For the past few seasons, there has been a return to prominence for NBA centers. This was made abundantly more clear in 2022. We had 2 centers finish atop the MVP rankings with Nikola Jokic taking home the award for a 2nd consecutive season. Joel Embiid took home the scoring title. Karl-Anthony Towns staked his claim to being one of the best shooting big men of all time. The big man is officially back and we are here for it.
Historically, centers have always been the focal point of teams. From the 60s with Wilt and Russell to the 90s with Shaq and Hakeem, centers have always been the most important player on the floor. Recently, as the game went more perimeter-based, Centers started to take a back seat to guards who could shoot. Now in 2022, bigs, and even more so centers, have begun to find themselves back at the top of the league with many developing guard skills like shooting and playmaking themselves.
Here is a list of the best centers from the 2021-2022 season by category.
Scoring - Joel Embiid (30.6 PPG)
For the first time since Shaq in 2000, a center won the scoring title and that center was Joel Embiid. Embiid does a lot of damage around the hoop on offense, which is where 25.3 % of his field-goal attempts come from. There aren’t many who can stop him once he gets posted up and settled into his spot. He shot 76.3% from 0-3 feet so the best bet is to feed the big man and he will make you pay.
Embiid has also added new tricks to his arsenal over the years, including a game where he relies on his jump shot. The second most attempts for Joel this year came from 10-16 feet where he connected on 43.1% of them. He has shown he can get his mid-range working and when he does, it’s curtains for opposing teams. Embiid also shot the ball from 3-point range this year at the 2nd highest clip of his career, averaging 3.7 attempts per game. He shot the ball fairly well too, connecting 37.1% of the time.
Playmaking - Nikola Jokic (7.9 APG)
All you have to do is watch Nikola Jokic play basketball for about 5 minutes to realize he is far and away the best playmaking center in the NBA. Jokic can make any pass in any situation and make it look easy. He can fit it in tight windows, dismantle opponents on double-teams by finding his shooters, and easily find a cutter from the high post for an easy basket. Jokic’s playmaking goes way beyond passing, however.
He routinely can set his teammates up as a ball-handler as well. He can run the pick and roll from either position whether he is setting the screen or calling for the pick with the ball. He opens up passing lanes with the attention he draws and with his size, can easily make the pass to the open man. Jokic should not only be considered the best playmaking center in the NBA but maybe the best out of all positions as well.
Rebounding - Rudy Gobert (14.7 RPG)
The 2022 season marked the first time in Rudy Gobert’s career that he led the NBA in RPG. Gobert was a beast on the boards, especially on the defensive end where he usually cleaned up misses that he caused with his interior defense. Gobert averaged 11.0 defensive rebounds per game in 2022, setting a new career-high for him in that category along with his 14.7 RPG overall.
Gobert also tallied the 3rd highest offensive rebounding output with 3.7 per game. Utah’s transition offense often started with a Gobert defensive rebound and his ability to find the guard already in transition. Offensively, he created many second-chance opportunities with his boards, either cleaning it up himself or finding an open shooter when the defense ultimately collapsed.
Defense - Rudy Gobert (103.2 Defensive Rating)
Now I would like to preface this by giving Robert Williams III his due. Williams was an absolute monster this year for Boston, averaging 2.2 BPG and being the interior anchor for the Eastern Conference Champions. In a few years, this category may just be the annual Robert Williams appreciation category but for now, it remains Gobert’s to lose.
Gobert’s 103.2 defensive rating led the league among centers in 2022 and finished slightly better than Al Horford who had a defensive rating of 104.3. There is no denying that he is still the most impactful interior defender in the NBA despite a “down year”. He was named to his sixth straight All-Defensive First Team and for the 8th year in a row eclipsed the 2.0 BPG mark. Even when he fails to record the block, he still managed to alter shots greatly with his size and length. Gobert’s problems arise when he is forced to switch onto quicker and smaller guards, which is not his game. Regardless, for now, Gobert is still the best defensive center in the league.
Shooting - Karl-Anthony Towns (41.0 3P%)
2022 was the season that Karl-Anthony Towns officially entered the conversation for the greatest shooting big man of all time. Towns boldly claimed that he already was the best big man shooter earlier this year and it was met with backlash. Towns quickly silenced the critics. At the All-Star break, Towns made a statement by running away with the annual 3-point shootout but it didn’t stop there.
