Can he play? That's the first and last question NBA scouts ask about a prospect. Can he play elite basketball at the pro level? Like a relationship status on Facebook, the answer to that question is, well, complicated. Because the NBA is at a crossroads.
Today's can't-miss prospects might get swallowed up by a new-age NBA that's changing before our very eyes. What players have typically been asked to do on the court is now an ever-changing matrix of new responsibilities, nontraditional skill sets, and changing roles in a game that's in the process of major renovations.
Every major sport has been marked by transition and evolution. The quarterback position in football has refined over time, drifting from a game of sturdy pocket passers to one featuring mobile field generals who can run and throw. Football, more broadly, has transformed to a pass-heavy game with less running, more plays, and way more offense.
Hockey has placed an emphasis on speed and skill, leaving the trap and the clutching and grabbing of the 1990s in the dust. Goalies have gotten bigger (Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop is an NBA-worthy 6-foot-7), and a premium has been placed on skating and agility.
Baseball adopted the moneyball ethos, moving away from big-hitting, big-money players that once dominated the game. Stars are younger than ever; look no further than 20-something outfielders like Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig, and Mike Trout. Pitching remains paramount, but baseball players are more athletic than ever.
Now basketball is in the middle of an exciting change. The Golden State Warriors legitimized small ball, using fabulous guard play, ball movement, corner threes, and relatively positionless basketball to capture a championship this year.
The Warriors did not invent this style of basketball; they merely perfected it. For the last decade, teams like the Suns, Mavericks, and Heat have all used nontraditional lineups without a true center to achieve varying levels of success. The transition from a big man's game, the one dominated the last 30 years by guys like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwan, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, is now taking emphasis away from the guys in the frontcourt and putting it on the slashers and shooters up top.
It is ironic then that the top three picks of the 2015 NBA Draft are likely to be big men. Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, and Kristaps Porzingis are projected to go 1-2-3. But when they lace up for their first pro games later this year, they are going to be asked to play different roles than forwards and centers have typically been asked before.
Can those big guys — Okafor, at 6-foot-10, is the shortest of the three — guard LeBron James without looking foolish? Because James actually lined up at center at times during the NBA Finals. Golden State deployed Draymond Green (6-foot-7) and Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (6-foot-6) at center when the Warriors went small.
The new NBA pulls big men out from under the hoop to chase opponents playing a new game. The small ball movement has guards lining up as forwards, forwards playing center, and the lines that separate positions are rapidly blurring. Welcome to the new age of basketball.
In football, teams must now be able to play uptempo and smashmouth. In hockey, you have to be able to play wide-open offense as well as you can muck and grind. And just like elite golfers must have touch around the greens but also grip it and rip it, basketball players are increasingly being asked to play big and small.
Basketball has been slow to evolve. The transition in hoops has been glacial compared to the advances in other sports. But now the evolution of the game is clearly underway. Still, the only question that really matters before a team invests in a player remains: Can he play?
Play what, exactly? For a changing NBA, it's complicated.