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If The NBA Is Going Small, Why Are This Year’s Prospects Tall?

When the NBA drafts its newest class of rookies Thursday, big guys should be the order of the night. According to rankings from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, six of the top seven prospects in this year’s draft stand 6-foot-10 or taller. (The one exception is Real Madrid’s Luca Doncic, a 6-foot-8 point guard.) If things play out according to ESPN’s latest mock draft, this could be the second-tallest collection of top-10 picks in any draft since the lottery era began in 1985:

2018 is looking like one of the tallest drafts ever

Tallest average height for top 10 picks in an NBA draft, 1985-2018

Tallest Players
Year Avg. HEIGHT (inches) 1st 2nd 3rd
2001 82.0 T. Chandler 7’1″ P. Gasol 7’0″ E. Curry 7’0″
2018 81.6 D. Ayton 7’0″ M. Bamba 7’0″ M. Bagley 6’11”
2007 81.6 S. Hawes 7’1″ G. Oden 7’0″ Y. Jianlian 7’0″
1985 81.5 P. Ewing 7’0″ B. Benjamin 7’0″ J. Koncak 7’0″
2015 81.4 K. Porzingis 7’3″ K. Towns 7’0″ W. C.’Stein 7’0″
1986 81.1 B. Daugherty 7’0″ W. Bedford 7’0″ B. Sellers 7’0″
2002 81.1 Y. Ming 7’6″ N. Tskitishvili 7’0″ Nene 6’11”
2006 81.0 A. Bargnani 7’0″ P. O’Bryant 7’0″ L. Aldridge 6’11”
1992 80.7 S. O’Neal 7’1″ C. Laettner 6’11” A. Mourning 6’10”
2016 80.6 D. Bender 7’1″ T. Maker 7’1″ J. Poeltl 7’0″
2010 80.6 D. Cousins 6’11” G. Monroe 6’11” D. Favors 6’10”
2000 80.6 J. Przybilla 7’1″ C. Mihm 7’0″ K. Martin 6’9″
1988 80.3 R. Smits 7’4″ R. Seikaly 6’11” D. Manning 6’10”
1994 80.2 E. Montross 7’0″ S. Wright 6’11” D. Marshall 6’9″
1997 80.1 T. Duncan 6’11” T. Battie 6’11” K. Van Horn 6’10”

2018′s top 10 was calculated using ESPN.com’s latest mock draft.

Sources: ESPN, Basketball-Reference.com

Headlined by Arizona 7-footer Deandre Ayton, this crop of big men is poised to have a profound effect on the league’s future. But therein lies a paradox: In the sport that prizes height like no other, the game itself is moving away from the archetype of the plodding big man. How each top prospect handles this seeming contradiction will go a long way toward determining what kind of pro career he’ll end up enjoying.

The changing role of tall players in today’s pace-and-space NBA is complicated. As our ESPN colleague Kevin Pelton noted last week, bigs are actually more effective on a per-minute basis than ever, at least according to player-value metrics. Even though their share of leaguewide minutes has stayed relatively constant since the late 1980s, the share of NBA value over replacement player (VORP) accumulated by players 6-foot-10 or taller has been on the rise, hitting a modern high-water mark during the 2017-18 season, when bigs accounted for 39.5 percent of total value:

Last season, 21 of the league’s 50 most valuable players by VORP stood 6-foot-10 or taller, another high for the league since the ABA merger in 1976. So in that sense, towering talents such as Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons are doing just fine in the modern NBA, thank you very much.

But at the same time, it’s difficult to conclude that this is a true heyday for taller players when you consider how little difference any of them made during the playoffs.1 The percentage of total postseason minutes logged by players 6-foot-10 or taller has fallen from 29 percent in 2009 (the year 6-foot-11 Dwight Howard led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals) to 22 percent this year. At the same time, the share of playoff VORP belonging to big men has fallen from 34 percent to 26 percent. Only two players 6-foot-10 or taller — Kevin Love and JaVale McGee — played any significant minutes in the NBA Finals.2 In recent postseasons, the switch-heavy defensive schemes that top teams play have often made it a tactical liability to rely heavily on traditional big-man types, to say nothing of the negative effects of playing a nonshooter like most bigs have been throughout NBA history.

Even among those who have survived these shifting conditions and remained relevant as NBA big men, the core responsibilities of the role have changed substantially over time. The floor-spacing element alone has not only put added pressure on bigs to develop greater range as shooters — 7-footers now take more than double the number of threes they did just five seasons ago, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group — but it also requires them to be able to move fluidly in larger areas of defensive space, as well as taking a more active role in ballhandling and passing duties.

You can see these changes playing out statistically as today’s big men are diversifying their contributions. Relative to the league average, the typical player who stands 6-foot-10 or taller in the 2010s gets significantly more assists and steals than in previous decades; he also is a much more frequent and efficient scorer and rebounder, but he blocks fewer shots. These changes have been about survival, and several of this draft’s elite post prospects have things they’ll need to prove in order to avoid becoming the next Jahlil Okafor, who entered the NBA with one of the best low-post arsenals in decades but couldn’t move his feet well enough to justify consistent playing time (let alone the No. 3 overall pick).

The physically gifted Ayton, who spent much of this past season at power forward, logged very low steal and block rates when compared with other recent top-level post prospects, leading some to question his defensive instincts. Marvin Bagley III, who played zone during his one year at Duke, struggled at times defending the pick and roll, a vital trait in a league where that play can be used every time down the floor. And while Texas’s Mohamed Bamba will enter the NBA with a shot-blocking reputation — he has a ridiculous 7-foot-10 wingspan and erased almost four shots a game in college — it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to make an impact on defense when teams seek to pull him out with a stretch-big who doesn’t need to be tethered to the paint.

If we learned anything during these NBA playoffs — between Houston finding ways to torch and neutralize likely defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert and Golden State making mincemeat out of Cleveland’s switch-everything defense in the NBA Finals — it’s that the best offenses generally have counterpunches against highly predictable defensive sets and players. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a shock to see someone like Michigan State’s 6-foot-11 Jaren Jackson Jr. get drafted a few spots earlier than expected, given the defensive versatility he possesses.

To be clear, it’s not just the big men who find themselves adapting to a changing game. Players at other positions will also come with a handful of question marks Thursday night for similar reasons. For all his game-changing offensive talents, Oklahoma guard Trae Young’s lack of size (he checks in at 6-foot-2 and just under 180 pounds, with only a 6-foot-4 wingspan) figures to give teams pause after an NBA postseason whose earlier rounds saw smaller guards targeted and exposed consistently on the defensive end. Among perimeter players — rookie and veteran alike — Young isn’t alone in that weakness.

On a larger scale, though, the sheer number of elite big-men draft prospects leading the way this year may seem a bit odd, given how the league has seemingly downsized. But just keep in mind the necessary caveat: Big men are still alive and well in the NBA — as long as they can move their feet and possess more than one tangible skill. We’ll see how many of this year’s towering prospects can check off those boxes once they start playing against the pros.

Footnotes

  1. Granted, NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant is listed as 6-foot-9, but he is certainly taller than that.

  2. The series’ other players who stand 6-foot-10 or taller — Zaza Pachulia and Ante Zizic — were on the court for a grand total of 11 minutes over the series’ four games.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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