One of the tougher challenges when trying to project players is where to place the young guys. A player like Julius Randle is likely to put up really impressive counting stats in his fourth season, heading into restricted free agency, but how those individual statistics add up to team wins is a bigger question. Randle hasn’t been a positive contributor so far in his career, but that could change almost overnight.
Among the power forwards, especially at the bottom end of these rankings, there are some borderline starters and high-end backups who could be immensely valuable to their teams in just 20 minutes per game. Every team loves having versatile bigs who can make a spot-up three-pointer and defend across positions, and that becomes particularly valuable in the playoffs when facing an opponent like the Golden State Warriors.
There are also injury risks, and age related decline to consider. So here goes:
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Last season, Davis averaged 28.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.2 blocks per game while posting an excellent 58.0 True Shooting Percentage. Davis is one of the most talented players, and overall the best two-way big man, currently in the NBA. On offense, Davis can score in a variety of ways, either from the post or attacking off the dribble. Defensively, Davis has been the type of game changer scouts expected coming into the league.
Despite Davis basically being the type of basketball player you’d come up with in a lab, the Pelicans have only been in the playoffs once during Davis’ tenure, and more importantly the front office hasn’t built the roster to succeed long term.
With the Western Conference playoff race being extremely competitive this season, 2017-18 will be the most important year of the Pelicans franchise. DeMarcus Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and if the team starts off slow there could be a disaster in the making.
2. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Golden State has consistently been one of the best defenses for four years in a row, and Green is the main catalyst behind the success. There isn’t another player like Green, who could simultaneously be both the best perimeter defender and rim protector in the NBA. Opponents shot just 43.9 percent at the basket with Green defending the play last season, and there isn’t a guard he can’t switch on to.
Green is also a perfect example of how a player can produce incredible value for their team without needing to score the ball. When compared to some of the Top 10 scorers in the NBA, Green is a markedly better player than some, despite averaging just 10.2 points per game himself. Green led the league in steals with 2.0 per game in 2016-17, and averaged 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game.
3. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
In a best-case scenario, it’s possible to imagine Griffin having an elite season on the level of his 2013-14 performance, when Griffin was third in MVP voting. The offense will run through Griffin most of the time, as he’s the best playmaker among the starters and Patrick Beverley isn’t a traditional pick-and-roll point guard. Griffin averaged 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists last season, and increased his three-point attempts to 1.9 per game.
On the downside, Griffin is extremely reliant on his athleticism. Most players have their best seasons at age 27 or 28 (and Griffin is 28 years old), but research suggests for many of the best athletes in the league, their best seasons often come as early as 23 or 24 years of age. It’s entirely possible Griffin’s best seasons are already behind him, and the multitude of injuries Griffin has suffered from doesn’t help in that regard.
4. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
In both his rookie and sophomore seasons, Porzingis’ shooting percentages have taken a big hit towards the end of the year, and last season Porzingis three-point percentage dropped from 38.4 percent to 26.4 percent after the All-Star break. Wearing down has been a serious issue, and a particularly interesting one since Porzingis will likely reach his ceiling when he can hold up for big minutes at the center position.
Porzingis improved from 14.3 points to 18.1 in his second NBA season, and saw his overall shooting efficiency jump from below average to slightly above that mark. As a rim protector, Porzingis is already one of the best. Opponents last season shot 44.2 percent at the basket with Porzingis defending the play, placing him only behind Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert in that statistic. Improving on the defensive glass in positioning and boxing out opponents is the biggest step Porzingis needs to take defensively.
5. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
Millsap is one of the rare cases where a player took a massive leap in their late 20s – becoming a four-time All-Star for the Hawks. Despite turning 32 years old in February, Millsap averaged a career best 18.1 points per game in addition to his All-NBA caliber defense in 2016-17.
Denver is going to have a brilliant offense next season. With Nikola Jokic on the court, it’s impossible not to. Besides, the roster features some incredibly talented young players like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. Whether the Nuggets are just battling for playoff positioning or are a threat for one of the Top 4 seeds will come down to their defense, which was ranked 29th last season, allowing a putrid 110.5 points per 100 possessions. Millsap is the best player on that end and the perfect fit next to Jokic, but one star isn’t enough and every player will have to improve with their effort, communication and execution.
6. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Playing next to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving the past three seasons, Love is rarely given credit for how much he has sacrificed for the Cavaliers to succeed. Love’s physical limitations will always limit his effectiveness defensively, and his numbers taking a big hit coming from Minnesota is one of the reasons he’s been made the scapegoat when the Cavaliers have struggled.
Lost in those criticisms is the fact that Love has improved his defense and is coming off his best season as a Cavalier. The offense never runs through him at the high post like it did in Minnesota, but despite being relegated to a spot-up shooter with occasional post-ups, Love has continued to execute and fill his role. Isaiah Thomas won’t be ready for the start of the season, which means Cleveland will have some extra offensive possessions to go around. To get the most out of Love, if there was ever a time to open up Rick Adelman’s playbook and steal a few sets, now would be it.
7. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
Aldridge has been much maligned for a mediocre playoff performance and not living up to his reputation as a scorer, coming from a situation in Portland where he was the No. 1 option on offense. The gap between the Spurs’ best player, Kawhi Leonard, and Aldridge is much larger than most would have anticipated when he initially signed two summers ago.
Despite his scoring numbers taking a hit, Aldridge has played great defense for the Spurs and is still an above-average power forward – even if now he’s a step below the very best. Heading into next summer, Aldridge can either decline or accept his player option for the 2018-19 season, and that decision could influence the Spurs for years to come. Next summer, few teams are expected to have cap space and the market will be tight, but the Spurs could open up serious space if Aldridge isn’t on the books.
8. Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets
Zeller was perhaps the most underrated player in the NBA last season. The Hornets went 3-17 without Zeller in the lineup, while posting a 33-29 record with him. The raw box score numbers won’t jump out at you, but Zeller does all the little things well to help his team. The Hornets had a net rating of +5.4 with Zeller on the floor, and -3.6 when he sat – the equivalent of first being the Houston Rockets, and then the New York Knicks.
Contrary to last season, when Zeller was fantastic at center for the Hornets, he’ll be starting at power forward with Dwight Howard in the middle, and having both Zeller and Howard is a double-edged sword for the team. On the positive side in case of any injury, the Hornets won’t be completely doomed anymore, as was the case when Frank Kaminsky, Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes were relied on to man the middle. Head coach Steve Clifford will likely stagger Howard and Zeller to cover every available center minute, but even so that leaves Zeller in a tough spot in the starting lineup. Zeller is an excellent roll man and screener, and Howard will take away some of those opportunities.
9. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Just over a year ago, Favors looked like he could be one of the five best power forwards in the NBA for years to come. Injuries screwed up Favors’ 2016-17 campaign, as his points per game dropped from 16.4 to 9.5. The Jazz are among the group of good teams fighting for the final playoffs spots in the West, and having a fully healthy Favors would likely put them above the competition.
Favors is an excellent defender, and before last season, was one of the few players who had the legitimate size and strength to battle in the paint, while being mobile enough to challenge matchups on the perimeter. On the other end, the biggest sign that he wasn’t in great playing shape, was that his finishing at the basket took a tumble off the cliff.
10. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Hopefully, the Magic have fully buried the Gordon-at-small-forward experiment, and allow him to be the type of versatile power forward for the modern NBA. And in fact, the Magic would probably be better off trying out Gordon at center than small forward, as Gordon’s speed and ballhandling skills at the big positions is the path for him to become an elite, All-Star caliber player.
Gordon was the youngest player in the 2014 NBA draft, and is still just 21 years old heading into his fourth season in the league. In his first three seasons, Gordon took healthy steps forward on both ends of the floor, and is a prime candidate to take a big leap given the right situation to succeed. Last season, Gordon averaged 12.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game.
11. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
Ibaka isn’t the defensive force he used to be during his peak athletic seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he’s still somewhat the model of the versatile big man who can both shoot the ball and defend the rim. Last season, Ibaka averaged 14.8 points per game and 39.1 percent on three-pointers on a career-high 4.0 attempts per game.
