In analyzing the dynamics of playing big men in traditional “big man positions” in America versus the more and less divisive system of using players of any size at their most advantageous spots on the court, looking at the coaching is key; after all, coaches have carried many of the ideas about how basketball has been played for decades. Particularly, coaches aim to use players as they see fit and so, players usually have to adapt to the schemes or suffer the cut in playing time, and while the system of rearing height closer to the basket has yielded some positive results, how players are taught and then encouraged seems to bring about powerful results.
In the case of Don Nelson, the former coach of NBA superstar Dirk Nowitzki, he had to figure out how to best use his young German import. While Nowitzki had always been a tall, athletic player, his skills lended to particular usage as a wing player, not what a regular American ball player of his size would be. From 1998 to 2003, Nowitzki, as a seven-foot-tall young man, would play on the perimeter at small forward, as Nelson bonded with him and encouraged him to play to his strengths. All the while, Nelson was also instructing “Dirk Diggler” over the years and equipping him with the specific knowledge and general know-how in playing closer to the basket and exploiting his physical package of length and height, to become a more efficient basketball player. From 2003 through the present, Nowitzki has made the transition to playing as a legitimate power forward, with refined skills both in the post and on the perimeter, and even getting significant minutes as a outside-shooting center. Allowing Nowitzki to play as he was accustomed gave him more success and confidence, as he also was able to adapt to new styles and obtain a better sense of the NBA game.
In a separate but related situation, Kevin Garnett came into the NBA as a 19-year-old rookie from high school in 1995. Like Nowitzki, he was also a seven-footer whose skills and physical package were best suited to the perimeter game. More explosive and athletic than Nowitzki but less skilled, his former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders allowed for Garnett to play as a shooter and driver. While rangy, knock-kneed, and reed-thin, KG was able to use his pterodactyl-long wingspan and high arc on his jump shot to play as big as he really was, despite the weight differential between him and his opponents. Saunders encouraged Garnett to play as he best knew, while KG himself was learning the lessons of leverage and working on his body to become even more versatile. Garnett remained as a small forward for several years, from roughly 1995 to 2003, and then he made the transition to playing the four spot as a high-post shooting big man. Even moreso, KG became a frontcourt anchor as an occasional center for the latter years of his Timberwolves tenure, and now currently with the Boston Celtics. Throughout, Garnett was able not only to use his own natural speed and length to play how he first knew in the league, but he was gradually also was more comfortable and successful growing into other skills, as an eventually-competent three-point shooter and post player.
Enter Andrea Bargnani, the first player selected overall in the 2006 NBA Draft by the Toronto Raptors. The first Italian taken with the No. 1 pick, Bargnani came into the league with the reputation of being “the next Nowitzki”, notably because of his seven-foot height measurement and shooting acumen, but even moreso, Bargnani is more explosive than his German counterpart. Unfortunately for Bargnani, his former head coach, Sam Mitchell, did not view his playing at small forward (his most comfortable position on the basketball court) as a likely scenario, and even worse, Bargnani was scolded for not immediately contributing as a player that he had little experience playing as–a low-post, high-rebounding center. While Bargnani was limited in his options, since Chris Bosh has starred as the Raptors’ power forward since 2003, he was able to play small forward in limited minutes, but has largely played at center, where he has shown flashes of being the star he was in Italy, but has largely been average. In the case of Mitchell, his inability to develop Bargnani in accordance with his strengths (as well as his laborsome patronization as a “motivator”) led to his firing in 2008; many believe that Bargnani’s lack of confidence on the court contributed to Mitchell’s demise, but really Mitchell and many others like him have been guilty of positioning someone in a spot that was unfavorable to their skills, regardless of their height and other measurements.
While the aforementioned examples are a small sample size, they are representative of the right and wrong ways to develop players with non-traditional skill sets. Nowitzki and Garnett have become All-Star and future members of the Basketball Hall of Fame, while Bargnani has yet to gain significant traction in his young career, despite being a three-year league veteran.