Only three pure centers were drafted in the first round of last year’s draft, though five other players who could be labeled combo big men were also selected within the first 30 picks.
What the NBA looks for in its big men continues to evolve, but it seems clear that there are fewer and fewer minutes available for players who can’t contribute with any sort of dynamism on offense (whether it’s by stretching the floor or offering vertical spacing or helping facilitate offense via handoffs) or at least defend pick-and-rolls above the foul line on defense.
The league still loves their seven-footers, of course, but size for size’s sake is no longer unquestionably coveted by everyone.
As a result, ESPN’s latest mock draft reflect that reality, with the top five big men not necessarily having prototypical size but all having shown potential to offer either the skill level on offense or the range on defense that most teams in the league tend to prioritize in their rotations right now.
The stats and measurements in this post were researched at our own stats’ database, unless mentioned otherwise.
ESPN’s mock draft was used as the guide for the rankings cited.
Let’s dive into the introductions.
- James Wiseman (Ranked 1st, Memphis, 18 years old, 7’1’’, 240 LBS)
Ranked as the number one prospect in the 2019 high school class, Wiseman is currently viewed as the number one overall prospect in next year’s draft as well.
Measured at six-foot-11 without shoes with a seven-foot-four wingspan and weighed at 247 pounds in the Memphis Pro Day , he looks ready to step into an NBA game right now, from a physical profile-standpoint.
Wiseman is projected as a modern center on offense, capable of offering vertical and horizontal spacing, but those traits are more theoretical than proven for now.
He can play above the rim as a target for lobs sneaking behind the defense on longer rolls, out of the dunker spot and filling the lanes in transition but is only a so-so screener at this point of his development (often too lackadaisical in his approach to the on-ball defender) and wasn’t given many chances to roll hard down the lane in high school.
The 18-year-old  was given the freedom to step out to the three-point line while playing for Memphis East High School and even flashed some versatility to his release while taking catch-and-shoot jumpers out of the pick-and-pop, as the trailer in transition and jogging to the top of the key. He doesn’t have an impressively quick trigger but has a fluid enough release for a six-foot-11 player, launches the ball from the top and gets a good deal of elevation for someone his size, so he manages to get his shot off over closeouts somewhat comfortably.
The ball doesn’t go in a whole lot yet, though. The lefty nailed just four of his 27 three-point attempts with Bluff City Legends in the Nike EYBL & Peach Jam circuit a year ago. More discouragingly, he hit just 55.4% of his 101 free throw attempts in those events, which raises doubts over his natural touch.
Wiseman got a lot of touches in the post in high school and showed a strong preference for facing up, at times seeming like he allowed himself to get pushed out of the mid-post out to the elbow extended area in order to face up against his man with a little more space to operate.
He hasn’t yet developed a patient approach or a diverse set of moves operating with his back to the basket – most often looking for turnaround hooks and yet to show he can go to his right hand as an option.
On the other end, things looked a lot more promising.
Wiseman impressed with his activity as a rim protector in high school. He is a quick leaper off two feet to block or challenge shots via verticality while stepping up to the front of the basket and an explosive leaper off one foot coming across the lane on longer rotations, besides having the sort of length needed to block or alter shots even when he is a step late and not within the finisher’s immediate area.
Wiseman shadows isolations and also impressed with multiple efforts stepping up to discourage a shot attempt by the driver, then turning around and going up in a split-second to block a shot by his man roaming around the dunker spot.
While not a dominant rebounder when matched up against similarly-physical opponents in the All-Star events he’s participated over the last couple of years, Wiseman was more often than not attentive to his boxout responsibilities and got physical defending his rebounding area at the level he played at in high school.
- Isaiah Stewart, II (Ranked 13th, Washington, 18 years old, 6’9’’, 240 LBS)
Stewart is another prospect who looks ready for the pros right now from a physical profile-standpoint, measured at six-foot-eight without shoes with a seven-foot-four wingspan and weighed at 242 pounds in the Nike Hoop Summit.
