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November 30, 2009
A Tale of Three Centers
The Star, the Project and the Role Player

by Kevin Pelton

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On Friday, the Memphis Grizzlies upset the Portland Trail Blazers 106-96 at the Rose Garden. In lieu of the usual Five Thoughts format for games Basketball Prospectus staff attend, I wanted to focus in on the three most interesting stories from Friday's game--the centers on the two sides.

The Emerging Superstar

A couple of weeks ago, Greg Oden's stat line against the Grizzlies--13 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and just four fouls in 28 minutes of action--would have been cause for rejoicing in the Willamette Valley. That kind of performance is now somewhat routine, which really says a lot about Oden's emergence in that span. Playing assured, aggressive basketball, Oden is making good on his potential at both ends of the court.

The biggest change has come on offense. Oden has worked to refine his post moves, developing a soft line-drive hook into his signature shot. With his size, when Oden establishes deep post position, he is very difficult to stop. It certainly helps that Oden has become an excellent free throw shooter for a big man, knocking them down at a 78.6 percent clip this season. Most importantly, Oden is playing with confidence at the offensive end, allowing him to make plays he never would have attempted during his rookie season. Behind 63.3 percent shooting from the field and the accuracy from the line, Oden has the fourth-best True Shooting Percentage in the league at 67.2 percent.

On the defensive end of the floor, Oden's improvement has been incremental but nearly as important. His improvement in terms of pick-and-roll defense and positioning has been a key factor in the effectiveness of the Portland defense in the early going (until the last two games). Oden is also blocking more shots than ever--his 7.1 percent block rate is tops among NBA regulars, and he's seventh in rebound percentage.

Add it up and, on a per-minute basis, only six players rate as more effective. Oden's WARP ranking--13th--is much lower, which points to the biggest remaining weakness in his game: foul trouble. His rate of fouls per possession has come down slightly, but Oden is still averaging 4.1 fouls a game and 6.7 per 40 minutes, which inevitably limits his time on the court. Nate McMillan has played things very cautiously with Oden, subbing him out early in the first quarter and rarely playing him with two fouls in the second quarter. Oden has played more than 30 minutes just once all season, and that required overtime at Atlanta. If he is able to get closer to 30 minutes a night than his current 24.6, Oden's rise will be impossible to ignore.

The Project

When I asked Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins about Hasheem Thabeet before the game, he indicated that the development of the No. 2 overall pick is an ongoing process. "We're teaching him how to play the game of basketball like you would a seventh or eighth grader," Hollins said.

Even with three years at the University of Connecticut, Thabeet came to the NBA far from a finished product. He made strides between his raw freshman year and his junior campaign, when he was co-Big East Player of the Year with DeJuan Blair, but there were still things Thabeet was able to get away with because of his 7'3" height at the college level that simply won't work in the pro game.

During the game, Thabeet showed some skills that simply can't be taught, which explains why he went so high in the draft despite his current limitations. Thabeet blocked three shots in 18 minutes, and what stood out to me--as it did during a block I caught on TV earlier in the week against Sacramento--was Thabeet's ability to materialize quickly to contest the shot after starting out of the play. For someone of his size, he covers an immense amount of ground in a hurry. Add in his immense wingspan and Thabeet has the potential to block shots at a historically great level. Already, his block percentage in limited minutes--7.8 percent--is better than Oden's.

On offense, we saw mixed signs from Thabeet. In the first half, he was terrible, fumbling balls in the paint and wildly throwing the ball off the backboard from point-blank range. Thabeet calmed down after halftime and looked more comfortable. Eight of his nine points, which tied a career high, came in the fourth quarter. He capped the stretch with a surprising reverse layup. Thabeet never has to become a great scorer; as long as he can finish at the rim when left open, his defense and rebounding--better in the early going than portended by his college stats--will carry him. Right now, he's playing well enough that he needs to be a regular part of the Grizzlies' rotation and getting valuable game experience.

The Role Player Extraordinaire

For all the praise he earned earlier, Oden wasn't the best post player on the court Friday night. In fact, he wasn't even the best second-year post player out there. Both honors belonged to Memphis center Marc Gasol, who has made amazing strides as a sophomore. The only centers in the league with higher WARP totals than Gasol through Saturday were Dwight Howard and Oden. Gasol is also one of those three players with a higher True Shooting Percentage than Oden; while the two players were tied for the league lead byshooting an identical 63.3 percent (a rate subsequently improved by Gasol's13-for-18 accuracy Sunday against the L.A. Clippers), Gasol had gotten to the line more frequently as a percentage of his possessions used.

To sum it up: The oft-overlooked younger Gasol brother has become as good a role player as we have in the league. The big difference for Gasol during his second season is improved conditioning. After shedding excess weight over the summer, Gasol is lighter on his feet, which has helped him at both ends. Gasol has also been the big beneficiary of the addition of Zach Randolph, stepping into a complementary role on offense. That's allowed him to flash his passing skills--he had five assists in Portland, followed by six more in L.A.--and be more selective with his shot attempts. Gasol is making 68.8 percent of his attempts at the rim this season, up from 58.1 percent a year ago.

Gasol's efficiency is the biggest reason that the Grizzlies' offense has been operating so well (at least before collapsing in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to the Clippers, when they scored just seven points in losing a 16-point lead). Memphis came into Sunday ranked 15th in the NBA in Offensive Rating, an enormous step forward from last year, when the Grizzlies were 28th. That part of SCHOENE'S projection, as outlined in our preseason contrast between Memphis and Houston, has proven accurate. It's the Grizzlies' defense that hasn't held up its end of the bargain, ranking ahead of only Toronto in Defensive Rating. The poor defense is why Memphis has struggled in the early going, though with five wins in their last eight games the Grizzlies have demonstrated they can no longer be taken lightly.

For more insights and observations, including from games Kevin attends, follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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On the Beat (11/27)
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No Longer Slowest? (11/30)

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