Breaking Down The NBA's Best Big Men: Tier 5

  • Thursday, July 22, 2010 1:29 PM
  • Written By: Jordan Schultz

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Tier 5:

1). Carl Landry, 6-9, 26 years old, (Sacramento) – Sacramento has found itself an unknown gem in Landry. The former second-round pick was widely unregarded coming out of Wisconsin, but has shown tremendous strides and become a legitimate starting NBA four-man. Landry is extremely useful in the half-court where he understands spacing and how to run screen-and-rolls very well for such a young player. He is not the physically dominate rebounder, but he is a decent one, as his near 6 per game suggests. Landry’s best attributes are his scoring, progressing defense and overall intelligence.

In the 29 games since coming over from Houston, he averaged 18 points and almost 7 rebounds as a full-time starter, compared to the 16 and 6 he put up for the Rockets. His field-goal percentage has dipped a little bit, from 55 to 52 percent, showing that perhaps he shouldn’t be taking the nearly 14 shots per game he has since the deal. Even so, Landry is a highly effective, if not the most imposing guy. He is a good leaper who’s quick off his feet, and understands precisely how to operate on both sides of the ball. This was a great pick-up for the Kings, a team all of a sudden featuring a bevy of frontcourt talent in Jason Thompson, Landry, Omri Casspi, and the young prize, DeMarcus Cousins.

2). Nene Hilario, 6-11, 27 years old, (Denver) – At his best, Nene is an attacking and powerful big man who uses his swift first step and a flurry of post moves to abuse smaller or slower defenders. At his worst? Just watch tape from the Nuggets first-round series with the Jazz. After a couple good games to start the series, Nene became nonexistent.

In the final three playoff games he played (DNP Game 6), Nene averaged a mere 6.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and managed to get off just 9 shot attempts. Wow, that is bad.

Nene is both a bruiser and a finesse guy; a rare combination for such a big body, but unless he suddenly develops a killer mentality, he will always be just another good player for a Nuggets team that may never break through, even if Carmelo re-signs.

3). Andrea Bargnani, 7-0, 24 years old (Toronto) – Had he not been the No.1 pick back in 2006, people would be drooling about this kid’s talent. A hybrid power forward/center, Bargnani is most comfortable extending his game to the perimeter where he is a fabulous three-point shooter and great pick-and-pop option.

The criticism throughout his brief career has centered around his lack of aggressiveness and physicality, especially on the glass; he averages less than 5 rebounds. Some point guards are in the 4-range, so that is completely unacceptable. To be fair, Bargnani has improved this area of his game, as well as just about every other area. The Italian import put up 17 points and over 6 rebounds in this his best season as a pro. You may worry about the 47 percent field goal percentage, a poor number under normal circumstances for a big man, but not for Bargnani, as many of his shot attempts come from outside the paint.

Will he ever be the franchise building block Raptors fans hoped he would be back in 2006? Absolutely not. But his consistent efforts this season are nothing to scoff at. He is a solid starter on a playoff team, and at worst, a great sixth man on a contender.

The upside question always seems to creep in with young players, and Bargnani is an interesting case. While he’s an average athlete, he is so immensely skilled for his size that he makes up for it. Despite his three-point shooting prowess, Bargnani should spend more time on the block, where he has expanded on his turn-around jumper, and even developed a little running hook in the lane. Doing so will only create more rebounding opportunities, and help him get to the line more often, where he shoots over 77 percent, but only takes 3 per game.

4). J.J. Hickson, 6-9, 21 years old (Cleveland) – Similar to Jason Thompson, as discussed below, Hickson doesn’t have to be the focal point of an offense to be effective. But if he gets touches, he is a useful frontcourt player. Hickson is a high ceiling type of talent who will become a valuable asset in Cleveland as his game progresses. Just 21, the third-year man out of N.C. State is a high energy guy who is also very athletic who started to show off his array of tools last season.

(Hickson has all of the tools to be special, and with Big Z and LeBron both out, he may finally get the chance.)


He has a great first step and is a quick leaper at the rim. Often times he’ll blow by bigger players and explode to the rim for a dunk. LeBron's willingness to distribute the ball and allow Hickson opportunities to score has been vital to the young fella’s development. In March, Hickson was a valuable component to the Cavs’ continued success, averaging nearly 12 points and 6 rebounds while shooing nearly 56 percent from the floor. There is no question this is the four man of the future in Cleveland, and it’s not coincidental that former GM Danny Ferry was so hesitant to trade him at the deadline. Some may say he merely made a living off LeBron drawing attention.

In part, this is true, but such is the beauty of James, and the finishing capacity of Hickson, who fills the lanes and runs the floor extremely well and has already shown development away from the basket. As he continues to mature and develop, Hickson may be the best candidate in this grouping to be an All-Star. Can he be a reliable second option next season without a superstar around him is the question.

