The death of the traditional big man has been a hot topic in basketball for at least ten years with the “modernization” of the professional and collegiate versions of basketball. With popular utilization of spread offenses and scoring point guards, big men have been relegated to little more than specialists who rebound, block shots or compliment the spread offense by being able to stick the open jump shot-going all the way out to the three point line in many instances.
Yet over the years, a big man arrives in college basketball who tantalizes us all with their dominant abilities and serve as a reminder of the type of player we expected and hoped to see. Prior to this season that enthralling player was Anthony Davis of Kentucky, who also won the NCAA Tournament MOP Award in 2012.
This year’s talented crop of skilled and polished collegiate big men standout as something of an anomaly relative to centers and power forward classes of prior years. Kentucky’s Carl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky of Wisconsin and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor are just the tip of a very big iceberg of low post collegiate talent this year. Recently, we were in attendance at the CBS NCAA Tournament presser in New York City and had the opportunity to speak with some of the brightest basketball analysts in the game about the current class of talented collegiate big men.
We spoke with the great Len Elmore, the legendary Clark Kellogg, former 2000 NCAA Most Outstanding Player Mateen Cleaves and NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley about this ongoing phenomenon.
“I think it’s a bit cyclical,” said Kellogg. “College basketball has changed a lot over the past 20 years. It’s become more of a spread out game, drive and kick game. So, that lends itself to the big guys being a little bit diminished. But when you have big players that are skilled, coaches find a way to use them and get them the ball. Okafor, Frank Kaminsky, Jahlil Okafor at Duke. Bobby Portis at Arkansas has a good back to the basket game. I think it’s just a matter of finding out what those guys are and working on their craft. The game is more prominent with smaller guys now, but when you see a big guy that can dance and handle themselves on the inside it jumps out and you.”
Though his collegiate hardwood days are seemingly light years in the past, former Power Memorial Academy All-American and three-time All ACC player at the University of Maryland Len Elmore knows a thing or two about being a successful collegiate big man.
“What happens in college is, and you look at a lot of teams, there are no big, experienced coaches to be able to teach the game,” said Elmore regarding the need for better coaching for back to the basket players. “I look at a lot of schools and the coaches for big men are usually point guards or small forwards who’re trying to teach the big men skills, and they do the best that they can, but they can’t compete with people who actually had the experience and played the position.”
Though former Michigan State Spartan Mateen Cleaves did damage as an All-American point guard, but knows a thing or two about quality bigs. He told us that he hopes these towering talents are indicative of a resurgence that is here to stay rather an anomaly.
“I hope so. Okafor is the closest thing to me as far as the old school. When you look at his ability to play with his back to the basket and to just get in that lane. He post up strong and he wants that ball right around the rim. Karl-Anthony Towns is skilled, nice touch around the basket. He tends to want to stretch out and want to take a few jumpers. But that’s the way the game is going. Kaminsky, you can drop the ball into him on the block. His versatility makes him special. To be seven foot and be able to put the ball on the floor and create, shoot the basketball from three, be dependable around the basket, and that’s what I think makes him special. But as far as that old school, back to the basket, I would go with Okafor.”
Charles Barkley is arguably the most successful anomaly in the history of collegiate and professional basketball as well. Listed at 6ft 7in tall, Barkley appears more along the lines of 6ft 4 1/2 inches tall in person. However, his incredible explosiveness and overall strength allowed him to dominate opponents who were much taller and bigger throughout his career. We were fortunate enough to get some time with Sir Charles and get his opinion on collegiate centers and power forwards as well.
“I think that big men don’t spend as much time working on their games as they should,” said Chuck. “I’m not a big fan of AAU basketball. I think these guys just play the game strictly off talent. They have talent, but they don’t really know how to play the game.”
“It just depends on who you’re playing with,” he continued. “If you’re playing with a guy like LeBron, playing like that just gives him more room to operate. You put a stretch four on another team and he’s irrelevant. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a stretch four unless you’re playing with LeBron.
“It’s just about having big guys. It really doesn’t have anything to do with a resurgence or anything like that. You have to have a couple guys that are good players down low. Okafor is a good player, Towns is a good player and Kaminsky is a really good player, and he plays a perimeter four. So it’s just about players. It’s not brain surgery.”
Last night the Kentucky Wildcats defeated the #16 seed Hampton Pirates. Karl-Anthony Towns led the way with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Meanwhile, Bobby Portis of Arkansas fueled the Razorbacks’ win over Wofford with a 15 point, 13 rebound effort. None of the other Big Man illuminates were in action yesterday, but we will most certainly keep you posted on their adventures. In the meantime, you might want to take in all the beautiful footwork and feathery soft jump hooks you can possible stand because there’s a high probability that most of the highly skilled players will escape to the NBA next season, leaving the NCAA a wasteland for big men who really don’t know how to be big once again.