Towns sported the 3rd highest 3P% of his career shooting 41.0% on 4.9 attempts. He also tallied the 3rd highest true shooting percentage of his career with 64.0%. Beyond the arc wasn’t the only place where Towns thrived shooting the ball. He also shot 53.7% from the 3 to 10-foot range, showing the versatility and soft touch that he puts on the ball. Other centers can shoot the ball well, but none can do it like Karl-Anthony Towns.
Finishing - Joel Embiid (76.3% From 0-3 Feet)
It should come as no surprise that the man who won the scoring title also is considered the best finisher for centers in the league, depending on who you ask. Over 25% of Embiid’s shot attempts came from close to the basket and he made opponents pay by hitting on 76.3% of them. Embiid is a wrecking ball with his back to the basket, able to back down any other big in the league and do what he wants at the rim outside of maybe Giannis.
Embiid is also dangerous with his back to the basket because of the touch he puts on the ball. If he can’t get close enough to throw it down, Embiid possesses the ability to nail a soft and short turnaround hook or jumper with ease. Embiid is also incredibly powerful. When he gets some momentum behind his move to the basket, look out for Embiid to explode to the hole and throw down a ferocious dunk with authority or lay it up with finesse. If you can get the ball to Embiid anywhere near the hoop, chances are he is going to feast on defenders.
Athleticism - Joel Embiid
Again, I would love to give credit to another center in the league before I get to Embiid. Bam Adebayo could be the choice for this category given his talents on both sides of the ball, especially defensively. Embiid does all of that too and as a much larger person. Athleticism as a center is a tough category because of their sheer size and how much that can limit their mobility. Embiid doesn’t seem to let that affect him even with his injury history.
Embiid has arguably the best dunk package of all centers in the league, not by variety but by pure power and authority. Defensively he works extremely hard as well, able to shut down the opposing team’s bigs by disrupting their every movement. He’s physical to the point of annoyance and athleticism has every bit to do with it. He can also switch on a pick and roll to an opposing team’s guards and hold his own in disrupting their game too. Any player that can play through a broken orbital and torn meniscus at a high level will always sit atop this category.
Clutch - Nikola Jokic
Since 2015, there has been no player in the entire league more clutch than Nikola Jokic. For his career, Jokic is a 50.7% shooter with the game on the line, making him easily the most clutch center in the NBA. Jokic’s clutch gene is not all about his scoring or shooting though. Jokic will gladly pass up a chance to win the game itself if it means his teammate has a better opportunity. Opponents know Jokic is going to get the ball in crunch time and with his high IQ and next-level playmaking, Jokic usually makes the best basketball play more often than not. Besides, getting your team to the playoffs as a No.6 seed after losing your 2nd and 3rd options is about as clutch as it gets.
Efficiency - Nikola Jokic (32.85 PER)
Nikola Jokic finished the 2021-2022 season with the highest single-season PER in NBA history. Jokic’s 32.85 PER passed up WIlt Chamberlain’s previous record of 32.08, a record that stood for 60 years. Jokic set career highs in FG% in 2022 shooting 58.3% from the field overall. He also set his career-high in eFG% with 62.0%. It didn’t stop there. Jokic finished 4th in the league in true shooting percentage with a 66.1% output. Jokic was not only the most efficient player for the 2022 season but of all time as well.
Leadership - Nikola Jokic
Leadership is not something that can be measured with numbers and stats. It is all about results. When Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were both officially ruled out for the 2022 season, the Nuggets could have easily folded and fallen apart. This was not the case. Jokic took his game to even greater heights, emerging as the team’s vocal leader, best player, and even enforcer at times. Teammates rally around the guy that takes charge and simultaneously won’t take any crap from anyone either. Nikola Jokic was that player in 2022 for Denver, leading a team deemed finished to a 48-34 record and a berth in the playoffs as the 6 seed. True leaders elevate their team’s success and that is exactly what Nikola Jokic did in 2022.
