When it comes to recruiting, the most prized of all positions might be skilled post players -- especially true low-post players or centers. The fact is that back-to-the-basket post operatives -- who possess size, physical strength, length and wingspan, mobility and the ability to dominate both offensively and defensively -- have become almost an endangered species.
On sheer numbers, talented prospects at the center position are more coveted -- you can't coach height -- because there are relatively so few. To complicate the problem, many of today's top big men consider themselves perimeter players; they want to station themselves outside where they can launch 3-pointers.
This year's gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team epitomizes the plight of the big man. The "Redeem Team" had only three post players on its 12-member roster. These post players were Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic), Chris Bosh (Toronto Raptors) and Carlos Boozer (Utah Jazz). Only Howard can truly be classified as a center.
Looking at the Class of 2009, there are just three true centers rated in our top 25 -- 6-foot-11 DeMarcus Cousins (No. 4), 6-10 Daniel Orton (No. 10) and 6-9 Keith Gallon (No. 21) -- and only 10 in the 2009 ESPNU 100.
From the perspective of college coaches, center is the most essential position to fill each year, and a program can never have too many. When a program is fortunate enough to land one or more dominating post players, its prospects for a successful season are multiplied. Unfortunately, many of these players depart early for the NBA.
Successful players at the high post or power forward position must be able to score facing the basket and have extended range on their shot. They must be good ball handlers and passers, especially in making accurate entry passes into the low post. As the name implies, they are essentially power players with strong rebounding and defensive abilities.
An ideal power forward is virtually interchangeable with the center. On the most successful programs, the post positions can be switched on offense, with both players having the ability to score from inside or outside. North Carolina's 6-9 Tyler Hansbrough is the prototypical power forward.
Centers are the anchors of the team, and the stoppers in the paint. They are the high-percentage shooters with a variety of close-range shots, including jump hooks with either hand, and they have a soft touch around the basket, a strong post-up game, good footwork and a deep repertoire of post moves. The ability to make free throws is important since low-post players draw a lot of contact and often get to the line.
The top centers control the paint, rebound successfully at both ends of the court and are defensive intimidators with their height and long wingspan. The top collegiate centers include 6-10 Blake Griffin (Oklahoma) and 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet (Connecticut).
What we look for: Players with physical power and toughness. The ability to box out and seal off opponents is imperative. Great rebounders play with relentless effort to clean the glass at both ends of the court. These low-post forces must be able to maneuver for the best position by determining the likely direction of the rebound. Quick jumpers who can keep the ball alive can be very successful rebounders.
1. Derrick Favors (Atlanta/South)
The very definition of the ultimate court warrior, Favors has a Tyler Hansbrough mentality and the ability to control the boards. He has the vertical jump, timing, physical strength and talent to get many offensive rebounds, and he cleans the glass on the defensive end. Favors could also have been rated among the best shot-blockers and low-post scorers.
2. Dante Taylor (Fort Washington, Md./National Christian Academy)
This Pittsburgh commit is a strong, physical player with exceptional toughness and determination. Taylor is a superb athlete with remarkable jumping ability and strong hands. He runs the floor very well and excels in every area as a power forward.
3. Daniel Orton (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness)
Orton is somewhat comparable to fellow Oklahoman Blake Griffin as a player and a rebounder. Orton uses his height and size to his advantage on the boards. He is very mobile and will be even more so when he fully recovers from the knee injury that forced him to wear a heavy brace this past summer.
What we look for: When it comes to shot-blocking, size matters. The best shot-blockers have the height, length, arm span and/or vertical jump to reject shots or to force shooters to put more arc on their shots. They have excellent timing and reflexes, an attitude about protecting the basket, strong defensive instincts and physical toughness.
1. John Henson (Tampa, Fla./Sickles)
The No. 3-rated player in the ESPNU 100, Henson has the ability to play multiple positions, including wing-forward, at his future college, North Carolina. However, his 7-4 arm span and incredibly quick leaping ability make him an intimidating shot-blocker. He is somewhat comparable to former Tar Heel Brandan Wright, only Henson has more offensive skills and shooting range.
2. Alex Oriakhi (Tilton, N.H./The Tilton School)
This Connecticut commit is a strong physical specimen and an explosively quick leaper. Oriakhi is very active and always plays with great intensity. He has exceptional timing and very quick reflexes, which, combined with his rugged play and vertical jump, make him an excellent shot-blocker. He is very good at coming from off the ball to make rejections.
3. Mouphtaou Yarou (Rockville, Md./Montrose Christian School)
This native of Benin, West Africa, is still in the developmental stages offensively. However, Yarou is a powerful, highly athletic post player. He is a strong rebounder and an effective shot-blocker. Yarou has made an early commitment to Villanova and will be a very effective inside performer for Coach Jay Wright. A year of tutelage from coach Stu Vetter at Montrose Christian will be very beneficial and should help polish his game. Reportedly, he is still growing and could be 6-11 when he arrives at Villanova.
