Skilled, Shooting Big Men: The NBA's New Skeleton Keys

The new breed of big men are being called "unicorns" but a more apt description is probably "skeleton keys."
November 30, 2016, 5:23pm
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Hardware allegories are particularly useful tools (hey-oh) for describing players in the NBA. "Hammer" works for a bruising post brute. "Swiss-army knife" for a swing player who rebounds, initiates offense, and switches 1-4 on defense. But there's an emerging breed of player that tends to defy any preconceived hardware affiliation: the highly-skilled, shooting, fleet-of-foot big man. People call these players "unicorns," but a better moniker may be "skeleton keys," players so unique in their skillset and size that they unlock offensive potential no matter who's on the floor.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis are the two leviathans that best exemplify this archetype. Their quickness and shooting ability is unparalleled for players of their size. Guards can't handle them on switches, and most bigs aren't agile enough to stop them. They invert the floor, forcing opposing bigs into uncomfortable territory on the perimeter. Below, Towns is running a straight ISO against Steven Adams, Oklahoma City's rim protector. Towns makes one quick dribble, and gets to the hoop with ease. Without a traditional help defender at the rim, OKC can only gape, awestruck.

Anthony Davis's performance thus far is an even better example of the skeleton key player. Surrounded by a roster bereft of talent, Davis is the lone player who's even sniffed dynamism. His highlight reel mixes rim-rolling, curling off screens for jumpers, and destructive isolations. All of which force the defense to invert traditional coverages that leave them with an inevitable mismatch, dearth of rim protection, or open cutting lanes with weakside defenders peeking over.

Smallball centers with slick feet could mitigate some of these effects, but that's when players like KAT, Davis, or Kristaps Porzingis can revert to their roots and overpower them down low.

The proper skeleton key mold is already fashioned, and already several collegiate and high school players are hoping to fill it. For years draft pundits were fond of saying, "you can't teach size." But you can teach skill, and melding the two is essential for developing stellar big men nowadays. Harry Giles, a Freshman at Duke, needs to expand his game but looks like the most promising collegiate athlete to develop into a skeleton key, although his injury history is a legitimate concern. The more likely candidates may be in high school still. A couple of studs, Deandre Ayton and Wendell Carter, are trying to stretch their games out to the perimeter in hopes of joining the skeleton key crew.

The proliferation of shooting, dribbling, and perimeter skills among a formerly interior-oriented position will inevitably create skeleton key facsimiles in the coming years. Some will be real, many will be shallow carbon copies. That won't stop teams from drafting them though, their two-way potential is impossible to replicate.

Inevitably NBA defenses will try to adjust, one can always make a new lock to render a key useless. At the moment though, these skeleton keys are flinging the door to offensive respectability wide open.