One could make a pretty strong argument that small forward is not just the strongest position in the NBA at the moment, but also the most important.
It’s not just due to the superstar talent that sits atop this ranking, either, but also because of the players ranked No. 10 through No. 30, and even some of the ones who missed the cut.
In the modern NBA, the most highly sought-after complementary archetype is the 3-and-D wing – guys who can defend the opposition’s best players, as well as knock down triples on the offensive end. That type of player can thrive in any system or scheme, and the best teams have multiple guys who can fill the all-important role.
Additionally, outside of the 3-and-D wing, many of the Association’s top small forwards also double as primary playmakers, who can not just score, but set up easy chances for their teammates, as well.
Today’s 3-spot is diverse, deep and loaded up top, which made deciding this ranking a difficult exercise. But it had to be done.
Below, we project the 30 best small forwards in the NBA heading into 2018-19.
30. PJ TUCKER, HOUSTON ROCKETS
His raw averages – 6.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per contest – are meek, but PJ Tucker is one of the top wing defenders the league has to offer, and that’s where almost all of his value comes from. Add the fact he’s become a league-average three-point shooter over the past two years (36.6 percent), and you can understand why he just made the cut on our list.
Tucker’s addition helped transform the Houston Rockets from being a good team to a great one, mostly thanks to his tough-nosed, point-stopping prowess, and due to the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, he’ll be even more heavily depended on next season to get important stops late in games. We believe he’ll be up to the task.
29. JUSTISE WINSLOW, MIAMI HEAT
His offensive game is far from perfect, but Justise Winslow still has upside as a stout two-way wing with uncanny distribution skills on the offensive end. The fact he’ll be entering merely his age-22 season in 2018-19 doesn’t hurt his case, either.
Last season, Winslow averaged 7.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per contest while shooting a career-high 38 percent from three. As long as that outside stroke doesn’t go away, at the very least, Winslow should blossom into a strong 3-and-D type, thanks to his powerful frame, quick feet and the overall competitiveness he possesses on the less glamorous end of the floor.
Winslow’s main issue last year was with his finishing around the rim, where he shot a paltry 54.7 percent – the 13th-worst mark among qualified players. If he can clean that up, which shouldn’t be too difficult considering he’s a plus athlete and has prototypical size for a modern wing, he could be headed for a breakout campaign in 2018-19.
28. MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST, CHARLOTTE HORNETS
After a couple of injury-plagued campaigns, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been able to suit up in 81 games and 74 games in the last two seasons, respectively. And that’s been important for the Charlotte Hornets, as the Carolina-based franchise has been a better team with their defensive-minded wing on the floor.
For his career, Charlotte boasts a +5.3 net rating with Kidd-Gilchrist in the game – one of the better marks on the team – and had it not been for some mitigating circumstances, it’s possible the Hornets could have been a pretty interesting team the last few years. But that’s neither here nor there.
Overall, Kidd-Gilchrist is an elite perimeter defender with some offensive pop as a cutter and put-back machine. He only averaged 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest last season, but he’s still someone you want to have on your side, especially late in games. And the stats back that up.
27. TAUREAN PRINCE, ATLANTA HAWKS
Under previous head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Atlanta Hawks produced various interesting wings, with the most recent one being Taurean Prince. After being drafted in 2016, Prince hasn’t quite put it all together just yet, but 2017-18 was certainly a step in the right direction. The Baylor product averaged 14.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season, on decent 42.6/38.5/84.4 shooting splits.
He still has to get more refined on both ends of the floor, but already you can see the makings of an impactful 3-and-D type. As long as his outside shot continues to improve, his production should only get better and better because his flashes defensively, even just in his first two seasons, have been pretty exciting.
26. DEMARRE CARROLL, BROOKLYN NETS
DeMarre Carroll’s two years with the Toronto Raptors were pretty forgettable, but he bounced back nicely last season in his first campaign with the Brooklyn Nets. The 6-foot-8 wing averaged a career-high 13.5 points per game while chipping in 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 triples nightly, and providing a strong locker-room presence for the young and inexperienced Nets.
