When the Golden State Warriors won an NBA championship with a 6’6 combo forward playing as a center and no one in the starting line-up taller than 6’8, it was a move years in the making. Over the last generation, the league has been moving away from post-oriented attacks towards smaller offenses built around spreading the floor and running the pick-and-roll in order to create either an open three-pointer or a shot around the rim. Bulk and back-to-the-basket games are out - speed and lateral quickness are in. It doesn’t matter if you are a center or a point. If your C can’t guard PG’s, the other team is going to relentlessly attack you in the two-man game and force you to make an adjustment.

A generation ago, the obvious response to a team going small would be to pound the ball into the post and take advantage of the edge in height and bulk such a move would create. The problem with that strategy in the modern NBA is the numbers are against you. Not only are fewer big men capable of dominating out of the post, even the most effective back-to-the-basket scorer is going to have trouble matching the efficiency of modern offenses that move the ball and ruthlessly hunt for the most efficient shot on a possession-by-possession basis.

The Memphis Grizzlies had the first-team All-NBA center (Marc Gasol) and the Houston Rockets had the most accomplished center in the modern NBA (Dwight Howard) and neither could punish the Warriors small-ball lineups enough to turn the tide. The Cleveland Cavaliers had a 7’0 who put up 28 points and 10 rebounds in an NBA Finals game and they couldn’t even keep him on the floor as the series went on. While there will always be exceptions like Jahlil Okafor, most young big men entering the league are going to have to be able to adapt to the current zeitgeist rather than trying to counter it.

A post player who wants a roster spot in the modern NBA has to have the quickness to defend on the perimeter and the finishing ability to be a threat as a roll man in the two-man game. A guy who can’t move his feet in space and can’t be an offensive threat when given a lane to the basket is a sitting duck, waiting for a small-ball team like the Warriors to run them off the floor. Big men have gone from making smaller teams adjust to them to being the ones who have to adjust.

What these new trends mean is that teams are going to have to expand the definition of what centers look like. It’s no longer enough to have a 7’0 who can score around the rim and hold position in the low post - being 6’10+ may not even be the most important trait for a modern center to have. While NBA teams may still need a more traditional behemoth to battle guys like DeMarcus Cousins, the days of teams stashing multiple 7’0 on the bench with more physicality than skill have come and gone. Every team is going to need a small-ball center capable of switching pick-and-rolls and making plays in space.

A good example of the paradigm shift is Jordan Mickey of LSU, a sophomore projected to go early in the 2nd round in this year’s draft. At 6’8, 240 with a 7’3 wingspan, Mickey would have been automatically slated for the PF position a generation ago. He slid between both interior positions at LSU and he has the skill-set to play as a PF at the next level but with the way the league is going anyone who can slide down the position spectrum, going from either SF to PF or PF to C, is going to be more valuable if they do so. What Mickey lacks in height he more than makes up for in speed, shot-blocking ability and all-around offensive game.

The first thing that stands out with Mickey is his ability to lay above the rim and protect the paint, regardless of his size. He blocks shots as well as almost any of the C’s in this year’s draft:



Robert Upshaw


Myles Turner


Karl Towns


Jordan Mickey


Willie Cauley-Stein


Dakari Johnson


Jahlil Okafor


Just as important, he’s fast enough to recover across the lane and move his feet on the perimeter like a much smaller player. He averaged 0.9 steals a game despite playing as a center and he had a better agility score in pre-draft measurements than Duke point guard Tyus Jones.

While a bigger center can attack Mickey in the paint and try to seal him around the rim, Mickey can attack right back in the two-man game, either by rolling to the rim or popping out for a mid-range jumper. He’s a natural scorer who put up big numbers no matter how he was used at LSU, whether as a freshman PF playing off of Johnny O’Bryant III (a second-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in 2014) or a sophomore C playing closer to the basket. He averaged 12.8 points per game on 53.4% shooting in his first season and 15.4 points on 50.4% shooting in his second.

The crucial thing is that Mickey can switch pick-and-rolls and counter even the smallest teams in the NBA. There’s no use in trying to expose the defense of a guy with a 7’3 wingspan, a 37’ max vertical leap and the agility score of a PG. Mickey can put smaller players on his back and score but that’s no longer the primary consideration when it comes to drafting young big men. And while he can play as a PF, he would be much more effective in the type of space that C’s in the modern NBA can operate in. It’s a role he’s comfortable with after spending last season playing next to a stretch PF in Jarrell Martin, his frontcourt counterpart at LSU.

Compare Mickey with Dakari Johnson, Kentucky’s mammoth 2nd-string C and another SEC big man projected to go in the 2nd round. At 7’0 265, Johnson has a huge advantage in size against most big men and he has the bulk and finishing ability to bury them in the paint. The problem is that Johnson has a small reach relative to his size (7’2 wingspan) and he struggles to get off the ground (25’ max leap), which negates a lot of his size advantage on defense. He’s less capable than a guy like Mickey of stepping out on the perimeter or moving his feet on space.

How Johnson and Mickey’s individual careers in the NBA will play out is hard to say, as the fates of guys drafted without the benefit of guaranteed contracts are usually at the whim of forces outside of their control. A lot of depends on the roster situation of the team they are drafted on as well as whether or not they win the favor of their respective coaches by fitting into their schemes. The trends their skill-sets represent, though, show no signs of slowing down. Dakari Johnson is what backup centers in the NBA looked like 10 years ago - Jordan Mickey is what they will look like 10 years from now.