The Raptors’ season will largely be evaluated in the playoffs, where the team’s stars have disappointed in recent years, and Ibaka played a role in that too. In the 2017 playoffs, he struggled shooting the ball and his weakness as a passer was exposed, as the Raptors were swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Catching the ball off of double teams on DeMar DeRozan or short rolls on a hedging ball screen, the big man needs to be able to make quick decisions to convert a momentary advantage.
12. Markieff Morris, Washington Wizards
Over the past few seasons, the plus-minus metrics have rated Morris as a borderline elite defender, and the toughness and versatility Morris brings to the power forward position has been a big plus for the Wizards. In 2016-17, Morris made 36.2 percent of his three-point attempts, a career-best mark and a positive sign moving forward.
The Wizards won 49 games last season and made it to the second round of the playoffs, losing to the Celtics in seven games. With a roster that has largely remained the same, taking the next step as a team will have to come from internal improvement. Morris may not be the one to take the biggest leap, but finding ways to improve his shot and all-around game heading into his age 28 season would be a big boost.
13. James Johnson, Miami Heat
When Miami made its 30-11 run to finish the season, Johnson was one of the most valuable power forwards in the league. Johnson’s transition game, running alongside Goran Dragic, was an extremely effective weapon for the Heat, and Johnson’s 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game were all career-highs. An incredibly versatile defender, at his best Johnson can guard all five positions – a highly valued trait in the modern game.
The big question is whether Johnson will be able to keep up his production. Johnson got into the best shape of his life last summer, and received a four-year $60 million contract this summer from the Heat. Turning 31 years of age in February, coming off an outlier season for himself, there’s severe downside risk to Johnson’s deal, and in a year or two it could end up as an albatross Miami’s neck.
14. Marcus Morris, Boston Celtics
Coming into a new situation in Boston, Morris should be in a great position to succeed. Morris is the only proven nominal power forward on the roster, right in the prime years of his career and playing for Brad Stevens tends to have a positive effect on players.
Last season, Morris averaged 14.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game while taking a career-high 4.5 three-point attempts per game. Throughout his career, Morris has been a league-average shooter, but will likely have the best opportunities and open shots to improve. The Celtics are going to have another dark season on the glass, as Al Horford will be moving primarily to center and Morris has rebounded like a shooting guard in his career. The Celtics ranked 27th in defensive rebounding percentage last year, and the biggest step Morris could take is battling relentlessly on the glass.
15. Ryan Anderson, Houston Rockets
Anderson is great on offense and terrible on defense, which grades him out to being an average starting power forward (who struggles against the toughest matchups). The trouble going forward for the Rockets is Anderson’s contract, which runs the next three seasons at approximately $20 million per season.
The Rockets took a big risk signing both Anderson and Eric Gordon to big contracts last summer, and that risk paid off with both having great seasons, leading to Chris Paul moving to Houston. Head coach Mike D’Antoni empowered Anderson to take three-pointers from several feet behind the three-point line, which is a great move since it spreads out the court even further than teams are used to with shooters. Last season, Anderson took 7.0 three-pointers per game, making 40.3 percent of them.
16. Patrick Patterson, Oklahoma City Thunder
In a limited bench role with the Raptors, Patterson has been a plus-minus star over the past three seasons and brings to the table many qualities held in high regard by NBA teams today. Patterson can both make three-pointers and defend multiple positions, which is the golden combination every team needs.
Patterson will be an interesting test case for how plus-minus numbers transfer over to a different team by a player who doesn’t put up big counting statistics. Offensively, Patterson’s primary skill is shooting the ball, but despite having a quick release Patterson’s percentages aren’t elite. Patterson can’t make a shot inside the arc, making him a limited player overall. Limited isn’t necessarily bad, and the Thunder were the worst three-point shooting team in 2016-17 making just 32.7 percent of attempts. Playing two non-shooters, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams, Patterson creating space should help the offense and give Russell Westbrook better driving opportunities to the basket.
17. Nikola Mirotic, free agent
Among NBA fans, Mirotic has been an divisive player through his three-year NBA career. Mirotic was likely used best in his rookie season under Tom Thibodeau’s coaching, when Mirotic had the opportunity to do more than spot-up and was best attacking the basket, drawing a ton of fouls.