5). Marreese Speights, 6-10, 22 years old, (Philadelphia) – I really like this kid. Speights has fallen off the radar a bit because of his knee injury, but before he got hurt, he had put together an impressive string of games. For example, during a three-game stretch in December, Speights averaged about 20 points and 8 rebounds, showing 76ers fans why he was so highly regarded coming out of school. A somewhat forgotten member of the famed Florida Gators dynasty, Speights is a powerful kid who moves very well given his size (6-10, 245). His work away from the hoop needs to be honed, but in the low post Speights is a man. He doesn’t have the skill set of other guys and can’t really finish with the left, but he’s so strong and so physical that it doesn’t really matter. His combination of brute force and toughness combat his lack of refinement. We all know how often high-ceiling guys don’t live up to their potential, and Speights is certainly a candidate. He lacks the refinement necessary to become a full-time starter, but his ability to play both frontcourt spots helps make up for it.

Because he is constantly congests the paint and is a defensive force, the priority moving forward is to further expand his offensive game and improve his touch around the hoop and try to raise his field percentage into the 50s. He will see more playing time this season, and by adding to his offensive repertoire, Speights could easily become the power forward of the future in Philly, and prove to be a nice pick-and-roll twosome with Jrue Holiday or Evan Turner.

6). Robin Lopez, 7-0. 22 years old, (Phoenix) – Lopez has kind of become the forgotten brother since entering the league with Brook two years ago. But he shouldn’t be. While Brook is a far more polished player, Robin – kind of in the mold of Gasol as the less heralded brother -- has a certain nastiness and grit to him you love to see. Since Alvin Gentry opted to start him back in December, he became the ideal infusion of energy and assertiveness lacking in Phoenix since it adopted the “seven seconds or less offense.” Lopez played well in tandem with Amare, not crowding him in the painted area or high post, and reading the floor quite well. As a result, Amare played the best basketball of his career since the All-Star break, leading the NBA in scoring after the All-Star break. Lopez gives you all of the intangibles: hedging ball screens, outlet passing to Nash (so important in this offense), and clogging driving lanes.

Lopez is still nowhere near the offensive weapon as Brook, so he finds ways to contribute in other areas, kind of like a poor man’s Joakim Noah. (He may actually be more talented than Noah which suggests great room for growth given the stage Noah is currently at). He is tremendous off the glass, fighting for every ball with both his position and desire. In just 24.5 minutes per game as a starter, Lopez averaged over 11 points and 6 rebounds for the Suns. More impressively, he shot close to 60 percent from the floor, and made over 74 percent of his free throws, a great clip for a center. Similar to the aforementioned Oden, Lopez isn’t particularly comfortable on the low block, often resorting to hurried play and a failure to assess the defense or beat the double-team. The difference? Despite his aggressive play however, he has managed to stay on the court and keep out of foul trouble, hence his 1.4 fouls per game.

The next step for Lopez is to increase his range (he is very limited outside of 8 feet), and develop one or two reliable moves either down low or facing up to the basket. With the throng of talent in Phoenix, he will not be called upon to score much in the coming years, even with Stoudemire gone. The fact that Team USA is interested in him says all you need to know. At just 22 years old, Lopez could easily become one of the better pivots in the now dented west.

7). DeJuan Blair, 6-7, 20 years old – “The round mound of rebound!” Okay, so that was taking it too far, but you can’t help but notice some of the similarities between Blair and Charles Barkley.

The 6-7 (if that) Blair is a monster on the glass, an ideal compliment to Tim Duncan as San Antonio tries to make one more playoff run. Given his play at Pittsburgh, Blair deserved to be a first-round pick in last June’s draft. But he is undersized and not particularly athletic. Further, he has no ACL’s. Literally, he doesn’t have any ACL’s. Apparently, when he had surgery back in high school, it began the peculiar process of his ligaments deteriorating until finally, there were none left.

(Blair is a true beast.)


So it was only fitting that the Spurs – who have a knack for finding value in places others don’t – nabbed him in the second round. Let’s not forget that this is the same franchise that drafted Tony Parker and George Hill late in the first round. And that’s what Blair is -- value.

As either a starter or reserve, Blair has come in and immediately impacted this team with his ferocious appetite to rebound and an overall belligerent style of play in the paint. In a mere 18 minutes per game, he averaged a healthy 8 points and over 6 rebounds while playing stout defense at both frontcourt spots. His ability to spell Duncan proved dividends for Timmy, who can no longer play the 40 minutes plus he used to. As a result, Duncan appears as fresh and in tune as has been since the All-Star break. After a precocious March that saw him average just 14 and 8, he has played well in April. In slightly less minutes, Duncan has put up 17 and 9 while shooting 64 percent, his best clip all year (granted it’s only seven games), and immeasurably better than the 48 percent he shot during March.

