The center position has been the most historically star-studded in the NBA. From the rivalry between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the ’60s, the reign of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the ’70s and the emergence of Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and David Robinson in the 90’s to the sheer dominance of Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s, the league’s annals are replete with the accomplishments of these legendary big men.
In recent years, NBA basketball has become almost entirely three-point driven, causing a downfall in the prominence of superstar centers, but today, the position is as filled with talent as it has been in the 21st century. Let’s take a look at the 10 most elite ‘’fives’’ in the sport.
Honorable mentions: Myles Turner, Marc Gasol, Jonas Valanciunas, DeAndre Jordan
10. Al Horford
Al Horford remains one of the most consistent players of all time, as his numbers across the board have remained pretty similar throughout his career. At age 32, he finds himself anchoring a Celtics team heading into the playoffs with big expectations. Offensively, he’s crafty in the post and a good enough shooter to make the defense respect him while being one of the best playmaking bigs in the league. Defensively, he efficiently protects the paint and is great at rotating to provide help defense.
9. Steven Adams
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a streaky team this season; sometimes looking like a contender, others like a first-round exit. One factor that has managed to remain consistent is the play of big man Steven Adams. Averaging 14.1 PPG, 9.6 RPG, and 1.5 SPG, all career-highs, the New Zealand product continues to improve as a superb pick-and-roll partner for stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
8. Clint Capela
It might have been hard this season for most NBA fans to notice anybody on the Houston Rockets aside from James Harden, but the efforts of Clint Capela should not go unrecognized. After sitting at the 14th seed in December, Houston turned on the jets and are now the 3rd seed in the West.
Capela’s improved scoring may have something to do with that, as the Rockets are 17-3 this season when he scores 20 or more points. Sure, he still struggles when drawn out to the perimeter by shooting big men, but his career-highs of 16.6 PPG and 12.7 RPG along with his very solid defense are invaluable to his team.
7. Julius Randle
Amidst the Anthony Davis soap opera in New Orleans, Julius Randle managed to flourish in his increased role for the Pelicans. Following a strong start to the season as a sixth man, the former Kentucky Wildcat quickly proved he was starter material. He would not slow down, averaging 20.2 PPG by the All-Star break and 24.6 after it.
His departure from L.A last summer is coming back to haunt the Lakers now, as the 24-year old’s $8.6 million contract is quite the bargain for the athletic scoring touch around the rim and ability to run the floor he brings out every night. He holds a player option in the upcoming free agency, one he is likely to opt out of. The Pelicans will look to retain his services as they prepare to move on from Davis.
6. Andre Drummond
The ultimate double-double machine in today’s NBA, Drummond is set to lead the league in that category for the third time in his career this season. His whopping 15.5 RPG will also grant him his third rebounding title. Add his career-high 17.3 PPG, and you can see why he and All-Star Blake Griffin make for one of the most fearsome frontcourt tandems in basketball. Only 7 seasons into his career, the 25-year old Drummond could easily count himself among the league’s all-time great rebounders in only a few years’ time.
5. Rudy Gobert
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year with a strong chance to repeat, Gobert continues to anchor an elite Utah Jazz defense that has led the franchise to a quiet 5th seed season. The best paint defender in basketball, Gobert has also averaged a career-high 15.8 PPG on a league-leading 67% FG. The Frenchman proves to be the perfect complementary big man to young Jazz star Donovan Mitchell as the team looks to build on their success from a year ago by advancing past the first round for the third time in a row.
4. Nikola Vucevic
The Orlando Magic have had a surprising season, stealing a playoff spot for the first time since 2012 after most people counted them out months ago. Another pleasant surprise for Magic fans has been the rise of Nikola Vucevic to All-Star status. The Montenegrin big man found himself in the league’s annual constellation with a 20.8 PPG, 12.0 RPG season. A skilled post player with the ability to stretch the floor and an underrated floor vision, he’s rightfully earned his All-Star berth and a spot among the top 5 at his position.
3. Karl-Anthony Towns
The Timberwolves began their season on a dramatic note with the Jimmy Butler saga and will miss the playoffs once again after breaking their nightmarish streak of 13 years without a postseason berth last season. In spite of that, Karl-Anthony Towns has not failed to shine.
The 2015 first overall pick is the first Timberwolf to average 20 PPG, 10 RPG, and shoot 50% from the field for three consecutive seasons, something not even the legendary Kevin Garnett could do. After earning his second All-Star appearance, Towns has put up 28.1 PPG on 53% shooting and 42% from long distance to go along with 13.4 RPG since the break. His defense still needs improvement, but his incredible offensive talent is undeniable.
2. Nikola Jokic
After last making the playoffs in 2013, the Denver Nuggets are suddenly back in as the second seed in the Western Conference. Their reemergence of a season has been built on the back of strong team play, which in turn is anchored by Nikola Jokic.
He’s the first Nugget in 18 years to average 20 PPG and 10 RPG in a season and earned his first All-Star berth while staying in the back end of the MVP conversation all year long. His most impressive feat, however, has been his ridiculous 7.4 APG. He joins the mythical Wilt Chamberlain as the only centers to ever put up that much. Such playmaking skill at the position is unheard of and transcendent, which seals Jokic’s status as a top 2 center in basketball this season.
1. Joel Embiid
Embiid’s utter dominance on both ends of the floor locks him on the top spot in this list and a guaranteed place on the All-NBA first team. His unmatched mix of skill, strength, and athleticism at his size earned him a starting nod at the All-Star game and a dark horse MVP candidacy.
With averages of 27.5 PPG and 13.6 RPG, which haven’t been matched by anyone since Shaq in 1999-00, he’s once again led the Sixers to 50 wins and the third seed in the East. For a franchise that won only 10 games as recently as three seasons ago, that’s quite the turnaround. Trusting the process has paid off big time for Philly, whose fans have Finals aspirations this year. If Embiid continues this level of excellence, there’s a great likelihood that Larry O’Brien will return to the city of brotherly love in the coming years.