Since then, Fred Hoiberg has found the least creative way to use Mirotic, and Mirotic been yanked from the rotation for games at a time just to suddenly start the next week. Every year, the Bulls have been better by a significant margin with Mirotic on the floor however, and his defense isn’t as bad as advertised. Sharing minutes with Lauri Markkanen at power forward is likely to bring some problems, but in the right scenario it’s possible to see Mirotic having a breakout year. Mirotic remains a restricted free agent, and while both sides have reiterated wanting to find a solution, his career is likely best served playing for another team.
18. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
Saric had an excellent rookie season, averaging 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game after the All-Star break. In 2017-18, he isn’t likely to improve on those numbers, with the offensive duties being shifted towards Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, but that doesn’t mean Saric won’t take big step forwards as a player overall.
There’s a likely scenario in which Saric will be coming off the bench, but that shouldn’t matter since he’ll be given 30 minutes a night regardless. As most second-year players, Saric needs to take a big step as a defender, especially in executing the details of Brett Brown’s schemes. Offensively, Saric is a brilliant passer for his size, and improving as a shooter should help him become more effective in a secondary role. Saric attempted 4.2 three-pointers per game last season, which is an encouraging sign, but will have to convert on more than 31.1 percent to reach the next level.
19. Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
Randle is one of the toughest players to place in these rankings, since he could easily average 16.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in a 30-minute per game role this season. While Randle’s counting stats could be great, his overall impact on winning is the big question mark.
By Real Plus-Minus, Randle ranked as the 69th best power forward last season, being a major negative on both ends of the floor. Randle cracked league-average scoring efficiency last season and is an excellent passer who can bring the ball up full-court and make plays for his teammates, but doesn’t space the floor at all to help the offense. Defensively, Randle is strong, but always lost and still makes a tremendous amount of mistakes and bad plays. Having Randle as a near-average starter is a bet on his upside, talent and youth, and taking a big step forward as a productive NBA player.
20. Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves
Dieng was one of the beneficiaries of the crazy salary cap spike in 2016, receiving a four-year, $64 million deal with the Wolves. Tom Thibodeau hasn’t been willing to leave Karl-Anthony Towns as the lone big on the floor, fearing what it might do to the team defensively, which has pushed Dieng’s minutes higher than they probably should be.
On the offensive end, Dieng’s primary skill is making an open mid-range shot, and the speed of his release necessitates being open on those attempts. By the advanced metrics, Dieng has graded out well defensively over the past two seasons.
21. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
A year removed from a Jones fracture in his right foot, the first pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Simmons is healthy and ready to contribute immediately. The Sixers have the option of starting Simmons at small forward with Dario Saric next to him, or at power forward with Robert Covington at the three. Even in the former case, Simmons should still be expected to play at least half of his minutes at power forward.
Simmons is a brilliant passer for his size, and teams will have trouble defending the big-big pick-and-rolls the Sixers will be able to run. Most power forwards aren’t accustomed to defending picks on the perimeter, and that will be a unique weapon for the young squad.
22. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Nowitzki re-upped with the Mavericks for a two-year $10 million deal this summer, which gives him an outside shot at catching Michael Jordan as the fourth leading career scorer in the NBA. Jordan is just over 2,000 points ahead of Nowitzki, and Wilt Chamberlain is 1,200 points ahead, meaning averaging 15.0 points per game for the next 140 games will do the trick.
The German forward is slowing down quickly, and there’s some risk his production will fall off a cliff already next season. The Mavericks won’t be competing for a playoff spot, but have enough talent on the roster to compete most nights. For Dennis Smith Jr., running pick-and-roll with Nowitzki will be a great way to learn the nuances of NBA offenses and could accelerate his development rapidly.
23. Thaddeus Young, Indiana Pacers
Last season, Young averaged 11.0 points per game, which is the lowest mark since his rookie season in 2007-08. And in many ways, Young’s game doesn’t fit the modern era at the power forward position.
