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Kenneth Faried rediscovering his niche at full-time center

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After seven years at power forward, a new system and a switch to center has Kenneth Faried back in NBA relevancy.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the league in 2011, Kenneth Faried was your typical traditional power forward. He ran the floor hard, defended multiple positions, finished dump offs and lobs, and swallowed up enough rebounds to earn his “Manimal” mantra.

It all peaked for Faried at the 2014 Basketball World Cup, when he was one of two players named to the all-tournament team from a USA Basketball roster featuring nine All-Stars. Even among elite bigs like Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins, Faried’s athleticism stood out. A leap the coming season seemed inevitable.

Unfortunately for Faried, shortly after that tournament, the NBA began to change. Teams started to value spacing from four positions and more and more expected long-range shooting from power forwards. The Nuggets drafted Nikola Jokic. Slowly but surely, the traditional four went extinct, leaving Faried a forgotten man toiling away deep on Denver’s bench.

Fast forward a few years, and Faried is back. After Brooklyn experimented with playing him at center in his limited minutes earlier this season, Houston decided he might thrive at that position full-time if they signed him to fill the void left by the injured Clint Capela. They were right.

Since joining the Rockets, Faried is playing 93 percent of his minutes at center, after never playing more than 26 percent of his minutes there in a season before. That position change has coincided with a resurgence in his production, as his 14.3 points and 9.5 rebounds on 60.5 percent shooting in over 30 minutes a night thus far in Houston would all constitute career highs if they held long term.

Although slightly undersized for a center at 6’8”, Faried makes up for it with his hustle and athleticism. His lack of offensive ability besides dunks and lay-ins becomes far less of a liability when he’s the only traditional big on the floor. At the four, teams could help off of him when he wasn’t directly involved in actions, killing any semblance of spacing.

Even at center, a player without an offensive weapon outside of five feet is a liability whenever they aren’t directly involved in the play. But Houston is mitigating that by involving Faried in essentially every action as the screener. Since joining the Rockets, the percentage of possessions Faried has been the roll man on offense has almost doubled from his number last season.

For that reason, Houston is the perfect fit for this experiment to happen. The threat of their shooters leaves the paint wide open, while James Harden and Chris Paul are two of the top five lob throwers and pocket passers in the game, putting it on a platter when Faried rolls hard— which he always does.

It’s no accident Faried is easily registering career highs on both his shooting percentage from 0-3 feet and the percentage of his baskets that are assisted. Even when he fell out of the rotation in both Denver and Brooklyn, Faried’s efficiency in the pick-and-roll never wavered, always finishing in the 85th percentile or above (per Synergy Sports). The fit in Houston couldn’t be more natural.

Unfortunately, despite the absence of a grace period on offense, expect a far more trying transition to Houston for Faried defensively. Although they have toned down the switching as of late, Houston’s bigs have to defend guards more often than anywhere else in the league, something Faried has notoriously struggled with. As Kevin Pelton highlighted in his piece on Faried joining the Rockets:

“Going back to 2013-14, opponents have averaged 1.03 points per chance on picks switched by Faried, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That ranks 143 of the 147 players who have switched at least 250 picks in that span.”

That number is certainly discouraging, but Faried’s shown progress since joining the Rockets. It’s likely small sample size theater, but Faried has limited opponents to 0.867 points per chance on picks switched through his first 30 possessions. That’s still far from elite, but it’s encouraging to see growth in such an unheralded department this deep into a player’s career.

It’s unlikely based on his track record that Faried reaches above league average defensively at any point this season, but honestly, that’s fine. Clint Capela’s return is sooner than one may think, and league average will suffice for a backup big. Come the spring, the Rockets can deploy Faried selectively to spark runs rather than relying on him for consistent production.

It certainly took longer than Faried would have liked, but the Manimal has rediscovered his niche. Never underestimate the power of a new role.