The center position isn’t obsolete in today’s space-and-pace NBA. It’s just packaged differently, and Saturday’s game between the Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves featured the skills of the multifaceted big man.
The Kings boast an All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins, who opened the game at Golden 1 Center with a deep jump shot. The Timberwolves have one of the league’s rising stars in Karl-Anthony Towns, a center so versatile that at All-Star Weekend in February he won the Skills Challenge, an event previously for guards.
So centers aren’t extinct. The best of them, such as Cousins and Towns, are evolving. They score at the rim or beyond the 3-point line and set up teammates rather than wait for a guard to set them up.
“Talented guys,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “You can’t just sit on the jump shot and make them drivers. You can’t play back off them because they can make shots. They score in a variety of ways – the pick-and-rolls, the post-ups, perimeter spot-up shots – and then they’re pretty good passers.”
Both played at Kentucky for coach John Calipari, prompting Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau to quip: “Calipari is a good recruiter, I guess.”
Both players also have exhibited a much more diverse skill set in the NBA. Cousins competed against Towns in the Skills Challenge. Their ability to step away from the basket to score helps clear the lane and create spacing so many coaches crave.
Thibodeau said the Kentucky experience helps both big men.
“I think that obviously going to Kentucky, they have played in a lot of big games,” Thibodeau said. “I think that helps prepare them (with) their talent and their drive.”
On Thursday, Cousins had 37 points and 16 rebounds in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Towns, last season’s Rookie of the Year, had 21 points, four rebounds and five assists Wednesday in a season-opening loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Thibodeau is in his first season coaching Towns, but also knows Cousins well because he is an assistant with Team USA.
“I loved being around DeMarcus with Team USA,” Thibodeau said. “He was huge for us. We have two gold medals because of the stuff that he did for us. His skill set is so unusual for a guy that size.”
At 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds, Cousins is built to deliver a beating in the paint. But Cousins never has liked being confined to the rules and role of a traditional center.
“You don’t expect him to be able to handle the ball, make plays, shoot the 3, put it on the floor, dominate inside,” Thibodeau said. “If he gets to his spot, he’s impossible to stop. He’s got great hands and he was terrific for us defensively. There’s nothing that he can’t do, and his basketball IQ is very, very, high. He’s a load to deal with.”
Towns, 7-foot and 244 pounds, figures to be joining Cousins in All-Star Games in the near future.
Joerger said Cousins and Towns cause opponents similar problems.
“Karl is very skilled,” Joerger said. “DeMarcus is in his seventh year and continues to get better, and then Karl is as well. They’re going to see double teams from different angles, places and people when they put it on the floor when they get a catch depending on which part of the floor they’re in. It’s a continual learning process, and talented guys figure it out quicker than other guys.”