What we look for: These players must have a strong back-to-the-basket offensive skill package, including an effective post-up game. Players with the talent to shoot with either hand can be tough to stop. Ideally, these players have the ability to catch the ball in traffic and employ good footwork to make effective low-post moves. Strength and toughness are must-haves for post production. A good scorer from the blocks needs good shooting technique, including the ability to make free throws.
1. DeMarcus Cousins (Mobile, Ala./LeFlore)
Cousins is multidimensional, and at 6-11, he has the abilities and athleticism to perform effectively in both the low and high post. In fact, he has a tendency to play outside too much and hoist unnecessary 3-point shots. His future coach at Alabama-Birmingham, Mike Davis, will have to deal with that. Cousins is an inside dominator and could be rated in every post category. However, he gets the highest marks of any player as a low-post scorer.
2. Erik Murphy (Southborough, Mass./St. Mark's)
The son of former Boston College standout and NBA player Jay Murphy, Erik is highly skilled and can score extremely well from both the low and high post. He has already committed to coach Billy Donovan's Florida Gators. Since Murphy has good range on his shot and is a highly effective back-to-the-basket scorer, Donovan will likely play him at both center and power forward. Murphy has added weight and muscle, but he still needs to continue his strength-development program.
3. (tie) Renardo Sidney (Los Angeles/Fairfax)
At 6-10, 260 pounds, Sidney should be one of the premier power players in the nation. At times, he already is. The problem is that, like DeMarcus Cousins, Sidney spends too much time away from the basket. He reminds many of Chris Webber, in that he plays a finesse game rather than a physical one. But despite these deficiencies, he is a high-major talent who can score effectively in the low post. The ultimate challenge is to get him to play there. We saw him do it most effectively two summers ago when he combined with Kevin Love and others to help make the Southern California All-Stars the nation's best summer team.
3. (tie) Aaric Murray (Concordville, Pa./Glen Mills)
Murray was somewhat unknown going into this summer. However, he proved at the NBPA Top 100 Camp and the Reebok All-American Camp that he is one of the top true center prospects in the nation. At 6-10, 255 pounds, Murray has the size and strength to power inside. He is an excellent offensive rebounder and gets many points on putbacks. He has an effective jump hook, and he can put it on the floor to get to the rim. Murray turned down offers from a number of high-major colleges, choosing to stay in his home area of Philadelphia and play at LaSalle.
What we look for: Mobile big men who can step away from the hoop and make shots. These players need good footwork and facing-the-basket skills. High-post scorers must have extended shooting range, a quick first step and the ability to beat defenders off the dribble. High-post players with the ability to penetrate on the dribble and drive to the hoop are tough to guard. These players can be lethal on pick-and-pop plays.
1. Ryan Kelly (Raleigh, N.C./Ravenscroft School)
Kelly has exceptional skills in the high post, and he is the most consistently effective scorer at that position. Plus, he gets high marks in every category except strength. He has a thin, lengthy frame and will add needed weight with physical maturity and a strength program. He is a masterful ball handler, passer and perimeter shooter. He does need to improve his rebounding, and that should happen as he gets stronger. Kelly is very athletic and runs the court as well as any big man in this class. He is expected to make his college decision in the near future.
2. Mason Plumlee (Arden, N.C./Christ School)
Mason will join his older brother, Miles, at Duke next year. Miles is now a freshman player for the Blue Devils. Mason is a very mobile, agile, active, highly skilled high-post player. He is an accurate outside shooter with 3-point range. Plumlee was a member of the USA Basketball Under-18 team that won the silver medal in Venezuela in July. Like Ryan Kelly, Plumlee's primary need is to bulk up and get stronger. He is now a finesse player, with superb ballhandling and passing skills. He has advanced knowledge of the game and virtually unlimited potential.
3. Milton Jennings (Summerville, S.C./Pinewood Prep)
This Clemson commit is one of the most accurate perimeter shooters among big men in the Class of 2009. As a result, some have categorized him as a wing. He is a long, highly athletic power forward who can step outside and drill long-range shots, like a Christian Laettner. Coach Oliver Purnell will likely use Jennings as a 4 who can pick-and-pop from all ranges. Jennings has excellent lateral quickness and the ability to shoot with either hand. He does need to add strength, and he will do that this year. He truly is a multitalented big man with the skills and athleticism to play three frontcourt positions.
Bob Gibbons is an assistant recruiting director for ESPN Scouts Inc., the editor and publisher of the All Star Sports report and is widely regarded as the recruiting guru of college basketball.