Get ready for the next bunch of NBA bigs

Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, and Paolo Banchero lead the charge to prove the NBA isn’t just a guards’ league

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Auburn’s Jabari Smith
Auburn’s Jabari Smith
Image: Getty Images

Glance around the basketball landscape and you’ll see skyscrapers cast a shadow over the courts again. A whole new host of bigs are on the verge of challenging the convention that the NBA is a guard’s league.

The current reigning world champs were anchored by a generational big, who challenged our notions of what the next Shaq would look like. Instead of plopping underneath the basket, Giannis Antetokounmpo ran the floor like an Orlando Shaq with the versatility of an Orlando Penny.

The current MVP battle rages between Nikola Jokić, C-Webb reincarnated, and Joel Embiid, the reigning lord of the low post. Even Karl-Anthony Towns is turning the corner as the cornerstone of a rising squad in the West. Evan Mobley was 2021’s coveted big, but 2022 bought a bundle-pack to the NBA’s doorsteps.

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Meanwhile, on college hoops’ ground level, Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, and Paolo Banchero may be the best trio of frontcourt starters to grace college hoops simultaneously in a generation.

The most influential group of bigs since 2015 — when Kristaps Porzingis, Towns, and Jahlil Okafor were taken in the top 5 of the NBA Draft — is symbolic of the evolutionary changes that started in the NBA a decade ago before slowly descending into the lowest levels of amateur hoops. The rate of cornerstone, floor-spacing bigs acclimated to thrive in the new NBA has accelerated.

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Jabari Smith should be a generational prospect, except the basketball fandom isn’t impressed anymore by 6-foot-10 and up titantsauria with a 7-1 wingspan, who can score at all three levels. As the titular prospect on an Auburn team that was the No.1 team in the country earlier this month, he may succeed Towns as the NBA’s best 3-point shooting big man. Smith is a 43 percent shooter from 3-point range, who is more interested in setting up his jumper or driving than backing defenders down. In the same vein as Evan Mobley, he can seamlessly switch onto all five positions defensively.

Smith’s face-up game is a work in progress, but he’s already flashing superstardom potential like a siren as a stretch-4 and small-ball 5. Whether he’s backing down defenders or rising over outstretched arms from 22 feet away, Smith has put the NBA on notice.

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The buzz behind these three mega-prospects has been muted though. If they were in the 2020 draft, all three probably would have been drafted before James Wiseman. Banchero, Holmgren, and Smith’s potential is as exciting as Jalen Green’s gravity defying hops and Cade Cunningham’s triple dubs.

At 250 pounds, Banchero has strands of Carlos Boozer and LaMarcus Aldridge in his game. His touch from midrange is already elite and his range from beyond the arc is coming along. But it’s his strength in the mid-to-low post that stands out. According to HoopMath, Banchero attempts 42 percent of his shots at the rim, the second-highest percentage on Duke while launching over three triples a game. And Smith may be the final piece in Bruce Pearl’s quest to hoist Auburn into national championship contention.

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Holmgren is hidden in plain sight at Gonzaga, who has become a national championship regular, but becomes a stranger to the national TV slate once the conference schedule begins. His debut at Gonzaga culminated with him swatting a school-record, seven shots. Three months into the season, he’s shooting nearly 45 percent from behind the arc, collecting 3.4 blocks a night, averaging a near double-double and shooting 62 percent overall from the field.

Last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Cade Cunningham, was considered the best perimeter prospect in a decade.

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Where’s the franchise savior buzz for any of these prospects? Trae Young and Ja Morant were household names well before the beginning of March.

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Jokić, Embiid, and Giannis have shown a new path forward for the basketball establishment. An entire generation of hoop heads was raised to believe the NBA was a guard’s game and that its most monumental talents were subordinates to perimeter overlords. That reality has been inverted. Next season, Shaedon Sharpe and G-League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson will be the talk of the league. The guards have taken a back seat for this moment in time, and these bigs are driving the conversation. Let’s see where they take us.