We have projected the Top 30 shooting guards for 2017-18

We have projected the Top 30 shooting guards for 2017-18

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We have projected the Top 30 shooting guards for 2017-18

Previously, I projected the Top 30 point guards for next season (with more details on the philosophy on what projections take into account here) and on now we will be continuing our series ranking players by position, this time with the shooting guards.

Projecting future success for point guards and shooting guards is quite different. Most of the high level point guards tend to have the ball all the time and put up big counting stats, making it easier to define the top-tier, average level and lower-end players.

Apart from a few exceptions at the top, most shooting guards tend to average between 13 and 18 points per game and their value is mostly separated based on other qualities. Defensive versatility is incredibly valuable in today’s game, as is three-point shooting and the ability to complement the primary action on the wing.

Trying to predict the future output of players not only focuses on box-score based counting numbers, but how well a team performs with a particular player on the court. Role, minutes, injury history are all a factor.

So here goes:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Harden is a good example (on offense) of why positional labels aren’t important. What matters are specific skill sets that can help a team win, and Harden is the perfect pick-and-roll player in a modern spread offense. He’s an exceptional passer finding shooters on the weakside, on timing lob passes and those quick hitters to semi-open wing shooters when the defenses relaxes for a second. There are few better finishers in the league, and Harden’s elite athleticism helps, but even more his ability to control the pace of an offense is special.

Chris Paul and Harden are going to share pick-and-roll duties, and that’s inevitably going to push Harden’s scoring and assist numbers down. But overall for the Rockets, that’s a win. Harden looked worn down in the conference semifinals against the Spurs, and even though modern offenses tend to be heavily skewed towards a main creator off screens, having two players who can succeed both on- and off-the-ball should help. Who knows, Harden might even start using that extra energy to improve his defense.

2. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

One of the hot button topics in the playoffs this spring was Thompson disappearing and averaging just 15.0 points per game, down from 22.3 during the regular season. To observant fans, those numbers don’t mean a thing, as Thompson played well and it doesn’t matter what he averaged.

Thompson helps the offense just by his presence since you can never, ever, help off him and that gives the other stars room to operate. When the going gets tough (or as tough as it ever does for the Warriors) with guard matchups, Thompson is the player Golden State relies on to guard whomever is needed. Thompson strength is underrated, and he has no problems guarding post-ups against power forwards either.

3. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

In his fifth season, Beal took a big leap on offense pushing Usage Rate up to 26.5 percent while improving his scoring efficiency from everywhere on the court. Beal averaged 23.9 points per game with an elite 60.4 True Shooting Percentage.

The Wizards have their team locked in now, with Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter all under contract until the 2020-21 season (though Porter has an option for that year). Beal can still improve in the pick-and-roll and as a defender, but it’s hard to see where the Wizards can improve drastically to become a true title contender.

4. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Despite averaging 27.3 points per game last season, DeRozan’s value is one of the hottest topics in the analytics community, and by many metrics he shows out as an average starting guard. In the playoffs, when defenses are able to focus on taking away his foul-drawing and on keeping DeRozan in front, his output has dipped noticeably. What’s also notable is that the Raptors have never done well with DeRozan playing without Kyle Lowry by the plus-minus numbers.

It’s hard for a two-guard who isn’t a threat from the three-point line to be productive, but DeRozan took a big step improving his handles and becoming a bigger threat going to the basket, where he’s a wonderful finisher. Up to 16 feet, DeRozan is incredibly efficient, and his ability to make shots that are not right at the basket, but in the floater range is a unique skill. The biggest weakness for DeRozan has been his below-average defense.

5. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

Turning 26 before the start of next season, McCollum should be heading into his best seasons. At this point, we seem to know quite well what type of player McCollum is – a volume scorer with great efficiency who can run pick-and-rolls like an elite point guard, but also a player who is bad defensively.

The Western Conference playoff race is going to lead to heartbreak for a few teams, and the Blazers could very well be one of them. Not making the playoffs is a quick recipe to trade rumors, and the backcourt of Damian Lillard and McCollum seems to have an extremely low ceiling defensively. Building an average defense is a tough task for the Blazers, and McCollum will have to improve on that end to make it happen. McCollum doesn’t have the obvious physical tools to be elite, but not making mistakes and grinding every possession with maximum effort would already be a big step in the right direction.

6. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

By the plus-minus metrics, Wiggins is in the same boat with Devin Booker right now. Both have rated out as some of the worst defenders in basketball thus far in their respective careers, and having Wiggins near the elite shooting guard territory is entirely a play based on his talent translating over to team success.

Wiggins is heading into his fourth season in the league, and looks like a sure-fire star player based on his 23.6 points per game (with improved three-point shooting too). Now is the time for those individual numbers to start translating over to some sweet adjusted plus-minus numbers. On the positive side, playing next to Jimmy Butler should be the perfect opportunity to learn from a really great two-way star.

7. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Just below the big-time scorers, Middleton is the top shooting guard among players who don’t up eye-popping numbers – and Middleton could be more valuable to his team than some names above him on this list.

The Bucks finished the season 15-7 with Middleton back in the starting lineup and without Jabari Parker. While Parker (at least before his latest injury) is considered the more important player for the franchise, Middleton is the glue guy who actually helps his team win more at this point in their respective careers. Middleton is a knockdown, career 40.4 percent three-point shooter, and he can post-up and run a pick-and-roll when need be. An excellent and versatile defender, Middleton is the type of player most teams dream of having.

8. Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons

By swapping out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for Avery Bradley, the Pistons essentially pushed their luxury tax problems by a season. Bradley will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and is likely to end up as a one-year rental for Detroit.

For a team desperate to make the playoffs after a down year, however, there’s no better pickup than Bradley, who has steadily improved on offense every season in addition to being a lockdown defender. Bradley’s 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game were both career-highs, and he could end up being the most valuable player on the roster this season. He has a bit of an annoying habit of taking a step in the three-point line for a long-two pointer, but otherwise he’s a perfect fit all-around.

9. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

After scoring 70 points against the Celtics and 22.1 points per game in his age 20 season, having Booker at ninth in the shooting guard rankings can seem low. But the reality is, if Booker is one of the 10 most valuable two-guards in the league, that will be a massive jump forward for him.

Two facts can be true at the same time. Booker is a great talent and brilliant scorer, and is likely going to take massive steps forward in his game. However, his combined output on both ends of the floor hasn’t translated to team success. Defensively, Booker has been terrible, and has shot the three-pointer at a league average rate. Additionally, Booker has yet to crack league-average scoring efficiency.

10. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets

With the Nuggets gearing up for a big season and playoff push, Harris will be one of the names NBA fans will start hearing about as a promising young shooting guard. In many ways, Harris is a comparable player to Bradley Beal. Each provides value offensively and defensively, and both are excellent shooters, though Beal is a few steps better on the ball.

Off the ball however, Harris is a star. Playing off Nikola Jokic, Harris has figured out the magic ingredient. Cut hard, and if you’re open the ball will be delivered to you for an open dunk. Harris is turning into an incredibly efficient offensive player, shooting over 50 percent from the field and 42.0 percent on three-pointers last year.

11. Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz

Hood suffered from a tough injury-plagued 2016-17 campaign that put a slight downturn on his progression, but if he can stay healthy, Hood is one of the top young two-way wings in the league.

From 2015-16 to last year, Hood’s scoring output dropped from 14.5 to 12.7 points, and his other numbers across the board took a slight dip as well. Heading into next year, without Gordon Hayward on the roster, Hood needs to take a step forward for the Jazz to stay competitive in the crazy Western Conference playoff race.

12. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

The grand prize in the Paul George trade, expectations for Oladipo in Indiana might be unfairly high for next season. Oladipo was touted as a lockdown defender when drafted, but overall he’s probably been a slight disappointment on that end, despite being pretty solid.

Offensively, Oladipo is a solid player as a pick-and-roll option and scorer, and has improved as a shooter in every season of his career. Interestingly, Oladipo’s assist numbers have slightly declined every season as well, but with the Pacers he will be asked to be in a bigger role facilitating the offense. Oladipo hasn’t been the type of player to make his teammates better, and that’s where his biggest leap can come from.

13. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

One of the cool things the Rockets really pushed last season was not only record-breaking volumes in three-point shooting, but the range where their players were allowed to fire from when open. In addition to Ryan Anderson, Gordon was a big beneficiary from Mike D’Antoni’s openness to the strategy.

Gordon averaged 16.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season while taking 65.1 percent of his shots from behind the three-point arc. Injuries have been a problem for Gordon throughout his career, and the biggest impediment to having another great season could be his health.

14. Dion Waiters, Miami Heat

Waiters played by far the best basketball of his career last season, and was a major catalyst for the Heat during their 30-11 run to finish the season. Waiters is just 25 years old, and his freshly inked four-year deal for $52 million takes Waiters right through the prime years of his career.

In 2016-17, Waiters averaged 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds with a career-best 39.2 three-point percentage. Still, he’s overall an inefficient scorer and a poor finisher at the basket. Waiters shot well on a ton of tough jumpers last season, including long two-pointers, and his percentages could easily regress some.

15. Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets

Starting at shooting guard with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward is a slightly odd position for Batum, who has played the entirety of his career at small forward before last season. Batum still plays half of his minutes at the three position, but it’s likely the Hornets could unlock some of their best lineups by heavily pushing both Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum down a position. Overall, the Hornets lineups are a bit off a mess with Dwight Howard taking center minutes away from the better player – Cody Zeller.