With his contract set to expire next summer, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Carroll become a coveted trade target at some point in 2018-19, particularly for a team looking seeking a defensive-minded forward with decent three-point touch.
25. BOJAN BOGDANOVIC, INDIANA PACERS
According to multiple advanced metrics, Bojan Bodanovic had the best year of his career in 2017-18. For the campaign, he averaged 14.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.9 triples per contest on tidy 47.4/40.2/86.8 shooting splits. His game meshes well with the team’s star 2-guard Victor Oladipo, since he’s so adept at spotting up from beyond the arc off the ball, and that’s why it was a no-brainer for the Indiana Pacers to fully guarantee his contract for 2018-19.
Bogdanovic isn’t much of a defender, but he had some decent moments as a point-stopper against a certain four-time MVP in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and he played a huge part in Indiana pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven before getting eliminated. (The Pacers actually outscored Cleveland by 40 points for the series.)
The Croatian wing had a 30-point eruption in Game 3, shooting 11-for-15 from the floor and 7-of-9 from three in what was a two-point victory for Indiana.
Next year will be Bogdanovic’s age-29 campaign, and we expect him to post another strong, productive season.
24. JAE CROWDER, UTAH JAZZ
At one point in 2016-17, Jae Crowder looked like one of the most valuable players in the league thanks to his impressive two-way production and the cheap contract ($7 million annual average value) he was signed to. Then he got dealt to the Cavaliers, where he struggled to acclimate with his new surroundings. In 53 games with Cleveland, Crowder averaged just 8.6 points and 3.3 rebounds on 41.8 percent shooting; even worse, the Cavs were an eye-popping 9.1 points per 100 possessions worse with the Marquette product on the floor.
Crowder was able to partially redeem himself after he was traded for the second time in six months, the second time landing with the Utah Jazz. Once there, over a 27-game sample size, Crowder put up 11.8 points and 3.8 boards per contest; the Jazz had a +6.2 net rating with him in the lineup.
Odds are, he’s not quite as good as the player he was in 2016-17, nor is he as bad as he was during his time in Cleveland. His actual worth is likely somewhere in the middle, and if that is the case, the Jazz have a solid, productive wing on their hands – one on a very team-friendly deal.
23. LUC RICHARD MBAH A MOUTE, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
There have been few better 3-and-D wings than Mbah a Moute over recent years. The wing out of UCLA has nailed 37.5 percent of his threes over the last two years, to go along with averaging 6.7 points and 1.1 steals per contest.
He never has been and never will be a flashy player or a high-volume scorer, but his contributions on the defensive end last year helped transform the Rockets’ point-stopping prowess from utterly mediocre to one of the league’s stingiest units.
On a cheap contract and playing for a Los Angeles Clippers team that’s far from a lock to make the playoffs in the crowded West, Mbah a Moute could be another interesting trade target next season for teams lacking wing depth. As he proved last year, Mbah a Moute would be a fantastic complementary piece on any elite team.
22. RUDY GAY, SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Following his return from a season-ending Achilles injury in 2016-17, Rudy Gay posted a surprisingly strong comeback campaign with the San Antonio Spurs. Gay averaged 11.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest over 57 games in 2017-18, while shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 77.2 percent from the foul line. That 47.1 percent clip was the second highest of his career, by the way.
He wasn’t quite back to being his old explosive self, but it was a step in the right direction. And with another full offseason to get stronger and adapt his game, Gay should have a solid Year-2 as a member of the Spurs.
21. OG ANUNOBY, TORONTO RAPTORS
As a rookie, OG Anunoby’s counting stats – 5.9 points and 2.5 rebounds per game – were nothing to write home about, but the fact he was able to even play at all made his rookie year a massive success. Had it not been for a torn ACL during his last season in Indiana, and some subsequent mystery surrounding the injury during the draft process, there’s little doubt Anunoby would have been, at worst, a late lottery selection. Instead, he fell into the high 20’s and the Toronto Raptors were able to land one of the steals of the draft.
