Seven-footers drain threes now.
Someone has to guard them, but quick-switching defenses strand their own posts at the perimeter, anxiously facing guards known for wicked step-back triples, pick-and-roll dimes or devastating rim attacks. (Some threaten all of the above.) To handle these challenges, today’s big men must guard the arc as well as they protect the rim.
Start watching a certain rookie who skipped college, plays off the bench and was drafted in Round 2 by the league’s worst team: The New York Knicks’ rookie center Mitchell Robinson will show you how it’s done. He and a few other 25-and-under bigs are re-redefining the center position defensively.
The game is full of exciting big men right now: Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, Myles Turner, Jusuf Nurkic, Rudy Gobert, Jarrett Allen, Karl Anthony Towns, Steven Adams are only the tip of the iceberg.
Are these new centers featured here more talented than those? No. But they could be the beginning of something new on the defensive end.
The precocious Mitchell Robinson
Physical assets like 7’1″ and a 7’4″ wingspan are nice, but not everyone can put them to use.
Mitchell Robinson is already No. 2 on the NBA’s leaderboards for blocks, despite averaging just 19.0 minutes per game.
More impressive, are how and where Robinson racks up those swats: He excels at blocking shots without sending them out of bounds. This means he both spoils the opponent’s first scoring attempt and gives his team a chance to regain possession.
He excels at blocking shots without sending them out of bounds: which means he both spoils the opponent’s first scoring attempt and gives his team a chance to regain possession. This can be particularly valuable in late-game situations, because it may rob the opponent of the chance to stop the clock and set up a new play.
As an example, during the Knicks 107-101 loss to the Indiana Pacers Oct. 31, Robinson blocked the Indiana Pacers’ Darren Collison’s layup, kept the ball in play, secured the rebound and enabled the Knicks’ Noah Vonleh to drain a casual three on the other end before the Pacers could set their defense:
Also seen above: During the final seconds of New York’s highly unlikely 136-134 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks Dec. 1, Robinson denied Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim and kept the ball in play, allowing the Knicks to eat a few seconds of clock in the scramble for the loose ball. (It would take a jump ball and another Knicks denial, from Enes Kanter, to finally secure the win.)
A couple comparisons to other top shot-blockers who are not also primary ball-handlers: Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner’s blocks per game (2.7) are slightly above Robinson’s (2.4), while Utah Jazz anchor Rudy Gobert’are below (2.2). Both play substantially more minutes.
What makes Robinson important, though, is how comfortable and effective he is at contesting the long ball.
About 30 percent of the shot attempts he contests are 3-pointers. Compare that to other top shot-blocking centers with great hustle and you see the stark difference. Turner is closer to 18 percent and Gobert just 13. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Brook Lopez it’s 17.6 percent and the Brooklyn Nets’ Jarrett Allen is merely 11 percent.
Robinson will place himself a step behind the arc or at the top of key, perhaps lulling the ball handler into thinking they have an open shot. He keeps his body low ready to move, hand up contesting the outside shot and ready to use all that full 9’2″ standing reach if the ball-handler takes the long jumper, but also poised to move if his mark decides to drive. Although he is still foul-prone like many rookies, Robinson’s avoided James Harden’s tricks more than once.
If the ball-handler drives instead, Robinson drops back and, quite gracefully, closes off the lane by nudging them toward the block and out of the paint. He squashes the open layup, forcing a floater, jumper or additional pass.
A great help defender, he also keeps an eye on the ball, not just his man.
During the Knicks’ 108-103 victory over the Orlando Magic on Feb. 26, Robinson switched from Khem Birch to Aaron Gordon on the perimeter, then blocked Gordon’s three-point attempt. While Gordon faded away right into the crowd’s lap, Robinson slid back to the paint and provided help on Birch. When Gordon returned to the court, regained the ball back and started to drive, Robinson blocked him a second time: same player, same possession, different location. Plus, Robinson kept the ball in play. (Side note: Against the Orlando Magic on Nov. 11, Mitchell set a Knicks rookie record with nine blocks in one game.)
During this rookie season, Robinson has already foiled the efforts of both NBA legends and up-and-comers: stuffing or swatting away James Harden’s longballs (without fouling), Luca Doncic’s nasty stepback, Tony Parker’s driving layup, Dwyane Wade’s mid-range fadeaway, Deandre Ayton’s hook shot and Joel Embiid’s dunk attempts.
He may be the lone bright spot in yet another sorry Knicks season, yet Robinson isn’t the only youngster perfectly protecting the perimeter.
Let’s be clear, first: Nobody is doing what Robinson is doing. Nobody. No other center in the league is blocking three-pointers regularly, or, really at all.
There are a few, however, who are beginning to spend more time making opponents’ lives difficult out behind the arc. They’re contesting threes more often than a traditional big man without neglecting their bread-and-butter duties as rim protectors. They’re disrupting both the long ball and the pick-and-roll.
Here are top under-25 bigs to watch who spend a significant amount of their game locking down the perimeter and holding shooters under 40 percent beyond the arc and under 60 percent in the paint:
The L.A. Clippers’ undersized-but-springy bulldog center-forward is 6’8″, 25, and ruins everyone’s day at the rim. He is racking up 1.4 blocks per game and holding shooters to just 54.2percent within six feet of the hoop. Nevertheless, 24.0percent of his contested shots are on three balls, where he’s equally effective: He holds opponents to 31.5 percent, or 3.3 percentage points below their average.
Golden State Warriors’ 6’9″ center-forward Kevon Looney is 23 and contests more shots than any center in his age group (per 36 minutes). A chunky 28.7 percent of his defended field goal attempts are three balls, and he limits those to just a 31.8 percent makes, or 3.6 below their average. He’s just as frustrating at the rim: stifling shooters to just 58.8 percent.
The Miami Heat’s 6’10” center-forward Bam Adebayo is 21 and developing into a versatile, sticky-fingered threat. He picks plenty of guards’ pockets as well as smacking away drives at the hoop. About one-quarter (26.0 percent) of his contested shots are beyond the arc. Within six feet of the hoop, he mashes shooting averages down to 55 percent.
The Houston Rockets’ young center possesses excellent length and athleticism. He is one of James Harden’s few supports when healthy. Fully 24.7 percent of Capelan’s contested shots are threes, where he holds shooters to 33.6 percent; 1.3 percentage points below their average. Within six feet of the bucket, he squashes them down to just 59.0 percent, 3.4 under average.
The Portland Trail-Blazers’ Zach Collins and San Antonio Spurs’ Jakob Poeltl are also showing potential here, though they’re not quite as effective yet. But teams looking to shut down the ever-popular “longballs-and-layups” parade might find something brand new in Mitchell Robinson and his ilk:
All stats from NBA Stats and up-to-date as of game time March 27.
Sara Peters is a 17-year journalist who covers cybersecurity by day, basketball by night. She spent the past four seasons enduring a relentless barrage of losses as a featured New York Knicks columnist for Bleacher Report. She loves driving point guards, passing centers, scrambles for loose balls, buzzer-beating blocks, Allen Iverson, and tearful memories of Drazen Petrovic. Sara lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter @3FromThe7.