Big men in basketball have become more difficult to discuss over the last several years. Gone are the days — at least we think — of large humans dominating games, like a Shaquille O’Neal or a Hakeem Olajuwon.
In those guys’ places are still-lengthy members of our species, but instead of bullying guys in the block or dazzling us with their footwork, we are witnessing power forwards becoming fourth wing players and centers evolving into stretch-fours.
Essentially, the game is getting smaller, not in terms of length on the floor, but relative to how the sport is being played with more space and less brutality.
There are obviously exceptions to those ideas. For every seven-footer capable of hitting threes with regularity, there is a Jameel Warney — oddly enough, undersized — who loves to bang underneath.
In college basketball, we are more likely to find those types of players. As the NBA continues its quest to stretch the floor to the point of insanity (in a good way), collegiate programs around the nation are far more limited in terms of the players at their disposal, making it a place more likely to find “traditional” big men.
As for which big men are great, we already know about all the fancy incoming freshmen, the Ivan Rabbs and Thomas Bryants, and the undersized fours coming back this season. What about some of college basketball’s “other” big men? The ones flying relatively under-the-radar?
Let’s take a gander.
Yankuba Sima – St. John’s – 6-11 Center
Sima is a weird player to discuss. He showed some flashes of brilliance here and there as a freshman, then again in the under-20 competitions over the summer, but some of his flaws are so glaring that an NBA scout would need to wear shades while watching him play.
The bad is obvious. He is a poor rebounder (in ratio terms) for a player his size and length; he is an abominable free-throw shooter (39 percent); he plays with what appears to be no feel for the game; and, yet, despite all of that, there are legitimate reasons to believe he’ll eventually become a really good center.
Already playing with a soft touch, Sima has an inorganic feel around the basket, but that can easily be attributed to lack of development. Considering he’s shooting 49 percent from the floor while trying to play the game in an unnatural way, his efficiency numbers should only go up as he gets more minutes during his career.
Sima has also reportedly put on anywhere between 15 and 20 pounds of muscle over the summer. Considering he already had a nifty box score of 7.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game as an incredibly thin freshman, a jump in production simply as a product of his body maturing should be expected.
Basically, he’s going to get better simply by getting older. That’s even removing whatever work he has personally put into his game. When you couple the latter with the former, he’s worth keeping an eye on, even if we’re still probably a full season away from seeing a high-impact version of Sima.
Rokas Gustys – Hofstra – 6-9 Power Forward
If you don’t know who Gustys is, that’s due to several reasons, many of which are out of your control.
- He’s not a domestic product (he’s Lithuanian).
- YouTube clips of him in high school weren’t exactly making the rounds (boo, YouTube).
- He plays for Hofstra (you might not be up on your Pride hoops).
- Hofstra hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament during his time there (though it has still been good).
Regardless, now you at least read his name. As for what makes him a special big man, the junior has already showcased that over the course of his first two seasons as a collegiate athlete.
As a sophomore, Gustys averaged 13.5 points, 13 rebounds, and slightly over a block per game. That’s the surface-level stuff, though it should be good enough to warrant your attention.
Not only does Gustys have a chance to lead the nation in rebounding this season after finishing second last year, but he also has an outside shot to help the Pride make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001.
While there are variables in that equation outside of the player’s control — other CAA teams, his teammates, etc. — if Hofstra fails to make the Big Dance it won’t be because of a player who shoots 66 percent from the floor, was fifth in win-shares in the league last season, and is on pace to be the CAA’s all-time leading rebounder.
It is worth pointing out, however, he fouls at a high rate. While playing 30 minutes per game last season, he also averaged 3.4 fouls per outing.
Luke Kornet – Vanderbilt – 7-0 Power Forward/Center
Kornet rightly got lost last season in the Vandy shuffle. With two legitimate NBA players on the roster, coupled with Kevin Stallings taking heat for underachieving (relative to a roster build), it makes sense that even a skilled seven-footer would be mostly unknown to those who casually follow the sport.
However, with Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones gone to the NBA, and Stallings leaving for Pitt, the world is Kornet’s oyster — at least potentially.
Not exactly a dynamic athlete, Kornet is solid with the rock — especially for a man his size — and has the potential to be more than a pick-and-pop big man at the college level.
Heading into this season, he’s mostly been known as an opportunistic scorer, thanks to playing alongside more refined offensive weapons, but there’s little reason to doubt yet another year of improvement from the big man.
An example of this can be found in his rebounding over the course of his career. Kornet’s rebounding numbers improved from 6 rebounds per-40 minutes during the 2014-’15 season, pace adjusted, to 10.9 as a junior. This improvement can be explained by a late growth spurt.
He also blocked significantly more shots (1.9 per-40 minutes, pace adjusted, to 4.4), committed fewer turnovers (2.2 to 1.6), and got to the free-throw line more (25.7 percent free-throw rate to 32.9) — and it is worth noting that he is a solid shooter from the charity stripe (70 percent for his career).
Those aren’t all offensive improvements, but they highlight that he has improved, which should lend credence to the idea that he can continue to develop and be more offensively productive this season, since he’ll likely be asked to do more at that end of the floor.
Whether or not Vandy is good enough to make people notice the big man is a different question entirely.
Honorable Mention (Big Man, Kind Of, But Unverified)
I really wanted to discuss Tyler Cavanaugh, the George Washington forward.
One problem: He’s not really a four or a five as much as he’s a “3.5” — a player smack dab between a small forward and a power forward. I did write about him earlier in the offseason, so check it out.