Young hasn’t been a good shooter from deep in his career, but was pushed to take more three-pointers last season and made them at a respectable rate. Slightly undersized, Young is a solid player who contributes on both ends of the court, but overall his offensive game suffers from not being great at skills supporting skills. Defensively, Young executes reasonably well, but at 6-foot-8 isn’t a great rim protector.
24. JaMychal Green, FREE AGENT
One of the ways the Grizzlies have been able to cover for their misstep with Chandler Parsons’ contract has been filling out the rest of the roster on small salaries with two-way players who can help the team. Green has been one of those success stories, playing for a minimum contract and averaging 27.6 minutes per game last season.
The Grizzlies desperately need players who can make shots, and Green shot a respectable 37.9 percent from beyond the arc last season. Green only took 1.9 attempts per game, and doubling that number in 2017-18 would be fantastic progress. Green is a versatile defender and fits well in Memphis’ defensive concept.
25. Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, and the underrated part of how the team’s season plays out will be the effectiveness of Moe Harkless and Aminu at the forward positions.
With Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic handling the scoring load, Portland will have a great offense. Aminu is the best defender on the roster, and every minute the Blazers can keep him on the floor without sacrificing too much on offense will be key. Aminu can make an open corner three-pointer, and keeping the defense honest and being willing to take those shots will help the Blazers on both ends.
26. Ersan Ilyasova, Atlanta Hawks
Funnily enough, Ilyasova has played on five different teams over the past two seasons. While Ilyasova is never mentioned in trade rumors, he’s recently always been the additional player in the package to make the move work.
Ilyasova will be the starting power forward for the Hawks and play big minutes in a system that emphasizes shooters. That should be a great fit for Ilyasova, who is still slightly above average on both ends of the court. One special skill Ilyasova has is drawing charges, leading the NBA in that category with 36 offensive fouls drawn last season.
27. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
At full strength (and just 22 years old), Parker is one of the dynamic scorers at power forward and should be ranked in the Top 10 in these projections. However, Parker will likely be back on the floor after the All-Star break, and even then there will some serious question marks about his game moving forward.
Parker has already torn the ACL in his left knee twice, and with two major injuries so early in his career there’s a decent chance he will never reach the level that was expected of Parker when he was drafted second in the 2014 draft.
28. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Superficially, among the top prospects in the 2017 draft, Markkanen would seem to a big risk to be a bust. In recent years, while the power forward position has become smaller, it has also become faster and more skilled, and Markkanen’s elite abilities as a seven footer aren’t that special at the four anymore. Markkanen isn’t a great defensive player, and lacks the length to be a nuisance at the rim as a center.
During the Eurobasket, Markkanen has started silencing some of those critiques. Leading Finland to an outstanding 4-1 record in the group stage, Markkanen has been right at the level of top players like Pau Gasol, Goran Dragic and Kristaps Porzingis in international competition. Markkanen has scored in a variety of ways, and shown his exceptional quickness defending the perimeter. Heading into next season, the big question for the Bulls is how well Markkanen’s offensive repertoire will be used. If made only a spot-up shooter, he will likely struggle, as the defense will have zero problems in help situations with Kris Dunn running the point.
29. Juan Hernangomez, Denver Nuggets
Hernangomez played just 13.6 minutes per game in 2016-17 and the Nuggets have a million power forwards on the roster, but as a breakout candidate to be one of the best backups in the league, the Spanish big man is a solid bet.
Hernangomez shot 40.4 percent on three-pointers in his rookie season, and his offensive versatility in addition to the ability to space the floor should be a great fit playing as the third big in the Nuggets rotation.
30. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Houston Rockets
The big acquisition the Rockets made this summer was Chris Paul, but it was the more subtle moves with PJ Tucker and Mbah a Moute that showcased the franchise’s philosophy and wit heading into the 2017-18 season.
In an absolute steal of a contract, Houston signed Mbah a Moute for the veteran’s minimum. Mbah a Moute, nominally a small forward, will be playing most of his minutes at power forward behind Ryan Anderson. And when the going gets tough in the playoffs, he could be the best option at that position. Mbah a Moute is an excellent perimeter and post defender, making him a great fit to play against the Warriors.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.