The best small forwards are pretty easy to define, as there are seven absolute star players, four of whom could win the MVP award this season. Beyond that, there are around 10 players who could potentially be in the next slot depending on how their season shakes out. A year ago, it would have been impossible to picture Joe Ingles as an average starter level player, but at least season, he was likely even better than that.
Another interesting group among the wings are the young, second or third year players. Most of these players haven’t been productive players for an NBA team yet, but have the talent to quickly make the leap and be among the most productive two-way wings in the league. On the other hand they might not figure out it yet, remain bad on defense, put up solid counting stats, and be overrated when it comes to winning games.
So here goes:
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Playing at his peak, James is still likely the best player in the NBA, and despite being considered the most talented player of his generation, James’ longevity is what separates him from every other player in the greatest of all-time discussion.
Most would consider James to be somewhere at the backend of his prime years. Heading into his 15th season, that fact is a miracle. James is already seventh in regular season scoring (28,787 points) and 25th in minutes played. James will probably pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the leader in career points in about five seasons, at the age of 37 or 38, and he’ll be in the Top 10 in minutes played by 2020. Last season, James’ marks of 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game were both the best of his career.
Over the course of a regular season, James has serious competition for the most productive small forward. Defensively, James has recently coasted through most of the year, and the Cavaliers have a tendency for uneven regular seasons before ramping up play towards the playoffs.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Playing in Golden State under a more egalitarian offensive system than before with the Thunder, it’s worth noting that Durant’s numbers across the board remained the same or improved. Durant posted career-highs in rebounds, assists, blocks while boosting his scoring efficiency and lowering his turnover rate.
Guarding the Warriors is the toughest challenge in the NBA, and the openings in the defense were well exploited by Durant, who scored 26.7 percent of his baskets from within three feet (a career-high number) with a 79.6 field goal percentage – largely on wide open transition scores, timely cuts and attacking openings against a spread defense.
Durant’s upside on the defensive end was unlocked with the Warriors too. The speed to switch on perimeter assignments and protect the rim is a rare and highly regarded skillset in the modern NBA, and the small, speedy, lineups thrown out by Steve Kerr were among the best defensive units in the league. KD played more than half of his minutes at power forward last season, which is about double the time he spent there in any other season.
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard is a fantastic dark-horse candidate for MVP for 2017-18. He’s the best player on a team that is going to win somewhere in the vicinity of 60 games again, and by a much wider margin to the second best player that tends to happen. Also, Leonard just turned 26 years old, is already one of the best players on both ends of the court, and could conceivably add to his offensive game in tangible ways.
Leonard can score in a variety of ways, from post ups to being an excellent shooter on- and off-the dribble. 24.7 percent of Leonard’s possessions came as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and as a scorer Leonard ranked in the 93rd percentile in efficiency. The next step as the primary ball-handler is to improve at drawing the defense in and kicking out to shooters, and to achieve that, Leonard will still have to improve his handles, footwork and vision in the pick-and-roll.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last season, the Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history to average 23.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks, and his numbers have improved every season in every major statistical category over his career.
Heading into his fifth season at just 22 years old, Antetokounmpo is younger than many second and third-year players, and his development should continue on an upward trajectory. The most notable weakness in Antentokounpo’s game is his shooting. He only made 27.2 percent of his three-pointers and has plateaued at just above 30.0 percent from mid-range.
Even without a jump shot, Antetokounmpo is one of the 10 best players in the league, and an MVP-award could be just a respectable jump shot away.
5. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
In 2016-17, Butler ranked third among all wing players in Real Plus-Minus after Leonard and James, and posted career-highs at 23.9 points, 5.5 assists and 6.2 rebounds per game with an elite 58.6 True Shooting Percentage. From the outside, Butler looks the part of a first option on offense, but interestingly Butler’s 26.5 Usage Percentage is quite low for a player of his talents.
Butler helps his team both with and without the ball in his hands, making him a perfect fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, both of whom need their touches. Butler at small forward and Wiggins at the shooting guard position is the most likely configuration on most nights since it will be Butler’s job to guard the taller and stronger forwards. On offense, pushing Wiggins to a two-guard role can help boost his post-ups and give the Wolves at the wing they didn’t have before.
6. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
As the second best player on a team, George is the best option an NBA franchise could ever hope to have. Many of George’s top skills are complementary… He’s an awesome shooter and can work at both forward positions attacking closeouts when the ball gets swung to him. The Thunder should stagger Russell Westbrook and George as much as possible, and that’s when George can be the first option on offense playing against bench units.