Anunoby has the upside to be one of the best defensive wings in the league some day, thanks mostly to his 6-foot-8 frame, 7-foot wingspan and lightning quick agility. What’s more, despite some question marks surrounding his offensive game, Anunoby shot 37.1 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, which was just above league average. As long as that mark doesn’t plummet (his confident, repeatable shooting stroke suggests that it won’t), we could be looking at the NBA’s next elite 3-and-D type.
20. JOSH JACKSON, PHOENIX SUNS
Another small forward coming off first-year campaign, Josh Jackson put up slightly better raw stats than Anunoby last season, but was way less efficient in doing so. The Kansas product averaged 13.1 points and 4.6 rebounds nightly on laughable 41.7/26.3/63.4 shooting splits as a rookie. Additionally, the Phoenix Suns had a miserable -6.0 net rating during his time on the floor (though to be fair, that was an improvement over their -9.3 net rating for the year).
Nevertheless, Jackson still has great upside as a do-everything wing – one not just pigeonholed into a 3-and-D role, but rather, one who can create for others, be a high-flying terror in transition and defend his tail off. Next year will be Jackson’s age-21 season, and it would be shocking if we didn’t see him make improvements across the board.
19. KYLE ANDERSON, MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Just judging by advanced stats and the pristine fit between him and his new team, we may actually be underselling Kyle Anderson here. The UCLA product is coming off the most impactful campaign of his career, one in which he put up 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, and ranked 26th overall in both Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Box Plus/Minus (BPM), seventh among just wing players.
Although Anderson seemingly moves in slow motion (hence the nickname Slo-Mo), he’s a great playmaker, has the ability to knock down open shots and is a very instinctual defender who racks up steals and blocks.
And once he gets acclimated within the Memphis Grizzlies’ Grit-and-Grind culture, Anderson should only continue to blossom.
18. DANILO GALLINARI, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
If it weren’t for constant injuries, Danilo Gallinari would surely rank higher on this list. The Italian swingman is an uber-efficient scorer with fantastic size for a small forward at 6-foot-10, and underrated chops as a distributor. At his peak, Gallinari was averaging over seven free throws nightly, and knocking them down at an elite 88.4 percent rate.
Nevertheless, the constant knocks do bring Gallinari down a peg. After missing the entirety of 2013-14 with a torn ACL, the 10-year vet has only been able to partake in 116 out of a possible 328 regular-season contests, and even worse, just 21 last season.
The good news for Los Angeles Clippers fans is that Gallinari did look healthy in the NBA’s most recent Africa Game, where he scored 23 points, pulled down eight boards and brought home game MVP honors.
If he can maintain a semblance of health heading into 2018-19, the Clippers could very well wind up exceeding expectations next season.
17. JOSH RICHARDSON, MIAMI HEAT
An elite defensive presence on the wing and a burgeoning offensive weapon, the future is bright for Josh Richardson. In 2017-18, the Miami Heat small forward (really, he should play 2-guard but Miami’s roster construction doesn’t allow for it) averaged 12.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.
In particular, Richardson’s shot-blocking helps set him apart among other wings. That can be quantified by the fact that last season, the list of players to swat away at least 75 shots and nail at least 125 three-pointers only ran two players deep: Richardson and Kevin Durant.
Richardson will almost surely earn All-Defensive Team honors throughout his career (some would argue he should have earned them in 2017-18), and as his playmaking continues to improve, the sky could be the limit for the Tennessee product.
16. TREVOR ARIZA, PHOENIX SUNS
After a successful four-year stint in Houston in which he averaged 12.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.4 triples per game, Ariza surprised many by spurning a return to the Rockets in favor of joining the rebuild currently going on in Phoenix. It was a relatively big loss for the Rockets, who depended on Ariza to space the floor from deep and defend other teams’ primary scorers – one that they’re going to try and circumvent by adding Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis to their wing rotation. We’ll see how that goes.
