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BIG MAN U: Georgetown Greats Talk to ESPN About NBA Centers

Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, & Roy Hibbert give their thoughts on the NBA’s “decline of the big man” ...

Charlotte Hornets v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Some of the NBA’s all-time greats sat down for an exclusive interview with ESPN about the decline of the Big Man in the NBA. Luckily, ESPN shared it on YouTube.

Thus far, three alumni of the Georgetown Hoyas have participated and each offered some insights into evolution of the game. The bottom-line is clear, even the former positional stars see the pro game incorporating three-point shooting at a high rate and less use of a low-post game.

This is extremely relevant to a program that recently featured pro-hopefuls in Jessie Govan and Omer Yurtseven, as well as young centers in Qudus Wahab, Tim Ighoefe, and Malcolm Wilson. Ewing is perhaps better suited to recruit tall players than any other coach, but the question is whether the match-up problems outweigh the benefits of having a legitimate big man in today’s game.

While the three tall interviewees certainly have pride for a game that focuses on low-post dominance and channels the action at the hoop, each of them appears to have embraced the new style in some way, albeit as coach or front office personnel.

Patrick Ewing (Head Coach, Georgetown)

Coach Ewing wisely picks a room with a G clearly visible for his 14-minute talk. Ewing has an interesting perspective on how the NBA’s space-obsession has trickled down to big men he’s recruited who desire to be featured beyond the post. Ewing talks about the criticism he got in his career for taking jump shots rather than going to the post every time. He talks about Shaq and Hakeem Olajuwon as two of the most competitive in the post during his time.

Ewing discusses Embiid as potentially the best center out there now, but believes Joel should “get his butt on the blocks and dominate” and only take a few threes (I would counter that Ben Simmons’ presence on the low block forces Embiid to the perimeter more, but that’s an argument for another day). Ewing recounts the feeling of dominating a smaller guy in the post and reveals that “You don’t need a million moves” just “a go-to move,” and when they defend that “a counter move.”

Patrick smiles when asked about analytics and says, “All my coaching is based on feel” even though he does listen to his “analytics person.” He points out that guards are more frequently seen in the post than the bigs and feels that things are cyclical and the big man won’t ever be gone.

Overall, Patrick Ewing gives mixed signals as to whether he is pushing more of an old-school approach on his current team. He does note that versatility, athleticism, and being able to guard multiple positions makes you more valuable to your team.

Alonzo Mourning (VP, Player Programs, Heat)

Mourning says he wasn’t too far removed from being able to knock down a shot from the perimeter or putting the ball on the floor. Mourning’s issue with the three-pointers appear to be volume for big men. As someone who was “defensive oriented,” Zo talks about how defenses used to try to counteract Dirk Nowitzki with smaller players.

Alonzo believes more post-play can be used to force a double-team down low and a pass out to the perimeter. Mourning acknowledges that the league has largely taken away the physicality and that he would not have been able to play as aggressively as he did in today’s game.

Roy Hibbert (Player Development Specialist, 76ERS)

Hibbert may not be as honored as Mourning or Ewing, but his perspective is valuable. Roy Hibbert’s last few years in the league were well-documented and enlightening about the devolution of the center position. Of course injuries, age, or confidence may have played a part in his seemingly early retirement, but generally, the game left him behind.

Roy Hibbert recounts when he first learned the All-Star game eliminated the center position and only delineated guards and forwards in the voting. Hibbert also talks about the first time he heard about “analytics” in Indiana and the decision that shots in the post were to be minimized—i.e., post shots allow fewer offensive rebounds and second-chances than three-pointers.

Hibbert, who coaches Embiid, is proud of the past but likes that three-point shooting is a part of the bigs’ game today. He also discusses the need for tall kids to develop as complete players and the 5’s need to be smart, communicative, and nimble on the defensive end.

The whole series is worth watching, perhaps especially Shaq, Charles Barkley, and the oft-criticized Joel Embiid. Personally, I’d love to hear from Dikembe Mutombo and Greg Monroe, who likely played his final NBA minutes last year, on the subject of the center position.

One thing not discussed enough was how the big man’s game may be affected by foul trouble from rule changes today—likely because the NBA’s 6-foul limit and quarters. Mourning discusses that Adam Silver has made the game more free-flowing and that has helped it’s global growth, but doesn’t hint that the legislation has expedited a minimization of the shot-blocker role. That is, even a modern rim protector utilizing Roy Hibbert’s “straight-up” vertical challenges are inherently deterred by foul risks.

But as college basketball has followed the pro’s example with freedom of movement, the center position has struggled to stay on the floor all over the country if he’s not parked on the perimeter. Where teams that lacked a guy over 6’9” used to be left behind, some programs have flourished by having 3 or 4 guards playing with a stretch-4 as their center because of the speed and threes. It’s essentially a liability to be super tall.

This year a few college teams have found ways to employ big men successfully, but Georgetown and Omer Yurtseven have certainly lacked consistency. Yurtseven has a tremendous skill-set low and high, and the offense looks best when he is passing out of a double-team. Offenses have taken advantage of big men on the floor using screens, weaves, and spreads.

Perhaps Ewing’s center philosophy can be revisited in April rather than just in musings on a weekend off, but his 2018 recruitment of three 6’10” freshmen certainly says a lot. For better or worse with this modern game, Georgetown is still Big Man U.