Should the Spurs Draft a Center in the Lottery? Probably Not … But Maybe

If you spend any time perusing mock drafts, you’ll notice that Jalen Duren is a common name mocked to the San Antonio Spurs at the ninth overall pick. On the surface, the 6-foot-11 center out of Memphis makes sense for a team that has a short supply of talented bigs. However, I actually think it’s unlikely that the Spurs draft a center in the lottery.

Center Isn’t a Position of Need for the Spurs

While it’s true that the Spurs lacked power forward depth during the 2021-22 season, the center position isn’t a leading weakness going forward. Jakob Poeltl may not be a well-known player league-wide but he improved so greatly last season (his rate of scoring jumped by almost 50%, as one example) that it’s now clear that he’s a starting caliber center in the NBA.

Poeltl is an elite perimeter defender for a 7-foot-1 center. He also defends the rim well and competes on the boards. Offensively, he sets mean screens, he’s an improving passer, he’s turning into a threat on the low block and can be counted on to connect on about 62% of his field goal attempts. His lack of a jumper is suboptimal but it’s not a deal-breaker given the rest of his tools.

Beyond Poeltl, the Spurs are invested in Zach Collins — and the early returns are positive. In the 28 games he played last season, he averaged 15.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes. He also hit 34.1% of his three-pointers. 54.4% of his two-pointers and 80.0% of his free throws. For the 6-foot-11 24-year-old, those were easily the best numbers of his injury-ravaged career.

Beyond the statistics, Collins looked like he could have brighter days ahead. He moved well, he was physical in the paint and was able to produce when the Spurs ran plays for him. Collins needs to get through an entire season before the Spurs get too excited about him but so far he looks like a potential starting-caliber center in the near future.

Jock Landale is the third center on the roster. The 26-year-old hit a few rough patches as he adjusted to the NBA as a rookie. However, it’s already clear that the 6-foot-11 gamer is tough as nails and has a feathery shooting touch. He’s a limited athlete so it’s still up in the air whether the Australian will survive in the NBA but his skill set is a valuable one if he ends up panning out.

All told, I just don’t see center as a glaring need. Sure, the Spurs could add a young, athletic, defensive-minded prospect to the mix but there are already multiple roads to a long-term center answer on the current roster.

Centers Lack Value in Today’s NBA

As we saw in the playoffs, centers continue to be less and less vital as the NBA evolves. Gone are the days that big, burly centers that make a living in the paint dominate the landscape. It used to be that it was nearly impossible to win without a foundational piece at center. Today, unless you have a superstar at center like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid, you’re better off spending resources elsewhere.

Centers are now the most replaceable position — and it’s not even close. You need quality options at center to succeed, don’t get me wrong, but it’s much easier to find reasonably priced plug-and-play centers these days than it is to find competent players at any other position.

Furthermore, the league is actively getting smaller every year. We’re at a place in time where players who were drafted as small forwards are now playing center. Kevon Looney was drafted as a small forward and now he’s a championship center. Kyle Anderson was drafted by the Spurs as a small forward and he played the majority of his minutes in the playoffs at center for the Memphis Grizzlies. Hell, even Draymond Green was drafted as a small forward.

With the NBA shrinking and the definition of centers shifting, why risk spending a lottery pick on a player who may be obsolete by the time he reaches his prime? That doesn’t sound like a gamble worth taking. 

The Available Centers Aren’t Futureproof

When the Spurs are on the clock with the ninth overall selection in the 2022 draft, there are likely to be two tempting center prospects: Jalen Duren out of Memphis and Mark Williams out of Duke. Both centers are expected to be drafted with one of the top 15 picks.

Duren is a breathtaking athlete of the highest order. Listed at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, he’s a monster when he’s around the bucket. His alleyoop radius is insane; if the pass is remotely near the hoop, he can supply the exclamation point. On the other end, he hops out of the shadows to block shots and can also alter attempts from neighborhoods away. 

But — and you knew there had to be a but — Duren doesn’t project to be a shooter. He’s a willing passer but he’s unlikely to ever be a notably impactful passer. Most damning, his feet are on the heavy side, which limits his ability to defend out on the perimeter. Also worrisome are the whispers that his engine tends to run cold if he’s not intimately involved in the action for possessions at a time. 

