Early Small Forward Rankings
While Crash wasn’t banging the boards quite as much as he did in 2005-06, he should still be among the most highly sought after free agents on the market this summer.
What’s that? The NBA Playoffs are still going? So what. It’s never too early for some cheat sheets, so we’re starting our player rankings early this year. Let’s begin at the three spot. Why the three spot? Well, for starters, this year’s consensus No. 1 overall pick plays the position.
Combing through the small forward list is where you’ll find many of those versatile, do-it-all types that are fantasy gold because of their across-the-board production. Led by the King and featuring such fantasy studs as the Truth, Smoov and Crash, this is a position where you will find several players capable of carrying your team.
1. LeBron James, CLE ‘ Hey, he’s the King for a reason. Okay, maybe he wasn’t able to match his brilliant 2005-06 season and he probably won’t go No. 1 overall next season, but it wouldn’t shock me if he wound up as the most valuable fantasy player. His combination of scoring, assists and steals easily puts him at the top of this group. The only area in which James really hurt you this season was free throw shooting, as he had a career worst percentage from the line, although even there, he showed much improvement after the All-Star break. And let’s not forget that LeBron just engineered the first sweep in Cavaliers history. He’ll likely be a mid-first round pick next year, with the chance to be more valuable than that.
2. Rashard Lewis, SEA ‘ Coming off a career season, Lewis is sure to up his draft day value significantly. He’s also going to up his value on the free agent market, something he’s expected to test when he opts out of his contract this summer. Orlando, seeking a scorer, is said to be interested. Perhaps the Sonics should have dealt the 3-point specialist at the deadline. A tendon injury limited him to 60 games, the fewest he’s played since his rookie season, but when he was in the lineup, Lewis was awesome, parlaying a 39 per cent accuracy from beyond the arc into 2.5 3-pointers per game, while averaging a career-high 22.4 PPG and shooting a personal best 84.1 per cent from the line. He also had a career-best 2.4 APG, but obviously this isn’t an area where Lewis helps. His FG percentage (46.1) dipped slightly and he was just middling in steals with 1.1 per game. Expect Lewis to go early in the second round.
3. Carmelo Anthony, DEN ‘ ‘Melo’s scoring average naturally dipped to an extent once Allen Iverson showed up in Denver, but he wound up with a career-high 28.9 PPG, set personal bests in almost every major category and enjoyed his first career triple-double to boot. Obviously, his 15-game suspension really nailed owners, and while he wasn’t able to match 04-05’s shooting performance, a 47.6 per cent mark from the field was still pretty sweet. He also tied a career high in FT percentage. Anthony showed slight improvements in his outside game, but this remains a weakness. Also, he is not going to help you in blocks. ‘Melo managed a career high in assists, but is still a slightly below average player in that respect. One thing that owners were very happy about was his better work off the glass, matching his career high with six boards per game. Anthony’s current projected draft day selection is around the middle of the second round.
4. Josh Smith, ATL ‘ Smoov excites fantasy owners like few players can, any why not? The kid is just 21, flashes across the board tools and no one really knows how high his ceiling could be. But it is his youth that works against him as well, as he was suspended by the team late in the season after losing it with Coach Woodson. Hernia surgery also slowed Smith earlier in the season, but no one can overlook his tremendous package of blocks, boards and steals. With career highs of 2.9 blocks, 8.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, J Smoov provided stellar value to his owners. Many are calling him a potential late-first rounder next year, and based on his upside that’s possible, but I would hesitate to pick him before the mid- to late-second round. There’s just too many areas he still needs to improve in, namely FT percentage (he backslid to just over 69 per cent), 3-pointers (while he improved slightly to 0.5 treys per game, his accuracy plummeted to 25 per cent as he still tends to hoist up ill-advised shots), and overall FG shooting (he was better at 43.9 per cent, but still not as good as his rookie season). Oh, and his singing? That could use some improvement as well ‘ just ask Marvin Gaye, who must be turning over in his grave after hearing Smith’s rendition of “Let’s Get It On.”
