The subject of positions has become a hot topic of basketball at all levels, with the same questions being asked all the way from the NBA down to the youth levels.
Are traditional positions still relevant? What’s the best way to define the five players on the floor? Are positions even necessary?
Terms like center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard were used when most teams played with three perimeter players around two big men. The risk in using those labels now, when the game is spaced almost universally four around one, isn’t just that the terminology is incompatible with the product, but more importantly the heightened sensitivity of players to the perceptions and limitations caused by those labels. Big men don’t want to be called centers. Big forwards want to be called small forwards and each perimeter player out there thinks he can be a point guard.
The reality is that while most teams still label positions numerically, the definitions of those spots have evolved. Traditional centers are essentially a thing of the past. Power forwards are separated as “hybrid 4s” or “face-up 4s.” Point guards have become an endangered species, giving way to “combo guards” or “lead guards.” Any player who doesn’t fall into one of those categories is now often called a “wing” or “3,” which would be most consistent with the previous definition of a small forward, but now means a player who isn’t a primary or secondary ball handler or an interior threat.
Ultimately, each program defines its positions in accordance with its personnel and style of play. From a recruiting standpoint, some schools put a premium on talent and adjust their style accordingly, while others recruit for a specific system. Regardless, the implications are not only that traditional positions are no longer universal, but that positions themselves are completely subjective to the program in question.
With that in mind, here are some of the top prospects in the ESPN 100 who defy traditional position labels:
Myles Turner (Bedford, Texas/Trinity)
6-foot-11, 225 pounds
ESPN 100 rank: 2
He’s listed as a center in the ESPN database primarily because of his height and the fact he’s an imposing presence around both rims. But the reality is that he has both the mobility and skill to step away from the basket and can play as a team’s lone interior option or alongside another big man.
Cliff Alexander (Chicago/Curie)
6-foot-8, 225 pounds
ESPN 100 rank: 3
He thrived next to Jahlil Okafor on the AAU circuit and so he’s labeled a power forward, but the reality is that Alexander’s game is more consistent with a 5 than a 4. He’s rugged with a naturally thick frame and becomes less effective as he gets farther from the basket.
Emmanuel Mudiay (Dallas/Prime Prep)
6-foot-5, 190 pounds
ESPN 100 rank: 5
He has point-guard skills in a 2-guard’s body, but he’s far more of an attacker than he is a natural distributor. While he has outstanding court vision and will throw high-level assists while in attack mode, his mindset is always to make plays, not necessarily run the show or get the team into its offense.
Karl Towns Jr. (Metuchen, N.J./St. Joseph)
7-foot-1, 235 pounds
ESPN 100 rank: 6
Being 7-1 dictates that he should be listed as a center according to traditional definitions, but the future Kentucky big man is highly skilled and far more comfortable behind the 3-point line than he is with his back to the basket.
Chris McCullough (Bronx, N.Y./Brewster Academy)
6-foot-10, 220 pounds
ESPN 100 rank: 16
While he’s more comfortable facing the basket than playing with his back to it, his niche is his athleticism. His length, explosiveness and ability to cover the court form the basis for his game and in that way he’s really the prototype for the new-age hybrid 4-man.
Isaiah Whitehead (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln)
6-foot-4, 195 pounds
ESPN 100 rank: 20
Whitehead is far more of a pure scorer than he is pure point guard, but he’s a playmaker who operates with the ball in his hands and is capable of creating opportunities for his teammates as much as he is for himself and is far less effective when away from the ball.
Craig Victor (New Orleans/Findlay Prep)
6-foot-7, 205 pounds
ESPN 100 rank: 29
He’s best inside of 12 to 15 feet, and while he has the game of a 4, he’s built like a prototypical small forward. That, and the fact he’s gradually expanding his game away from the basket, really makes him a cross between a traditional power forward and small forward.