Last season, Batum averaged 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. He struggled with his shot, and though never an elite shooter, Batum should be expected to be slightly better in that regard.

16. Louis Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

The “sixth man gunner who doesn’t play defense” player archetype has never been particularly likes by any of the advanced metrics, with the notable exception of Williams. Williams didn’t shoot the ball well during the back half of the season with the Rockets, but his ability to draw fouls and make tough three-pointers puts defenses in uncomfortable spots.

Williams averaged a career-high 17.5 points per game with an elite 59.3 True Shooting Percentage last season, and if he can replicate those numbers next season, Williams will once again be a favorite for the Sixth Man-award. The bad news is Williams is on the wrong side of 30, and at his size any loss of athleticism can start catching up.

17. Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs

Averaging 7.3 points per game and shooting 39.2 from the field, Green isn’t an obvious pick this high, but as long as he plays in San Antonio for Gregg Popovich, it’s difficult to dispute Green’s value. The combined effect of Green and Kawhi Leonard on the wing is the backbone of the Spurs’ defense, which is always ranked at the very top of the league. In the Spurs system, Green is counted on to do the little things, from positioning to moving off-the-ball precisely in just the right way to keep the offense flowing.

The past two seasons, Green has shot the three-pointer poorly for his standards, and there’s still a chance Green can have a season where he’s a knockdown shooter again. He isn’t quite the player he was two or three years ago, but as a starter on a team that is going to win something like 60 games again next season, Green is a star in his role.

18. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers

Restricted free agents who are as young and talented as Caldwell-Pope rarely change teams, but after the Pistons mistakenly capped themselves with multiple questionable contracts for backup players (in addition to spending north of $5 million per season on Josh Smith after stretching his salary), Caldwell-Pope moved to the Lakers on a one-year $18 million deal.

KCP is a solid, sometimes bordering on elite, guard defender and can take the tougher matchup every night with Lonzo Ball running the point. As a shooter, Caldwell-Pope has hovered around average efficiency, but his high volume suggests Caldwell-Pope could take the next step soon. If that happens, the Pistons could soon start regretting their decision to let Caldwell-Pope leave.

19. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder

Few players who averaged just 6.6 points in 30.1 minutes of playing time can be considered a plus for their respective team, but Roberson’s contributions on the defensive end was a big part of Thunder’s Top 10 defense last season.

Roberson can’t shoot, at all, which means offensively he’s often in positions where shooting guards typically aren’t – hanging around the baseline or setting screens in pick-and-roll. From the corners, Roberson only made 23.5 percent of his three-pointers on mostly wide open shots, and that’s the number you’d hope improves. Roberson is never going to be good shooting off screens due to his mechanics, but just being able to make an open shot when Russell Westbrook kicks it to him would go a long way in opening up the offense.

20. Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Matthews ruptured his Achilles in early March in 2015 and somehow has played over 70 games the last two seasons. That’s an iron man feat, and speaks to how tough Matthews is. An Achilles rupture in most players’ late-20s would be an instant career killer, but he has been a solid shooting guard option, and a real two-way player, for Dallas.

Last season, Matthews averaged 14.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. His outside shooting and finishing at the basket has taken a big hit in his post-injury seasons, and turning 31 in October, there’s always a risk Matthews starts to decline. Even so, Matthews could get back to shooting around 40 percent from deep two, and projects as somewhere near an average starter at the shooting guard position.

21. Dwyane Wade, Chicago Bulls

At 35 years old, Wade can still contribute for a team, though at this point he’s a lower-end starter. Wade’s skills have aged well, and there are few players in NBA history who have been as productive at this point in their careers, but Wade’s skillset overall doesn’t transfer well to a supporting role.

Apart from being a good cutter when engaged, Wade isn’t a threat off the ball, not being a serious option from the three-point line. On the defensive end, Wade doesn’t give his team the type of effort needed, and it’s tough to ask him to do that and play big minutes too. Last season, Wade’s 18.3 points, 3.8 assists and 43.4 field goal percentage were all the lowest marks of his career.

22. D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets

If you just watch the clips of Russell’s best passing highlights, it feels like Russell should be an elite pick-and-roll creator, yet he only averaged 4.8 assists per game last season. Playing in Kenny Atkinson’s system and heading into his third year, now would be a great time for Russell to take a major leap towards becoming a productive primary ballhandling option on offense.

Defensively, starting next to Jeremy Lin, the Nets are going to have terrible issues. But that’s completely fine for a team in their situation. Russell hasn’t been a great finisher at the rim, and is currently an average shooter. One, or both, of those will have to start improving for Russell to become a good player, since his limited athleticism will always be an issue.

23. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

LaVine looks to be ahead of schedule after tearing his ACL back in February and is expected to get back on the court shortly after the season starts. For many players, the first season after a big injury tends to be a tough one, and it’s unreasonable to expect LaVine to make a leap in his fourth year because of it.

Similar to many talented wing players who are already good scorers at a young age, LaVine faces the challenge of actually translating his individual scoring numbers to team success. Defensively, LaVine still needs to take big steps, especially if he can’t be the type of pick-and-roll creator who makes the team around him better. With Dwyane Wade on the roster and Kris Dunn (for a brief moment at least) as the designated point guard of the future, Fred Hoiberg will have an interesting challenge putting LaVine in positions to succeed.

24. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

Among the most visceral reactions to the Top 30 point guard projections was Celtics fans upset about the omission of Smart. While Smart is in many ways a point guard, he only played 6 percent of his minutes at the position per Basketball-Reference – and without Isaiah Thomas playing big minutes that will continue to be the case. Smart will simply guard whomever the Celtics need him to.

Smart only averaged 10.6 points, 4.9 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game last season, and is something like the worst volume three-point shooter in NBA history. However, he’s a fantastic and strong defensive player who makes winning plays on both ends of the court. Smart is a wonderful example of the type of positionless basketball the NBA is heading towards, as Brad Stevens often uses him as a screener when all the other players on the court are deadly shooters.

25. Tyler Johnson, Miami Heat

Johnson is the type of combo guard right on the line between point- and shooting guard. When Goran Dragic is off the court, Johnson tends to guard the point guard, but ballhandling duties are evenly distributed with players like James Johnson and Dion Waiters. Johnson plays 30 minutes a night, and half of his minutes are pushed to the shooting guard position.

One of the most underappreciated players in the league, Johnson is a positive contributor on both ends of the floor. He’s an above-average shooter who can run a pick-and-roll in a pinch, and is tenacious defensively. On the contract side, Johnson has been a slight negative when it comes to Miami’s plans, due to the “Arenas” provision, Johnson’s salary will bump to $20 million starting from next season and the Heat will be capped out, which forced them to spend all their available space this summer.

26. Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic

When Fournier signed his five-year, $85 million contract last summer, it seemed like a steal compared to some of the other deals signed in free agency – as Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Ian Mahinmi, Bismack Biyombo and other received comparable guaranteed money.

A year later, the free agency market has become much tighter, and with the salary cap jump lower than expected, Fournier’s contract now looks decent (at best). Fournier posted a career-best 17.2 points per game last season, but had the worst shooting season of his career and remains a bad defensive player.

27. JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers

For a shooter like Redick, heading into a new situation in Philadelphia can bring challenges. If there’s one action Doc Rivers knew how to run well when Redick was with the Clippers, it was all the misdirection and down screens that would set up Redick for open shots (in addition to being a menace to track for defenders). It’s difficult to project that to what the Sixers will do in their offense, and whether or not Redick ends up as a more strict spot-up shooter.

If that’s the case, Redick won’t be quite as valuable to his new team as he was for the Clippers, but in any case his veteran leadership should provide a nice boost for a young team looking for stability. It’s easy to play next to Redick, and offenses with him are better for it. He is a big minus defensively due to his size, but at least he doesn’t make mistakes on rotations and in team schemes.

28. JR Smith, Cleveland Cavaliers

Smith had a bad, injury-plagued 2016-17 season, and the expectation here is that he’ll bounce back to a degree.

76.1 percent of Smith’s field goal attempts came from beyond the three-point line last season, and the impact the combination of Smith’s volume and range has on the offense is underrated. Smith has a quick release and makes tough contested shots over defenders closing out. Defensively (similarly to the entire Cavaliers roster), Smith has bouts of terrible laziness and not paying attention, but he’s actually been solid at times when required to in the playoffs.

29. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs

Ginobili’s efficiency numbers took a big hit last season, and he averaged just 18.7 minutes per game, the lowest mark of his career. But for whatever reason, the Spurs still played well with Ginobili on the floor, and their bench unit was the best in the NBA over the 2016-17 season.

There are younger players who put up bigger numbers than Ginobili who could be picked over him, but just by his craftiness and smarts, he still makes a bigger positive impact than his raw counting stats would presume. Ginobili ranked third among shooting guards in Real-Plus Minus last season, with solid numbers defensively.

30. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings

At the bottom of this list, picking out the right player is pretty much a dice throw, but Hield does have a few nice advantages going, that makes him the pick.

After being traded to Sacramento, Hield averaged 15.1 points per game and 42.8 percent from deep. Hield will get every opportunity to play and should theoretically improve coming off his rookie season. He isn’t a good defensive player at this point in his career, and pushing closer to average on that end will be key.

Notable omissions: Norman Powell, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Tony Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Josh Richardson, Allen Crabbe, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Will Barton.

You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.

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