5. Paul Pierce, BOS ‘ Pierce’s injury-riddled season burned many an owner, myself included. Despite a major drop off in all categories including MPG (37), the Truth remains a potent offensive machine (25 PPG) and he did pot a career-best 2.3 treys thanks to 38.9 per cent shooting from beyond the arc. He also bounced back in FT percentage (79.6) after a somewhat down year in ’05-06. But the cracks in his game are starting to form. In fact, in some cases, he’s been regressing for a while. The 29-year-old swingman struggled with his shot at 43.9 per cent ‘ his worst since ’03-04. While we can attribute that partially to his injury, the fact that Pierce’s blocks and steals have been dropping steadily since ’01-02 cannot be ignored. He had career lows in both categories and can no longer be viewed as someone who at the very least won’t hurt you in those areas. I expect Pierce go late in the second round, and while he might bounce back and play like a early second rounder or better, his career seems to be trending in the other direction.
6. Caron Butler, WAS ‘ Those who drafted Butler this year with a late-fourth round or early fifth-round pick reaped major benefits until a broken hand ended his season early and (combined with the loss of Gilbert Arenas) helped wipe out a promising season for the Wizards. Butler ranks among the steal leaders of the NBA, recording a career-best 2.1 per game, just one of his highlights as he topped personal bests in basically everything. He’s a fantastic FT shooter (over 86 per cent) and a splendid rebounder (7.4 per game). Where Butler tends to struggle is in his outside game (just 25 per cent from beyond the arc). He showed modest improvements in blocks, but this is not his game. And while he shot over 46 per cent for a career high, he remains slightly under average in that area, mostly due to his perimeter woes. Butler developed into a much larger part of the Washington offense this season, and I’d expect him to become an early third rounder next year as a result. Even though he was finally rewarded with an All-Star appearance, Butler remains among the most unappreciated players in the game.
7. Ron Artest, SAC ‘ The ultimate high risk/high reward pick. Artest’s off the court troubles are well documented, and there is the constant threat of sudden retirement, yet through it all he stayed relatively useful this year, playing in 70 games and making 65 starts. He’s the NBA’s undisputed king of steals, and is a fine source of 3-pointers, rebounds (career-best 6.5) and points. While Artest had better percentage numbers from the floor and line this year, he remains below average in each, and he only managed 3.4 APG. If he stay out of legal trouble, avoids battering anyone, stays healthy and feels like playing, there’s a good chance Artest will be worth a mid-third rounder next season. Of course, that’s a lot of ifs, so when you’re getting ready to select Ron Ron, you’ve got to ask yourself ‘Do I feel lucky? Well, do you? Punk?’
8. Mike Miller, MEM ‘ Miller is the definition of a perimeter player ‘ he’s a stud from long distance, helps in assists and in scoring, but if you’re seeking steals, blocks or rebounds, look elsewhere. The Sixth Man of the Year from 2005-06 made a seamless transition to starting, something that will definitely shoot him up the draft board next year, but it’s unclear where he’ll fit in on a Grizzlies team that will likely be much different. Injuries limited Miller to 70 games this year and his FG percentage has been slipping for a couple of years, down to 46 per cent now. But with career highs in points (18.5), treys (2.9 per game) and assists (over 4 per game), it was a tremendous season for the former Gator. The swingman showed enough improvement this season to warrant a late-third round pick this season, but the extent Memphis’ off-season makeover will ultimately dictate Miller’s value.
