It wasn't long ago that Ja Morant was the talk of the town, and
rightfully so. The Memphis Grizzlies guard commanded the basketball
world’s attention in his playoff debut with his jaw-dropping
athleticism, indellible fearlessness and flawless float game, as
well as an affinity for the bright lights in crunch time.
On the other hand, that same Grizzlies team also features Jaren
Jackson Jr., a highly-talented, versatile gunner and lengthy
defensive threat who just couldn’t seem to get his feet wet in his
first postseason series. Now, it’s important to note that Jackson
missed all but 11 games in the regular season; still, he never
truly regained his form in the first-round series against the Utah
Jazz. He couldn't find much of a rhythm on either end, making just
28.6% of his threes and recording at least four fouls in every
contest. In fact, Jackson committed five fouls in seven of his last
So in the short time he spent on the court in 2021, there seemed
to be a regression for Jackson as a shooter and defender. However,
we have to remember that this is a 21-year-old with plenty of
potential and swagger who can absolutely bounce back in the future,
especially with a normal offseason ahead.
But isn’t it interesting that Morant snatched the eyes of
everybody watching, while Jackson, who has an additional year of
experience under his belt, floundered throughout the first round?
Such an incredible contrast between these two young players within
the walls of the same franchise begs a question in a broader
respect: Do guards and wings develop quicker than bigs?
The rising talents who have burst onto the scene in the playoffs
are Morant, Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic and Jayson
Tatum. Glance at the top picks in those drafts from the last four
years and pick out the power forwards and centers who are even
remotely close to their level. It’s tough to do, isn’t
That doesn’t mean that the big men can’t get to that point.
Hell, look at what Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are doing in their
fifth and sixth years. It just took them a little longer to get
there -- particularly Jokic, the 2021 NBA MVP. And if we’re going
to talk about Jokic, we’ve got to bring up Deandre Ayton’s impact
on the Phoenix Suns’ playoff run to this point, and the job he’s
done in stifling the Serbian jack-of-all-trades in their series
Ayton was the No. 1 pick in 2018, constantly compared to Doncic
because of where he was selected, and he always will be due to the
magnetism of Luka’s presence and the incredible skill set that
comes with it. Yet as Ayton carries this burden throughout his
career, it is his team that's left standing among seven others, and
it is his progression in Year 3 that has been the perfect
ingredient to add to the Suns’ impeccable mixture.
Cody Toppert, who's currently on Penny Hardaway's coaching staff
with the Memphis Tigers, was previously the director of player
development and an assistant coach with the Suns. Toppert worked
hands-on with Ayton during his rookie season, and he was
instrumental in the growth of Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges.
As Ayton continues to thrive in his role to the tune of over 16
points and 10 rebounds per game on 75.3% shooting from the field,
Toppert shared his thoughts on the Bahamian big man’s
“I think a couple things that we're seeing with Deandre is him
understanding that defense is consecutive effort and offense is
consecutive action,” Toppert told BasketballNews.com in a phone
interview. “He's doing a great job of getting much more aware of
the go-straight-to-the-ball-screen, go-straight-to-the-ball-screen.
Whereas maybe his rookie year, Book would have to wait on him to
get in the action and kinda direct him. He's now naturally flowing
towards the action.
“And then on the defensive side of the ball, it's multiple
efforts. What you're seeing is him understand when he's a weakside
defender, he's rotating to protect the rim; but on a secondary
kick-out, he's getting there also for a secondary rim-protection
opportunity and closing with a defensive rebound. Or [when] he's in
pick-and-roll coverage and then on a kick-out, he's rotating to
protect the rim with verticality and then cleaning up with the
defensive rebound. So that consecutive-effort mentality on defense
is something that can be a separator.”
On offense, Toppert sees Ayton gearing towards the rim after
screens, showing great concentration on the catch off the roll with
two hands and finishing with either dunks or a soft touch. He
refers to Game 1 of the series vs. Denver, when Ayton hustled for
two offensive rebounds on the same possession and got a hook shot
to go down in a game that the Suns trailed by five with less than
two minutes until halftime.
In that same game, Toppert observed two more things from Ayton.
The first was him staying out of foul trouble, which is
instrumental to the 22-year-old keeping a rhythm. The second was
his ability to match Denver’s physicality without being emotionally
or physically reactionary (i.e. committing a frustration foul).
"To me, the talent has always been there,” Toppert said.
“Deandre's always been a sponge, he's always been a great kid and
he's always wanted to do right and do well. And so now what he's
seeing is a little bit of success, and his confidence is just
soaring... The sky's the limit."
