In the modern NBA, the small forward position has become one of the most important for teams. Small forwards need to be more versatile than ever before. They are often asked to guard some of the NBA’s biggest power forwards, and just as often asked to shut down some of the league’s elite point guards. Many of the better ball-handling forwards, such as LeBron James and Andre Iguodala, play “point-forward” and initiate their team’s offense intermittently with the full-time point guard.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the best two NBA players in the NBA, and by the far best small forwards. Behind them are players like Paul George (who may miss the upcoming season due to his recent leg injury) and Carmelo Anthony. However, behind these top small forwards is an exciting crop of young small forwards that are climbing the ranks and are ready to take the next step in their development. Some of them have been in the league for more than six years, some have yet to play their first NBA game.
Here is a look at some of the best up-and-coming small forwards in the league:
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (Age 23. Drafted 15th overall in the 2011) –
It is hard to express just how important Kawhi Leonard is to his team. For the last few seasons, Leonard has been a do-it-all sort of player. He spreads the floor with his three-point shooting, is a great defensive player (NBA All-Defensive second team), good rebounder, and has hands that look as though they belong to a center.
Leonard, who was acquired via a trade with the Indiana Pacers in exchange for point guard George Hill, really made a name for himself in last season’s NBA Finals. In the Finals, Leonard averaged 17.8 points on 61 percent shooting and became the youngest Finals MVP since teammate Tim Duncan won the award in 1999. He routinely guarded LeBron James, and made it difficult for James to impose his will on the game like he is accustomed to.
Shortly after winning the Finals, Spurs head coach Greg Popovich spoke highly of Leonard, and praised him for his work ethic.
“He’s a great learner and he’s super competitive, has a drive to be the best that’s really uncommon in our league,” Popovich said. “He walks the walk. I mean, he’s there early, he’s there late. He wants more. He wants me and the coaches to push him. So I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man.”
At just 23, Leonard really is “the man” now and for the foreseeable future in San Antonio. With a drive to be the best player he can be, and a humble demeanor, Leonard is well-situated to take his game to the next level next season and help the Spurs push for another championship.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Age 19. Drafted 15th overall in 2013) –
Too often NBA media and fans casually throw around phrases like “unlimited potential,” or “unlimited upside” when talking about young prospects. However, if there is one player in the NBA today that would warrant the use of such phrases, it is Giannis Antetokounmpo, otherwise known as the “Greek Freak.”
When Antetokounmpo was drafted by the Bucks, he was listed at 6’9. By June, Antetokounmpo had reportedly grown to just over 6’10, is now reportedly 6’11, and very well may keep growing since he is only 19 and his growth plates are still open.
But height isn’t everything. Players like Hasheem Thabeet are very tall, but not top-level NBA players. However, in his rookie season, Antetokounmpo showed on several occasions that he has the skill-set to utilize his height and length against defenses.
This type of length at the small forward position is a significant part of what makes Kevin Durant so dangerous. The Greek Freak has a long way to go to start being compared to Durant, but the tools are there.
Last season, Antetokounmpo averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 41.4 percent from the field, 34.7 percent from three-point range. He played in 77 games, and averaged 24.6 minutes a night. These numbers are by no means eye-catching, but last season was Antetokounmpo’s first time playing against elite basketball players after playing against what one league executive described as “YMCA” level talent.
Newly hired Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has said that he will expand Antetokounmpo’s role this season, and experimented with him at point guard during the Las Vegas Summer League. Antetokounmpo made a strong showing in Vegas, but has a ways to go before he can realistically play point guard effectively during the NBA season. Still, the possibilities really are limitless for Antetokounmpo. With an expanded role, his upcoming season could be a breakout year for Antetokounmpo.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz (Age 24. Drafted 9th overall in the 2010) –
Gordon Hayward has significantly improved his game each of the four seasons he has been in the NBA. While Hayward may not be great at any single thing, he is a solid all-around player that still has plenty of room to improve.
