College big men struggle to adapt to the demands of evolving NBA

Ethan Happ will return to Wisconsin after withdrawing from the NBA draft. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Deandre Ayton, the projected No. 1 pick in Thursday's NBA draft, represents a fleet of big men expected to be taken in the lottery who do not resemble their predecessors from a decade ago.

The 2008 NBA draft was marked by Roy Hibbert and other plodding, back-to-the-basket big men. Thursday's group includes big men who can run the floor, defend multiple positions and knock down 3-pointers, a new breed of power forwards and centers with the offensive skills and mobility of guards.

"Well, obviously the game's changed a lot over the last 10 years," said one former NBA general manager who did not want to be named. "If you look at all the numbers, the biggest change is the amount of 3-pointers taken, and so as far the expectations, roles and responsibilities for big men, I think it has really put a premium on shooting, and you've got guys that didn't shoot any 3s or hardly any 3s earlier in their careers, and then all of sudden, they're shooting 3s, and it's a big part of their offense."

Wisconsin's Ethan Happ, who made one of his 11 3-point attempts last season, will not be in Brooklyn. The 6-foot-10 All Big Ten selection withdrew his name from the draft and will return to the Badgers for his senior season.

Happ received positive feedback from NBA executives such as Magic Johnson and Danny Ainge, but they advised him to develop a reliable jump shot before he pursues his NBA dreams. It's an ongoing dilemma for big men who excel at the college level but are finding that their games don't translate as well to the next level as the NBA evolves and the skills required for power forwards and centers expand.

"It wasn't shocking. I knew that," Happ said of NBA execs who critiqued his game. He said that in the past year or two, he has been watching the NBA less from a fan perspective and more as a student of the league, studying film on what players do well.

"There are some exceptions where they have big dudes who don't shoot it. They're just in there for passing and rebounding, but for the most part in today's NBA, everybody's gotta shoot because 6-[foot]-9 guys that can't shoot are not obsolete yet, but they're on their way."

Other college players who returned to school received similar feedback, including West Virginia's Sagaba Konate, Kansas' Udoka Azubuike, South Dakota State's Mike Daum, Georgetown's Jessie Govan, Maryland's Bruno Fernando and Miami's Dewan Huell.

"There are some exceptions where they have big dudes who don't shoot it. They're just in there for passing and rebounding, but for the most part in today's NBA, everybody's gotta shoot because 6-[foot]-9 guys that can't shoot are not obsolete yet, but they're on their way."
Ethan Happ

Their returns blessed their programs while generating a question: How can today's big men make an impact at the collegiate level and prepare for a professional future as the position evolves in real time? College coaches say it's not as simple as letting a player try to add a 3-pointer to his game.

"I don't think you're going to build your offense around a developmental big man, and I think that's what some of these bigs are," said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, a former NBA assistant. "They came back because they're not developed enough, so if they do come back to college, are you going to base your offense around them?"

Happ won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. He averaged 17.9 PPG, 8.0 RPG and 1.1 BPG for the Badgers last season, mostly as an around-the-rim threat.

He isn't Ayton or Mohamed Bamba, freakish athletes with undeniable, next-level talent. But Happ, who was not invited to the NBA draft combine, possesses tools that have historically helped big men find spots in the NBA.

He's a great defender in the paint. He has a palette of post moves and is more explosive than most players at his position. He's strong and efficient, yet the NBA staffers who attended his workouts with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and seven other teams offered the same message.

"I need to develop about a 10--to-15-foot shot to try and create more spacing because that's what the NBA is," Happ said. "You need almost everybody to be a shooter in order for your offense to run fluidly. That was the biggest thing that I got back from every team."

Twenty-one of the first 36 picks in the 2008 NBA draft were listed as power forwards or centers. Some continue to excel in the league. Kevin Love is a perennial All-Star. Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez made more than $35 million combined for the Lakers and the Chicago Bulls, respectively, last season. Serge Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan continue to make an impact. But many from that group have not survived, largely because they could not adapt.

In Brook Lopez's final year at Stanford, before he became the 10th pick in the 2008 NBA draft, 58.4 percent of his plays were post-ups, per Synergy Sports Data. He took 21 3-pointers combined in two seasons.

