Utah couldn’t leave Rudy Gobert on the bench any longer.
The All-Star break is when the team finally committed to the change, after starting Gobert just eight times during the first 53 games of the season, the Jazz cleared the path for him to permanently start by dealing away Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City.
The move revealed Gobert, the player selected by Denver with the 27th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft (the Nuggets traded him on draft night to Utah for Erick Green and cash considerations), to be perhaps the most dominant center in the league.
His presence in the starting lineup drastically changed the entire defensive philosophy of the franchise. Prior to the trade, the Jazz went 19-34 while surrendering 98.2 points per game.
Simply by giving Gobert additional minutes, Utah went 19-10 after the All-Star break and surrendered just 89 points per game, by far the most stellar defensive effort in the league.
The obvious reason why was the exceptional play of the 7-foot-1 center.
If Gobert was in the presence of a jump shooter, he was able to dramatically effect the shot, the 189 rejections he recorded only tell part of the story.
On attempts from six feet or closer to the rim, opponents shot 11.5 percent below their season average if Gobert challenged the shot.
Often, their attempt would be violently swatted away into the stands.
Anytime an opponent challenged Gobert at the rim, they managed to convert their shot just 40.4 percent of the time, the lowest of any defender to challenge at least four shots per game at the rim.
By the time the season ended, the 23-year-old center tallied the highest block percentage in the league, indicating that out of every 100 shots attempted from 2-point range with him on the floor, Gobert would reject seven shots.
With the Jazz giving him every opportunity to anchor the defense this season and the concept of him capturing the Defensive Player of the Year award is pretty easy to imagine.
30. Tyler Zeller– Boston Celtics
The Celtics front court rotation is so clogged, determining which player will receive the majority of minutes will prove to be a challenge. Boston played Zeller in all 82 regular season contests, starting him 59 times, but the only fantasy value he provides comes form him rebounding. Zeller posted just three double-doubles last season, but did grab at least seven rebounds on 29 occasions, so he could become an injury fill-in later in the year.
29. Zaza Pachulia– Dallas Mavericks
Dallas was forced to scramble for a starting center. The team allowed Tyson Chandler to walk in free agency after the team believed it had locked in DeAndre Jordan with a long term contract. Instead, the Mavericks were forced to come up with something after Jordan backed out of a verbal agreement, crippling the teams’ free agency pursuit. Pachulia is a solid signing, as he is capable of dominating the boards (as evidenced by his 18 offensive rebounds against Brooklyn last season) but will have to prove capable of producing on a nightly basis.
28. Ian Mahimi– Indiana Pacers
Relying on Mahimi to stay on the floor is a risky proposition. The 6-foot-11 center has yet to average 20 minutes a night for an entire season during his seven-year career, so his time in the starting lineup will likely be just a placeholder until Myles Turner, the 11th overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, has established enough of a rapport with the coaching staff in Indiana. Mahimi is only viable in an emergency situation when a team needs shot blocking.
27. Roy Hibbert– Los Angeles Lakers
Two years ago, Hibbert was the front-runner to be named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Now, the two-time All-Star is proving he can still be part of a rotation. The Pacers unceremoniously dumped Hibbert on the Lakers for the measly price of a future second round pick. As the league shifted to small-ball, opponents were able to run the 7-foot-2 center off the floor and his 1.6 blocks per game weren’t enough to stabilize his minutes.
26. Mason Plumlee– Portland Trail Blazers
The Nets never could carve out enough minutes for Plumlee, so the team shipped him to Portland. As the Trail Blazers begin their massive overhaul, Plumlee expects to be a major factor, as his athleticism and hustle enabled him to be part of Team USA at the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in Spain. Plumlee’s averages stretched out over 36 minutes would have been 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, and in Portland he may be able to spend enough time to approach those figures.
25. Robin Lopez– New York Knicks
One of the most overlooked qualities is the ability to grab offensive rebounds. To collect misses from their own team, players must position themselves properly and out hustle the opposition to the loose ball. Few players have been more successful at collecting offensive rebounds than Lopez. Although he was limited to just 59 appearances last season, his average of 3.2 offensive rebounds per game would have tied five other players for the sixth most in the NBA.
24. Jusuf Nurkic– Denver Nuggets
No technical foul was more entertaining than the one Nurkic received after he converted a jump hook in the lane, then handed the ball to his opponent after he flopped in an attempt to draw an offensive foul. Nurkic was one of the surprise fantasy stalwarts last season, emerging to average 6.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Along with the impressive scoring and rebounding numbers, he was one of just two rookies to total at least 50 steals and 50 blocks last season.
23. Omer Asik– New Orleans Pelicans
The new coaching staff in New Orleans has to find a way to maximize the talents of its roster. For large portions of the time, that could mean benching Asik in favor of playing a more up-tempo pace. Even in small doses, Asik is an elite rebounder, as his league-high 956 defensive rebounds last season can attest. Last season, in just 26.1 minutes a night, Asik corralled 9.8 rebounds per game.
