Just a few years ago, it seemed that the shooting guard position was fairly shallow. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Vince Carter led the way, while others merely hoped to eventually carve out a niche for themselves.
My, how times have changed.
A steady influx of above-average shooting guards has made the position fairly deep. The prospect of ranking the league’s top 10 players at the position seems easy enough until one actually begins sifting through numbers, statistics and tape and trying to figure out the impossible. Declaring a player to be “better” than another is largely a subjective task. Some would anoint one player based on their statistical accrual, but if a talented player is getting numbers on a team that isn’t going anywhere, does that truly make him a better player than someone who excels playing within a successful team’s offense?
As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
What complicates matters even further is that we are firmly in the era of “position-less” basketball. The NBA now refers to players as “front court” and “back court” players on All-Star ballots, making pigeonholing a player into a single position a difficult endeavor. In today’s NBA, most shooting guards can and have spent minutes playing small forward, and many small forwards swing over to power forward. Other shooting guards spend minutes at point guard, as well, but our opinion is that a player should be considered based on his “natural” position, and in most cases, that’s easy to determine.
Ahead of the 2016-17 NBA season, Basketball Insiders ranks the Top 10 shooting guards in the NBA.
1. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
At one point in time, Klay Thompson and James Harden were considered to be the league’s top two shooting guard prospects. Since then, each has turned in some impressive performances, but Thompson has emerged as the better defender and the more efficient scorer. What makes Thompson the choice as the top shooting guard in the league is his versatility and ability to play within an offensive system. Thompson has improved his ability to score off the dribble, which nicely augments his phenomenal catch-and-shoot game. He rarely forces the action and, overall, doesn’t appear to have any obvious weaknesses on the court. It’s hard to argue that there’s another shooting guard in the league that is a better choice than the other half of the Splash Brothers.
2. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Since being selected with the final pick of the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft, Jimmy Butler has emerged as the franchise player for the Chicago Bulls, surprisingly outlasting hometown hero Derrick Rose. Already a top-notch defender, Butler has put a lot of work into developing his offensive repertoire, and the gains have been most obvious in his midrange shooting. Since attempting only eight percent of his shots from 10-15 feet as a rookie, last season Butler increased the rate to 13 percent. His scoring and shooting efficiency have steadily increased to the point where Butler is now a dependable 20-point per game scorer. What makes Butler especially valuable, though, is his the improvement he has made playing on the ball. As the years have progressed, he has been given more on-ball repetitions and, as a result, turned in 4.8 assists per game last season. That represents a career best and is far above his career average of 2.6 per game. Butler’s court vision and ability to create will be tested now that he will be playing alongside Dwyane Wade, but we’re willing to bet it works out for the best.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last season, James Harden turned in career highs in both usage rate (32.5 percent) and assists per game (7.5). That was probably all newly installed head coach Mike D’Antoni needed to know in order to give him flashbacks of Steve Nash. We would also point out that Harden had some success running as the point guard for Scott Brooks when the two were together in Oklahoma City. Since Harden has spent the duration of his career as a Rocket as a shooting guard, plus the fact that he will still play a large portion of his minutes at the position, he belongs here. Say what you want about his defense and his propensity to be a ball-stopper, but Harden is one of the more unstoppable forces the NBA has seen in recent years. He is adept at drawing fouls and, when dedicated to moving the basketball, an above-average playmaker. He may not be the two-way player that Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler is, but he is one of the more valuable and talented players in the league, evidenced by his finishing second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry back in 2015.
4. Dwyane Wade, Chicago Bulls
If teams can routinely trot out lineups featuring two point guards, why not have one featuring two shooting guards? That decision is especially easy to make when you have two of the league’s top four at your disposal. Despite closing in on his 35th birthday, Dwyane Wade appeared in as many as 70 games last year for the first time since 2011. Without Chris Bosh by his side for the majority of the season, Wade was instrumental in the HEAT winning the Southeast Division and coming within one game of challenging LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Without question, Wade is one of the top shooting guards in the history of the NBA, and although his best days might be behind him, he is still a top shooting guard in the league. He proved exactly that in each of the last two seasons.
5. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors just re-signed DeMar DeRozan to a five-year maximum contract and it’s difficult to blame them. Since entering the league back in 2009, DeRozan has slowly but surely improved to the point where he has become a 25-point per game scorer. More importantly, he has been one of the two best players for the Raptors—a team that has unexpectedly emerged as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Aside from being a capable defender, DeRozan shot a career-best 34 percent from the three-point line last season and still maintains the explosive athleticism that put him on the map in the first place. Over the years, he has made his fair share of clutch shots and is both a team leader and a clutch player.