Looking ahead, the Suns’ addition of Ariza should help improve upon their 30th-ranked defense from last season, and partially mask the point-stopping deficiencies of their best player, Devin Booker. What’s more, Phoenix has a lot invested in the development of another defensive-minded wing in Josh Jackson, and Ariza, if he’s willing, could help in that respect by playing the role of mentor to the second-year pro.
The Suns probably still won’t come close to a playoff berth next year, but acquiring Ariza was a savvy move anyway, if just for the locker-room presence he’ll provide for a young squad eager to turn the corner.
15. ANDREW WIGGINS, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
There’s no questioning Andrew Wiggins’ upside; it’s massive. He’s got prototypical size (6-foot-8) and length (7-foot wingspan) for a modern small forward, with special athleticism…
…to pair with it. Furthermore, he’s got a pretty shooting stroke, even if it hasn’t translated to pretty shooting numbers just yet. And, in theory, with his physical tools, he should be a dominant defensive presence, at least to the level of Richardson.
But he isn’t. Nor is he a very good shooter. And he still hasn’t been able to translate his physical gifts into making a positive impact at either end of the floor on a nightly basis.
Just looking at Wiggins’ advanced metrics is cause enough for concern, and that’s without watching him flippantly float in and out of games and consistently not exert as much effort as possible. That he has to share the floor with a ball-dominant big man (Karl-Anthony Towns) and guard (Jimmy Butler) certainly doesn’t help matters, either.
Even so, Wiggins is still pretty young (he’s heading into his age-23 season) and nearly a career 20-point-per-game scorer. Clearly, the upside is there. We’re just a little worried about his ability to tap into it next season (mostly due to his current team fit), hence why we ranked him where we did.
14. HARRISON BARNES, DALLAS MAVERICKS
With the Dallas Mavericks’ addition of DeAndre Jordan, and Dirk Nowitzki still around, chances are Harrison Barnes will spend a lot of time on the wing next season. That’s a good thing for Dallas, as playing small forward allows Barnes to use his best skill – his post-up game – against more like-sized defenders.
Last year, the Iowa native placed seventh in points per possession (PPP) when posting up at 0.94, according to Synergy Sports Tech. That was a better mark than Al Horford, Nikola Jokic and Marc Gasol – three behemoths with superb backdown games.
During his two years in Dallas, Barnes has averaged 19.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per outing – impressive raw numbers, without a doubt. Next season, he’ll have to make more of an impact as far wins go, but after the Mavericks’ strong offseason (not just adding Jordan, but Slovenian wonder kid Luka Doncic, as well), we believe he’ll do just that.
13. ANDRE IGUODALA, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Andre Iguodala is coming off a year where he averaged a career-low 6.0 points per game, to go with 3.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists nightly. Regardless, every team would love to have him in their rotation thanks not just to his level of championship experience, but also because he can still contribute when called upon.
Iguodala’s defense remains top-notch, and if he had a bigger role, there’s no question he could be posting double-digit scoring nights consistently, along with chipping in his usual helpers and boards.
What’s more, even without posting huge stats, the Arizona product is still a game-changer. For proof of his impact, we only need to look so far back as the 2018 Western Conference Finals, where Iguodala played the first three games of the series before a leg injury forced him to miss the final four contests. From Game 1 to Game 3, with Iguodala in the fold, the Golden State Warriors posted a dominating +14.1 net rating, and held a 2-1 series lead. After their all-important swingman went down, from Game 4 to Game 7, Golden State’s net rating fell to +9.6.
The Warriors wound up taking the series, of course, but they were one half of basketball away from faltering to Houston. That’s how vital Iguodala still is to their operation.
12. ROBERT COVINGTON, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Only two players in league history have accumulated at least 200 three-pointers, 130 steals and 70 blocks in a single season; one of them is Robert Covington.