22. Andrew Bogut– Golden State Warriors
Golden State won the 2015 NBA Finals by adjusting its lineup, banishing Bogut to the bench while employing a small lineup. The tactic worked, but the move isn’t a long term solution. Part of the advantage the Warriors have is their ability to counter any lineup and the size and physicality of Bogut is an important aspect. The 7-footer managed to grab at least 10 rebounds in six of his 19 playoff appearances, proving he can be a factor even in post season play.
21. Marcin Gortat– Washington Wizards
The type of productivity Gortat provides is exactly what fantasy owners seek with a secondary center. In the past two years, the 6-foot-11 center out of Poland has missed just one game, while providing steady and efficient scoring. Last season, Gortat managed 12.2 points on 56.6 percent shooting from the field to go along with 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. With Washington in desperate need for front court productivity, look for Gortat to receive additional opportunities next season.
20. Joakim Noah– Chicago Bulls
In the past five years, Noah has started 323 of his 325 appearances for Chicago. Only the change of a coaching regime along with viable younger options pushing for playing time may result in Noah being relegated to a sixth man role. Injuries severely limited his production last season, as the former Florida star averaged 7.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game, a sever drop off from the 2013-14 campaign.
19. Enes Kanter– Oklahoma City Thunder
If the starting position and minutes are there, Kanter has the potential to be one of the biggest steals in fantasy basketball. Only the uncertainty of playing time, or just how true his numbers in Oklahoma City were are the reason for some skepticism. In his 26 appearances with the Thunder, Kanter posted 18.7 points, 11 rebounds and shot 56.6 percent from the field. Only the Thunder can opt to start Steven Adams, a defensive minded center, and the return of Kevin Durant will take away many of his scoring and rebound opportunities. If Kanter is available in the eighth round, he’s worth a look.
18. Karl-Anthony Towns– Minnesota Timberwolves
With his mentor already in place in Minnesota, the only thing that could hold back Towns next season is the log jam the Timberwolves have in the front court. Gorgui Dieng was one of the unheralded performers, Nikola Pekovic returning from injury and Kevin Garnett set in a leadership role, carving out 25 or more minutes a night may prove to be a challenge. Towns is talented enough to warrant a second center position on a team, as he will likely flirt with a double-double average in his debut season.
17. Timofey Mozgov– Cleveland Cavaliers
A full off-season in Cleveland could make all the difference for Mozgov. In the finals, he proved just how strange the center position is, as he posted 28 points, 10 rebounds and knocked down 10-of-12 free throws in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, then went scoreless in nine minutes in Game 5. Mozgov thrived late in the year, and by further ingraining himself with the Cavaliers, he should produce more than the 10.6 points and 6.9 rebounds he averaged in the regular season following the trade.
16. Jonas Valanciunas– Toronto Raptors
The four-year, $64 million contract extension is an indication of just how rare capable 7-footers are and just how valued post play remains in the NBA. Efficiency was the key for Valanciunas last season, as he averaged 12 points per game, connected on 57.2 percent of his attempts from the field, along with 8.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. In his third season, the center out of Lithuania posted 22 double-doubles, more than Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin and Draymond Green.
15. Jahlil Okafor– Philadelphia 76ers
The main advantage Okafor has over nearly everyone else on the list is opportunity. The 76ers genuinely have no other center available on the roster. The only other center Philadelphia has is Joel Embiid, the third overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft that has yet to play in a game and is expected to once again miss the entire season. The 76ers are going to provide Okafor with tons of offensive rebound opportunities and he has the most polished post game entering the NBA in years.
14. Greg Monroe– Milwaukee Bucks
Monroe left Detroit to vacate the clogged front court the team employed. With Milwaukee surrounding Monroe with power forwards capable of knocking down shots on the perimeter, he will be able to operate at will in the post. Monroe is a talented scorer, but has never been able to shoot more than 13 times a night. The Bucks have plenty of talent, but Monroe is the most proven commodity on the team, so he can set a career-high in shot attempts this season, resulting in higher scoring figures.
13. Tyson Chandler– Phoenix Suns
The formula for Chandler has remained the same throughout his 14-year career: grab rebounds, shoot only when necessary and anchor the defense. While he has been productive at every stop, the Suns will mark the seventh different team to feature Chandler as its starting center next season. In his first season back with the Mavericks since helping them claim the 2011 NBA championship, he was quietly one of the most consistent fantasy performers. Last year, Chandler posted 10.3 points on 66 percent shooting from the field and 11.5 rebounds per game, fifth most in the NBA.
12. Dwight Howard– Houston Rockets
After nearly a decade of showing up on the court every night, Howard’s health issues forced him to play just half of the year for Houston in 2014-15. As he enters his third season with the Rockets, Howard claimed health will be the key for the team as it chases the third title in franchise history. Even during his limited time on the floor, Howard averaged a double-double, posting 15.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. The track record of Howard indicates those numbers should increase dramatically with a clean bill of health.