In the span of a calendar year, Sam Presti turned Serge Ibaka into Paul George. That’s an amazing accomplishment, but it’s possible the Thunder will be screwed next summer regardless. Westbrook has yet to sign his designated player extension with OKC for unknown reasons, and George will be an unrestricted free agent heading into next summer. In the worst-case scenario, Oklahoma City could lose all their stars, and be forced to start a long franchise rebuild.
7. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Hayward has steadily improved throughout his career, but last season really broke through and took the final step to becoming an All-Star level player in the Western Conference, which is a far tougher task than in the East. At 21.9 points with a career-best 59.2 True Shooting Percentage and 22.2 PER, Hayward gets the Celtics closer to a finals spot than before.
Hayward is a true two-way player, and executes the team scheme well on both ends of the court. Playing for Brad Stevens, being unselfish and willing to work in the team context is a must, and that’s exactly what Hayward brings every night.
8. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
With a couple of months of Anthony-to-Houston trade rumors behind us, there’s a solid chance that the Rockets will not be able to find a package that satisfies the Knicks. Anthony has a no-trade clause in his contract and will need to waive it in order for a trade to take place, and that has likely been the sticking point for a team like the Trail Blazers in acquiring Anthony.
Regardless, as time passes the likelihood that Anthony is traded increases by the day – whether by him or the Knicks front office lowering their expectations – especially if the season starts and New York looks like a low-thirties win team again. At this point in his career, Anthony is probably best off playing power forward, where he doesn’t have to chase and recover to shooters. On offense, Anthony’s quickness and versatility offensively is unguardable for traditional bigs, and his strength keeps him from being overpowered in those matchups.
9. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
The third pick in the 2013 NBA draft, it took four years of development for Porter to slowly (but on a consistent pace) develop into a positive contributor for the Wizards, and Porter’s ultimate upside is still a mystery. In some ways, Porter fits perfectly the description for a modern wing. Porter has the size to play both forward positions, and the versatility defensively to switch on most matchups. Porter shot a sizzling 43.4 percent on three-pointers last season, and was incredibly efficient overall too.
On the other hand, Porter has been in an incredibly small role in the offense thus far, hovering around the 15.0 Usage Percentage mark, a number far below even the league average player. Defensively, Porter has been perfectly fine, but a not a big positive either, which is what you’d hope Porter develops into.
10. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
On a per-minute basis and in his role, Iguodala is still one of the most impactful wing players in the league. He posted a career-high 52.8 field goal percentage and shot 36.2 percent from behind the arc last season, but as he ages, the risk of his jump shot declining rapidly increases.
Already wide-open on most of his attempts, Iguodala’s free throw shooting has hovered between bad and passable – a strong statistical signal that points his jumper being unreliable too. Still, defensively Iguodala is a top-notch stopper, and on offense his high basketball-IQ will keep him a positive contributor for a while longer.
11. Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers
Considering the tough shots Gallinari likes to take, it’s always a surprise that he manages to stay extremely efficient. Gallinari gets to the foul line a ton, and can do a little bit of everything to help his team on offense in addition to being a lock for 18 points a night.
The Clippers are spending $65 million over the next three seasons for Gallinari’s services and injuries have been the biggest problem and factor going forward for him. In eight seasons, Gallo has played over 63 games just twice, and breaking his hand by punching a guy in a friendly match before the Eurobasket this summer is inexplicably stupid.
12. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
Barnes pushed his scoring average to an impressive 19.2 points per game last season and has deceptive strength to battle at power forward against most traditional bigs. To take advantage of Barnes’ strengths, Rick Carlisle focused his offense more on gaining mismatches in the post, versus running his usual pick-and-roll motion offense.
Whether those individual numbers Barnes puts up actually translate to team success remains a question mark. The advanced numbers have consistently graded Barnes’ defense as slightly above average, and as a scorer Barnes doesn’t have the passing vision or skill to make teammates around him better. As a big-time scoring option, Barnes limits the ceiling for an offense quite a bit, and improving as a passer will be important for that to change.
13. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers
By Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Covington graded out as the most impactful defensive player among any non-big in the NBA last season. On the ball, Covington is an absolute menace and he’s one of the few wings who can record two steals and a block every night. Covington started the season in an absolutely disastrous shooting slump, but by the end of the year he was back at his usual levels slightly above the league average on a super high volume of attempts.
In all likelihood, Covington will start at small forward with Ben Simmons at power forward, though there’s some risk of Covington losing a few minutes to additions like JJ Redick now on the roster.