His game is mostly built around strength and physicality on both ends but Stewart has shown a good deal of hops and skill as well.
La Lumiere got him most of his touches in the mid-post and the 18-year-old has impressed with the versatility of his shot creation potential.
He will lower his shoulders and back down his defender via a power move from time-to-time but often likes to rely on a combination of pivot moves, spins and head fakes to get his man out of position in order to create separation for up-and-under finishes. His touch around the basket tends to be pleasing.
Stewart has flashed a very promising jump-shot out of catching the ball with his back-to-the-basket as well – not just off facing up his man and jab-stepping him into contesting a half-second late but on quick turnaround fadeaway jumpers too. He gets little elevation off the ground but rises with very good balance for someone his weight, has a fairly quick trigger and fully extends himself for a high release.
Stewart has even shown glimpses of being able to create for others while flashing quick reactions on touch passes against hard double teams and court vision hitting cutters darting through the lane.
In pick-and-roll, he is a so-so screener who hasn’t yet developed advanced techniques leveraging his wide frame into disrupting on-ball defenders consistently and has only proven to be a threat to play above the rim as a target for lobs on longer rolls sneaking behind the defense.
His pick-and-roll defense is a mixed bag too. La Lumiere had him only venturing a step or so above the foul line and asked him to drop back. Stewart is reasonably active stepping up to his position and impresses with his fluidity backpedaling but rarely stops the ball or prevents the ball handler from turning the corner or getting downhill right away off the screen, though he makes an impact leveraging his length into deflecting feeds to the roll man.
Stewart is active stepping up to the front of the rim, a quick leaper off two feet to challenge shots via verticality and conscious not to overreach – which is impressive awareness for a teenager. He has also impressed with multiple effort plays by cutting off a driver, forcing the drop-off and then quickly turning around to contest a catch-and-finish attempt by his man at the dunker stop.
In those instances, Stewart has proven himself a capable shot blocker but has not posted the sort of particularly impressive numbers expected from someone likely to be logging NBA minutes in a dozen months.
- Matthew Hurt (Ranked 16th, Duke, 19 years old, 6’9’’, 214 LBS)
After scoring over 3,500 points for John Marshall High School in Minnesota, Hurt arrives at Duke as the 11th-ranked prospect in the 2019 high school class.
He projects as a more of a complementary player than a primary option on offense, though.
Which is not to say that the six-foot-eight stretch big isn’t a prospect of interest, considering the growing importance of big men who can act as a connective tissue to aid ball movement and people movement with handoffs, kickouts out of the short roll, quick ball reversals and by hitting cutters slipping backdoor off fake handoffs.
Early indications suggest Hurt might have the traits needed to develop into someone like that.
He most often spaces out to the three-point line in the half-court and has shown to be a capable shooter on open spot-ups. Though a near set shooter who gets very little elevation off the ground, Hurt launches from the top, has good guide hand discipline in his mechanics and displays a good touch.
He has not proven himself capable of taking shots on the move yet, needing time and space to set his feet and angle his body. The speed and fluidity of his release need improvement as well but he seems on his way to becoming the sort of shooter who offers gravity as a weak-side threat.
With most of his looks projected to come from long range, Hurt is the sort of player opponents are likely to feel comfortable switching or cross-matching against but the 19-year-old has flashed the ability to hurt those switches by showing a knack for tip-ins while crashing the offensive glass.
When actively participating in the shot creation process, he’s shown to be a solid screener, who sets moving picks and makes it challenging for the on-ball defender to navigate around his 214-pound frame. Hurt has more of a tendency of rolling into post-ups rather than roll hard to the basket or pop into an open area for a jumper.
Rolling into post-ups are often the best way of him getting deep position because Hurt is not very physical while trying to establish a seal and offer his teammate a good angle for the post entry.
