The Center Squeeze

Sylvia Fowles and Breanna Stewart

For a few years when looking at the NBA and the WNBA, the impact and value of centers appeared to be an area of difference. Centers maintained their impact in the W, with Sylvia Fowles, Britney Griner, and Nneka Ogwumike all impacting winning and championships over the same period of time that the Warriors were rising in the NBA to challenge the value of centers, with undersized Draymond Green thriving in the lineup of death. 

However, recently, the WNBA and NBA seem to be converging in how best to approach the center position. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid went 1 and 2 in MVP voting. Deandre Ayton is playing well and holding his own in the Western Conference finals. So in the NBA, star centers still have value. However, smarter NBA teams are better off not overly focusing on center outside of the very best. Wing depth matters more and decent contributors at center can be found later in the draft or even undrafted. Centers who can lead an offense have value, but those are relatively rare. 

This is basically how this WNBA season is also going. Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, and Liz Cambage are all important parts of their team’s success this year. Jonquel Jones and A’ja Wilson could be on this list for different teams, as both can excel as centers, but they have the versatility to make it work next to more traditional centers. 

However, after the top tier centers, the W has become a tougher place. A look at recent drafts gives us a snapshot of the struggles of non-star centers. The 2018 draft had two traditional centers in Maria Vadeeva, who may have a place in the league, but has not been over from Russia lately, and Mercedes Russell, a late second round pick. The only true center left in the league from the 2019 draft on a regular contract is Teaira McCowan, and her struggles have kept her coming off the bench for a 1 win team and her future in the league as more than a situational offensive player up in the air. 

The 2020 draft had more centers taken in the first round. Returns have been decidedly mixed. Lauren Cox was taken at 3 and was shockingly waived this past weekend. The Sparks have already signed her, but still, not great. Bella Alarie was taken at 5. She has been good defensively this season with the Wings, but may struggle to stick if her offense does not come around, and then none until Beatrice Mompromier in the middle of the second round. Ruthy Hebard plays the 4 for the Sky, but is more of a 5 on offense given her lack of range, and may end up squeezed for a role if she can not either prove she can defend like a 5 or shoot like a 4.

The 2021 continued the trend of a bifurcation for centers, with Charli Collier drafted #1 on the hope of star potential, and no other centers who planned on playing in the W this year drafted until 16 with Natasha Mack. Mack is out of the league at the moment, after a few hardship contracts with the Sky. 

Similar trend holds this year with teams and how they have used their centers. The Sparks have been able to claw their way close to .500 playing one big at a time in either Amanda Zahui B. or Kristine Anigwe next to a wing in either Nia Coffey or even smaller with Karlie Samuelson. Clearly the Sparks would be better with Nneka Ogwumike back, but having wing depth has been key. 

The aforementioned Bella Alarie and Charli Collier have been sharing the center position with the Wings recognizing that they are at their best with Kayla Thornton and Satou Sabally at the 4, players who played the 3 in recent seasons. Long term, it might make sense for the Wings to try Satou Sabally at the center as their best lineups to go small in key moments and stretch opposing defenses. 

Tina Charles has answered questions about her fit with the Mystics by embracing a move to center full time and playing next to a more mobile 4 who can shoot 3s. Gone are the days of playing Tina Charles at power forward and living with her taking 15 footers next to a traditional center like Kiah Stokes. Speaking of Stokes, she was waived by the Liberty though she was on a protected contract and will now be deep on the Aces bench. Howard is a good example of a player who might have been a 4 in years past, but is now best suited for the 5.

Looking forward, the next couple of W drafts have a mix of both high end center talent with NaLyssa Smith in 2022 and Aliyah Boston in 2023, as well as good but not great center prospects, like Elissa Cunane and Shakira Austin in 2022. Smith and Boston are almost certainly going to be the first or second picks in their respective drafts. Smith has the athleticism to play at the 4 at least some of the time, especially if her shooting continues to improve, and Boston has the skill to face up from the perimeter while also posting up, and joining the group of star centers. 

Where Cunane and Austin go in the draft will be something to watch. Both, but more Cunane, can space the floor, but whether teams view them as more mid-first round picks, or if they slip into the second round, will be telling on how teams view centers. The smarter teams will likely focus on trying to find the best talent at the wing and guard in the draft, as decent center prospects have been able to be found later. 

Same questions will arise in free agency. While paying top dollar for the best centers will continue to make sense, contracts like those that Indiana gave to Jantel Lavender, 3 years protected at 175,000 and Minnesota gave to Natalie Achonwa, 3 years protected descending from 164,000 in the first year, should likely be stayed away from. Lavender is functionally a center at this point, as the Fever struggle to score as they rotate through a collection of centers and shoehorn them into the power forward position.

While there is value in having a solid backup big on the bench like Achonwa, Bridget Carleton at 58,000 is at a more important position and it will be interesting to see if Minnesota can retain Carleton going forward while also paying Napheesa Collier in two years. Centers will still be drafted and signed in the hopes of finding the next Sylvia Fowles, but not like they were in the past.