The 27-year-old 3-and-D specialist is one of the few survivors from the early years of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie’s ‘Process’ days – a true diamond-in-the-rough type who’s been able to blossom into a valued contributor.
Last season, Covington averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.5 three-pointers, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per contest, shooting 41.3 percent from the floor and 36.9 percent from three. If he were a more consistent three-point shooter, he likely could have cracked the Top 10 of this ranking, as his defensive impact isn’t matched by many players around the Association. Not only can he stifle opponents’ isolation attempts, he also jumps passing lanes and blocks shots with aplomb, causing havoc on the less glamorous side of the floor night in and night out.
Covington earned 1st Team All-Defense honors last season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him receive the distinction again in 2018-19. It’ll be more interesting to note whether or not he can make a jump offensively next year.
11. BRANDON INGRAM, LOS ANGELES LAKERS
The advanced stats may not like him very much, but all it takes is watching him play for an extended period before realizing Brandon Ingram has special potential. He’s 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he moves with purpose when he has the ball in his hands, he can score relatively efficiently, as well as create easy opportunities for teammates.
In his sophomore campaign, the Duke product averaged 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, on 47.0/39.0/68.1 shooting splits. The list of players to put up a 16.0/5.0/3.5 stat-line in their age-20 season only runs eight players deep, and features names like Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Chris Paul, as well as, of course, Ingram. Needless to say, the Los Angeles Lakers wing is part of a pretty special group.
Next year, expectations will be heightened with the arrival of a certain 14-time All-Star. But by suiting up next to the best player he’s ever shared the floor with, and just by judging his current trajectory, it’s clear big things are in store for Ingram in 2018-19.
10. JOE INGLES, UTAH JAZZ
Wings who can defend, knock down three-pointers and create for others are widely believed to be the most important archetype in modern basketball. And though he may not be a household name, few that bill better than Joe Ingles. The Australian Jazzman averaged 11.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.5 triples per contest last season, shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and a ridiculous 44.0 percent from beyond the arc. He became one of just three players ever to post an 11/4/4 campaign while shooting at least 43.9 percent from deep, along with Stephen Curry and Jeff Hornacek (min: 100 three-point attempts).
Additionally, Ingles ranked 16th in PPP (1.00) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (passes included, min: 500 possessions), ahead of Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo, per Synergy Sports, and second in PPP (1.45) as a scorer in transition, in front of multiple players who finished ahead of him on this ranking. The 6-foot-8 small forward was also, quietly, an excellent point-stopper, placing 20th league-wide in Defensive Win Shares in 2017-18 (DWS), and 14th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards.
Ingles even proved his worth when the games started to matter most, in the playoffs, facing off against one of the best wings in basketball:
Essentially, there’s not much more Ingles needs to prove. He’s one of the best outside shooters in the Association, excels on both ends of the floor in multiple play-types and would be a key rotational piece on any team in the league.
9. GORDON HAYWARD, BOSTON CELTICS
The season before last, Gordon Hayward had the best year of his career and looked ready to cement himself as one of the Top 5 or 6 wings in the NBA. The Butler product and then-Jazz forward averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 three-pointers per contest on 47.1/39.8/84.4 shooting splits, ranking Top 25 in both VORP and BPM.
Then came his move to the Boston Celtics and the horrific leg injury he suffered just five minutes into his debut. There’s confidence he’ll be ready for the start of training camp coming from various sources, but even so, with the emergence of a young Boston wing coming up on our list, and the nature of the injury Hayward suffered, it’s fair to wonder what type of impact he’ll make in 2018-19.
Still, even with some regression, Hayward should comfortably produce enough to remain a Top 10 wing next season.
8. OTTO PORTER JR, WASHINGTON WIZARDS
The Washington Wizards may have been a disappointment last year, but that wasn’t due to Otto Porter Jr.‘s output.
The Georgetown product maintained his status as one of the Association’s best 3-and-D wings, averaging a career-high 14.7 points per game to go with 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.8 triples nightly. Among players with at least 150 three-point attempts, Porter ranked third in accuracy at 44.1 percent. He also capped the season 35th in DWS at 3.1.
