Big men are back in style in the NBA

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The 1995-96 season was the end of the golden era for big men in the NBA. Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal were stuffing opponents into lockers with their unstoppable back-to-the-basket games. They were the superstars in the paint, but Alonzo Mourning, Rik Smits, and many others dominated a league in which offense began on the inside and then went outside.

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Robinson broke his foot the next season and the league gradually became more perimeter oriented. Teams were looking to find the next Michael Jordan, and few young bigs had the skills of O’Neal or Tim Duncan, who was drafted in 1997. In the 1995-96 season, seven of the top-10 scorers were bigs — Charles Barkley played like a big even though he was only 6 foot 5. Four years later, O’Neal was the only top-10 scorer who was even listed as a center in the 1999-2000 season.

With Joel Embiid having played only 34 games due to injury this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently the only big who is a top-10 scorer. The power in his game comes more from him rumbling towards the rim than driving his shoulder into defenders before launching a jump hook. However, there is hope from the youth. Game 3 of Chet Holmgren vs. Victor Wembanyama last week was a treat. Those two appear well on their way to superstardom. On Tuesday night, Wembanyama went up against another skilled big — Alperen Şengün.

The No. 16 pick in the 2021 draft was nowhere near as heralded a prospect as the France native or former Gonzaga star, but he showed promise right away during the summer league. In his third season with the Houston Rockets, Şengün is averaging career-highs in points (21.3), assists (4.8), and rebounds (9.3.) On Tuesday, he had the best scoring night of his career with 45 points and also he pulled in 16 rebounds in a win against the San Antonio Spurs.

Unlike Chet and Vic, Şengün came into the league with some meat on his bones. He used that body mass to power his way through the paint, which is where he scored most of his points. Wembayama was not powerless while guarding Şengün. The rookie did record seven blocks on the night. Still, as great of a defensive player as he is, that bird chest of his got rocked all night.

A bird’s eye view of the league shows that the return of the big men is real, and is not limited to the Red River Rivalry states. Evan Mobley is a promising young player on one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, 2022-23 Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. is averaging 22.4 points per game this season, and Jalen Duren is a tank, even though the Detroit Pistons are currently a hapless franchise.

Those are the up and comers. The established big-men superstars are Embiid, Nikola Jokić, and Antekounmpo, but Domantas Sabonis, Bam Adebayo, and Karl Anthony-Towns are also playing great basketball.

These days, the bigs play entirely different games. Ewing, O’Neal, Robinson, and Olajuwon all largely had the same goal. They wanted to get the opposing defender in a vulnerable position near the rim, they just all had different ways of doing so. Ewing perfected a turnaround jump shot, Olajuwon had all the moves, Robinson was chiseled out of stone yet still had a smooth jumper, and O’Neal made the short version of his first name synonymous with strength.

Jokić is the ignition switch for the Denver Nuggets’ offense, while Embiid works as the street sweeper for the Philadelphia 76ers’. Wembanyama has all of the vehicle upgrades, while Şengün is as steady and strong as all-weather tires. The three-point shooting Towns of course is a drop top.

There was a time in the not too distant past that Dwight Howard was the best big man in the NBA. He was an outstanding defensive player who was able to use his athleticism against inferior talent to average 20-plus points for multiple seasons with no offensive bag. Times have changed.

Bigs these days play all over the court and are capable of contributing to the game in a variety of ways. Whether they are firing three-pointers or backing defenders down to the baseline, the big fellas are once again holding the game in their enormous hands.

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