awful his first two years and below replacement level three more before finally breaking out in year six, and he appears to be in serious decline at age 30. Tyson Chandler was better early for Chicago but didn’t stick and never really found an NBA home, bouncing around the league, even with that impressive title run in Dallas. You might note, too, that that Mavs title for Chandler is the only real standout playoff performance among rim runners, unless you want to count Birdman and JaVale.
And there’s the nail in the coffin. The NBA is littered with 7-foot athletes like Birdman and JaVale that will play for the minimum and log useful rim runner minutes — at no cost to a team, really. They’re worth about 1.5 VORP. The good rim runners, the best ones really, are still only around a 2.5 VORP value.
That’s precious little added value considering the investment of salary cap, time invested developing them, and the draft capital spent. Consider Clint Capela. Capela was the 25th pick in the 2014 draft and we think of him as a draft steal now. But what value has Capela actually brought the Rockets? He was unplayable as a rookie and below replacement level in year two and year three. Last year he finally provided value with a 2.6 VORP season at $2.3 million in the final year of his rookie deal, but then he signed a 5-year $90-million extension. He was just as good this year, but he cost the Rockets over $15 million, or put another way, he cost them Trevor Ariza. And then when it got to the playoffs, Capela’s impact faded and he became unplayable at times. Fast forward a month and Capela and his inflated salary are on the chopping block. Three years of development and a first-round draft pick yielded one valuable season, and now Capela is overpaid and may not be a big part of the team’s future plans. And remember, Capela is one of the best rim runners.
All of this looks like bad news for Jaxson Hayes and whichever team invests a first-round pick on him. Like Capela and others on this list, Hayes has all the physical tools and potential. And like the others, he comes to the NBA extremely raw, a project that will likely take several years of development. He also brings a frail frame that could hurt his upside on minutes and games played. Maybe Jaxson fulfills all that potential and becomes one of the league’s best rim runners. If he does, it’ll likely cost his team a first rounder, several million in cap the next few years as a mostly unplayable development project, and a hefty contract extension just when he starts getting good, all for a player type that hasn’t held its value. If a team really wants a rim runner center, why not just draft Arkansas’s Daniel Gafford a full round later — or just sign one of the many minimum-cost free agents off the scrap heap?
It’s bad news for Mo Bamba believers, too. The hope for Bamba and Hayes believers is that these guys become more than just rim runners and move up into the Defense-First bucket. We have really only one or two such examples: Rudy Gobert and Marcus Camby. Camby might have been an all-time rim runnr in the modern NBA. Instead he was terrible on offense without a real role, so we never fully appreciated his absurd defensive prowess. That leaves us with just Gobert, whose defense is historically good and whose offense has expanded beyond just rim running.
And maybe that will be Bamba or Hayes too. Maybe they’ll break the rim runner mold and become the next Gobert. Perhaps they add the strength to play heavy NBA minutes and stay on the court in the playoffs (questionable, even with Gobert). Maybe players like Hayes or New York’s Mitchell Robinson expand the role of a rim runner by adding lateral ability to defend on the perimeter and increase their DBPM score and defensive and overall value.
Robinson already looks incredibly valuable for the Knicks — but remember, part of his value is that he felt like a freebie addition in the second round last year, a full round after Ayton, Bamba, Jackson, Carter, and Marvin Bagley all went in the top seven. Already it looks like Robinson will be at least the second or third most valuable asset from that bunch. He’s signed for around $1.5 million for three more seasons, already good, and cost WAY less draft capital. Would you rather have Ayton or Bagley than Robinson? Maybe. But would you rather trade your #1 or #2 pick down a handful of times, gather all those extra assets, and then take Robinson in the second round? Most definitely. It’s a guaranteed better payout and investment.
What it means for this year’s draftable centers
So what’s it all mean for this year’s draftable centers?
Jaxson Hayes is the top center on many boards, a top-10 pick in many mocks. This study suggests he is way overvalued there since he almost certainly falls into the rim runners bucket and will likely fail to return top-10 pick value. Nic Claxton probably falls into that bucket, too. He does more offensively — he can actually pass and dribble — so there’s hope for more of a role, but he still looks like a rim runner archetype.
Jontay Porter is obviously not a rim runner or a defense-first type. He’s either offense-first or balanced, depending on what comes of his defense. I’m an optimist there, based on his defensive positioning, and I definitely believe in his Jokic-like, preternatural feel for offense and spacing, so Porter remains my favorite center in the draft if he can ever get healthy.
Goga Bitadze is obviously not a rim runner either. Goga blocks a lot of shots and looks like he’ll be a plus defender, but probably not an elite one. Offensively, he’s already a good shooter and a willing passer. Bitadze looks like he could fall into the balanced bucket — about average starting center defense and above average offense. That’s why he could be really valuable. For centers, being decent at everything is often more valuable than being great at a couple things.
What about the others? Bol Bol is his own thing. He has the body of a rim runner but trades the athleticism for a nice shot. Maybe that makes him a mold-breaking rim runner. Maybe it adds enough offense and his size gravity adds defense and he beomes a star. I don’t really buy any of it, so I’m not sure he falls into any bucket. Bruno Fernando looks like a lower end version of an offense first guy, something akin to Valanciunas or Ayton. Tacko Fall is Bol without the offensive ability. Gafford is clearly a rim runner. His staying an extra year in school, though it killed his stock, may have actually made him a palatable pick now — a year of development out of the way, and priced much more reasonably.
So what’s it all mean for draft value?
It means Hayes and Claxton are almost certain to be overdrafted in round one, even in a weak draft. It could take years for either to provide value and they may not ultimately be worth the investment. Gafford might end up being a better pick around #40 or 50 than Hayes or Claxton in the top-20. There may be only two centers worth a high pick, and that might be one if Jontay’s health concerns are serious. Goga’s profile makes him a pretty interesting pick anywhere outside of the top 10. Porter is still a clear first rounder for me, even with a lost year rehabbing the knee. Bol is a lottery ticket, and the others may not be worth the pick investment at all, not with so many replacement centers readily available while useful wings and guards remain so valuable.
Centers remain really overvalued in the draft. It remains insane that five of them went in the top seven picks just one year ago, with everything we all know about the modern NBA. This year’s draft isn’t nearly as center-heavy — as long as you don’t count guys like Zion Williamson, Brandon Clarke, and other potential small-ball centers. The existence of those guys matters, too. All the other centers we’re talking about have exactly one position and function available. The modern NBA is about versatility and adaptability. True centers just don’t offer that, and the good adaptable teams are increasingly adapting opponents’ centers right off the court.
Looks like it’s time for teams to start adapting in the draft, too. And that could spell trouble for the Jaxson Hayes and Nic Claxtons of the world. ■
Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow for plenty more NBA Draft content to come. If you’ve missed anything, here are my profiles of the four best players in the 2019 draft…