Porter is an excellent fit next to a ball-dominant backcourt like the one in Washington, and though it would appear he may have hit a peak in his development, that may not be such a bad thing since he’s so great in his role as is.
7. KHRIS MIDDLETON, MILWAUKEE BUCKS
One of the most underrated players in the NBA, Khris Middleton proved last year that he was all the way back from a hamstring injury that held him to 29 games in 2016-17 by putting together a fantastic campaign. Middleton averaged 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.8 three-pointers per game last season, just barely missing out on the first All-Star honors of his career.
The Milwaukee Bucks swingman is a more than adept defender, can get buckets with the best of them and distributes well from his spot on the wing. With more exposure coming from a deeper playoff run, plus another year playing next to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton’s got the talent to become a nationally known entity in 2018-19, and to finally receive his first All-Star, or even All-NBA, bid.
6. JAYSON TATUM, BOSTON CELTICS
He may not have put up the same first-year stats as Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons, but Jayson Tatum was every bit as special in his inaugural campaign, perhaps even moreso. Tatum averaged 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 three-pointers per contest, flashing a smooth mid-range game, knocking down an absurd – and slightly unexpected – 43.4 percent of his triples, and more than making up for the void left behind by Hayward.
Tatum carried over his regular-season form and got even better in postseason action, where he averaged 18.9 points and 4.4 rebounds nightly while shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 84.5 percent from the foul stripe, and led Boston to within one game of reaching the NBA Finals. You may remember the biggest play of Tatum’s playoff run, where he threw down a vicious dunk on the best player in basketball’s head…
…but the fact it came late in a Game 7, with the outcome still very much hanging in the balance made it even better than you remember.
Tatum ended up dropping 351 points throughout 19 playoff outings, falling one measly basket short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record for most points scored by a first-year player in a single postseason. And to his credit, Tatum did it in a much tougher NBA in his age-19 season, as opposed to Abdul-Jabbar who was in his age-22 campaign at the time.
The Duke product may not have the play-making creativity of some of his wing counterparts, or the lockdown defensive tenacity, but his offensive game is so smooth – and so efficient – that it doesn’t matter.
We expect huge things out of Tatum in 2018-19.
5. PAUL GEORGE, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Paul George surprised many when he spurned his hometown Lakers – without even taking a meeting, mind you – before agreeing to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder long-term.
From purely basketball sense, however, the decision made some sense.
Prior to losing 2-guard Andre Roberson for the year, Oklahoma City was fifth in net rating, and had the look of a team ready to make a deep playoff run. Roberson missing the second half of the season with a patellar tendon injury effectively put an end to the Thunder’s chances in the postseason, but even so, 2017-18 gave a clear glimpse of the team’s vast potential.
Individually, George had a strong season last year. He was an All-Star, as well as a 3rd Team All-NBA member, and one of the best small forwards in the league thanks to his productive two-way play. George averaged 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 3.1 three-pointers per game – on healthy 43.0/40.1/82.2 shooting splits.
It’ll be interesting to see how much success the Thunder have next year with a returning George, Westbrook and Roberson. If they can just maintain how they looked through 39 games last season, Oklahoma City could rejoin the Western Conference’s elite.
4. KAWHI LEONARD, TORONTO RAPTORS
There’s a good chance Kawhi Leonard could wind up outplaying this ranking. We’re simply choosing to be conservative with his placement, mostly due to the fact he missed almost all of last season due to a sketchy thigh injury, because if this ranking had taken place last summer, Leonard would have probably finished third, maybe even second.
Two years ago, Leonard, at that point one of the three best players in the Association, averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.0 three-pointers per contest, shooting 48.5 percent from the floor, 38.0 percent from deep and 88.0 percent from the foul stripe. On top of those eye-popping marks, Leonard also doubled as the league’s best defender, boasting not just one, but two Defensive Player of the Year awards to his name – an impossibly difficult feat for a non-big to pull off.