“He's getting better every year. He's a very talented player,”
Jazz center and 2020-21 Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert
told BasketballNews.com when asked about Ayton. “He has a very good
mid-range [game] and he's a very good finisher around the rim, so
you have to try to be as physical as you can and make him earn it.
That’s the best thing to do -- make him earn it and try to make him
take the toughest shot possible. But he’s having a really good
year, and he’s gotten better every single year. He’s definitely
exciting to watch.”
Perhaps another example of “it takes time” is Golden State
Warriors center and the NBA’s most recent No. 2 overall pick, James
Wiseman. The rookie big man had an injury-plagued season, appearing
in just 39 games in which his playing time fluctuated, as did his
role on the floor.
As he did with Ayton in the pros, Toppert spent a lot of time
with Wiseman at Memphis prior to the NCAA’s questionable ruling of
the young man’s ineligibility. Toppert says this offseason will be
big for Wiseman because he hasn’t had the amount of reps necessary
to consistently succeed yet.
“There's a reason why -- and this goes for all players -- people
tend to say, 'The best part about a rookie is he becomes a
second-year player or third-year player.' You [use] that term, 'The
game slows down for them,’” Toppert said. “But we know that the
game isn't slowing down; what's happening is they're becoming
familiar with the million scenarios that they're gonna see... A lot
of times it's being successful, or being unsuccessful in those
moments. It's actually what helps in development.”
What decision has to be made? Is it a pop or a roll? Is it
switching the angle of a screen? Is it the right time to make a
dribble handoff? Is the defender going under the pick? Is there any
opportunity to dive to the rim or catch in the short roll? Is the
weak side open for a kick-out? Those answers come with time and
In order to illustrate the importance of game repetition, he
referred to seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.
“He's so precise,” Toppert said of Brady. “He's seen all of the
scenarios so many times that, despite maybe losing a step, he's
still able to compete because he can make the right reads. And in
the game of basketball, it's all about reading the situation, and
then making the right decision.
“A player who's been involved in 500 pick-and-rolls is probably
not gonna be as good as a player who's been involved in 5,000...
The more you do these things, the better you get at 'em... So,
[James] will be able to get up to speed, but unfortunately that
[rookie year] is kind of a little bit of a speed bump, just a
little hurdle that he's gonna have to overcome."
It’s fitting that Toppert brought up Brady because he likens
developing bigs in basketball to quarterbacks in
“The big guys are the trigger guys; they've gotta trigger the
action. So they're really like the playmaking initiators,” Toppert
said. “The best big men in the drag screens, they're not waiting
for the guard to call for the ball screen; they're just going to
the ball screen. They're initiating that action...
“The majority of NBA big men are designated screeners, or
they're like delayed playmakers. Those are really like the two
big-man roles. So either they're playmaking through the trail,
where you hit 'em in the trail and they're gonna go dribble-handoff
to the weak side, or they're screener, roller, divers, lob
Utilizing Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela as primary examples,
Toppert looks at how screens and screen assists lead to offensive
results stemming from their execution; Gobert leads the NBA in both
categories in total thus far in the playoffs. Whatever amount of
screens they set is the number of plays they are involved in,
whereas a guard or main ball-handler might not even use all of
“What you see at the college level is the guards dribble the
ball, and you see them having to wave for the big guys, 'Come up!
Come set this! Come get me!' In the NBA, it's like the opposite. In
college, you've gotta call [the bigs] up; in the NBA, you've gotta
send 'em away like, 'Oh, we got the switch we want, don't screen
There is an inherent advantage if you’re a guard transitioning
to the pros versus being a big early in your career. Guards always
have the ball in their hands, and a smaller guard such as Trae
Young, for instance, has relied on his skills to beat taller,
longer, faster defenders his whole life. Some backcourt players
actually see their role even simplified; you could have high usage
in college and be the go-to guy who’s making all the plays for your
team, then get to the NBA and have your main responsibility trimmed
down to being a slasher, a spot-up guy in a corner and/or guarding
On the opposite end of the spectrum, big men are used to their
size and stature doing the work in their early years and through
college. Taller and stronger than most, their body does the work
almost effortlessly at the amateur stages; if they make a mistake
at that level, they can recover because of their power and force on
both ends... until they meet their physical-profile equals in the
“They can almost impose their will on the game, as opposed to
reading the game -- two entirely separate schools of thought,”
Toppert said. “And so essentially, the bottom line is when you get
to a level where you can no longer do those things, now you're
gonna be forced to actually learn the game...
