While there are a lot of new faces at guard and some intriguing storylines to follow at the forward positions, the Spurs’ center rotation doesn’t really feature any new or exciting names.
Jakob Poeltl is still around to start while Zach Collins will be his main backup, just like last year. Providing depth behind them will be Gorgui Dieng, returning to San Antonio after a year in Atlanta. The average age of that group is 27 years old, which is a little on the old side for a rebuilding squad.
Ideally, having some competence at the big man spot will help others develop, so it’s not a huge issue that there is no young center prospect brimming with potential around yet. More interesting than the names on the roster will be how Gregg Popovich uses them, as well as tracking whether he also integrates the big forwards who can play the position for a few minutes in the rotation.
Traditional centers: Jakob Poeltl - Zach Collins - Gorgui Dieng
Small ball centers: Isaiah Roby - Jeremy Sochan
The Spurs have a lot of variety at center. Jakob Poeltl, who will surely start, offers them a true defensive anchor and interior presence who can get the guards open thanks to his fantastic screens. Zach Collins will be his main backup, and while he’s not a particularly good defender, he’s a versatile offensive player who can score inside and out and take up space in the paint. Dieng is similar to Collins, but without the post game and some more reliable range. He offers insurance in case the fragile Collins suffers any injury but will probably not log a lot of minutes when everyone is healthy.
Beyond the traditional centers, the Spurs have added two big forwards who can play center in small lineups in a pinch, something they were sorely lacking in recent years. Sochan’s ability to man the spot at the NBA level is theoretical at this point, but he was up to the task of guarding bigger opponents in college. Roby has actually spent a substantial amount of time at center with the Thunder, and while it’s not his ideal position, he should be able to give the team some minutes as the sole big man right away.
Weaknesses: Athleticism and individual versatility
The Spurs have never seemed all too interested in athletic rim-runners. While there has been a few odd exceptions like Dewayne Dedmon and Drew Eubanks, it’s rare to find high-flyers at the center rotation in San Antonio. The trend will continue in the 2022/23 season, as the team decided to bring back Poeltl and Collins, and added the mostly ground-bound Dieng to provide depth. None of them are stiffs, but they are not the type of players who can soar for lobs or cover a ton of ground on defense like the Robert Williamses of the world. Even the small ball centers don’t have other-wordly physical gifts. Being quick and jumping high is not what determines how good a player is but it does allow some to do things others can’t.
The other issue that limits the Spurs’ centers is that they all have very specific weaknesses. Poeltl is well-rounded for a big man, but he simply has no range. Of his 663 shots last season, 398 came inside five feet, and his struggles from the line suggest he’s never going to improve much as a shooter. Collins has better touch on his jumper, but he’s just not a good defender. Maybe a full offseason and training camp can improve his mobility, but he was never great on that end even before the injuries. As for Dieng, he can do most things acceptably well, but he has no elite skills, and that’s a weakness of its own. When they choose a center, the Spurs will be conceding offensive versatility, elite defense, or both.
Strengths: Experience and variety
The Spurs might not have athletic freaks at the big men positions, but they do have guys who know how to play. Poeltl has six seasons under his belt in which he has worked around his limitations to become a quality starter. He uses every ounce of his mobility well to contest shots on the perimeter and at the rim, and he has developed moves inside to get his shot off in traffic. Collins has not logged as many minutes as he would have under ideal circumstances because of health issues, but he’s already used to the NBA game and shook off the rust in the second half of last season. He’ll be ready to contribute on opening night. Dieng is a veteran who knows his role as well as his strengths and weaknesses. The Spurs know what they are getting from him. Roby played over 20 minutes per game the last two seasons and has been refining his skill set, adding range.
While other teams will trot out bigs who are a work in progress, the Spurs will have a more reliable stable of centers than their opponent on most nights, and they will have plenty of variety to choose from when it comes to matching styles. They can trot out some jumbo lineups with Poeltl and one of the other traditional centers if necessary, or have at least one seven-footer on the floor at all times. They can also go with just one of the big forwards as a small ball center or play both together and still have a nice mixture of size and mobility. There’s a lot of potential for mixing and matching, with the Sochan-Collins pairing in particular being a potentially fantastic change of pace due to its mix of shooting and defense. San Antonio might not have one super versatile big, but it has a group that can either play together or make up for the weaknesses of others against certain matchups.
Going strictly by the group of traditional centers, the Spurs’ rotation seems a little too safe to be exciting, considering next season will be a rebuilding year. Poeltl is great, but he’s likely a finished product who might not be in the long-term plans of the team. Dieng definitely isn’t, since he’s already 32 years old. Collins is still young, but unless he takes an unexpected leap, he’s probably going to top out as a viable starter with some clear weaknesses. That trio will be competent, which should help the younger players at other positions, but probably won’t wow anyone.
Things get more interesting when the big forwards who can play center in small lineups are considered. Sochan is clearly the most exciting of the two, but Roby might actually be ready to play sooner and could offer a completely different look as the sole big man on some units. Considering all the possible permutations at power forward and center, there’s a lot to be intrigued about, even if no one currently on the roster is likely to be the Spurs’ starting center in a few years.
Rebuilding is not just about personnel changes but also experimenting with combinations and coverages. If the Spurs come out of next season with more knowledge of which units and schemes they are comfortable running, they will have an easier time finding their big man of the future later on.