Anyone with even a vague understanding of basketball knows that players are slapped with position labels depending on their skills, size and how their coaches use them.
Some fans are familiar with more specific distinctions: what makes a small forward different from a power forward, how a point guard’s skills differ from that of a shooting guard’s, etc.
Every day, internet message boards and office water-cooler conversations flare up with arguments over who the best player is at each position.
An interesting trend has developed in recent years, though: Traditional positions are becoming less and less relevant. Long, athletic players with complete skill sets are beginning to dominate games more than the traditional speedy guards or massive centers.
One only needs to look at a list of the NBA’s scoring leaders to witness the paradigm shift: Three of the top five scorers don’t fit the traditional description of any particular position.
Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, the league’s top scorer this year, is a lanky 6-foot-10 forward with a two-guard’s skillset, making him nearly impossible to check.
Miami’s LeBron James is an absurdly athletic physical specimen — 6-foot-8 and 250 lbs. by most estimates — who can score, defend, pass and rebound effectively from every position on the floor. At 6-foot-10, 260 lbs., Minnesota’s Kevin Love is almost your prototypical power forward … except that his jumpshot makes him a scoring threat 25 feet from the basket.
Now, this isn’t to say unconventional players didn’t play a role until recent years.
Some of the all-time greats played unusual positions for their sizes — Magic Johnson was a 6-foot-9 point guard, Charles Barkley a 6-foot-5 power forward. They were recognized as anomalies, though; for all their achievements, they didn’t lay the groundwork for an era of undersized big men and towering point guards.
While the revolution is more obvious in the NBA than in the NCAA, college coaches are beginning to come around.
Few, though, have embraced the new era quite like Georgetown’s John Thompson III. At a school steeped in basketball tradition, Thompson III has abandoned all semblance of a classic lineup.
Rising sophomores Otto Porter and Greg Whittington are the driving forces behind the new strategy. The pair of versatile 6-foot-8 forwards have allowed Thompson III to experiment with a variety of lineups and frustrate opponents with matchup problems.
“”With those two guys, you have a couple guys that, at the collegiate level, can play four positions,” Thompson III told Sports Illustrated last week.
He’s not exaggerating.
Whittington came off the bench his freshman year to play the two-guard spot frequently and effectively, drilling threes and shutting down the opponent’s best outside scorers. His size and remarkable length also allowed him to play in the post if necessary.
As a skinny 6-foot-8 freshman, Porter led the Hoyas in rebounding despite splitting frontcourt minutes with two true low-post bangers in center Henry Sims and power forward Nate Lubick. When he wasn’t jostling for position down low, Porter showed off impressive range on his jumper and frequently broke full-court presses with his excellent ballhandling.
Perhaps most importantly, Whittington and Porter’s presence allowed Thompson to put four players over 6-foot-8 on the court and play a trapping zone defense that stifled most opponents.
Georgetown’s 2012-13 roster features a grand total of two players under 6-foot-5, so anyone tuning into marquee Big East matchups this year should expect to see an array of athletic freaks flying all over the court with no regard for traditional position.
College basketball is a coach’s game, defined more by strategy than individual talent, and most coaches’ offensive and defensive systems are still based on traditional positions; the Georgetown case is fairly unique.
Still, you can see the change creeping into the top of the ranks: Michigan State’s Draymond Green and Creighton’s Doug McDermott were Naismith Award finalists last season despite lacking clear positions.
Position labels will never fully disappear. But with the new generation of versatile players and innovative coaches, they’re becoming less and less important by the day.
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