Earlier this offseason, Hayward signed a max offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets, which the Utah Jazz matched. The Jazz made a huge commitment to Hayward, who was looked to as a number one scoring option last season, as well as point forward.
Last season, Hayward averaged 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game and shot 41.3 percent from the field, 30.4 percent from three-point range. These are very solid per game averages for a 24 year old forward. The major issue for Hayward was his shooting percentages, which plummeted from previous seasons.
To Hayward’s credit, he was adjusting to his role as the number-one option on the team and the focus of opposing teams’ defensive schemes. With young talent like Trey Burke, and Dante Exum now in Utah, there is a chance that Hayward will have less attention on him, and the opportunity to bring his shooting percentages back up next season. With Quin Snyder now coaching the team, the Jazz are more likely to increase the pace from last season, and spread the court more. With more possessions per game and more room to operate, it’s quite possible that Hayward will have a big season.
Chandler Parsons, Dallas Mavericks (Age 25. Drafted 38th overall in 2011) –
For the last few years, Chandler Parsons has been the best bargain in the NBA, making less than $1 million annually. Don’t feel too bad for Parsons, however, as he signed a three-year contract worth roughly $46 million this offseason with the Dallas Mavericks.
It is questionable whether Parsons is worth roughly $15 million annually under the new, restrictive CBA. However, Parsons enters this season with plenty of motivation to prove he is worth every penny after the Houston Rockets chose to not match the Mavericks’ offer sheet, allowing him to go to Dallas for nothing in return. Parsons knew the Rockets were looking for a third star player to put along James Harden and Dwight Howard, and thought that he could be that third star. The Rockets disagreed.
Last season, Parsons averaged 16.6 points. 5.5 rebounds, four assists and 1.2 steals per game, and shot 47.2 percent from the field, 37 percent from three-point range. He is a very good three-point shooter, a willing defender, and underrated athlete. In Dallas, Parsons will play alongside Raymond Felton, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler. Under the direction of one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Carlisle, Parsons has the opportunity to expand his game from floor-spacer and wing-defender to a primary scorer and playmaker.
In Houston, James Harden handles the ball and the offense runs mostly through him. When Harden is not taking the lead on offense, Howard is looking to score in the post. This left Parsons to be opportunistic with his scoring opportunities. It will be up to Parsons to find his niche with the Mavericks and show Houston they made a mistake in letting him leave.
Nicolas Batum, Portland Trailblazers (Age 25. Drafted 25th overall in 2008) –
Nicolas Batum is one of the best two-way players in the league, and arguably the best “glue-guy.” He does a little bit of everything for the Trailblazers, and is a huge reason why they advanced to the second round of the Playoffs last season.
One of the reasons why Batum flies under the radar is due to the fact that he is not a volume scorer (just 13 points per game last season). But on a team with Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and LaMarcus Aldridge, Batum doesn’t need to score a lot. Instead, Batum spreads the floor with his three-point shooting, grabs rebounds at a high rate for a small forwards, sets up teammates as a playmaker, is great in transition both offensively and defensively, and often defends opposing teams’ best scorers, even if they happen to be a point guard. He even fills in at power forward quite often, allowing the Blazers to play at a quicker pace and add more three-point shooting.
Last season, Batum averaged 13 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 0.9 steals, and shot 46.5 percent from the field, and 36.1 percent from three-point range. Batum was one of three players in the league last year to average over seven rebounds and five assists a game last year, along with Joahim Noah and Kevin Durant.
At age 25, Batum still has room to improve his game and take another step in his development. He is one of the most versatile players in the league, but he would really turn heads if he can get his scoring average up. However, on a high-scoring Portland team, it’s not really necessary for him to do so. But for Batum, a bump in nightly scoring to somewhere near 17 points a game would put more attention on his all-around impact on the game, and earn him the recognition he already deserves.
Batum has improved his production each season and projects to continue that upward trend with the up-and-coming Blazers this upcoming season.
Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic (Age 22. Drafted 19th overall in 2011) –
Tobias Harris is by no means a household name, but may become more familiar to casual NBA fans this upcoming season.
Harris suffered through an ankle injury early last season and reportedly never fully recovered. Nevertheless, in 61 games played last season, Harris averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds, 1.3 assists and shot 46.4 percent from the field in 30.3 minutes per game. These were career best numbers for Harris, who is reportedly now 100 percent healthy entering the upcoming season.
Harris is a gifted scorer, but will need to improve his three-point shooting to hit the next level in his development. This is especially true since teammate Maurice Harkless will be competing with Harris this upcoming season for playing time at small forward. Harkless shot 38.3 percent from three-point range last season, and successfully guarded some of the best players in the league. As a talented 3-and-D prospect, Harkless could take some significant playing time away from Harris if he is unable to stretch the floor out to the three-point line.
At age 22, Harris has a lot of potential to improve and become a major piece for the Orlando Magic moving forward. With a clean bill of health and a little bit of luck, this year may be a big one for Harris.
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves (Age 19. Drafted 1st overall in 2014) –
Andrew Wiggins has been in the headlines for the last few months because of the rumored trade that officially sent him to the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier this week. With the deal done, now the focus can turn back to Wiggin’s game and potential.
Without seeing Wiggins in a real NBA game yet, it is hard to say how effective he will be this upcoming season. However, it is fair to say at this point that he will be an above average defensive player in his rookie season, and will have nights where he shows flashes of the player he may become one day.
In his one season at Kansas, Wiggins averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and one block per game, and shot 44.8 percent from the field, and 34.1 percent from beyond-the-arc. These are good numbers for a first-year college player, but fell short of the lofty expectations of scouts and analysts. One of the major criticisms of Wiggins is his laid-back demeanor and reluctance to take over games as a scorer. However, Wiggins seems to want to address this issue, and, according to ESPN, conveyed that sentiment to Kansas coach Bill Self before officially being traded to the Timberwolves.
“When all this trade stuff started, I talked to Andrew and Andrew told me, ‘I hope I get traded,'” Self said. “And I’m like, ‘No you don’t.’ And he said, ‘Coach, I do. It’s better for me, knowing my personality and what I need to do, to go somewhere where I’m forced to be something as opposed to going in there where they’re going to be patient with me and I’m going to be a piece.’”
It is not clear what kind of NBA player Wiggins will be in his rookie season. But if he can prove the naysayers wrong and take on an alpha dog mentality, Wiggins will likely be much more than just another “piece” next season in Minnesota.
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks (Age 19. Drafted 2nd overall in 2014) –
Many NBA scouts and analysts believe that Jabari Parker is the most NBA ready player in this year’s rookie class. Parker is a gifted scorer who can knock down a catch-and-shoot three-pointer or just as easily score with his back to the basket in the post.
In his one season at Duke, Parker averaged 19.1 points. 8.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists, and shot 47.3 percent from the field, and 35.8 percent from beyond-the-arc. At 6’8, Parker has ideal size to play small forward, and is strong enough to play power forward as well. It will be interesting to see how Milwaukee head coach uses Parker this upcoming season, particularly with teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both Parker and Antetokounmpo have the size to play both forward positions, but each player is gifted in distinct ways.
Fortunately for Kidd and the Bucks, Parker and Antetokounmpo are both skilled enough that they should be able to find success in whatever role they are given. Parker, like all NBA rookies, will have stretches where he will struggle to assert himself– particularly on defense where he needs to improve– but will have as good of a chance as any rookie to make a strong impact next season.
These are some of the young, stand-out small forwards that are primed to have a big season. For some, next season may be a small step towards reaching their full potential. But for others, next season could be the year where they make the leap into elite echelon of the NBA.
Who do you think is going to breakout at the small forward position next year? Leave your thoughts below!
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.
Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench
David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.
The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.
He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.
“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”
Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.
The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.
“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”
For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.
In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.
“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”
In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.
“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”
At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).
It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.