What Does a Center Do in Basketball

What Does the Center Do in Basketball? (Role & Strategies)

In basketball, the team’s five players each have specific roles and positions that leverage their unique skills and physical attributes. These positions are traditionally the point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center.

This article, however, focuses on the position of the center, often seen as the backbone of the team’s defense and a critical force in the offense. They are a team’s main shot blocker and are expected to block access to the offensive players driving to the basket while also capturing rebounds.

Offensively, a center with a broad repertoire of skills can significantly impact a team’s scoring ability. The role and responsibilities of the center have evolved over time, with modern centers expected to have a good shooting range, pass accurately, and even lead fast breaks.

This critical position requires a high level of physicality, game understanding, and strategic skills. We will further delve into these responsibilities and the importance of centers in the game of basketball.

The Role of a Center

Centers are usually positioned near the basket on both ends of the court due to their significant responsibilities in scoring, rebounding, and defending.

On offense, they operate within the low post area (the area closest to the basket), setting screens for teammates and positioning themselves for rebounds or scoring opportunities.

On defense, they guard the basket, trying to block opponents’ shots and prevent penetration into the paint area. Their primary objective is to neutralize the opponent’s inside game while also acting as the last line of defense for opponents who may have gotten past their teammates.

The physical attributes of a center

The center is generally the tallest player on the team. This height advantage is crucial in reaching closer to the basket for scoring, grabbing rebounds over shorter opponents, and blocking shots.

Besides height, other desired physical traits for a center include strength and wingspan. Strength is essential in maintaining position near the basket, holding off opponents, and securing rebounds. A wide wingspan assists in blocking shots, contesting passes, and corralling rebounds.

The key skills of a center

While physical attributes play a crucial role, the center’s position also requires specific skills:

  1. Rebounding: Centers are usually the team’s leading rebounders. They need to be good at positioning, have strong anticipation skills for where the ball will land, and be aggressive in securing the ball.
  2. Scoring: Traditional centers should be efficient at scoring close to the basket, using shots like hook shots, put-backs, and dunks. Modern centers are also developing their shooting ability from farther out, including three-point shooting.
  3. Defense: A center must be a competent defender, capable of blocking shots and discouraging opponents from driving to the basket. Positioning and timing are essential here.
  4. Passing: Good centers can find open teammates from their vantage point near the basket, creating scoring opportunities.
  5. Screen Setting: Centers set screens to free up their teammates for open shots or drives to the basket. Effective screen setting requires a good understanding of angles and timing.
  6. Endurance: Despite their size, centers need to have the stamina to run the length of the court and compete aggressively throughout the game.
  7. Basketball IQ: A successful center needs to understand the game well, including their team’s strategies and the opponents’ tendencies. They often act as the last line of defense and hence must make smart decisions quickly.

A Center’s Offensive Responsibilities

Basketball Play Drawn on Chalkboard


Centers often anchor the team’s offense from the low post. They use their size and strength to establish position (referred to as ‘posting up’) near the basket, where they can receive the ball and attempt to score. They can do this through various moves like hook shots, drop steps, and up-and-under moves.

The shooting range of a center traditionally was limited to the area around the basket. However, in recent years, many centers have extended their shooting range, and it’s not uncommon to see centers taking (and making) mid-range jumpers and even three-pointers.


Rebounding is another area where centers play a critical role.

When a teammate misses a shot, the center’s job is to try and secure the offensive rebound, giving the team an additional chance to score. The ability to predict the ball’s bounce off the rim and the determination to secure the ball amidst a crowd are crucial in this regard.

Setting Screens and Passing

Another critical offensive responsibility for centers is setting screens. A screen is a blocking move by an offensive player, by standing beside or behind a defender, to free a teammate to shoot, receive a pass, or drive in to score.

In setting effective screens, centers can create high-quality scoring opportunities for their team.

Centers can also create space for their teammates by drawing the attention of multiple defenders. When the center has the ball in the post, the opposing team may choose to double-team them (assign two defenders to guard the center).

This scenario leaves one offensive player open, and a center with good passing skills can exploit this situation to create an easy scoring opportunity for their team.

Notable centers and their offensive strategies

There are several noteworthy centers whose offensive strategies provide learning opportunities:

  1. Shaquille O’Neal: Known for his dominant low-post game, Shaq would use his strength to overpower opponents and score near the basket. His ability to dunk the ball powerfully was a cornerstone of his offensive strategy.
  2. Hakeem Olajuwon: Nicknamed “The Dream” for his grace on the court, Olajuwon was famous for his “Dream Shake” move. By faking one way and then spinning the other, he was able to get his shot off against even the toughest defenders.
  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook shot is one of the most unstoppable moves in basketball history. By keeping the ball high and away from the defender, he was able to score consistently.
  4. Joel Embiid: A modern center, Embiid is known for his scoring versatility. He can score in the post, shoot from mid-range, and also step out to the three-point line, making him a challenging player to defend against.
  5. Nikola Jokic: Jokic, the Denver Nuggets’ star, is known for his exceptional passing skills. From the center position, he often acts as a playmaker, creating scoring opportunities for his teammates.

A Center’s Defensive Responsibilities

Basketball Player Blocking a Shot at Rim

Protecting the Basket

Centers are typically the last line of defense in a basketball team.

Due to their proximity to the basket and their height, they are often tasked with contesting and blocking opponents’ shots. By effectively altering or blocking shots, they can discourage opponents from attempting close-range shots and disrupt their scoring attempts.


