NBA Skills Competition Reflects Rise Of Big Men Playing Small Ball
Guards Dominated Skill Competitions
The NBA skills competition is part of the NBA All-Star Weekend and it started with legendary point guards dueling in passing, shooting and handles to determine the finest skillset in the association. Appropriately, Jason Kidd took the first contest over Tony Parker, Stephon Marbury and Gary Payton, displaying his omnipresent competitive spirit along with smooth moves.
In 2003, the idea of power forwards and centers competing against ones and twos in a small ball contest was unthinkable. The association still separated the perimeter, the paint and the post, with bigs expected to remain close to the bucket while forwards and guards mostly patrolled the perimeter. LeBron James would be the first small forward to participate, hinting at the big man revolution to come.
The King’s skillset as a 6’8” small forward was reminiscent of Magic Johnson. Both superstars were rare examples of tall, physical players with the capability of performing with the same speed and agility as men half-a-foot smaller. As the NBA shifted strategy, the skills competition would witness the first legitimate big man in the contest.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Broke The Small Ball Ceiling
In 2014, Giannis Antetokounmpo became the first big man to take part in the skills contest. Standing an inch below seven feet, the Greek Freak was drafted 15th overall by the Bucks because of the absurd athleticism he displays and his seven-foot-three wingspan. Partnered with DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors, Giannis didn’t win his appearance at the contest, even if his participation in the event turned heads.
Fast-forward to the 2017-18 season, in which Giannis plays a point forwad, ball-handling role with the Bucks, scoring 27.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG and 4.8 APG. Antetokounmpo will garner attention as an MVP candidate at the age of 23, and he still hasn’t maximized his long-range game, still in the process of finding his three-point stroke.
Few teams can slow Giannis down, but as he rounds into his prime, there’s a chance that he’ll become completely unguardable, especially if the Milwaukee Bucks surround him with talent which maximizes the sheer potential of Giannis. He’ll never shoot as well as Kevin Durant, but the Greek Freak’s statline already features greater scoring and rebounding, while producing a similar number of dimes.
Karl-Anthony Towns Wins One For The Big Men
The first big man to win the skills competition was Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who defeated Isaiah Thomas in the finals to claim the trophy. This victory would be followed by Kristaps Porzingis, who outdueled Gordon Hayward in the finals for the 2017 competition. In 2018, Andre Drummond (!), Al Horford, Nikola Jokic and Lauri Markkanen will represent the four power forwards and centers competing against guards.
Skilled handles, passing and shooting from big men has exploded to the point where each skills competition now features a battle between guards and bigs. The role of centers and power forwards evolved in parallel, with many modern big men expected to roam from the restricted area all the way out to the perimeter. Against teams like the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers, fours and fives without the ability to shoot and defend threes often get played off the court by players like Durant, Green and Love.
The rise of small ball and the three-point shot now demands much more from the modern NBA big man. Power forward and center prospects entering the highest levels of basketball require similar abilities which used to be the sole domain of guards. An NBA all-star skills competition won two years in a row by seven-footers symbolizes the radical change that’s occurred over the last decade and a half.
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