In years past, center used to be the shallowest fantasy position. It still is, but the gap isn't nearly as large as it used to be, thanks to the ever-growing list of players with power forward and center eligibility. Still, given the depth at point guard this season and the lack of shot-blockers overall, we'll still need to place a premium on the center position in 2010-11.
This season's group of centers seem to be a nice mix of proven veterans, up-and-coming youngsters, high-risk/high-reward gambles and sleeper candidates to consider on draft day. Let's take a look.
McKitish's center tiers
Say what you will about Dwight Howard's free throw percentage, but he is by far the most dominant rebounder (13.2) and shot-blocker (2.8) in the league. No one else was even close to Howard's dominance in those two categories, and only a few can come near his 61.2 percent shooting from the floor. Be aware that you'll need a specific strategy (punting or surrounding him with high-volume plus-80-percent shooters) to win with Howard, but if you are willing to commit to a strategy, there is no reason you can't take Howard near the end of the first round in fantasy drafts. Brook Lopez may not be listed in Tier 1, but he still qualifies as an elite center in my mind thanks to his ability to block shots and hit his free throws. As is the case with many big men, free throw shooting can be an issue. Since there are only a handful of players in the NBA who can do what he does (Pau Gasol is another), Lopez makes for a terrific second-round selection in fantasy drafts. Amare Stoudemire is another player whom I have ranked in Tier 2 but would still consider an elite fantasy center thanks to his scoring and percentages. Trading one fantasy-friendly situation in Phoenix for another in New York, we can and should expect Amare to have another great fantasy season in 2010-11.
The next generation
After improving in each of his first three professional seasons, Al Horford looks like a player who's almost ready to jump into elite status this season. A dominant force in the paint and a nightly double-double threat, Horford is another rare big man who can keep his free throw percentage in check (78.9) while contributing modestly in the shot-blocking department (1.1). If it weren't for a midseason plantar fasciitis injury (and the addition of Carlos Boozer), Joakim Noah might already have been listed as an elite center option. Remember, he posted 11.2 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game before the injury and was one of the more valuable fantasy players during that time. The addition of Boozer may sap some of those rebounds, but Noah is talented enough to grab 10-11 boards while blocking 1.5-1.8 shots per game even with Booz in the lineup. Before going down with a neck injury late in the season, Marc Gasol was one of the league's best fantasy centers, averaging 14.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Pau's brother may be nearing his ceiling as a player, but keep in mind that he did all that damage with another dominant post player in Zach Randolph playing right beside him. At age 25, the future is very bright for the Grizzlies' third-year center.
Still recovering from last season's gruesome elbow injury, Andrew Bogut likely will miss some of the first month of the season as he continues to heal. Since this isn't the first time that Bogut has struggled with injuries, we'll have to temper our expectations for the former No. 1 pick in the 2005 NBA draft. One thing is for sure, Bogut is as dominant as they come when he's healthy and on the court. He'd be a major steal on draft day if he can regain form after the elbow injury. News that Yao Ming will be limited to no more than 24 minutes each game this season doesn't inspire much confidence in his ability to stay healthy, but it's a strategy that has worked for Manu Ginobili and just might work for Yao as well. Still, with as many lower-leg/foot issues as he's had through the years and given that he's now 30, I can't be too optimistic about his chances this season. Still, if Yao is on the court, he'll post some ridiculous per-minute numbers, so feel free to take a gamble in the later rounds if you're feeling risky. Any list of high-risk/high-reward centers wouldn't be complete without Andrew Bynum. Injuries have plagued him throughout his five-year NBA career, but there is no denying that he could be a special fantasy player when 100 percent. The problem is, he's rarely healthy, and I'm not all that optimistic about his ability to shake the injury bug in the future.
The Indiana Pacers have one of the thinnest frontcourts in the league, particularly after the Troy Murphy trade. Enter Roy Hibbert, who struggled with inconsistency but turned in a solid season in 2009-10. Hibbert doesn't rebound as much as we'd like, but he is a big-time shot-blocker, and the Pacers will be forced into giving him 30-plus minutes per game because of their lack of frontcourt options. If that's not a precursor for a breakout season, I don't know what is. My favorite sleeper candidate this season, Serge Ibaka, is still a raw prospect but has all the tools to break out in 2010-11. Remember, Ibaka averaged 8.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in just 20.3 minutes per game after the All-Star break last season. Even a slight increase in minutes (which he'll surely get) would make him a fantastic fantasy play. Much like Ibaka, JaVale McGee is still a fairly raw NBA prospect, but he'll get an opportunity to do some damage for the Wizards this season. McGee has posted brilliant per-minute numbers, particularly in blocks, during his two-year career and makes for a fine late-round sleeper candidate. Robin Lopez averaged 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 24.5 minutes in 31 starts last season and will enter 2010-11 as the unquestioned starting center in Phoenix. Like Hibbert, Lopez is going to have every opportunity to produce, and I don't think he'll disappoint.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.