NBA

How the NBA big man has changed, 27 years on from Shaq's ROTY campaign

By Sports Desk May 06, 2020

Shaquille O'Neal was instantly a dominant force when he entered the NBA in 1992.

After being taken by the Orlando Magic with the first overall pick in the draft, 7ft 1in center O'Neal averaged 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game in his first season in the league.

On May 6, 1993, the Magic sensation, who joined a select group of players to be selected for the All-Star Game in their debut campaign, was unsurprisingly named Rookie of the Year.

The NBA is a very different place now, though, with three-point shooting an increasing requirement from every player on the floor. It is the age of the so-called 'unicorn'.

We use Stats Perform data to look at how the role of the big man has changed since O'Neal's incredible rookie season. For the below, a 'tall player' is anyone in the league that is 6ft 10in or above.

 

A rarer sight

To start with, tall players are less common in the NBA.

The percentage of them with at least one appearance in a season was around 30 per cent from 2000-01 until 2004-05 - the high in that period was 32 per cent in 2002-03.

This season the percentage of tall players is just 19.1, which is the first time the number has dropped below 20 since 1979-80 (17.1 per cent)

Lower usage

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising there has been a clear decrease in the percentage of league-wide minutes from tall players.

At the turn of the millennium, they claimed just over a quarter of the minutes (25.8 per cent) across the NBA. Their share over the following five seasons ranged from a high of 27.9 per cent in 2004-05 to 27.2 per cent in 2001-02.

It dipped below 22 per cent in 2017-18 and this season their overall share stands at just 18.8 per cent.

It would be the first campaign in which taller players played less than 20 per cent of the league's minute since 1979-80 (17.1 per cent).

Sharing the boards

Tall players accounted for upwards of 36 per cent of the total rebounds in the league between 2000 and 2010. The peak during that period was 39.6 in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

The ratio has fluctuated since, going down to 33.5 per cent in 2012-13, up to 36.3 per cent in 2014-15, and back to 34.3 in 2018-19.

This season, however, they have claimed just 30.2 per cent of the boards.

Less prolific

There has been a decrease in the percentage of points scored and field goals attempted by tall players.

Between 2000 and 2010 their share of points scored only dropped below a quarter in 2006-07 (24 per cent). It went as low as 22 per cent in 2012-13 and this season stands at 19.8.

It would be the first time since 1980-81 (19.5 per cent) that tall players accounted for less than 20 per cent of the league's points.

From averaging over a quarter of all field-goal attempts between 2001 and 2006, they are now contributing less and less.

This season tall players have attempted just 18.1 per cent of all field goals – a decrease of 3.1 per cent from the previous season and 8.1 since 2004-05.

Finding range

It's not just the number of tall players scoring that has changed, but the way they are doing it too.

Between 1979-80 and 1984-85, three-point attempts accounted for just 0.5 per cent of field-goal attempts by tall players.

That share jumped to 3.5 for the period from 1990-91 until 1994-95 – when O'Neal entered the league – and up again to 6.1 over the next five-season stretch.

We have now reached a point whereby, since 2015-16, big men have attempted 18.3 per cent of their field goals from beyond the arc.

Sticking with the times

That coincides with a league-wide trend of increased success with the three-point shot.

Before 2013-14, no more than four of the 10 players in points per game in a given season averaged at least two three-pointers made from range per game. Since then, at least five of the top 10 have done so in six of the seven seasons, with 2019-20 boasting seven players fitting the criteria.

When expanded to the 25 scorers in a given season, the number for 2019-20 increases to 18. Between 2007-08 and 2014-15 the number of players only went above five once (nine in 2013-14).

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