A year after an NBA draft dominated by very large human beings, the draft class to be announced Thursday night should look a lot … shorter. Big men are obviously still alive and well in the NBA, but this class illustrates that the league now focuses on positional flexibility and finds itself firmly rooted in a style of play that prioritizes shooting, spacing and length over height.
According to rankings from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, there isn’t a single player taller than 6-foot-7 projected to be taken in the first five picks and just one 7-footer forecast for the lottery. The average height of the projected Top 10 selections is 78.8 inches, or nearly 6-foot-7. While that may be well above the national average, by NBA beanstalk standards this would be the fifth-shortest Top 10 of any draft since 1985. It’s also a stark contrast to 12 months ago, when 7-foot-1 DeAndre Ayton went No. 1 overall, five of the first seven selections were bigs,1 and six lottery picks were at least 6-foot-10. This season, only one projected lottery pick exceeds 82 inches.
But just because this year’s draft has downsized doesn’t mean the incoming crop is all Lilliputian guards. The class is full of versatile wings, and surefire top selection Zion Williamson is an athletic marvel unlike anyone in recent memory. In fact, this draft class is perhaps the clearest encapsulation of the league’s transition away from the lumbering frontcourt.
Take Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke, for example, who is 6-foot-8 and among 20 players invited to sit in the green room. Last season, coach Mark Few tasked him with protecting the rim. Clarke proceeded to set the single-season blocks record and was the backline of the most dominant shot-blocking unit Few has had in his 20 years in Spokane. “I’m not 7 foot,” Clarke told FiveThirtyEight, “but I have really, really good timing by the basket. Even though I’m 6-8, I feel like I play like I’m much taller.”
Juxtapose that with Tacko Fall, a 7-foot-6 skyscraper who will likely become the tallest player in the NBA since Yao Ming.2 He’s coming off one of the most efficient scoring careers in the history of college basketball, but there’s a fairly good chance that he won’t be drafted Thursday night, a notion that would stun front office execs of yesteryear.
Indeed, there was a time when the most coveted player in an NBA draft was a 7-foot, back-to-the-basket force, capable of controlling the game on both ends of the floor. From 1980 to 1992, nine of the top overall selections were at least 6-foot-10, with seven3 checking in at 7 feet. But the NBA has changed in myriad ways since the draft was first televised in 1980. Nowadays, even the positions are different, as the 1-5 designation has largely be replaced by three options: guard, wing, big. As such, the coveted prototype for each classification has changed dramatically.
“Most high school and college coaches would tell a big to stay back and protect the rim,” said Justin Zormelo, a personal trainer who specializes in analytics and has trained NBA All-Stars. “As you can see in the NBA, you can’t do that anymore.”
Slow and plodding — like Roy Hibbert — is out. Quick, long and athletic — like Giannis Antetokounmpo — is in. It’s no coincidence that most of the players in the top half of this draft have been lauded for their ability to switch on defense or play multiple positions on the floor.
“Being able to move laterally is important,” Zormelo said. “Understanding your length. Being able to play in different areas of the floor rather than just setting up in front of the basket. Developing a shooting touch. This is now critical.”
Let’s look at the Top 5 frontcourt selections in this year’s draft: Williamson, De’Andre Hunter, Sekou Doumbouya, Jaxson Hayes and Rui Hachimura. Their average height: 80.8 inches. Compare that to previous years, and there’s a clear disparity.
It isn’t that bigs are no longer effective in the pace-and-space modern NBA. As we previously noted, 21 of the league’s 50 most valuable players by VORP two seasons ago stood 6-foot-10 or taller, a high for the league since the ABA merger in 1976. This season, it was up to 26 players.
In a league that seemingly gets longer by the minute, it’s telling that switchability — rather than height — is expected to dominate this year’s draft. This year’s NBA Finals pitted 6-foot-7 Draymond Green against 7-foot-1 Marc Gasol, and although the latter won the championship, the incoming archetype more closely mirrors the former. If things play out as ESPN’s latest mock draft suspects, this year’s lottery will feature a bevy of oversized guards, guys capable of being slotted at either guard or wing, bigs with the lateral quickness necessary in modern NBA defense … and one 7-footer.
No longer can bigs be immobile. They must now move laterally at a high rate, tread water against guards on pick-and-roll sets and defend multiple positions on the interior. Positional flexibility is here to stay — look no further than Thursday night’s draft.
FiveThirtyEight’s top 5 prospects in the NBA Draft.
Neil Paine contributed research.