Only 28.9 percent of Ayton's plays came from post-ups at Arizona last season, while 22.1 percent came from cuts to the basket and 14.6 percent came from pick-and-roll situations. He made 34 percent of the 35 3-pointers he took last season.

"Those bigs [in 2008] were true 5s, less athletic and lumbering up and down the floor," one NBA scout said. "This group is much more athletic and can step out and play in different spots."


Prospect Profile: Deandre Ayton

Deandre Ayton has "the most potential to be great in this NBA draft," according to Jay Bilas.

Added another NBA scout: "Everyone wants to be on the floor when it matters, so as bigs, you have to be able to spread the floor and move your feet on defense. These guys play a lot more on the perimeter."

But the NBA features the greatest athletes in the world. You can't turn an average talent into an Anthony Davis.

That, however, is also the benefit of the college game. It possesses a diversity that allowed Loyola-Chicago and its team of three-star shooters to reach the Final Four. The Ramblers were joined in San Antonio by a Villanova team with four potential first-round picks that won the title without using a true center, a Michigan team that played through a 6-foot-11 big man (Moritz Wagner) who took seven 3-pointers in a national semifinal win over Loyola-Chicago and a Kansas team that simultaneously played four guards who all made nearly 40 percent of their 3-pointers.

Despite the elite crop of big men in this year's draft class, small ball ruled in 2017-18. Just a year earlier, North Carolina and Gonzaga combined to use seven players 6-foot-9 or taller in a title game that was contested in the paint.

College basketball operates off personnel more than scheme, but the NBA's philosophies about "positionless" basketball and flexible big men have clearly bled into the game, complicating the professional outlooks for collegiate big men.

Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound center, averaged 12.2 PPG and 5.8 RPG in 2016-17 while helping Gonzaga reach the national title game. He lost weight over the summer to prepare for NBA tryouts. He could pass out of the post, so he was impossible to double in college. And he moved well for a player his size.

That's why Mark Few was surprised by his conversations with NBA personnel about Karnowski's professional prospects.

"I think I had one of the most dominant athletes in college basketball in Karnowski," Few said. "Scouts, general managers all said, 'If he would've been around 10 years ago, he would've been a first-round pick.'"

Karnowski went undrafted and played overseas in Spain last season.

But Few has had other standout big men in recent years -- many from outside America -- who resemble the next generation of power forwards and centers coveted by the NBA. Kelly Olynyk averaged 11.5 PPG for the Miami Heat last season. Zach Collins is a promising young player for the Portland Trail Blazers. Killian Tillie, a 6-foot-10 forward who made 48 percent of his 3-pointers last season, could crack the first round in 2019's NBA draft.

Two years ago, Tillie, Collins and Karnowski all competed on a team that lost a rugged national title game against North Carolina. That has become a rare sight, though. The college game is not moving toward the paint, Few said. It's moving away from it.

"It's so physical in there," Few said. "They're tackling them. They're fouling them. Coaches, players, everyone. ... They're not getting paid when they throw the ball inside for a back-to-the-basket move."

"It's so physical in there. They're tackling them. They're fouling them. Coaches, players, everyone ... They're not getting paid when they throw the ball inside for a back-to-the-basket move."
Mark Few

Nevada's Eric Musselman wonders how his team will stretch the floor now that Jordan Brown, a 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American, has arrived. It's a fascinating quandary for Musselman, who led his team to the Sweet 16 last season and returns enough talent to warrant a top-10 preseason ranking.

"We certainly look at Jordan like he's a hybrid forward, a guy that can and will play out on the floor," Musselman said. "He's excellent off the dribble, a good perimeter shooter who's only gonna get better in that area. I think he is one of those guys."

As a former NBA and G League head coach, Musselman has followed this evolution closely. He said Brown and the new wave of big men turn to skill development coaches who teach only perimeter moves and tools that work in space instead of back-to-the-basket ideas.

It's an important, oft-repeated element of the conversation: Today's top big men have always played multiple positions.

Ayton refused to work with post players when he was learning the game growing up in the Bahamas.

"When I started playing basketball, they always would have me at the block, and I'm like, 'Yo, I don't want to play down here,'" he told ESPN.com last year. "I want to do something else. This is not entertaining to me, and whatever the guards do, I wanted to do. In practice, I'm not doing post work. I want to dribble the ball. I want to shoot, too."