He hasn’t shown much in terms of sleek footwork, pivot moves, spins, fakes or power moves operating with his back to the basket but does have a quick turnaround fadeaway jumper to get his shot off over most opponents.
Duke has shown in preseason that it will try to get him the ball in the elbow area as well and have him drive against stiffer opponents. Hurt doesn’t have a quick first step or a whole lot of shiftiness and has only a basic handle but can maintain his balance and his momentum forward through contact. He is not an explosive leaper off one foot and doesn’t have a lot of flexibility to hang or adjust his body in the air but has proven himself able to finish through contact.
On the other end, Hurt has impressed with his activity as an off-ball defender, as he hustles to help clog driving lanes as a weak-side defender, shadows isolations and switches on the fly to make up for a teammate losing his man.
He mostly hunches rather than bends his knees to get down in a stance defending in the perimeter and is only so-so as an individual defender out in space.
Hurt can keep pace with big wings/face-up big men on straight line drives and contain dribble penetration through contact if they drive into his chest but lacks the lateral quickness to stay in front if shook side-to-side.
That lack of foot speed also prevents him from being considered a good option to pick up smaller players on switches regularly. He’s shown glimpses of being able to keep pace well enough on a straight line to bother from behind but isn’t fit to stay in front out on an island and can’t navigate over if directed towards a screen.
Hurt is a decent help defender off the weakside (able to absorb a hit and challenge a shot via verticality) but isn’t a powerful enough leaper off two feet without loading up and lacks superior length to act as a constant shot blocking threat.
He is attentive to his boxout responsibilities and physical putting a body on whoever is close by to protect his rebounding area but hasn’t shown particularly impressive quickness chasing the ball off the rim either.
- Obadiah Toppin (Ranked 24th, Dayton, 21 years old, 6’9’’, 220 LBS)
Toppin logged 873 minutes for a Dayton team that won just 21 of its 33 games and got bounced in the first round of the NIT last season. But in that limited playing time, the six-foot-nine combo big got to show a number of impressive traits.
Though he took just 21 three-point shots in those 873 minutes (a pace of only one such attempt per 40 minutes), Toppin spaced out beyond the arc a fair amount and displayed a promising shooting stroke. He has a low release out in front but catches on the hop and goes through compact mechanics very fluidly and quite quickly for someone his height.
Besides basic spot-ups, Toppin even showed a little bit of versatility to his release, taking some three-pointers out of the pick-and-pop as well. He nailed 11 of his 21 three-point shots and 43.8% of his 96 two-point jumpers, though his 71.3% free throw shooting on 87 foul shots puts a cap on some of that excitement.
His interior game is further along, though.
The 21-year-old is a solid screener who looks to draw contact on on-ball defenders and can play above the rim as a target for lobs sneaking behind the defense – finishing at a 71.8% clip out of the pick-and-roll.
Toppin has enough ball skills to catch-and-drive on a straight line as well. He has a quick first step for a big man and somewhat impressive body control not to crash into the help often. He is an explosive leaper off one foot off the bounce, flexible enough to adjust his body mid-air and adept at using his left hand as an option around the rim. 50 of his 148 makes at the rim were unassisted.
The Ossining, New York native logged 25.1% usage rate last season and a fair amount of those touches came in the post. Toppin doesn’t often leverage his 220-pound frame into setting deep position but tends to get good enough seals to receive the ball in a position of strength. He’s shown a patient approach operating with his back to the basket and light feet working his way around stiffer defenders but nothing particularly impressive in terms of pivot moves, head fakes or up-and-under’s. Nonetheless, his touch on hooks with either hand is pretty good, and he ranked in the 91st percentile as a post scorer last season.
Toppin has proven himself an asset to help create for others as well, assisting on 15.6% of Dayton’s scores when he was on the floor last season – able to drop-off to the dunker spot off engaging the last line of defense on drives, hit cutters or shooters over the top off scanning the floor with his back to the basket, keep the ball moving around the horn and act as a hub to facilitate on handoffs.