14. Jae Crowder, Cleveland Cavaliers
Crowder’s current deal which runs through the 2019-20 is considered to be one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league. Wings like Crowder, who are good on both ends of the floor and not liabilities in any way (that would their limit effectiveness in the playoffs), are on average paid over $15 million per season, while Crowder’s contract extends three more seasons at less than half that price.
Crowder gives Cleveland better options for small-ball lineups than before, but could end up starting at shooting guard for most of the year. When the going gets tough in the playoffs, though, Crowder is likely to spend most of his time at either forward position.
15. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Ingles has markedly improved his situation in the NBA after being cut by the Clippers a few seasons ago. This summer, Ingles signed a new four-year, $52 million contract, which the Jazz was smart to set up so that his cap hit descends each season.
Most wouldn’t think of Ingles as a great player, but he’s a star in his own role. Ingles shot 44.8 percent on three-pointers last season, and is an excellent passer and defender. Guarding Chris Paul in the first round of the playoffs, Ingles did a better job than anyone could have imagined, and he executes the details of Utah’s scheme well.
16. Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets
Ariza has been a solid two-way option at the wing for years now, but is reaching the point in his career where he might be better off moving to power forward for longer stretches. Now at 32-years-old, he has lost some of his foot speed and doesn’t do particularly well staying in front of opponents on closeouts.
Last season, Ariza averaged 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.8 steals. Overall, Ariza’s scoring efficiency has hovered just above the league average during his time with the Rockets and around 70 percent of his attempts came from beyond the arc last season. He has been just an average three-point shooter by the percentages, but with over seven attempts per game last season, those are still great shots for him to take.
17. Tobias Harris, Detroit Pistons
Heading into his seventh season in the NBA, it’s easy to forget that Harris just turned 25-years-old, and the best years of his career should be ahead. In most statistical categories, Harris has plateaued and stayed at the same level for years now, but it’s worth noting he did shoot the ball well for his standards and upped his efficiency to career-highs last year.
Harris isn’t a good defensive player, and to become an above-average starter Harris needs to step up in his role as a combo forward who can switch and guard multiple positions. Harris has the tools to play power forward, but has until this season rebounded at a rate closer to a shooting guard.
18. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets
Kidd-Gilchrist has an ugly jump shot that is unlikely to improve and is coming off a down year after a major injury, but despite those warts, the Hornets have always played better with him on the floor.
Over a year removed from those ugly injuries, the hope is Kidd-Gilchrist will be able to stay healthy and get back on track with his development. Limitations as a shooter aside, Kidd-Gilchrist is an elite defender of the highest order, and does well playing off-the-ball on offense when there’s enough shooting on the floor.
19. Rudy Gay, San Antonio Spurs
Through most of his career, Gay has been one of the more consistently overrated players in the NBA. He looks the part of a wing stud, hovering just below the 20 points per game mark for his career, while being an excellent athlete who can make tough shots as well.
Coming off an Achilles injury and on the wrong side of 30 years of age, Gay may be in the best position of his career to have an underrated season. The Spurs get the best out of their players and have done an excellent job with regards to player health. Gregg Popovich hasn’t been big on small-ball lineups recently, but with Gay on the roster that hopefully changes this season. At power forward, similar to a player like Carmelo Anthony, Gay’s strengths would be highlighted while many of his weaknesses could be hidden.
20. Maurice Harkless, Portland Trail Blazers
Harkless is one of the wings who has played in the NBA for a while already, and hasn’t been considered a good player for most of his career. That started to change last year with the Blazers, as Harkless averaged 10.0 points per game shooting 35.1 percent on three-pointers and 50.2 percent from the field overall.
The second youngest player in his draft class, Harkless just turned 24 years old heading into his sixth season in the league. He has the tools to become an excellent defender, and has improved remarkably at that end over the past two seasons under Terry Stotts. Harkless isn’t a great shooter, but has improved to around league average, though on a low number of attempts. Offensively, Harkless can post up a little bit too, and his growing versatility may surprise many in the years to come.
21. Wilson Chandler, Denver Nuggets
Chandler is the only true small forward on the Nuggets roster and will start and play big minutes for them again this season, after posting a career best 15.7 per game in 2016-17.
Interestingly, he is likely the worst starter on Denver’s roster, which should be a positive sign for the team heading into this season. Chandler is a versatile player on both ends, though his impact is limited by mediocre outside shooting and mistakes defensively. There’s no way the Nuggets won’t have a great offense, and by the example of Paul Millsap if every player can improve on the other end, Denver will be the breakout team of the 2017-18 season.
22. Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
Prince had a strong end to the regular season and saw his role increase steadily throughout the year. In the playoffs, Prince played better than expected from a rookie and showcased the best basketball of his season, averaging 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game game.
Hawks fans have reason to be excited about Prince’s future. Mike Budenholzer’s system has brought the best out of wing players like Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr. before Prince, and Prince is much more talented than any of them.
23. Tony Snell, Milwaukee Bucks
The Snell for Michael Carter-Williams swap wasn’t the flashiest trade the Bucks could have made, but sneakily it’s been a brilliant trade for them. Snell had the best season of his career playing nearly 30 minutes per game while making 40.4 percent of his three-point attempts.
If Snell can keep up his hot shooting and continue developing defensively, he could end up as one of the top 3-and-D wings in the league. Every team wants and desperately needs wings who can help their team on both ends with their versatility without requiring touches, and Snell is growing into that mold quickly.
24. Joe Johnson, Utah Jazz
The Jazz and Johnson are a perfect match considering the point at which the former All-Star is in his career. A big part of that match is head coach Quin Snyder, who is one of the underrated coaches in the league and smart about putting Johnson in positions to succeed.
Especially without Hayward on the team anymore, Johnson will be relied on to take and make big shots down the stretch of games. the Jazz will be in a tough fight to make the playoffs, and one more solid season from Johnson could be the difference maker.
25. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Statistically, Ingram was something like the worst player in the league last season, in part due to the Lakers playing him no matter the results. He has the talent to be a starting caliber player in his second season, but that will require big steps on both ends of the floor.
After the All-Star break, Ingram averaged a respectable 13.2 points per game while crawling towards league-average scoring efficiency.
26. Justise Winslow, Miami heat
Winslow is an extremely talented player, and a great defensive option who brings all the little things to the table. If everything works out perfectly, he could be a perfect modern combo forward and the type of plus-minus star who doesn’t put up big numbers but helps his team win– even as early as next season.
On the downside, Winslow missed almost the entire 2016-17 season due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder and can’t make a basket from outside eight feet. Not that long ago, the Celtics were reportedly willing to offer up to four first-round picks just to draft Winslow, and there are still many in the league who consider Winslow a potential All-Star down the line.
27. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn Nets
Hollis-Jefferson is an elite defensive player, with the foot speed and strength to switch against and battle almost any player from point guard to power forward. With DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe, head coach Kenny Atkinson will have a few different looks he can throw at opponents on the wing, and Hollis-Jefferson’s role will likely be to matchup against the biggest offensive threat.
On offense, Hollis-Jefferson will play like a big, hanging on the baseline waiting for dump-off passes and attacking the basket when he catches the ball. For his size, Hollis-Jefferson is a brilliant rebounder, averaging 9.2 rebounds per 36 minutes last season.
28. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
If Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, are “ready” in the next year or two to play big and important minutes in the playoffs, the Celtics theoretically have some of the best small-ball lineups to throw at the Cavaliers and Warriors.
As with any rookie, it’s hard to know how his skills will transfer over to playing against the best players in the world. Tatum isn’t an automatic knock-down shooter and could have trouble creating his own shot against better athletes in the NBA. Defensively, Tatum’s inconsistency could limit his minutes early in the year since Brad Stevens doesn’t need to play players who don’t contribute and execute on both ends precisely.
29. CJ Miles, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have two options for their starting lineup; either DeMar DeRozan is moved to down a position with Norman Powell starting at shooting guard, or Miles will start at small forward– the conservative and likely option to start the year. This leaves the Raptors in a tough position on the wing defensively, especially considering some of their main rivals, the Celtics and Cavaliers, employ Hayward and James.
On offense, however, Miles is a better fit than what the Raptors have had before. Miles is a knockdown shooter, and takes the majority of his field goal attempts from behind the arc. Last season, Miles shot 41.3 percent from deep, averaging 10.7 points per game.
30. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns
Jackson will have every opportunity to make mistakes and learn during his first season, and should be playing big minutes from day one. Jackson’s athleticism and defensive intensity should transfer over well to how the Suns want to play– as an athletic unit running up and down the floor.
Inconsistent mechanics on his jump shot are likely to plague Jackson for most of his career, and it’s hard to know what the upside for a wing who might not be able to shoot is. If Jackson can rebuild his shot and become a consistent threat, with everything else Jackson brings to the table, an All-Star nod in the future is more likely than not.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.