College basketball: How are centers adapting to today's faster, smaller game?
Basketball has always been a big man’s game. But as with anything that’s been around for more than a century, things change. The days of dominant big men dictating the pace of play by simply jostling in the paint? Gone.
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It's an exciting, high-scoring era, but it leaves little room for conventional centers to display conventional skill sets. To be certain, lots of bigs still roam the post.
The key to their survival: adaptability.
UCLA runs a high-octane system with a talented backcourt headlined by Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford. The Bruins lead the nation in scoring offense (91.9 points a game) and adjusted offense (125.3 points per 100 possessions) while ranking in the top 18 in possessions per game (76.6) and adjusted tempo (74.3 possessions per 40 minutes).
The player often sparking the transition game is center Thomas Welsh.
“Sometimes that means for me to get a defensive rebound, kick it out to one of those guys and maybe not always trail the play but to stay back and protect the rim so they can’t counter-attack and get easy points off of that,” Welsh tells NCAA.com. “It’s definitely a very fun team to play with because they’re all so unselfish and we do play a very fun, exciting tempo.
“It’s fun but it definitely provides challenges as well.”
For the 7-foot, 245-pound junior Welsh, the adjustment has come rather naturally after playing at a similarly fast-paced offense at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. Like many centers in this new age of basketball, working on building up stamina is a continuous process.
“The pace of play is picking up for sure and that’s particularly hard on centers because our jobs are typically to be big, be heavy and stay around the paint,” Welsh said. “As the game speeds up, it definitely makes it more difficult for them to get out in transition.”
In his second season as a starter, Welsh is averaging 25 minutes on the court — not far off last year’s average of 26.8.
Welsh said he worked on his conditioning extensively over the offseason, but the work continues from simply practicing on almost a daily basis with one of the fastest offenses in the nation.
“As the pace increases in games, it increases in practice as well. Because of that, I get a lot of experience, especially with this team playing with these guards that really run the floor and push the ball ahead well,” Welsh says. “In games I kind of know what to expect and am in better shape just because, yeah, we’re running up and down in practice and moving the ball a lot.”
Georgia Tech center Ben Lammers notices a similar shift while playing in arguably the toughest and deepest conference, the ACC.
“You don’t really get any days off playing against some of the best competition in the entire country. It’s just a battle,” says Lammers, who stands at 6-foot-10. “There’s always great post players, but even if those players are the best, they’ll always have a couple guards and the way this game is, I’ll end up guarding them for a little while. So it’s a little crazy, there’s really no [post] isolation anymore.”
Lammers’ transformation has made him one of the most improved players in the nation. A third-string center his first two seasons, Lammers has upped his minutes to 34.5 per game and is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds.
At first glance, Lammers looks like a conventional center. He’s the Yellow Jackets’ top rebounder and the second-leading blocker in the nation (3.4 per game). But the junior also possesses quick feet and deceptive athleticism that allows him to cover the floor on defense.
“I’ve played against plenty of teams where they do a lot of pick and roll stuff and I end up having to switch onto a guard,” Lammers says. “So you have to be athletic enough and quick on your feet to guard any position on the court. It could be difficult, but that’s the way the game is right now.
“I’m enjoying this new change because it’s opened up a window for me to become an effective player, I believe.”
Along with the ability to keep up with fast-moving offenses, both Lammers and Welsh possess another key strength: an efficient mid-range shot.
Lammers says that working on getting comfortable in the high-post area was the biggest point of emphasis in the offseason. Welsh, one of the nation’s top mid-range shooters -- he was shooting as high as 70 percent from that range in January -- echoed the sentiment.
“It’s just about repetition. It’s about getting into the gym before or after practice to get extra shots up and to build that confidence up,” Welsh says. “I do have extreme confidence in that shot, it’s something I know I’ll be ready to knock down at any point in the game and I think the guards know that as well. I just try to get to my spots and be ready to knock those shots down.”
Meanwhile, some centers have expanded their range by adding a 3-point shot to their repertoire. Take Lehigh’s Tim Kempton Jr.
Kempton is the son of former NBA center Tim Kempton Sr., who played for eight different NBA teams in eight seasons. While he's about the same size (6-foot-10, 245 pounds) as his dad, Kempton Jr. has developed an outside shot that Kempton Sr., a conventional center in the 1980s-90s, never needed.
Kempton Jr. already has attempted 41 3-pointers this season and made 16 of them. He took just 16 shots from deep in 2015-16.
Kempton says that while he was able to knock down mid-range shots by using his upper body alone, the goal this year was to alter his motion in order to get his legs and lower body more involved.
“With the game changing, that was a huge focal point in my offseason, just having the ability to step back and knock down a 3 when I have the chance to,” Kempton says. “I’m not looking to hunt a 3-point shot, but just having the ability to float along the 3-point line and stretch the defense and pull bigs away from the basket, it’s something I had to do.”
Kempton’s transition on the court has coincided with his body transformation from freshman to senior year. He made a conscious effort to drop from 255 pounds to 225 after his first season at Lehigh to cut off “bad weight” and to improve his conditioning level.
Since then, he’s gained some weight back in a leaner and stronger build.
“I didn’t really have the ability to play at that fast pace [freshman year] ... Over the course of four years I’ve had to increase my minutes per game and now I’m playing above 30 minutes per game,” Kempton says. “That’s not something I think I’d be able to do unless I made that change.”
College basketball in the 1990s was ripe with transcendent centers — from Shaquille O’Neal to Alonzo Mourning, Marcus Camby to Tim Duncan. For players growing up in that era, there were a ton of styles to pick up. Many of today’s centers have studied more contemporary styles.
Lammers, a San Antonio native, was quick to mention Duncan as a role model for how to act on and off the court, but when it comes to playing style, he’s gravitated toward Mavericks forward/center Dirk Nowitzki and his extraordinary shooting ability for a 7-footer.
“I think I saw some Sports Science thing about his fadeaway shot and how it’s almost physically impossible for anyone to block it,” Lammers says. “So I’ve tried to incorporate something like that into my game.”
Welsh mentions Hornets center Cody Zeller and Kempton names Grizzlies center Marc Gasol and Hornets forward Frank Kaminsky as players to watch and copy.
Kempton says he most admires Gasol’s footwork under the basket as well as his passing ability.
“Just with his quick moves under the basket and his footwork, that’s something that I really try to pay attention to and really take from him,” Kempton says.
No one can say for sure how the center position will evolve. But Lammers says he thinks there will always be a spot for traditional centers if the talent is there. He’s played against plenty of post-up players that were equally hard to defend as mid-range shooters.
“I think if you’re good enough at what you do, you’ll always be able to find a position on the basketball team,” Lammers says. “Even though there is a transition to a more versatile center, if you’re good enough of a low post player and can be effective, you’ll still find a place on the team.
Kempton says this trend toward versatile centers is a regular fluctuation that’s bound to change again.
“I think before my lifetime is up, it’ll transition back to that big body, back-to-the-basket type of center that we were used to seeing 20 years ago. It’ll have those normative fluctuations,” he says. “That’s part of what makes this game interesting.”
No matter what the future holds, the advice for prospective centers remains consistent among all three big men: Be willing to adapt and don’t focus on just one aspect of play.
“It’s just about trying to make strides every day, whether it’s getting in better shape or working on shots or working on defense,” Welsh says. “The game is continuing to develop where there are more possessions being played ... it’s just one of those things where you have to keep up.”