16 May 2015

Why A Scoring Center Makes Sense for the Bolts?

Troy Rosario
Junemar Fajardo flexed. The 6-foot-9 San Miguel Beer center is lording it over his local opponents. The message was clear: The paint is Fajardo’s territory. Stay out.

Fajardo serves as a poster child for a movement in redefining the center position. Nearly gone are post-up centers of the past, the 20-point, 10-rebound superstars that defined basketball in the past. Today's Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) centers focus on help defense and screen-setting, often playing at the top of the key to set up a well-spaced offense featuring two to four adept shooters on the perimeter.

The model comes as a result of rule changes, offensive innovations and a dearth of top-flight post-playing centers. But the impact is obvious, get to the semis and dominate the finals. Unfortunately for the Beermen, they have internal problems affecting player performance.

Strategists discussed the modern center position with some of the PBA’s best and a theme emerged: Defense comes first, second and third.

Asi Taulava was drafted first overall by Mobiline in 1999 because of his ball skills. He was the ideal big man to build an offense around because of his remarkable passing skills.

Now in his 16th season, Taulava averages 12.5 points and 2.0 assists in 32.1 minutes a game, all down from his career averages. Yet he may be playing the best basketball of his life, the defensive linchpin for the NLEX Road Warriors.

Taulava is one of the leaders in defensive rating, an estimate of points allowed per possession by a given player. But the impact is more than one-sided. Consider that defensive-minded, low-scoring centers Bryan Faundo, Raymund Almazan, and Eric Menk are in the top ten in offensive rating, which measures points produced per possession by a player.

That's where the modern basketball theory comes in. The pick-and-roll, dribble hand-off and corner three-pointer are keys to efficient offenses, particularly because the PBA has reduced one-on-one play by allowing zone defense. So pounding the ball into the post no longer works in the same way it did. Even dominant offensive big men, such as Fajardo and Barangay Ginebra;s Greg Slaughter, must find new ways to score.

Trends like these are reflected in future drafts. The PBA spent a decade getting smaller across the board, a response to a need for a faster pace and more open court. The renewed emphasis on size is a reaction to that, a need to prevent easy baskets, particularly by those smaller guards and forwards.

But that doesn't mean the scoring big man is a dead art.

It all depends on the players that are in the draft classes. If teams had a chance to get another Taulava, Fajardo or Slaughter, then they can have the type of player they can run their offense through. it just all depends on who that guy is, who that draft pick is, whether it's someone a team can run the offense through.

Praise of Taulava was widespread from opponents, who talked about how much he wears them out down low and can affect their help defense. Finding a skilled big man on that level is so rare that teams won't pass them up, as good a reason as any why Moala Tautuaa may be selected first in the next PBA Draft.

Offense also is the more attractive side, for all the reasons Fajardo bemoans. Post scoring and rebounding get you a maximum-level contract, and the game does slow down in the semis.

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