6. C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
First it was Damian Lillard, now it’s C.J. McCollum. Not too long ago, nobody knew who McCollum was. Now, one could argue that he is in the top tier of guards in the NBA. McCollum became a full-time starter during the 2015-16 season and helped the Portland Trail Blazers overachieve mightily. He raised his shooting percentages across the board while playing more than twice as many minutes from the season prior. En route to winning the 2016 Most Improved Player Award, McCollum turned in impressive 2015-16 averages of 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game. He has had his fair share of big moments and it’s quite fair to say that without him running alongside Lillard, the Blazers franchise would have opted for a slow and steady rebuild. Instead, they are entering this season with a payroll of nearly $120 million and have firmly committed to building around the young duo.
7. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
At just 23 years old, it stands to reason that Bradley Beal’s best days are still ahead of him. The Washington Wizards hope that’s true, as well, considering the team just re-signed him to a five-year, $127 million extension to remain with the club. Beal is coming off of a season where he managed to play just 55 games, but his output thus far has been undeniable. Beal has shown the ability to play both guard positions and is one of the more efficient shot makers at the shooting guard position. He is still clearly a notch below the top tier shooting guards in the league, but it only seems to be a matter of time before Beal is able to put it all together and begin to fulfill his potential. Offensively, he relies heavily on his first step and still seems better off having his shot opportunities created by others, but the combination of his age, output and potential make him one of the top shooting guard prospects in the NBA.
8. J.J. Redick, Los Angeles Clippers
Unlike most of the players appearing before him on this list, J.J. Redick has very little flash to his game. He is, however, a very strong shooting guard. Aside from being a solid defender, Redick moves beautifully without the basketball and is one of the more efficient shooters in the entire league. Playing alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin after spending seven seasons in Orlando, Redick is perfectly cast as a shot-maker in Los Angeles. Last season, he shot a career-high 47.5 percent from three-point territory, which was top in the league among qualified players. If a team wants a shooting guard who can maintain effectiveness despite a relatively low usage rate, Redick would be ideal.
9. Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
After becoming an injury concern during the early years of his career, Avery Bradley has managed to appear in 77 and 76 games over the past two seasons, respectively. Bradley is a very dependable two-way player for Brad Stevens and has been a lynchpin on the overachieving Boston Celtics since the two united. Bradley also happens to be a career 36 percent three-point shooter.
10. Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic
The 23-year-old Frenchman will join Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert as some of the more well-renowned European players to hail from France. Despite being just 23 years old, Fournier brought a wealth of international basketball experience with him to the NBA and, after spending his first two years in Denver, has progressed extraordinarily in his two years in Orlando. The emergence of Fournier (he averaged 15.4 points per game after starting in 71 contests last season) probably made general manager Rob Hennigan’s decision to trade Victor Oladipo a tad easier. During the 2015-16 season, Fournier showed impressive versatility, excelling at creating his own shots off the dribble and being an efficient shot maker. He has exceptional court vision and was often entrusted by Scott Skiles to be the decision-maker and playmaker when the game was on the line. Despite the presence of promising Mario Hezonja on the roster, it appears that the future of the perimeter for the Magic is Fournier, and it’s difficult to argue with the results.
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks: Quietly led the Bucks in scoring last season with 18.2 points per game, Middleton appeared to be on his way to superstardom, but he’s out for six months following surgery to his left hamstring.
Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder: Last season, Oladipo became a more efficient scorer. If the trend continues playing alongside Russell Westbrook and the rest of his new teammates in Oklahoma City, Oladipo’s name may carry the same weight it did during his rookie year.
Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz: If the Utah Jazz find their way into the playoffs this season, Rodney Hood will get all the love he deserves. Based on the numbers, you could argue that he belongs in the top 10, but they will ring a tad hollow until the Jazz have a break through.
Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans: It’s not often you encounter a player who peaks as a rookie, but Tyreke Evans is among them. His talent and versatility is undeniable, but his failure to stay healthy has undercut his potential.
Monta Ellis, Indiana Pacers: After emerging as a star of the 2007 Golden State Warriors, the Dubs clearly made the right decision in moving Ellis along in favor of Stephen Curry. Still, he’s a solid guard who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being fairly complete.
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