The center position is starting to evolve. It had been 21 years since a center had won MVP until Nikola Jokic took the award a couple of months ago. Actually, had Joel Embiid not been hurt and missed significant time, he might have won the award instead. Regardless, two centers finished in the top-2 voting for the MVP this season. We haven’t seen centers shine like this since Shaquille O’Neal.
Back in the day, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo, and Moses Malone ruled the center position and the MVPs that came with it. Since then, guards and forwards have made it an even playing field. Even with the evolution of today’s game, more quick and full of shooting, our modern-day centers are hanging with the best. That starts with Jokic at the top. With the Serbian winning last season, he has a chance to do something that hasn’t been done since Tim Duncan's prime years with the Spurs.
Honorable Mention - Brook Lopez
2020-2021 Stats: 12.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.5 BPG
Lopez went from being a traditional center to someone that has evolved to the modern level. With Brooklyn, Lopez didn’t attempt three-point shots on his way to becoming the team’s all-time leading scorer. The last five years, Lopez changed his game, so that he could remain a starter in the league.
In the 2020/21 season, Lopez had his best shooting year. While his shots are limited, he capitalized on over 50% for the first time since 2015-2016. He was also a starter for a championship-winning team in Milwaukee. At 33 years old, Lopez might be wearing down in the near future, but one has to appreciate how he has been efficient for so long.
10. Clint Capela
2020-2021 Stats: 15.2 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 2.0 BPG
It’s a solid list when the league’s reigning leading rebounder is barely making the cut. Capela had a career-year last season with a league-leading 14.3 rebounds per game. In each game, fans in Atlanta believed that he could pull down 20 rebounds per night. That also included a career-high in blocks, making it the first time Capella had ever gone over the 2.0 blocks mark.
Capella just missed shooting 60% from the field for the fifth straight season. The Swissman has a bright future after finishing fifth in player efficiency rankings last season. Assuming that he can replicate his success, Capela could shoot as high as top-5 on this list.
9. Jonas Valanciunas
2020-2021 Stats: 17.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.9 BPG
Another player just coming into the top-10 after a career season is Valanciunas. Compared to Capela, Valanciunas is a better offensive player and could give Capela a run for his money at rebounding. He is a true prototypical center that has a high upside after recording a big season last year. Statistically, Valanciunas was the fourth-most efficient center in the league.
What holds Valanciunas, as well as Capela, back is that they are both limited in their outside shooting. They are traditional, score inside the paint, big bruisers. In the modern era, those are not at the top of the list. The league also wants all five players to be able to distribute, something both centers are lacking.
8. Myles Turner
2020-2021 Stats: 12.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.9 SPG, 3.4 BPG
Had Turner played a full season, he could have contended for Defensive Player of the Year. While his rebounding is average, his shot-blocking ability was superior. Turner led the league in blocks by a whole 0.7 per game over runner-up and DPOY Rudy Gobert.
The Indiana Pacers big man has developed somewhat of an outside game. He is almost a stretch power forward given his length and long frame. At 25 years old, the best is yet to come.
7. Deandre Ayton
2020-2021 Stats: 14.4 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG
The former No. 1 overall pick is going to be an interesting player to watch this year. Ayton is entering his fourth season in the league and the rumors are that the Suns and the center are far apart on contract extension talks. That means that if Ayton wants to be paid like a max contract player, he is going to have to prove it, which makes for a very fun season to watch.
With Chris Paul in the mix, Ayton took his game to a new level defensively. While his blocked shots are not as high as Turner’s, he was a premier rim protector. In regards to offense, Ayton was fourth among centers in field goal percentage and tied for seventh in double-doubles.
6. Nikola Vucevic
2020-2021 Stats: 21.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG
The Bulls needed an offensive complement to Zach LaVine. That mortgaged the future to compete this season and on by acquiring Vucevic from the Magic at the deadline. For the season total, Vucevic finished with the fourth-best points per game and had the second-best three-point field goal percentage. He was second to only Bobby Portis and Vucevic took two times as many shots from outside, a stat that he led among centers.