Williams is the most awe-inspiring physical specimen in the draft. He’s 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and a 9-foot-9 standing reach. Beyond that jealousy-inducing length, he’s a chiseled 242 pounds.

As a basketball player, Williams is a great shot-blocker who already fully understands the importance of staying vertical. As long as he’s in the paint, he can erase mistakes at a furious rate. He rebounds, he has possibly the best hands of any center in the draft and, unlike Duren, there are no worries about his effort level when he’s not involved. Williams always plays with fire — responsibly, of course.

But … Williams isn’t swift enough to defend out on the perimeter at a competent level — and likely never will be due to his imposing size. He’s a non-passer and processes the game slowly on the offensive end. While he hits free throws at a respectable mark, I don’t see him ever becoming a shooter of consequence. 

Comparing Duren and Williams, Duren is the one with more potential. At 18, he’s the youngest lottery prospect and his rapid growth during his lone season at Memphis tells the tale that he’s just scratching the surface of what he one day may become. On the other hand, Williams looks ready to step into a starting role. The 20-year-old obviously has a lot to learn but he can be a shot-blocking and rebounding tower of menace on Day 1.

Unfortunately, neither Duren nor Williams appear capable of being the type of centers that can finish high-level playoff games in the modern landscape. They could play 20 to 25 minutes in a playoff game but when it’s money time, their lack of agility on defense and their lack of shooting on offense would combine to render them as bench ornaments.

Thirty years ago, Duren and Williams might have been the first and second selections in an NBA draft. Twenty years ago, they’d still both be in the top five. But today, right now, they’re borderline lottery prospects who play a role that, as scary as it sounds, is becoming increasingly obsolete. 

The Spurs Shouldn’t Worry About Fit

Where the Spurs are picking in the lottery, the most plentiful position is shooting guard. That’s rather unfortunate because San Antonio already houses a number of shooting guard prospects in Devin Vassell, Joshua Primo, restricted free agent Lonnie Walker IV, Josh Richardson and even Romeo Langford, if we’re being pedantic. 

In the last two drafts, the Spurs used lottery picks on Vassell and Primo. I could understand the hesitation to extend that streak to three drafts in a row — but I don’t think the Spurs front office should let that stop them if a shooting guard is indeed the best player available.

While San Antonio has up-and-coming talent, the quality and quantity of the talent remains lacking. The Spurs need stars — in whatever form they may appear. Vassell and Primo, specifically, have shown promise but not so much promise that an aisle to uncontested minutes needs to be cleared.

Why the Spurs Might Take a Center in the Lottery

Now to throw the curveball: The one scenario where I think drafting Duren or Williams makes sense is if doing so provides the front office with the motivation to trade Poeltl. As much as Poeltl has improved, it’s easy to make the argument that the best course of action with him for the franchise is to sell high while he’s still on an inexpensive contract.

Poeltl will make $9.4 million this coming season and then will become an unrestricted free agent. Next summer, if he has another strong campaign, he’ll be due at least a 50% raise on his forthcoming deal. Paying that much for a 27-year-old center with a known ceiling is likely unwise for a rebuilding team.

In a Poeltl trade, the Spurs could expect to get something in return similar to what they got in the Derrick White trade with the Boston Celtics: a useful player, a first round draft pick and the ability to swap first round picks. If drafting Duren or Williams allows the Spurs to make such a deal, then that’s an understandable use of a lottery pick — even if Duren or Williams never become the type of center that is able to close out playoff games.  

Other Centers the Spurs May Draft

In the lottery, only Duren or Williams fit the bill as draftable center prospects. In the latest Spurs Big Board, Duren is the 13th ranked prospect and Williams is 14th. Beyond those two, the next two centers are Jaylin Williams at 40 and Christian Koloko at 42. If the Spurs really want a reinforcement at center, picking one of those two at 25 or 38 would work.

Another center option for San Antonio is Ismael Kamagate from France, who is ranked 49th on the Big Board. If the Spurs don’t want four draft picks on their 2022-23 roster, selecting Kamagate and going the draft-and-stash route with him is likely a possibility.