- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Time was, an NBA post man knew how to score.
And no, we're not just talking about Karl Malone. Nor, for that matter, the late Wilt Chamberlain.
Equipped with an arsenal of drop steps, jump hooks, up-and-unders and turnaround jumpers, the back-to-the-basket scorer was once a staple of the pro game, from the rugged Mark Aguirre to the crafty Kevin McHale.
In the league's here and now, however, point-producing pivots have become more akin to a fifth tattoo: A nice accessory a conversation piece, even but hardly the focal point of the action.
"You look today in the NBA and look at all the box scores, and if there's 20 centers that started in games last night, about 12 to 14 of them will have scored 10 points or less," said Pete Newell, a Hall of Fame coach and esteemed teacher of low post play. "Sometimes they don't score any. They're not even a part of the offense."
Consider the big man-belittling numbers. Seven years ago, half of the NBA's top 10 scorers were centers; today, only four of the league's top 30 scorers Los Angeles' Shaquille O'Neal, San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal and Utah's Malone operate primarily out of the low post.
In the entire Eastern Conference, only three interior scorers (Jermaine O'Neal, Atlanta's Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas) average at least 16 points per game or better. By contrast, seven NBA point guards average the same amount.
Small wonder, then, that the Lakers' O'Neal has dubbed himself "LCS," short for "Last Center Standing." And small wonder, too, that a position that formerly touched the ball at least one out of every three possessions now sees it far less often if at all.
"I was a post man myself," said Washington Wizards assistant coach John Bach. "To be part of the game, the ball's gotta move through you to feed the cutters, or through you to score, or a nice combination.
"But if you took most teams in the NBA now, if the ball goes in one out of every five or six times, it's a lot. And if you're talking about a lot of the teams in the East, they don't go in. What I see now is more frustrated post men."
Tell that to Wizards pivots Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown. Together, the second-year duo averages a combined 14 points significantly less than leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse (22.5) and barely better than point guard Larry Hughes (13.4).
"Right now, the NBA's become a guard-oriented game," Haywood said with a shrug. "You see a lot of teams going small. Low post scoring is not as big a thing as it was back in the day."
How did the back 'em down, post 'em up big fella become basketball's answer to the single-bar facemask and the bullpen car? Start with versatile talents like Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Houston's Yao Ming, players who have redefined the big man's role.
Previously, an athletic 7-footer like Minnesota's Kevin Garnett would have played almost exclusively in the pivot a la McHale while perhaps shooting the occasional jumper off a pick-and-roll.
In today's game, by contrast, players such as Garnett and Sacramento's Chris Webber are just as likely to catch the ball on the wing, fake a long jumper and slash to the basket in the manner of a shooting guard all without ever setting foot in the paint.
"The big men are getting better," Bach said. "Garnett would have been a standout post man if that's all he did. But he learned, probably in high school and on the playgrounds, that he could move across the lane very effectively and shoot very effectively."
Similarly, the Wizards made Brown the first pick in the 2001 draft largely because his agility belies his imposing 6-foot-11 frame. Even Haywood, who along with Jahidi White is the closest thing to a traditional center on the Wizards' roster, spent much of the past summer honing his perimeter game.
"I worked on trying to score in the low post with jump hooks and turnaround jumpers, but at the same time, I worked on face-up jumpers and 15-footers," said Haywood, who checks it at 7-feet and 268 pounds. "To have longevity in this league, I need to have both."
At the other end of the basketball spectrum, high school and college programs aren't producing post scorers the way they once did. One reason? Taller players would rather emulate slick ballhandlers like Garnett and Magic Johnson than old-school bruisers like Patrick Ewing and Moses Malone.
For Georgetown coach Craig Esherick whose program has long featured powerful pivots such as Ewing, Miami's Alonzo Mourning and current Hoyas standout Mike Sweetney it's a source of ongoing frustration.
"You watch some of these AAU tournaments that we watch during the summer, and you see an awful lot of these big kids that are gravitating toward the 3-point line or gravitating out to face the basket," Esherick said. "And they really have no business out there.
"If that player is the tallest person on the floor, teach that player with his back to basket. He should know how to do a variety of things, not just play on the perimeter."
According to Newell, the flex and motion offenses favored at the prep and campus level also have marginalized pivot play. While traditional two-guard offenses provide big men with room to maneuver in the post, flex and motion sets tend to clog the lane by placing four players under the extended foul line.
The result, Newell said, is a guard-dominated game and a generation of post players who have spent their formative years setting picks, collecting rebounds and performing dirty work.
"In motion and flex, there isn't any back to the basket," Newell said. "The center is a player that is more of a widebody, who plays without the ball, whose main function is to set a good screen. If he's the second option, it's coming away from the paint or toward the foul line. And those are the only shots he takes."
To illustrate, Newell tells the following story: While speaking to a group of roughly 200 high school and college coaches at a basketball clinic a few years back, he mentioned that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was arguably the greatest shot in basketball history, an unstoppable move that helped the legendary center become the NBA's all-time leading scorer.
During a subsequent question-and-answer session, Newell put forward a simple query: Would Abdul-Jabbar have any opportunity to shoot the skyhook within the parameters of the assembled coaches' offensive sets?
"Not one person raised their hand," Newell said, his voice tinged with incredulity. "You know what that told me? If Kareem went to their school, and he liked basketball, he would have ended up as a manager."
Brown can relate. While the former Georgia High School Player of the Year didn't exactly hand out towels at Brunswick's Glynn Academy Brown averaged 20.1 points in his senior year he didn't receive much low-post instruction, either.
"For basically two years I've been working on footwork," Brown said. "The first time I was introduced to it was [Wizards] training camp. At the [high school] level, they don't need to teach you. When you've got a 6-foot-11 guy, you throw lob plays, have him run the floor, get it to him in the post and have him shoot over people."
In order to bolster his inside abilities, Brown spent part of last summer at Newell's Big Man Camp, an annual low-post clinic that has become nearly mandatory for the NBA's young pivots. He also receives daily instruction from Ewing, who has been brought in by the Wizards to serve as a frontline tutor.
Such arrangements are still relatively rare at the professional level, though, leaving most underdeveloped post players to fend for themselves. Compounding matters, recent rules changes that allow zone defense and discourage isolation play have given big men even more incentive to move away from the basket.
Portland's Rasheed Wallace and Boston's Antoine Walker, for example, are two of the most gifted back-to-the-basket players in the league and so far this season, both players have put up more 3-point attempts than high-scoring Houston point guard Steve Francis.
"You'd have to say that Walker, if he just played the post, would average the same amount of points as he does shooting all those threes," Bach said. "He's got real fine moves. But he has to work harder now, no question. People double on him, slide down from the top, sink on him. It's very accommodating for him to slide outside."
Should the accommodation continue and drive old-fashioned back-to-the-basket scorers into the good night of leather helmets, the reserve clause and the XFL it won't be without a touch of irony.
After all, O'Neal's paleozoic post presence has lifted the Lakers to three straight NBA titles, three more than the Nowitzkis and Garnetts of the league have managed to capture.
"It's high-percentage basketball," Bach said. "But for some reason, people are running away from the successful way of doing it."


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