At 6-7 without a true post game, DeJuan Blair isn’t a future All-Star performer. But, he will be an extremely productive player. He is ridiculously long and although not a highlight leaper, he is so strong and bullish in the paint that he makes up for it. And he has massive hands; once he gets those mitts on the ball, forget it.

While his high motor will always earn him minutes, if he wants to be a consistent starter, Blair has to work on his offensive footwork and overall scoring ability as almost all of his points now come off put-backs. He just needs to make his shot a threat, and it will open up other facets of his game, including aiding his free-throw shooting, which rests at a horrid 54.7 percent. His recent performance in the regular season against a Dallas team not resting its starters showed evidence that he is fully capable. In 37 minutes, Blair totaled a beastly 27 points and 23 rebounds.

8). Jason Thompson, 6-11, 23 years old (Sacramento) – When Thompson came out of little known Rider in 2008, you could see why the Kings targeted him so high at No. 12 despite his small school pedigree. In his second year, Thompson has excelled in the front court, playing both the four and five spots for a very young and exuberant Sacramento team. With Tyreke Evans proving a bonafide pick-and-roll partner, Thompson has shown off his mid-range touch, in which he appears comfortable out to 16 feet, quite a luxury to have for a young big man. Thompson isn’t the athlete as some of his counterparts, but he is a future rotational guy who can get you 14 and 8 without having to have any plays run for him. There is something to be said for that.

Last guy: Darko Milicic -- Hey, he’s still just barely 25 years old, and David Kahn still believes in him, hence the $20 million deal. You know if Kahn is a believer, than you got it made. Okay, that’s it: I demand a reality TV show on Kahn and Darko. How amazing would that be?

Tier 38:

Michael Beasley, 6-10, 21 years old (Minnesota) – Think Miami wants this pick back? Watch Beasley play for five minutes and you’ll find yourself irked and irritated. A naturally gifted scorer coming out of Kansas State two years ago, Beasley is the ultimate enigma – a talent who should be getting 20 and 10 or close to it on a nightly basis, but instead is merely average on a rather average Heat team. While his regular season numbers were decent – 15 and 6 -- they were nowhere near the type of All-Star production Miami thought it was getting when the Heat drafted him No. 2 overall. Beasley should be the Robin to Wade’s Batman, but instead he is disturbingly lazy, deftly immature, and clearly not devoted to the game.

Beasley often becomes a drifter, opting not to play defense, nor hustle. He occasionally knocks down a 17-footer, followed by a glimpse of luster with a quick jab step and blow-by leading to a thunderous slam. Then he gets beat repeatedly on defense, throws up a couple bricks followed by an inexcusable turnover. Bottom line: There is just no consistency and no passion in his game. The former can’t-miss prospect has become the ultimate miss. In Miami’s first-round series with Boston, he was nothing short of awful. In five games, he averaged 10.4 points, including a miserable Game 5 performance in which he scored two points and attempted just three shots. When you consider what Derrick Rose has done in Chicago, and that many thought Beasley should have been the first overall choice, he has been a huge disappointment.

My favorite Beasley story was told to me by a well renowned and respected New York streetball coach. The summer Beasley entered the league, he played in one of those epic Rucker Park games against some of Manhattan’s finest talent. Several NBAers play in these affairs to hone their skills in the offseason and keep in shape. In the first half, Beasley struggled. He wasn’t hustling, got dunked on and actually got booed. He had something like 4 or 5 points; a joke for the second pick in the draft. Guys were laughing at him.

("My name is 'B-Eazy'. I am one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory, yet I continue to smoke weed -- thanks David Kahn -- and buy $100,000 cars despite my rookie salary.")


Then in the second half, he comes out all fired up, and starts destroying people, killing them. He goes for 30-35 points and leads his team to the win, as if to say, “I can turn it on whenever I want, but I don’t always have to.”

That’s Beasley for you. As abundantly talented as he is, his motor is always in question. When he wants to play hard, he can be unstoppable. But that’s a big “if.” Case in point: the entire Boston series. Despite several highlight reel plays, he remained quiet and reserved, accepting a deferring role to the point where head coach Erik Spoestra opted to play the far less talented but much more driven Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem in crunch time. On countless opportunities at the basket, Beasley went to the rim soft with ridiculous flip shots and weak attempts, refusing to use his size and athleticism to draw contact and get hit. If he ever does figure it out, the sky is the limit for this kid, but the more and more you watch him, you have to assume he never will.