Vucevic stretches out the floor and will likely get more open shots with the addition of Lonzo Ball and his playmaking abilities. Many of the shots that Vucevic took last year were a product of an offense that he helped create. Now, he can be more of a facilitator than the primary implementer. Given his talent of being able to shoot outside, we could see a special season from him.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns
2020-2021 Stats: 24.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 4.5 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.1 BPG
Even on a bad team, Towns remains a top-5 center in this league. KAT tied Vucevic for the most three-point shot attempts in the league with 6.3. He shot a fairly good percentage at 38.7% for a center. Towns is a dynamic scorer, recording the third-highest average among all centers. Towns just need to stay on the court healthy, playing just 50 games last season.
It’s unclear if Towns is going to finish the season with the Timberwolves. He has been a subject of trade rumors, but if he does get moved, he could get a package in return that is just as good as the one that Orlando received for Vucevic. Towns are worth multiple first-round picks, especially at the age of 25 years old.
4. Bam Adebayo
2020-2021 Stats: 18.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG
Adebayo does a lot that doesn't always show up in the box score. In the last two seasons, he has made the All-Defensive Second Team. The only reason that Adebayo missed out on First-Team is that a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, is in front of him. Offensively, Adebayo made great strides by averaging a career-high in points, so he is making a case for being the best two-way center in the league.
For the Heat, Adebayo provides an extra layer of grit to a team that will be the grittiest. What separates Adebayo from both Vucevic and Towns is that Bam is now an excellent playmaker. The 5.4 assists that Adebayo averaged last year were second-best among players at the position.
3. Rudy Gobert
2020-2021 Stats: 14.3 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.7 BPG
As mentioned, Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, as well as the reigning DPOY. Gobert anchored a Utah Jazz team that climbed up to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Defensively, the Frenchman was second in the league in blocked shots, as well as total rebounds among centers. He also tied for second among players at the position with 49 double-doubles.
Offensively, Gobert took the 17th most shots among players at the position, but could have been in the top ten had he taken more shots. With the Jazz’s lineup, Gobert doesn’t need to take that many shots. He just has to convert on his attempts, which he did, leading all centers with a field goal percentage of 67.5%. Gobert is easily a top-3 center and will likely contend for DPOY for the fourth time. Only two players have ever won the award four times, Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace, who are both Hall of Famers.
2. Joel Embiid
2020-2021 Stats: 28.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.4 BPG
Embiid was the best overall scorer among centers last season with his 28.5 points per game. Embiid even added a little outside shot to his game as his 1.1 three-point field goals per game ranked seventh at the position. Overall, he has a case for being the best offensive center in the game. Last year, Embiid took the second-most shots among centers and made the second-most shots.
Embiid’s offense carried the 76ers to a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Had he not been hurt (played in just 51 games due to injuries), he might have won the MVP. Instead, the 21-game gap hurt his chances. Embiid needs to play a full year, especially if Ben Simmons isn’t coming back. The 76ers will be relying on the Cameroonian more than ever this season.
1. Nikola Jokic
2020-2021 Stats: 26.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 8.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.7 BPG
The MVP has to be at the top of the list. That’s simple science. However, statistically speaking it also backs up the claim. Jokic scored the second-most points, made the most field goals, took the second-most shots, and finished with the best overall player efficiency ranking among centers in the league last year. Jokic can score, rebound, and pass. He led all centers with 16 triple-doubles last year. The runner-up? Nikola Vucevic, Bam Adebayo, and Mason Plumlee tied with two.
The Nuggets are going to be without Jamal Murray until at least 2022. Jokic is the team’s go-to guy for the first half of the season. It’s hard to believe that he is just 26 years old, so who knows if last year was his best outing. Jokic has averaged a slash line like last year for many years now. He has the potential to go down as the greatest passing center of all time if he keeps this up. Looking forward, Jokic should be considered an MVP candidate this season. Can he pull off the repeat? It hasn't been done since Tim Duncan did it with the Spurs in 2002 and 2003.