Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
While the actual position may have declined in importance when the '90s ended, center-eligible players are dominating the virtual game more than ever before.
The position currently has nine players ranked in the top 19 overall in Yahoo! leagues, as the emergence of Joakim Noah of Chicago Bulls and Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers as all-around forces has added to the growing list of elite center options.
Noah is averaging career highs in points (13.9 ppg), assists (4.3 apg) and blocks (2.3 bpg) while shooting a career-best 81.8 percent from the foul line on 4.2 attempts per game and pulling down 10.6 rebounds per game.
Varejao has been the standard-bearer in the rebounding category this season, averaging 14.8 per game, but he's also scored at a career-high rate of 14.3 ppg while picking up 3.3 assists per game, 1.6 higher than any other season.
Noah and Varejao were ranked 55th and 73rd, respectively, in preseason Yahoo! leagues, but they aren't the only centers who have outperformed their ranking.
One of this season's biggest surprises is San Antonio Spurs veteran forward- center Tim Duncan, whose 17.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.6 blocks and 79.2 free-throw shooting percentage have him ranked third overall against the No. 58 preseason ranking.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward-center Serge Ibaka's stellar rebounding (7.4) and block (3.1) numbers have held steady from last season but Ibaka has taken his offensive game to a new level, averaging 14 ppg on 58.7 percent shooting and hitting 83.7 percent of his free throws. That improvement has contributed to Ibaka's No. 6 overall ranking after he was pegged as the 20th overall player prior to the season.
After scoring 10 ppg in his first three games, Golden State Warriors' PF-C David Lee has been unstoppable in his last 19 games, averaging 20.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 53 percent from the field and 79.3 percent from the charity stripe.
Lee ranks 19th, three spots behind Miami's Chris Bosh (18.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg, .540/.829) and five behind New Orleans' Ryan Anderson (18.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.3 3PM, .465/.423/.880). All three ranked 37th or lower in the preseason.
Utah's Al Jefferson and Memphis' Marc Gasol have performed up to expectations, but that doesn't make their production any less impressive. Jefferson is averaging 17.4 ppg and 10.4 rpg with 2.0 apg, 1.1 spg and 1.1 bpg while shooting 81.3 percent from the foul line. Gasol's scoring is up (15.7 ppg) but his rebounding (7.1) is down from a career-high 8.9 last year, likely due to Zach Randolph's return to dominance. Fortunately, Gasol has once again been one of the NBA's best passing big men, averaging 4.4 assists per game while contributing 1.6 blocks and an impeccable 90.9 foul shooting percentage.
Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge is on the cusp of joining the top 20, ranking 23rd overall with averages of 21 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.0 spg and 1.3 bpg with an .802 foul shooting percentage.
The uprising of these players has come as several players projected to rank among the elite have dropped off the map due to injury or poor production, including Pau Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Andrew Bynum.
The fantasy community continues to struggle to quantify the value of Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard as he continues to be a black hole for free-throw percentage. Howard has attempted 43 more foul shots than any other player but has only made 49.2 percent of them. If you own him, you're essentially punting that category. He has also turned it over 78 times, second most after Detroit's Greg Monroe at the position. But Howard is second among centers in points and rebounds, 12th in assists, seventh in steals and fifth in blocks, so his 280th overall ranking is somewhat misleading.
The only other position that has more players ranked in the top 20 is power forward, but just two of those players -- LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony -- don't also appear on the center list.
The fantasy season is nearly seven weeks old, so these rankings aren't a mirage -- it's clear that a successful fantasy team can still be built from the inside out.