11. Al Jefferson– Charlotte Hornets
Maybe giving up fast food is the solution for everyone. By changing his diet — and turning off the television when his favorite restaurant airs a commercial — Jefferson managed to drop 20 pounds and believes his knees and body will be in the best shape of his career. Jefferson saw his scoring numbers drop from 21.8 points to 16.6 last season, so any change he is making could prove to be beneficial to fantasy basketball players.
10. Brook Lopez– Brooklyn Nets
Hopefully the media obligations will continue to mount for Lopez. While the 7-footer may be tired of having his photo taken, the public wants every piece of information it can get on star players. Lopez quietly strung together an impressive fantasy basketball season last year, appearing in 72 games while averaging 17.2 points on 51.3 percent shooting from the field, 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a night.
9. Tim Duncan– San Antonio Spurs
Age hasn’t been able to limit Duncan’s effectiveness as a shot blocker. For the 12th time in his career, Duncan managed to reject at least two shots per game (ranking seventh in the NBA) along with the 12th time he posted at least 150 rejections, as he swatted 151 total shots last season. With 124 more rejections, Duncan has the opportunity to move past former teammate David Robinson and Mark Eaton into fourth place on the all-time list of shot blockers next season.
8. Marc Gasol– Memphis Grizzlies
The 17.4 points per game Gasol managed were a career-high and the third most among all centers in the NBA a year ago. In his seventh season with Memphis, Gasol secured his second All-Star appearance, adding 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists (second among all centers) and 1.6 blocks per game. The Grizzlies find more ways to incorporate Gasol further into their offense, providing him a rare chance to thrive as a center.
7. Hassan Whiteside– Miami Heat
All of the numbers Whiteside managed to accumulate came in rapid succession. As the 7-footer was battling for his place in the NBA, he rapidly climbed the ranks in fantasy basketball, collecting rebounds and embarrassing opponents with emphatic rejections. Miami is hoping he can string that success over the course of an entire season. Whiteside’s flash last season, as he posted 11.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, makes him one of the most intriguing players in the draft.
6. Al Horford– Atlanta Hawks
For each of the past seven years, Horford has converted over 53 percent of his attempts from the field. The 6-foot-10 center managed to post 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.3 blocks per game to go along with his efficient shooting from the field. The former Florida star has quietly become one of the most efficient post scorers in the NBA, as his hook shot is nearly unstoppable, with Horford converting 51.5 percent of his hook shots last season.
5. Andre Drummond– Detroit Pistons
The Pistons shot just 43.2 percent from the field — fourth worst in the NBA last season — providing Drummond plenty of opportunities to collect offensive rebounds. For the second season in a row, Drummond totaled more offensive rebounds than any one in the NBA, gathering 437 of Detroit’s misses. The 22-year-old became just the fourth player in league history to ever total more than 400 offensive rebounds twice in their career, joining Larry Smith, Dennis Rodman and Moses Malone.
4. Nikola Vucevic– Orlando Magic
Consistent production is what Vucevic provides. In 61 percent of his appearances last season, Orlando’s center managed to post a double-double, submitting stretches of seven and six consecutive double-doubles during the year. If Vucevic had totaled four more rebounds, it would have been enough for him to average 11 rebounds per game for the third consecutive season, once again proving just how consistent his play has become.
3. DeAndre Jordan– Los Angeles Clippers
The defensive rebounding numbers have increased dramatically over each of the past four years. For the second consecutive season, Jordan won the rebounding title, as his performance on the defensive end — as he posted 829 rebounds, the 23rd most in NBA history — would have ranked fourth in the league by itself. Jordan is looking to become the first player since Dennis Rodman in 1993-94 to total 900 defensive rebounds in a single season, or even become just the fourth player ever to post 1,000 defensive rebounds in a year.
2. Rudy Gobert– Utah Jazz
The potential of Gobert is that high. Last year, he posted 8.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and shot 60.4 percent from the field. All of those numbers diminish what the 7-foot-1 center accomplished during his sophomore season. Gobert was simply devastating once he became the starting center in Utah. The addition of the 23-year-old out of France morphed the Jazz into the best defensive team in the league, as no shot around Gobert was safe, as his block percentage was the highest in the NBA.
1. DeMarcus Cousins– Sacramento Kings
Cousins has to shoulder the biggest set of responsibilities of any center in the NBA. The 25-year-old center managed to earn his first career All-Star selection despite two mid-season coaching changes, a bout with viral meningitis and the extreme dysfunction of the Sacramento front office. Through it all, Cousins managed to submit his most impressive season yet, posting career-highs with 24.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. Next season, Cousins will be playing with yet another starting point guard, but Rajon Rondo will easily become the best passer the Kings have been able to pair with him.