Now a member of the team north of the border, Leonard, presumably content with finally being out of San Antonio, may have a chip on his shoulder after what’s gone down over the past year. If that’s the case, and if he’s fully fit, the 2014 Finals MVP could lead Toronto to heights they’ve never before reached.
3. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Though we did list Middleton as a small forward on this list, meaning technically, Antetokounmpo would be the Bucks’ primary power forward, for our purposes, we’re including him with the small forwards because, let’s be real, that’s the role he plays for his team – and plays it mighty well, at that.
In 2017-18, Antetokounmpo averaged 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Those numbers are so unfathomably awesome, they almost make one double-take just to make sure you read them correctly.
The player known as the Greek Freak has the upside to one day become the NBA’s best player – he could very well be the guy after No. 1 on our list retires – thanks to his ability to dominate all facets of basketball. On the tougher end of the floor, he locks down opponents one-on-one attempts, while also contributing elite help-side defense away from the action. And offensively, his size, length and freakish athleticism help him get to the cup and finish over any opposition with ease, either in the halfcourt or on the break, and he has the distribution skills that make him even harder to stop.
The only thing Antetokounmpo lacks is a jumper. Even without one, he’s an elite scorer, so just imagine how terrifying he would be if he did ever learn to shoot. Hopefully, someday soon, we get to see it.
2. KEVIN DURANT, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
No matter how you feel about him, there’s zero question Durant is one of the NBA’s three best players heading into 2018-19. The Texas product and 2014 league MVP is coming off back-to-back title runs with Golden State, both of which garnered the 7-foot wing a Finals MVP trophy apiece.
Last season, Durant averaged 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.8 blocks and 2.5 triples per contest, on insanely efficient 51.6/41.9/88.9 shooting splits. Not only is he one of the best scorers the Association has to offer, which is ridiculous considering he’s a 7-foot ball-handler who plays on the wing, but he also has stints where he’s one of the league’s most impactful defenders, thanks to his rim protection and iso-stopping prowess. Simply put, it’s not easy to get by or shoot over a freakishly agile dude with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, and that’s what makes Durant so special on the defensive end.
If you’ll recall, the Warriors also boasted the NBA’s top floor general in our point-guard rankings, and the second-best 2-guard in our shooting-guard rankings. Add the No. 13 and No. 2 small forwards to that, and it’s not hard to figure out why or how Golden State has become one of the most unstoppable teams the NBA has ever seen.
1. LEBRON JAMES, LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Was there really ever a question who would finish first on this list?
LeBron James continues to defy all logic about how players are supposed to regress as they approach their mid-30’s. While most of his contemporaries from the vaunted 2003 draft continue to either fall out of form or fall out of the league entirely, James seems to be holding steady as the best player in the NBA. In his age-33 postseason, the 6-foot-8 bulldozer put up 34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.8 three-pointers nightly, shooting 53.9 from the floor and 74.6 from the free-throw line. What’s more, he dropped over 40 points in eight of his 22 playoff games, including an unforgettable performance in Game 1 of the Finals where he went for 51/8/8 and almost led the Cavs to a major upset victory, on the road, against the Warriors:
Most people remember the contest more for JR Smith’s gaffe at the end of regulation, which is unfortunate, because James’ outing was one of the craziest in Finals history.
Looking forward, it’s hard to envision James being knocked off his perch as the league’s best player. Even accounting for a touch of efficiency-related regression due to playing on a less spacing-friendly team in L.A., it likely won’t be enough to make much of a difference as far as James’ production goes.
Nevertheless, small forward remains arguably the strongest position the NBA has to offer, at least at the top, so James will have some pretty stiff competition next year.
We’ll see if anyone can finally topple him. Just don’t count on it.
Frank Urbina joined Alex Kennedy on the HoopsHype podcast to go into further detail on his small-forward rankings. Click play below for his reasoning behind each selection:
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
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