"James is pretty well built. Deandre was pretty well-built. But
the game is so much more physical at the NBA level, and legal
physicality, especially big man on big man, you can get away with a
lot more in the NBA than you can in college without getting called
for a foul. Getting used to that everyday physicality, pounding,
beating, is not easy.”
Picking up nuances of the game takes time for most players
making the NBA leap. Even the ball-dominant first-, second- and
third-year guards have shown their fair share of lumps and bruises
along the way because of that physical discrepancy, not because of
their skill sets. For bigs, it’s almost like both are working
“I think everyone's journey is different. Obviously, the
physical aspect of the game is really important and when you're a
big man, you need to be able to box guys out and [so on],” Gobert
said. “And then you have some guys who are stretch-5s -- everyone’s
game is different.
“For me, in my first year when I first got here, I remember
being in practice against Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, and I
knew I was going to have to get stronger because those guys were
pushing me around. I was fighting back because I had some heart,
but I needed more than that! (laughs) I really spent a lot of extra
time in the weight room every single year, and my body became an
emphasis; every year, I tried to get stronger. And it not only
helped me increase my impact on the court, but also to stay
healthy. The stronger you are -- if you work the right way --
you're able to lower the chances of getting hurt.”
It goes back, again, to the grassroots level. These types of
players are getting fed in the post and on the block against clear
mismatches, and coming out of possessions with a bucket every time
down the floor, so why wouldn’t they stick to what they
According to an anonymous NCAA head coach, bigs aren’t properly
being developed in college, including at the highly regarded
schools. The majority of offenses, per the coach, are motion-based
and teaching patterns in lieu of read-based actions. They’re not
playing in pro-style offenses in college. They don’t learn how to
set screens at different angles, how to react to different
coverages as a roller, how to make plays on dribble-handoffs, how
to find baseline cutters with the ball in their hands, etc. It’s
learning a pattern over reading and reacting.
Development in general takes patience to see through. The big
man, more versatile and less strung in the post, is slowly coming
back in basketball. Jokic and Embiid being the top-two candidates
for MVP this season is indicative of that trend.
Looking at the lottery-pick bigs from the 2017 class and on,
there’s plenty of potential lying within.
Despite the Miami Heat’s disappointing first-round playoff exit,
Bam Adebayo is a Swiss Army knife-type who is one of the best
dribble-handoff big men in the league. Marvin Bagley III showed an
improved stroke from distance and an ability to put the ball on the
floor. We still don’t know what Wendell Carter Jr. is, and he’s
going to be on his fifth head coach in four seasons in Orlando next
season. Mo Bamba looked as good as he ever has in the second half
of the season. Jaxson Hayes looked like a completely different
player in the month of May than he did prior. Onyeka Okongwu was a
reserve for most of the season, but when he got more playing time
late in the year, he made a solid impact as a modern big.
"People have to understand how to develop big men. Or, I usually
say, people have to understand how to develop a basketball player
-- I don't care what their size is," Los Angeles Lakers assistant
coach and development guru Phil Handy told BasketballNews.com. "Can
you teach footwork? Can you teach balance? Can you teach the
elements of the game for players to get better? Forget about
big or small, I always try to challenge coaches into developing
basketball players. Period.
"To me, the game has kind of gone to this area of everything is
based around the three-point line and bigs don't post up anymore.
Most teams just wants to guys to set pick-and-rolls and set screens
and roll. They don't really want to teach 'em how to play on the
block or give them any footwork, so it's one of those things where
the game has moved away from bigs being able to post up and take
advantage of their size to everybody needs to be able to shoot
threes now. So that's a whole area of the game where bigs kind of
lose out on getting a chance to be developed because not all
seven-footers can dribble [and shoot]. Not everybody is like Kevin
Durant where they can handle the ball [or like] Porzingis where
they're a seven-footer who can really stretch the floor. You gotta
remember that the game is played in all areas of the court -- not
just at the three-point line and not just at the rim. So, having
the ability to post up and having bigs who understand what their
game should look like is something that we have to continue to do.
We have to continue developing basketball players; that's important
The aforementioned Jackson and Wiseman will figure it out. They
have too much talent not to. Even though their playing styles might
not compare, maybe Ayton can be their model for success. There’s no
shortcutting a process like this; it takes time, determination,
persistence and adaptation.
And until basketball addresses the lack of modern development at
their particular position, that will continue to be the case for