9. Gerald Wallace, CHAR ‘ It was a good news, bad news season for the 24-year-old Wallace. While he stayed relatively healthy and showed improvements in his weak areas, Crash was unable to build on his monster ’05-06 season in the key categories that led him to be a mid- to late-third round pick. A slow start was a major factor here, but are the injuries finally catching up to him? The Bobcats’ leading scorer is a free agent this summer and while Charlotte will do everything in its power to re-sign him, it won’t be cheap. Steals, FG percentage and rebounding ‘ Wallace’s chief weapons ‘ all slipped this year. He dropped from 2.5 to 2.0 SPG; still fantastic, but a significant reduction. His FG percentage was still strong at over 50 per cent, but after he shot almost 54 per cent last year, you had a right to expect more. He also slipped in rebounding, especially on the offensive glass. On the plus side, Wallace showed growth in his key deficiencies (FT percentage, 3-pointers and assists). He enjoyed career-bests with 69.1 per cent FT shooting, 0.5 treys per game and 32.5 per cent accuracy from beyond the arc, and his 2.6 APG were by far a new personal best. Throw in the fact that his overall offense improved (18.1 PPG), and the season has to be considered somewhat successful. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wallace slip as low as the early fourth round in next year’s drafts. Much will depend on the type of situation he winds up in this year. Injuries to Charlotte’s frontcourt caused the ‘Cats to play him out of position at the PF quite a bit this year, a definite contributor to some of his struggles as he wasn’t able to dominate those larger players the way he could with fellow SFs.
10. Luol Deng, CHI ‘ Besides perhaps Smith, Deng may have the most upside of any player on this list. Having just turned 22 a couple of weeks ago, this dude just keeps getting better and better. He’s become a serious force thanks to shooting over 51 per cent, 7.1 RPG and almost 19 PPG, and he caused major match up problems because of his length and ability, at 6’9’, to shoot over defenders. Miami had no answer for Deng, and he shredded them with a 44-for-76 performance for over 26 PPG with nine boards per game. Against Detroit in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Tayshaun Prince should prove a tougher defender, but the way Deng is rolling now, I’m not sure anyone can handle him. Winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award, Deng became a full-time starter this year, playing 37.5 MPG. While his limited outside game seems to be disappearing (31 3-pointers as a rookie, 21 last year and just one this year), he tied his career high in blocks per game (0.6) and set a career best with 2.5 assists per game, however, neither of these categories are Deng’s strengths. A late-seventh rounder this season, I’d expect him to move up to early-fifth round or even late-fourth round status. By next year, it wouldn’t shock me if Deng were a top five small forward.
Sleeper: David Lee, NY ‘ If Isiah Thomas would just finally cave in and realize his best team includes Lee on the floor, then we’d finally have a bona fide star in the making. While a right leg injury cut his season short, Lee had a double-double in 29 of his 58 games ‘ exactly half the time. He shot 60 per cent from the field, averaged 10.4 boards and performed extremely well at the line for a big man (81.5 per cent). Lee’s fine season earned him consideration as the most improved player in the NBA, but he may still fly under the radar because of the injury. Obviously, he possesses no outside game, won’t help in assists and is limited in his ability to score anywhere but in the paint, but there’s no way he’s going to go undrafted this coming season like he did in 2006-07. I’m expecting Lee to be a mid-sixth to seventh round pick with the possibility to provide a much better return than that. Now if Thomas would only swallow his pride and start him’
Rookie: Kevin Durant, U. of TEX ‘ Just 18 years old, Durant has a chance to be something special because of his amazing athleticism, perhaps developing into a hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Tracy McGrady. A 6’9′ swingman, Durant was the second-ranked high school player last year ‘ the highest-ranked prospect to ever play for the Longhorns, and he made good on his tremendous potential with over 26 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.9 SPG, over 40 per cent shooting from outside and 81.6 per cent from the line. His size and great jump shooting ability has Durant projected as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft this June. We don’t yet know who owns that pick, but with just two and a half weeks to go before the lottery, we’ll soon have a clearer idea of who will grab Durant. The odds suggest it will be Boston, which will force the Celtics to do some long-term shifting, moving Pierce to SG and figuring out what to do with current SG Delonte West (perhaps making him the sixth man?). Durant probably won’t start from the get-go, but Wally Szczerbiak and West figure to be the players most affected by this prodigy.