Versatility - Joel Embiid
Versatility leaves no room to be a one-dimensional player. To be considered versatile, one must do multiple things well on each side of the floor. Joel Embiid stepped up this part of his game in 2022. Offensively, it was clear the Sixers missed the playmaking from Ben Simmons on the court. Embiid stepped up posting career bests with a 0.66 assist-to-usage ratio and a 10.8 turnover percentage. He had no problem bringing up the ball in any situation and used more than just in the post. His handles and court awareness were evident throughout the entirety of 2022.
Defensively, it was more of the same. Primarily used as an interior defender in his career so far, Embiid stepped out and performed fairly well. Embiid showed the ability to not only be a disruptive pain presence but also a pest on the perimeter when switched onto smaller guards and forwards. By no means was he a defensive stopper but he wasn’t a cone either as Patrick Beverly would say. It’s not easy to find centers that are overly versatile in their games, but Joel Embiid is one of them.
Handles - Nikola Jokic
To find a center with handles is nearly an impossible task. If anyone at the position could handle the rock like a guard though, it’s Nikola Jokic. Not often do teams ask their starting center to handle the ball or run the offense from time to time. Jokic can and has. Jokic will drift out to the perimeter routinely and if you give him even an inch of space, he can and sometimes will take you off the dribble. Off the dribble, Jokic is still a triple-threat with his ability to shoot, drive, or pass. You can’t become a threat like that offensively without at least a little ball-handling skills and Jokic certainly possesses more than that.
Underrated - Jonas Valanciunas
In his first year as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Jonas Valanciunas’s impact was immediately felt. Valanciunas averaged 17.8 PPG, 11.4 RPG, and 2.6 APG as the Pelicans finished with a 36-46 record but made some incredible noise in the 1st round of the playoffs against the Phoenix Suns. Most of the attention went to CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram while all Valanciunas did was average 14.5 PPG and 14.3 RPG in their 6 playoff games.
The Pelicans have one of the brightest futures in the league with the return of Zion Williamson looming to combine with Ingram and McCollum. Valanciunas will have a big part in their success as well. In 2022, he recorded the second-highest PPG and RPG of his career while setting a new career-high in assists. He may not be the centerpiece for this franchise’s turnaround but he deserves to be recognized more for his contributions.
Overrated - Rudy Gobert
I know this seems ridiculous considering I just named him the best defensive center of 2022, but it will not be that way for long. Rudy’s defense is one-dimensional, really only effective on the interior. Once he gets switched onto a guard in a pick and roll situation or has to even just step out to the perimeter at all, he becomes a statue. Terrance Mann exposed this in the 2021 playoffs and Luka Doncic exposed it even more in 2022. As the game gets even more perimeter-centric and bigs keep moving further out, Gobert will have serious issues.
Another reason Gobert lands here is his offense. The man is virtually useless on this side of the ball unless they can get him an open look under the basket or on a lob. He grabs offensive boards pretty well too. Despite posting the second-highest PPG output of his career in 2022, Gobert’s offense has remained painfully one-dimensional. Do I expect Gobert to start chucking up threes and stepping out on the perimeter on offense? No. I do expect him to be better than he has been and recognize that his team needs him to in order to succeed.
Overall - Nikola Jokic
In 2022, Nikola Jokic picked up where he left off in 2021. He averaged 27.1 PPG, 13.8 RPG, and 7.9 APG. He led an injury-ridden team to a winning record and playoff berth when many thought they would be done by February. He expanded his game even further, improving on his already elite playmaking abilities and showing everyone the 2021 MVP wasn’t a fluke.
As good of a case as Joel Embiid has to be named the best center in the NBA, there is no other choice than Nikola Jokic. After taking home back-to-back MVP awards, Jokic is set to sign a supermax extension with the Nuggets this offseason. If Denver can get and stay healthy, they will be a problem for the rest of the league. With someone as special as Jokiic as the centerpiece, a championship can't be out of the question.
The Future Is Bright For The League’s Center Position
As we highlight the great centers we have today, there are so many more on their way to being on this list in 2023. Robert Williams is one of the premier defensive big men in the league. Bam Adebayo continues to be a two-way force for the Heat down in Miami. Clint Capela is one of the most underrated bigs in the league. There are so many more up and coming as well. Above all, at this moment, stands Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. These 2, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, have been the driving force behind the resurgence of the big man in the NBA. If the future is anything like the season was in 2022, then this has to be the most exciting time in decades to be an NBA fan.