Dwight Howard

On the first full week of each month this season, I’m going to rank the top 10 NBA players at each position based on how I expect them to perform in the coming month. If a player is injured and is expected to miss most of the month, then they probably won’t make the list regardless of his value when healthy. I’ll rank the point guards on Monday, the shooting guards on Tuesday… you get the picture.  Your feedback is welcome, even if you want to tell me how incredibly, irredeemably clueless I am.

We have three new entries in this month’s big man list and one notable exclusion that will likely be controversial — which is why I’m addressing it directly right off the bat.

10. (New entry) Emeka Okafor, New Orleans Hornets — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 26.5 MPG, 9.3 PPG, 0.3 APG, 7.5 RPG, 0.3 SPG, 2.5 BPG, .619 FG%, .000 3P%, .611 FT%, 18.6 PER

I had to talk to Tas Melas and Matt Osten so they could help me make up my mind about this ranking, because I needed to be told if I was crazy for picking Okafor over Andrea Bargnani here. Most Raptors fans will surely say, “Yes, you’re crazy” because of Bargnani’s admittedly impressive 25.2 points per game on very good shooting percentages. But Okafor is so far superior as a rebounder and defender that I was really in a bind here. What decided it for me was that Okafor is arguably the second-best player on a 4-0 team while Bargnani is the best player on a 1-3 team, and the fact that I value help defense more than anything else when evaluating centers. Since these rankings are meant to be a projection of how I think these players will perform in the next month, I also believe that Okafor can maintain his performance while I highly doubt Bargnani will continue to score at his current level of production and efficiency — let’s see what happens when he starts to face regular double teams.

9. (4.) Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 31.0 MPG, 10.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 9.8 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.5 BPG, .458 FG%, .000 3P%, .769 FT%, 17.7 PER

Gasol is taking 3 fewer shots per game than he took last season and only one of his 24 shots have been taken more than 10 feet away from the basket. Considering that he made 58 percent of his shots last season and the Grizzlies have the 20th-ranked offense at this point, they would be wise to get him more involved on that end. Of course, Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley have to be willing to pass him the ball for that to happen.

8. (6.) Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 37.3 MPG, 19.0 PPG, 0.8 APG, 8.0 RPG, 0.3 SPG, 1.3 BPG, .483 FG%, .000 3P%, .833 FT%, 17.2 PER

He still commands double teams in the post but he’s not a lock for 20 and 10 anymore now that he’s sharing shots and rebounds with Paul Millsap in the Jazz frontcourt. Jefferson has been a fast learner in Utah’s offense, following a six-point opening night with three straight games of 20 points or more. Unfortunately, he’s still a pretty lousy defender and Millsap usually gets the tougher assignment against opposition big men.

7. (10.) Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 33.0 MPG, 17.5 PPG, 4.3 APG, 9.5 RPG, 0.0 SPG, 2.8 BPG, .440 FG%, .000 3P%, .833 FT%, 22.8 PER

Hibbert’s improvement entering his third NBA season has been impressive, to say the least. If scouts thought he was capable of putting up these kinds of numbers, there’s no way he would have lasted to the 17th pick of the 2008 draft. He’s learned to be a shot-blocking force while staying out of foul trouble, his rebounding instincts are vastly improved and his offensive arsenal has grown to the point that he’s a legitimate threat not only in the post, but from mid-range and as a playmaker.

6. (New entry) Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks — 2010-11 stats: 5 GP, 35.4 MPG, 14.0 PPG, 1.0 APG, 11.0 RPG, 0.4 SPG, 2.2 BPG, .492 FG%, .000 3P%, .522 FT%, 18.4 PER

He’s still shaking off some rust on the offensive end, but otherwise Bogut has returned seamlessly from his horrific arm injuries in April and is showing the trademark Aussie aggression that helps make him one of the top NBA centers.

Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol

5. (New entry) Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks — 2010-11 stats: 5 GP, 29.0 MPG, 15.4 PPG, 2.6 APG, 9.8 RPG, 0.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG, .608 FG%, .000 3P%, .882 FT%, 24.6 PER

The ink is still wet on the five-year, $60 million extension he signed with Atlanta on Monday and there should be little doubt that the Hawks are getting great value from this deal. Already one of the top defensive big men in the league, Horford continues to develop his offensive game — his field goal percentage from outside 15 feet has gone up every season. He may not be built like a “true center” but Hawks fans won’t quibble over that as long as the team keeps winning.

4. (5.) Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 38.3 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 2.5 APG, 14.8 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 2.0 BPG, .524 FG%, .000 3P%, .688 FT%, 19.6 PER

The Bulls are playing at a faster pace under new coach Tom Thibodeau and one of their new weapons is Joakim Noah firing crisp, accurate outlet passes to a streaking Derrick Rose after one of Noah’s many rebounds. His shooting form is still ugly, but where he once had no mid-range game through his first two seasons, he now shoots confidently and often accurately from there a couple of times per game. Regardless, his biggest contribution on offense is still on the boards — he’s averaging five rebounds per game on that end of the court alone.

3. (3.) Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 35.3 MPG, 22.8 PPG, 1.3 APG, 6.5 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 2.3 BPG, .471 FG%, .000 3P%, .833 FT%, 21.7 PER

Lopez is definitely benefiting from the Nets’ massive upgrade at power forward from last season’s stinky combo of Yi Jianlian and Kris Humphries. Hump is still around, but rookie Derrick Favors will inevitably eat away at his minutes as we get further into the season. Lopez’s rebounding numbers are down, but Favors and Humphries are handling those duties ably while Brook continues to prove that he’s the best post scorer among the “true centers” in the league.

2. (2.) Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers — 2010-11 stats: 5 GP, 37.4 MPG, 23.8 PPG, 4.4 APG, 11.0 RPG, 0.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG, .522 FG%, .000 3P%, .758 FT%, 26.6 PER

Andrew Bynum can take his time healing up and returning to the Lakers’ lineup — L.A. is 5-0 and Pau Gasol is filling in at the five-spot while playing the best ball of his career. The Lakers have the best offense in the NBA and Pau deserves much of the credit as he’s averaging 23.8 points on 18 shots per game, both career-highs. If Pau was in yesterday’s power forward rankings, he’d be an easy choice for the top spot.

1. (1.) Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 27.0 MPG, 20.0 PPG, 0.7 APG, 11.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 4.0 BPG, .595 FG%, .000 3P%, .432 FT%, 31.6 PER

It’s still early, but those off-season sessions spent learning post moves from Hakeem Olajuwon look like they paid off. Previously, he was unlikely to try to score outside of the low-post unless there was no other option. Based on the assortment of turnaround and mid-range jumpers he’s showcased in this first three games this season, it should only be a matter of time before the Magic start running their offense through him. Oh yeah, he’s still pretty all right on defense and on the boards.