Basketball has gone through various changes over the years. The game that was played as recently as 20 years ago is already far different from today’s style. One of the main changes that has been made can be seen in the center position.

The center position has been historically characterized by players who are tough defenders in the paint, scorers in the low post and a physical presence on both sides of the court. These players were not expected to be as agile or skilled as the other positions on the court. However, in the past 20 years, the NBA has seen the introduction of big men who can shoot, dribble and use their agility to get by defenders. Although big men in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, were creative and nimble around the rim, they lacked the three-point shooting ability and gift of beating players with ball handling along. This modern big man was defined by Dallas Mavericks center Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1998 with the ninth overall pick, then was promptly traded to the Mavericks. Due to his size, ability to drive and shooting ability, Nowitzki was a player unlike anything the NBA had ever seen before. At seven feet tall, Dirk’s deadly three-point shooting is nearly as surprising as his gift for beating players off the dribble. Other big men found Nowitzki impossible to defend. He would get the ball at the top of the three-point arc and force the big men guarding him to come out that far to defend him so he would not score a three. However, these traditional big men were not nearly as agile as he was; as soon as they stepped out to defend him, Nowitzki would drive past them with ease and finish comfortably at the rim. Then if the players would not come out to guard him, he would punish the other team from the three-point line.

Dirk was the definition of a “stretch five.” In other words, a center who would stretch the court out and create space for the other four players on his team. Nowitzki’s prowess was most fully recognized when he found his largest audience. In the 2011 NBA postseason, Dallas had Dirk, the team’s only all-star, and several role players. Led by Nowitzki, the Mavericks breezed through the western conference and matched up against the Miami Heat who were in the first year of their “Big Three” reign with Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all in their primes. The Heat tried guarding him with everything they had, but Dirk’s diverse skill-set was too much to handle. The Mavericks overpowered the Heat in a six-game series, Dirk won Finals MVP. After this performance, other big men realized that they needed to mimic his play-style if they were going to contend in the NBA, and NBA general managers began to seek players who replicated this play style.

Since then, the NBA has seen the introduction of players like Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, DeMarcus Cousins of the Golden State Warriors and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves. These players have taken the league by storm with their incredible skill set and Dirk-like qualities. Just like Nowitzki, these big men can shoot the three, blow by defenders with their speed and have handles that rival many point guards. Towns’ three point percentage this season is 39 percent, while the point guard of his own team, Jeff Teague, shoots 36 percent from downtown. Similarly, Porzingis averages 36 percent from beyond the arc, while New York point guard Dennis Smith Jr. shoots 32 percent.

This new crop of big men has proved that the traditional big man is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Although there are still talented traditional big men in the league such as Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons and Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat, we are even seeing that these players are forced to work more on their skills in order to contend with the stretch fives of the league.

In 2017, Porzingis won the NBA Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend. This is a contest of dribbling, passing and shooting all at a fast pace. Previously, only guards and small forwards had even competed in this event. For a 7’3” center to win the contest would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Overall, Dirk Nowitzki undoubtedly revolutionized the game of basketball. Never before had the NBA seen a big man possess such talent as he did. Nowitzki certainly set the precedent for other centers in the NBA to work on their touch and acquire the skills that he had. Dirk is a pioneer for what he gave to the game of basketball, and we are seeing his influence today more than ever. Rather than young big men pretending to be Hakeem Olajuwon and mimic his trademark “dream shake” on the playground, we are now seeing these kids shooting a one-legged fade-away, yelling out “Dirk!”

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