2021-22 Five-by-Five: Centers
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
Welcome back to Five-by-Five! Every Thursday for the last month, I have ranked the top five NBA players at each position, including centers for this final week. The center, or the 5, is often the biggest man on the floor. Throughout NBA history, centers have remained in the post and focused on rebounding over scoring. In the last decade, however, the most successful big men have been those who can space the floor for their team. Let's take a look at the five best centers with the 2021-22 season less than two weeks away.
5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
After losing in the 2020 Finals, the Heat didn’t make as much noise last season. What many don’t know is that Adebayo had a great individual year, averaging 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 5.4 assists. He became more comfortable shooting—he made a career-high 79.9 percent of his free throw attempts, and 12 percent of his points came from mid-range (4.2 percent in his first three seasons). By continuing to extend his range, Adebayo will become even more crucial in Miami’s offense.
The Heat made major splashes in the offseason, most notably grabbing Kyle Lowry from the Raptors via sign-and-trade. They already had a solid defensive unit in recent years, but throwing Lowry into the mix with Adebayo and Jimmy Butler should vault them to new heights. Adebayo will get more looks from mid-range with Lowry setting him up, and they’ll look to establish pick-and-roll chemistry as the season progresses. We could very well see Adebayo’s first 20-10-5 season in 2022.
4. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Gobert’s 2020-21 regular season wasn’t just one of the most dominant defensive performances in the league; it was one of the best in league history. FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR metric places the Frenchman above Hall-of-Famers like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Ben Wallace. We’re talking the upper, upper echelon of basketball stalwarts. It got so bad for opposing teams that players stopped attacking Gobert altogether. His 7-foot-9 wingspan struck fear into the hearts of guards and big men alike.
Until the playoffs. Ty Lue and his Clippers initiated the perfect counter to the Stifle Tower: a five-out, small ball lineup. Gobert couldn’t wreak his usual havoc at the rim because, well, there was no other center on the floor. He was forced to stick with smaller, nimbler guys who could drive and kick out to the open man. The Jazz were sent home early yet again, left to mull over their mistakes. In 2022, Gobert will be a threat for the rebounding and blocks titles like always, but can he sustain that game-altering impact in the postseason? It’s yet to be seen.
3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns has had an extremely difficult last two years, losing family members to COVID-19 and testing positive for the virus himself in January. He lost 50 pounds, and when he did get back into game shape, he struggled with anxiety and injuries. Towns’ 2022 season, hoping he’s physically and emotionally healthy, will be a triumphant return for one of the league’s best young big men.
At 6-foot-11, Towns has special touch from everywhere on the court. He’s arguably been the NBA’s most prolific shooting center since being drafted in 2015, hitting 38.8 percent of his 3-pointers over six seasons. Towns can also fade away from mid-range and has a nice set of post spins and hooks to score over outstretched arms. Minnesota’s potential is tantalizing—with Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and a developing Anthony Edwards, they can be one of the league’s highest-scoring trios. Of course, the defense is an entirely separate issue. Towns is his team’s defensive anchor, but he needs to step it up even further if the Timberwolves want to hoist themselves out of the depths of mediocrity. Nonetheless, it’ll be inspiring to see Towns on the court again playing the game he loves.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Had it not been for a bone bruise in his knee that cost him 10 games, Embiid could’ve been the first center to win MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Instead, that dry spell was broken by another big man that is yet to be named (I’ll give you a hint—his name rhymes with Bikola Bokic). Embiid scored (28.5 ppg), rebounded (10.6 rpg), and shot (51.3 percent overall, 37.7 percent from deep, 85.9 percent from free throw line) at an elite level. But it’s the same story every season—he can’t stay healthy for 82 games.
Embiid at full strength for an entire year is something we may never witness, but we do know how dominant he can be in those golden moments. At his best, he bullies defenders in the paint and hits midrange jumpers with regularity. He can even shoot from deep occasionally, but that’s an added bonus on any given night. Embiid is also a three-time selectee to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team—he’s a valuable rim protector and can be switched on smaller assignments. With a strong record and at least 70 games under his belt, Embiid could challenge for MVP honors once more in 2022.
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Spatial awareness makes a good basketball player great. In the case of Jokic, his proprioception has launched him into the league’s elite. When he “sees” passing windows, he usually isn’t looking at all. When his team runs on a fastbreak, he’ll sling a ball down the length of the floor. When he detects an open teammate, he won’t hesitate to dart a pass between a defender’s legs. Jokic’s creativity allows him to make plays that not many other NBA stars can execute.
Of course, Jokic’s court vision isn’t the only attribute that made him last season’s Most Valuable Player. Enter the Sombor Shuffle, an unorthodox half-stepback, half-Nowitzki fadeaway shot. It’s his signature move—just another ace up the Joker’s sleeve. He can shoot from deep, but he doesn’t let today’s analytics lure him into any more than three attempts per game. Jokic is an ultra-rare talent, and it’ll be exciting to watch him utilize his well-rounded game to its fullest potential for yet another season.