Michael Porter Jr.'s father, an assistant coach at Missouri, taught his son all five positions when he was a young player. Porter believes he'll showcase that versatility at the next level.

"For me, I want to play so good, work on my game so much that it's unanimous," the 6-foot-10 forward told ESPN.com last season. "Even if they need a 5, they don't have a choice but to take me [at No. 1]."

Jaren Jackson Jr.'s father, a former NBA player, worked with the projected lottery pick on 3-point shooting even when youth coaches expected him to play in the paint.

"I always had it," Jackson told ESPN.com of his 3-point-shooting ability. "My dad always made sure I had it because my dad could shoot. He told me that eventually I would have the freedom to shoot it."

As for the players who tested the draft process, they said they are committed to developing their skill sets to be more suitable to the NBA.

Kansas' Azubuike (13.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.7 BPG) withdrew after NBA execs and personnel told him to work on his free throw shooting and improve his conditioning. They compared him to Clint Capela, the Houston Rockets' versatile center.

"It was just pretty much stuff I'm already doing in college," said Azubuike, a 7-foot, 280-pound center. "But they wanted me to do it way better, like getting in better shape, because they told me, 'You're in good shape, but you have to be in way, way better shape because in the NBA, big men are always running the floor, setting good screens and running to the basket as quick as possible.'"

West Virginia's Konate, a 6-foot-8 defensive tyrant, nearly averaged a double-double and recorded 3.2 blocks per game last season. He could fill a similar role in the NBA.

Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said NBA execs like Konate because he can switch off screens and guard multiple positions. He said Konate can step out and shoot when he wants to -- he has not taken a 3-pointer in two seasons at West Virginia -- but his defensive versatility is his ticket to the NBA.

But Huggins is an old-school coach who has helped develop true back-to-the-basket post players. He said he isn't sure those players could make the cut in the NBA.

"I think [the evolution of big men] has impacted the game from the standpoint that they don't really have power forwards any more, per se," Huggins said. "There are more 3-4 guys. Maybe a Charles Oakley, a Rick Mahorn, a Danny Fortson. I think those guys would have a hard time today."

You don't have to go back that far to see the challenges for collegiate big men stuck in a landscape demanding so much more from them.

In the 2008 NBA draft, the Detroit Pistons made D.J. White the 29th pick of the first round. He left Indiana after winning Big Ten Player of the Year honors and was a strong post player who had his way around the rim.

He didn't have the same advantage in the NBA. He played for three teams during a seven-year career and never attempted a 3-pointer.

Today, White plays professional basketball in Turkey, where he's a combo forward.

"I shoot more 3s than 2s now," White said. "Ten years ago, you would have never believed that."

He credits his coaches overseas for giving him the green light to shoot. In college, he overpowered players, something he struggled to do in the NBA. But he still believes he could play in the NBA today, especially with his new skills.

He sometimes reflects on his draft class, a group filled with big men still making money in the league and a growing list of power forwards and centers who either have been reduced to playing minor roles or no longer have jobs in the league.

"If you didn't change your game," White said of himself and his 2008 NBA draft peers, "you're probably not playing now."

White did offer some advice, however, to collegiate big men with bigger dreams: Never forget what you did to get to this point.

It's a message Happ understands. He could start the season as the Big Ten's Preseason Player of the Year and earn All-America consideration. But how will he balance that possibility against his professional dreams and the skills they demand?

"It takes time to evolve as a shooter," Badgers coach Greg Gard said. "That's not something that happens overnight. But the same things that can make us most successful, the most efficient team, are the same things that can help him make the most impact at the next level."

That's Happ's plan: stick to his gifts while gradually adding more range to his game. He won't become Dirk Nowitzki and take wild shots to prove a point -- Gard wouldn't let him even if he wanted to -- but he believes he can prove to the NBA execs who encouraged him and told him to get better in specific areas that he's a different player.

"It's pretty simple for me, though. Because if I can knock down a 15-foot shot, that makes Wisconsin better," Happ said. "If I can showcase my ballhandling skill, that makes Wisconsin better."

For big men in his position, there has never been a more promising, turbulent time.