On the other end, Toppin has impressed with his impact in the hidden areas of the game but was not able to leverage his athletic ability into creating many events.
Dayton asked him to defend pick-and-rolls by going just a step or so above the foul line and then dropping back to prioritize protecting the interior. He has proven himself to be mobile and quick out in space, fluid and coordinated to move sideways and backpedal while stopping the ball handler from turning the corner or getting downhill right away off the screen.
Toppin also picked up smaller players on switches on occasion, bent his knees to get down in a stance and proved himself nimble enough to hold his own on straight line drives but it’s unclear how viable an option he is against shiftier types.
Relying on his mobility, Dayton even had him chasing some bigger wings around screens and he impressed with his hustle negotiating his way around picks and attempting to bother or block shots from behind as they curl around.
Toppin is active stepping up to the front of the rim as the last line of defense and a quick enough leaper off two feet to challenge shots via verticality regularly. He has not shown be a regularly threat to block shots, though – averaging just 1.3 blocks per 40 minutes last season.
Despite being a leaner big man, Toppin doesn’t shy away from the physical areas of the game – hustling to box out and front the post. He collected just 17.1% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor last season, though – raising concerns over his viability as a center as he moves up through the levels.
- Amar Sylla (Ranked 25th, Oostende, 18 years old, 6’9’’, 190 LBS)
Sylla was part of Real Madrid’s very successful junior team last season, which won the Adidas Next Generation Tournament and the Spanish League U18 without losing a single game while blowing out Mega Bemax and Barcelona in both finals by 19 and 24 points, respectively.
The six-foot-nine big man then joined the Senegalese National Team at the U19 World Cup in Crete last summer but struggled to help them compete in any meaningful way. In a team with a few other big men to accommodate, Sylla had to play as a wing for the most part, looked unimpressive from a skill level-standpoint and patched together a lousy statistical profile to boot (considering his status).
Unlikely to be considered for a spot on the roster with Real Madrid’s senior team, which is already stacked with big men and opted to fast-track the integration of Usman Garuba instead of his, the 18-year-old opted against another year at the junior level and transferred to Belgium squad Oostende, where he is now going through his first full season as a pro in the Belgium BSL and FIBA’s Basketball Champions League.
It hasn’t gone great so far. In his 136 minutes over six appearances in both competitions at the time of writing, Sylla has a .316 true shooting percentage and a 5.4 PER to show for. Attempting to develop as a stretch big, a quarter of his shots have come from long range and he’s missed all but one so far, while also missing 61% of his two-point shots and getting to the line just four times total.
In the junior ranks, his best offense tended to be closer to the rim – finishing lobs on longer rolls or out of the dunker and crashing the offensive glass. Though he flashed an open mid-range jumper out of the pick-and-pop on occasion, the lefty was a near-standstill shooter who needed plenty of time and space to go through his release.
His upside is as a defender, particularly the versatility he could offer against the pick-and-roll.
Sylla is agile and well-coordinated for someone his height, which makes him an asset to defend above the foul line. He is very fluid sliding laterally to prevent ball-handlers from turning the corner on one speed and puts in the effort to contest pull-up jumpers effectively, even at the three-point line.
The Senegalese is just as nimble dropping back – backpedaling to stop the ball clogging driving lanes or keeping pace with the ball-handler from the foul line down. He is active with his hands trying to reach around for strips and has proven himself able to block shots defending on the ball.
Sylla projects as an option to pick up smaller players on switches from time-to-time. At least big wings, as he was asked to crossmatch onto Deni Avdija for stretches in the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Munich qualifier of the Adidas Next Generation and held up well enough.
Sylla bends his knees to get down in a stance, has a couple of lateral slides in him to stay in front out in space and puts in the effort to contest pull-ups.
 DOB: 3/31/2001
 DOB: 5/22/2001
 DOB: 4/20/2000
 DOB: 3/4/1998
 Likely a lottery pick in the 2021 Draft
 DOB: 10/1/2001