All you need to know is Miami got just a second-round pick for him, and that was by far the best it could do.

Two Young Hills And More NBA Notes

  • Monday, November 30, 2009 8:56 PM
  • Written By: Jordan Schultz

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Jordan Hill may not be the rookie of the year, but I continue to be impressed with his raw ability. He possesses great anticipation and an overall fearlessness at the basket. I love how he goes right at guys. Both he and fellow Knicks rookie Toney Douglas defend the ball very well, while Hill shows good weak-side help too. Douglas has gotten a lot more minutes, but they seem to work great in tandem and will be a lethal pick-and-roll combination in the years to come. All I can say is to hang in there, Knicks fans! Between next summer’s free-agent class and the growth of these young players, you will be good again! One day at least ...

I really like Houston forward Carl Landry. He wasn’t a big-name rookie when he came out of Wisconsin in 2007, but he has definitely found a home with the Rockets. His combination of toughness and quick leaping ability make him a nice player and fit for Rick Adelman’s club, especially without Yao Ming in the lineup. Landry has a nice stroke out to 16 feet and can defend three positions. Shooting just a shade under 56 percent, he has proven to be a consistent scorer as well.

I’m quite impressed with the development of San Antonio’s George Hill when Tony Parker was out of the lineup. Hill has been handling the responsibilities of the point guard position extremely well for a young player. Hill excels when he’s slashing in the lane, but has shown the ability to knock down threes as well (43 percent). He is a rangy 6-3 with very long arms who gets into the passing lane and bothers offensive players with his quickness. He kind of reminds me of a smaller John Salmons, a guy who can beat you both driving and spotting up. He’s a terrific fit with the Spurs, and apparently Gregg Popovich’s favorite player.

Portland’s Greg Oden continues to show vast signs of improvement in the Rose City. The former No. 1 pick and subject of harsh criticism is beginning to show why he was once considered the most enticing big man to enter the draft in years. Two things immediately stand out for Oden: He’s not fouling guys out of control as he once did, and he’s staying healthy. The 7-footer is an avid rebounder, but has also displayed adeptness at posting up.

The biggest thing he needed to do was slow down. In the past, it looked like he was in a race to get a shot up. He’s no finished product by any means, but Oden finally seems comfortable with his back to the basket. He’s averaging 11 points and 8 rebounds, along with a respectable 2 blocks. More impressive perhaps is that he’s shooting almost 80 percent from the line, which is hard to believe after seeing his free throw stroke in year’s past.

Keeping on the topic of young big men, Brook Lopez is going to be very special. He moves incredibly well for a 7-footer and has perhaps the prettiest looking shot for a center in the league today. I love that he’s got a little nastiness to his game as well, and what’s even more, he seems to embrace contact in the paint. For a young pivot, he is as fundamentally advanced as I’ve ever seen. He has nice moves in the paint (especially his sweeping right-hand hook and right shoulder fade-away) and is a very good free-throw shooter at 78 percent. He’s averaging a healthy 17 and 9, to go along with an excellent 3 blocks.

In time, I believe he will boost those stats up to 20 and 11 or 12. The Nets are abysmal now, but the combination of Lopez and the talented Devin Harris at the point, along with Terrence Williams, Courtney Lee and a vastly improved Chris Douglas-Roberts, give hope to a struggling franchise.

Quick, think of the key off-season moves and acquisitions. What comes to mind first? Shaq? Rasheed Wallace? Vince Carter? How about Channing Frye? I didn’t think so. Frye has quietly had a productive season off the bench for Phoenix, averaging a healthy 13 and 6 in less than 30 minutes a night. With the Suns running again, Frye has stepped in and served as a great pick-and-pop mate for Steve Nash. Always a good shooter, the former Arizona Wildcat has extended his range to the three and finds himself converting more than 44 percent of his triples.

One of the knocks on Frye when he entered the league four years ago was that he was rather soft and delicate for a near 7-footer. That may still be the case, but he is hitting the boards harder than ever, and proving to be a valuable resource in the vaunted “under seven” Suns offense.

Ty Lawson is excelling in his back-up role for the Denver Nuggets, providing necessary spells for the 33-year-old Chauncey Billups. The sub 6-footer has shown the outstanding jolt of quickness we saw at North Carolina, and despite his lack of size, is finishing around the rim at a surprisingly efficient rate. Part of this is due to the fact that much of the time he’s beating everyone down the floor and is getting rather uncontested lay-up opportunities, but that’s a credit to Lawson as it is anything else. Lawson has converted on over half his three-point attempts as well as field goals. He doesn’t have the purest of strokes, but he does have a confident, in-momentum, knockdown jumper that has proved awfully effective. He may never be a star, but without question, Lawson will be a quality player in this league for a very long time.

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