Young bigs, and the tweener conundrum

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Collins, Hachimura and Bagley
The three tweeners in the mountains

The word tweener has long been found within the pages of an NBA dictionary. In years prior, the term often referred to a player that was a too slow laterally to defend threes off the dribble and simultaneously too frail to bang with the fours of the past (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and a younger Kevin Love). Thus, presenting the issue that there is no position that they are reliably able to contain.

There is a multitude of ways to define positions, and it’s all subjective, but I label them as who a player is able to guard on the floor. That is where being a tweener issue always stemmed from, and in the modern game, the four is practically another three with maybe a bit more size. Therefore, the tweener today has mainly transitioned to a hole between the four and the five.

There are a handful of bigs that have come into the league in the recent past that fit this newly defined tweener definition. Being a Sacramento Kings’ analyst myself, I would be lying if I said this article wasn’t inspired by the recent number two overall selection, Marvin Bagley III. Let’s start with him.

Marvin Bagley III (Sacramento Kings)

The Sacramento Kings have yet to make it clear whether they view Marvin Bagley as a power forward or a center.

In his rookie campaign, Bagley logged 45% of his minutes at the four and 55% at the five, per basketball-reference – practically an even split. In the offseason, they signed Dewayne Dedmon to a 3 year/$40-million deal, that seemingly made their thoughts clear that Bagley is a four. I argued that signing Dedmon allowed Bagley to play the roll man on offense, yet hand the rim-protecting duties off to his front-court mate.

Marvin Bagley only played 13 games this season prior to the extension, yet 88% of those limited minutes featured him as the center. Luke Walton, Sacramento’s new coach, had stated that it was temporary for MB35 to see a large majority of his time at the five until he learned the newly implemented schemes from other perspectives.

Marvin Bagley would be sidelined mid-year after re-aggravating a mid-foot sprain that he suffered earlier in the season, before we were provided a clearer view of their positional options.

Nonetheless, there is enough film available to show why Marvin’s name is included in this tweener list and why he ultimately is the poster boy.

Standing at 6’11” provides Bagley with plenty of height at the center position, but even in college he was never a rim protector and Coach Mike Krzyzewski would often run a zone to aid Bagley’s struggles whilst then-teammate Wendell Carter Jr. played the anchor of the defense.

In the NBA, Marvin Bagley has been unsuccessful at playing the 5 defensively. At times he is late to position or the more serious issue of him simply being too weak to withstand a single back-down dribble from a true big such as Clint Capela.

Sure, Bagley has just turned 21 within the past week and the muscle will come, but the positioning places serious concerns in many minds that Bagley will be unsuccessful at the 5 in his career.

Yet, when Marvin finds himself tasked with guarding a wing player in an attempt hide his rim protection deficiencies he is exposed. Bagley is unable to keep the speedier man in front of him more often than not, and he stands little chance at fighting through screens with his large frame.

Defensively, Marvin Bagley has no defined position. The hope has to lay with the thought that Bagley will be able to put on weight as he develops and gain, at minimum, passable rim-protecting instincts.

John Collins (Atlanta Hawks)

John Collins, the 19th pick of the 2017 Draft, has shown the ability to adapt and the Atlanta Hawks may have found the proper position for Collins. They also tipped their hand with the addition of Houston Rockets’ starting center Clint Capela to play alongside Collins.

Collins successfully knocked down 40.1 percent of his threes from beyond the arc this season on a respectable 3.6 attempts per game. That alone should make for adequate spacing with a Collins/Capela back-court even though I see Collins best utilized as a roll-man.

Again, however, the defense is where the real question mark comes in for Collins. In 41 games this season (Collins was suspended 25 games to start the year) the Hawks have played him nearly the same amount of minutes at the four as the five.

First of all, similarly to Bagley, John Collins rim protection is simply not there. There are some highlight recovery blocks, but the play-to-play positioning and understanding are not up to standard.

The center minutes for Collins this season (per Cleaning the Glass) have been far from encouraging. 42.2 percent of opponents shots come at the rim with Collins at the five, which is ranked in the 6th percentile. Those same shots are successfully converted at a 66.7 percent rate (22nd percentile), backing up the point that he is simply not going to anchor a defense.

So, the argument for the four needs to be more promising, and I would say it is. The opposing percentages are all kinder, boasting an acceptable 53.3 percent effective field goal percentage (47th percentile).

But Atlanta, who struggles defensively as a whole, has been hiding John Collins (and others) deficiencies when they moved over to a zone heavy defensive scheme. Collins functioning as the man under the basket in this still does not bode well, but if he is placed on the low block then his responsibilities are simplified.

Collins is never going to be a great defender with his relatively short wingspan (6’11”), lagged lateral movement, an apathetic attitude on that end, and a general lack of understanding.

I would feel more comfortable with him defensively positioned as a four, mainly due to the fact that any team will have a field day when they note John Collins at the center.

Rui Hachimura (Washington Wizards)

Rui Hachimura, is the last tweener player on this list and also the newest to the NBA, being the 9th selection of the 2019 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards. Yet, Rui is a mere 138 days younger than Collins, who is currently in his third NBA season.

Rui played three years at Gonzaga, and the experience and maturity of his body are on full display. I recently was able to witness Rachimura in person and he is well-built for a rookie in the league, bolstering wide shoulders and no lack of muscle.

A strong, somewhat slow-footed player would point the signs towards a Center defensive role, then you factor in that he is 6’8″. Yes, there are plenty of players that size playing the center (PJ Tucker, Draymond Green, Daniel Theis) but they all have exceedingly high basketball IQs.

The center numbers are discouraging, yet their numbers are hard to gauge considering that Washington features nearly no players that are above average on that end of the floor, evident in their 30th ranked defensive rating.

Hachimura is not quick or nimble enough to be constantly rotation around the floor.

Rui Hachiumra appears just a step too slow to ever effectively guard wing players at the NBA level, yet that seems to be Washington’s placement for him. Whether that be the right decision, or if it simply because they feel a need to play the recently extended Thomas Bryant is yet to be seen.

As for his minutes as a small-ball five, there is such a limited sample that it is difficult to determine his reliability in that role. That is where I see the value for Hachimura on the defensive end due to the aforementioned strength and build, but the IQ needs to come around as well.

The new age tweener is between the four and the five, and there are more than the three listed examples currently in the NBA and not far from joining. Marvin Bagley III, John Collins, and Rui Hachimura will be interesting to track and see where they end up fitting positionally on their rosters.

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