The Evolution Of The NBA Center Has Created A New Type Of Center Called The Stretch 5

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Updated: March 6, 2017
Karl Anthony Towns pic 2

Traditional big men have seemingly lost their value, as the dominant offensively skilled back to the basket center has become somewhat of a rarity. That isn’t to say that post play isn’t valuable, it just means the ability to shoot in some form or fashion is expected. Today’s NBA is based on pace and space, and bigs need to be able to at least hit 15 footers, or make perimeter shots in elite scenarios extending all the way out to the three-point line.

Pick and roll is still the staple behind most offenses, but pick and pop has become just as important. Having a center who can clear the lane for speedy penetrating guards is ideal. Especially if that center can now be an outlet pass receiver for the penetrating guard, if the guard gets stopped by help defense. Purists may be pulling their hair out watching 7-footers hoisting threes and camping out in the corners— but it truly is a different game.

The stretch-four started this basketball evolution and the stretch-five has now become the newest trend around the league. The NBA is in a great place with regards to the talent pool and there are a handful of centers who have adapted quite well to the new NBA, with more surely to follow behind them. Here are five stretch-fives changing the league’s landscape.

Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets

Lopez is a unique case and his transformation into the “stretch-5 position” seemingly happened overnight. In his previous eight seasons, Lopez attempted 31 total triples and connected on just three of them. Most of those attempts were heaves at the end of a quarter or as the shot clock was winding down. This year as of March 2 he’s attempted 277 threes (5.1 attempts per game). He’s knocking them down at a clip of 34%, which is incredible considering his career arc previous to this season. Lopez has developed his touch over his career and actually shot 45% or better on attempts between 10-16 feet over the last three years. Now that he’s extended to shooting the three, he’s a viable scoring threat from anywhere on the floor. Credit has to be given to the Brooklyn coaching staff who worked with him during the offseason and saw that the mechanics of his jump shot gave him the opportunity to potentially develop into a solid three-point shooter.

Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

Similar to Lopez, Gasol was never a prolific three-point shooter, although he’d attempted 66 threes in the same eight-year stretch as Lopez. This season, Gasol is up to 214 attempts and shooting a robust 39%, which puts him well above the league average. Gasol has been the focal point of the Grizzlies offense since 2012, even though his points per game weren’t always gaudy enough to indicate that fact. Memphis uses Gasol as a passer and screener on the elbows, and with him being a highly efficient mid-range shooter, he’s been very successful. But Coach David Fizdale has encouraged Gasol to space the floor even more, something David Joerger wasn’t able to do, and now the Spaniard is flourishing with a career-high 20.6 points per game.

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

Cousins started his career as a big who at least in theory could knock down an occasional three. In his first three seasons, he took 54 triples, but made just 7 of those attempts. The paltry returns cured his thirst to snipe from outside temporarily. Over the next two seasons, he took just 15 threes as he seemingly abandoned the shot, until he figured out a release that would yield better results. Ironically, he also became one of the league leaders in having his shot blocked despite his physical gifts inside. Then last season, Cousins became a legitimate threat from the three-point line, shooting 33% in 210 total attempts. He has followed that up with a 2016-2017 campaign, where he shoots 35% in 280 attempts, and he still has over 20 games left to play this season. He handles the ball well for his size and now can use the three as a way to draw defenders out and blow by them on overzealous closeouts. Becoming a true stretch-5 is allowing Cousins to post some truly epic numbers.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Towns entered the league slightly ahead of the curve of the aforementioned bigs, because he developed his game watching many of them as the trend to shooting became more evident. His developmental years focused on the need to play inside and out, which has translated into the beast Towns already is. In his rookie year, he dipped his toe in the three-point water taking 88 attempts, but that’s just 11 shy of the combined 16-year career of Lopez and Gasol prior to this season. With a little more offensive responsibility and confidence, Towns is connecting on 34% of his 198 attempts to date this season. Towns has a handle that rivals the ball-handling skills of Cousins and he is lighter on his feet at a svelte 244 pounds. Knowing he can shoot it, drive past, or post up is a nightmare for those opposing him—and he is just 21 years old.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76’ers

JoelEmbiid

It’s unfortunate that Embiid’s season has already come to a conclusion due to a knee injury, but the league was put on notice as to what he can become in the 31 games he played this year. When Embiid was drafted in 2014, nobody would have thought he’d develop into a big that could stroke it from three to the tune of 36% in his first year. Embiid took 3.2 triples per game this season, so the higher percentage isn’t skewed due to a lack of attempts. Sitting out for the first two seasons and becoming the NBA’s social media darling actually paid dividends. His previous foot injury prohibited him from working on complicated post moves, so much of his early on court work/rehab was spent on shooting. Keep in mind he was also on a minute’s restriction—his per 36 minute averages project him out at 1.6 makes in 4.5 attempts per game.

All of these talented centers have a unique skill set that transcends the old school mentality of how the center position should be played. Each has worked hard to become the shooters they are now. In the cases of Lopez and Gasol, this added nuance can potentially extend their careers, if they can keep up their level of efficiency from outside. The important thing to keep in mind is that becoming a “stretch-5”  isn’t about just taking shots from the perimeter, it’s about making perimeter shots at an acceptable percentage that make defenses pay. This group has what it takes to continue the revolution and inspire the next generation of talented centers coming behind them.

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