Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
15. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Billing John Collins as a play-finisher fails to adequately encapsulate his value. His offensive imprint is more encyclopedic. Yes, he does most of his damage working off others. Almost three-quarters of his made buckets came off assists last season, and he does the brunt of his scoring as a roll man, spot-up option and put-back dunker. But that’s kind of the point.
The scope of Collins’ offensive application outstrips that from most other bigs. The vast majority of non-hubs traffic in diving or shooting. Rare is the player who does both effectively. Even rarer is someone like Collins, who moves so deliberately his off-ball navigation is its own form of shot creation, and who bangs in more than 40 percent of his threes. He pairs this hybrid combo with a budding floor game. Slower bigs are his primary prey, but he can get around almost anyone, going left or right, who isn’t fully set.
Collins’ ceiling continues to rest on his defense. His decision-making around the basket is timelier and much more effective, but his perimeter ball containment has to get better if he’s primarily at the 4 and going to be matchup-proof. Even if he’s never the latter, his offense will render him borderline indispensable. At a time when most bigs and stereotypical 4s are considered mutable, his is a skill set too special to imitate.
14. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Though outside shooting has become standard up front, Jaren Jackson Jr.’s marriage of volume and efficiency remains novel. Only 12 other players last season shot better than 39 percent from deep on more than eight attempts per 36 minutes, the vast majority of whom were wings and guards. Jackson did not join this club by solely downing gimmes, either. His floor-spacing is functional; he has a quick release and doesn’t need a ton of airspace to fire away.
There may be no next step for Jackson on offenseno push for him to create more off the dribble or bolster his post game. That’s fine. He is someone who can score 20-plus points entirely within the flow of the offense.
Defense and availability will have a larger say in Jackson’s immediate future. Can he rebound enough to play the 5? Foul less in general? Hang in space as well as he was supposed to coming out of Michigan State? The Grizzlies will have to wait for answers, as Jackson is slated to miss the start of the season while recovering from left knee surgery. What he shows on defense upon his return will dictate much about their future beyond this year.
13. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Domantas Sabonis is not a throwback to a previous era so much as he plays against the grain of this one. Post touches are a big part of his gamehe ranked 10th in post-ups last seasonbut they do not define it. They’re more of an instrument to access his vision, and the scoring borne from them is less a nod to the past than a contemporary spin on tradition.
Seldom is Sabonis found pounding the leather off the ball with his back to the basket. His post touches are rooted in quick decision-making, usually immediate passes or series of spins and turns and dribbles that aid his attempts to put pressure on the rim.
Beyond that, there is nothing outmoded about Sabonis leading fastbreaks and executing dribble hand-offs to perfection. His aversion to shooting threes thus far is actually the most antiquated part of his game. The space he must occupy inside the arc complicates the offense when he’s playing in tandem with Myles Turner, and it calls for a certain lineup structure around him when he’s at center.
These idiosyncrasies can be restrictive when ignored or deployed in conflicting context, but they uplift when enabled. Indiana scored 116 points per 100 possessions last season when he played without Turner (90th percentile), an upswing that does little to clarify their frontcourt partnership yet supports what the eyes so clearly see: unlocking the space around Sabonis unleashes the scariest version of his team.
12. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
So few bigs are equipped to handle the offensive strain Orlando places upon Nikola Vucevic. It is not just the quantity of his production20.3 points and 3.7 assists over the past two seasonsbut the quality of operation his playing time ensures.
The Magic have skirted shooting at almost every turn, preferring instead to emphasize discipline and length at the other end. Vucevic is not the star who transcends circumstances on his own. He does, however, make them more bearable. Orlando’s effective field-goal percentage has soared whenever he’s on the floor in each of the past four years thanks to his indiscriminate gravitational pull. Defenses are drawn to him both inside the arc and out, and he plays with the touch, skill and decision-making to capitalize on that attention by his own hand or moving the ball to someone else.
This isn’t a body of responsibility that wins many games. A team that counts Vucevic as its lifeline is unfailingly capped at ceremonial playoff berths. And that’s not a knock against him. On the contrary, while he can’t take the Magic beyond their first-round ceiling without the acquisition of a superior player, he is the primary force that prevents them from falling through their floor.
11. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
By archetype alone, Kristaps Porzingis is valuable beyond estimate. A 7’3″ big who uncorks threes in droves and protects the rim at an All-Defense level is, conceptually, an ideal No. 2 for a championship contender with an alpha ball-handler.
Playing in Dallas has only increased the apex and likelihood of that best-case outcome. Whether through involuntary design, a better sense of self, the presence of Luka Doncic or some combination of all three, Porzingis has exchanged post-up volume for more catch-and-shoot looks. And on those occasions when he is working from a standstill or off the dribble, he’s more aware of his surroundings, and the open shooters they include.
Fully healthy, this is not a player who counts 10 bigs better than himself, or who is clinging to top-40 status overall. But presuming his availability is no longer prudent. Porzingis has dealt with myriad issues on the left side of his body and is still recovering from the torn right meniscus he suffered at the end of last season. For as much as this falls beyond his control, availability remains part of the job description. His cannot be guaranteed, and so his long-awaited entry into sustainable stardom can’t be, either.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press