Furthermore, centers are pivotal in securing defensive rebounds. Once an opponent takes a shot and misses, the center must box out their assignment, preventing them from getting an offensive rebound, and secure the ball for their team.

This act of rebounding not only stops the offensive play of the opposing team but also can initiate fast-break opportunities for their own team.

Role of the center in zone and man-to-man defenses

In a man-to-man defensive strategy, the center is often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s center. They need to prevent them from receiving the ball in scoring positions, contest their shots, and fight for rebounds.

In a zone defense, centers usually occupy the area near the basket. Their role involves guarding any offensive player who enters their zone, helping out their teammates when an offensive player drives to the basket, and securing rebounds.

Centers often serve as the anchor of a team’s defense, communicating with their teammates, helping them navigate screens, and providing help defense when necessary. Their vantage point in the paint area allows them to see the whole court and anticipate the opposing team’s offensive actions.

Successful defensive strategies from All-Star centers

  1. Bill Russell: Considered one of the greatest defenders in basketball history, Russell was known for his shot-blocking ability. He had a keen sense of timing and would often block shots in a way that he or one of his teammates could secure the ball.
  2. Dikembe Mutombo: Mutombo was one of the most dominant shot-blockers in NBA history. His signature finger wag after blocking a shot became a symbol of his defensive dominance.
  3. Hakeem Olajuwon: Besides his offensive skills (see above), Olajuwon was also a stellar defender. He is the only player in NBA history to win the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP awards in the same season (1993-94).
  4. Rudy Gobert: Known as “The Stifle Tower,” Gobert is a modern center known for his defensive skills. He has won multiple NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards thanks to his ability to protect the rim and secure rebounds.
  5. Ben Wallace: Despite being shorter than most centers, Wallace was a defensive powerhouse. He won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award four times thanks to his shot-blocking and rebounding prowess.

Each of these players offers different insights into the diverse defensive strategies a center can employ. From shot-blocking to rebounding, their contributions on the defensive end were crucial to their teams’ success.

The Evolution of the Center Position

The role of the center in basketball has seen significant evolution since the sport’s early days. Traditionally, centers were expected to stay close to the basket, dominate the paint, and were primarily relied upon for their height and size.

They were the team’s main rebounders and shot-blockers, and their offensive skills were mostly limited to close-range scoring.

In the early days of the NBA, centers like George Mikan dominated the paint with their size and scoring ability. As the game progressed, centers like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell showcased not just scoring and rebounding, but also excellent defensive prowess, shot-blocking skills, and athleticism.

During the ’80s and ’90s, centers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal dominated the game with their unique blend of size, skill, and agility. They were key offensive focal points for their teams and continued to assert their influence on the defensive end.

Modern centers

The turn of the century has seen a further evolution in the role of the center, with the game becoming faster and more perimeter-oriented. The modern center is now expected to be quicker, more agile, and have a more versatile skill set.

Today’s centers are often expected to defend smaller, quicker players due to switching on defense, requiring them to have better lateral quickness and agility.

On offense, the ability to shoot from outside, even as far as the three-point line, has become increasingly important. Centers who can stretch the floor by making outside shots can pull opposing centers away from the basket, creating more space for their teammates.

Players like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis epitomize the modern center with their ability to handle the ball, shoot from the perimeter, and make plays for their teammates, all while still excelling in traditional center responsibilities like rebounding and rim protection.

Impact of rule changes and playing style on the Role of the Center

Changes in the rules and the style of play have significantly influenced the evolution of the center position.

The introduction of the three-point line has made outside shooting more valuable, pushing centers to develop their shooting skills. Rule changes limiting physical contact have made speed and agility more important, influencing the kind of players that can play at the center position.

Additionally, the popularity of small-ball lineups, where teams play with smaller but quicker players, has forced centers to adapt. They must now be able to guard quicker players and play at a faster pace.

Despite these changes, the essence of the center’s role — to dominate inside on both ends of the court — remains integral to the game. The evolution of the role simply means that centers now need a wider array of skills to be successful.

Final Thoughts

The center’s role in basketball is multifaceted and pivotal to the team’s performance. With their unique positioning near the basket and towering physical presence, they can significantly influence the game on both ends of the court.

Their primary responsibilities include scoring from close range, securing rebounds, setting screens, and protecting the basket. Their ability to excel in these tasks can greatly enhance their team’s chances of success.

Centers have always been vital players in basketball, and their contributions have shaped the game in countless memorable moments and performances.

From dominating the paint in the past to showcasing versatile skills in the modern era, the center position continues to leave an indelible impact on the game.

The current and future state of the center position in basketball

The current state of the center position is characterized by diversity and versatility. Today’s centers are breaking the mold of traditional roles and expectations, adding outside shooting, playmaking, and perimeter defense to their skill sets. This evolution has added a new dimension to the game and made it more exciting and unpredictable.

Looking to the future, we can expect the center position to continue to evolve and adapt to the changing dynamics of the game. Centers may become even more skilled and versatile, and we might see more of them taking on roles traditionally assigned to smaller players.

importance of understanding player roles in basketball

Understanding player roles in basketball, such as that of the center, is essential to appreciate the game’s nuances fully.

Each role carries specific responsibilities that contribute to the team’s overall performance. Recognizing these roles and their evolution over time provides a deeper understanding of the game’s complexity and beauty.

Despite the changes in their roles, centers remain a fundamental part of basketball, showcasing the sport’s ability to adapt and evolve while maintaining its core principles. The center position embodies the spirit of basketball—a game that blends physical prowess, strategic acumen, and team cooperation to create a captivating spectacle.

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