A Brief History of Small Forwards at the top of the NBA Draft
It is not uncommon for a small forward to get drafted in the top-3 by any stretch. We counted 13 small forwards selected in that range since 1990, making SF the position prospects picked in that range played fourth most frequently during that period. On only two occasions since 1990, however, have multiple true small forwards been selected in the top-3.
2003 - #1 LeBron James (St. Vincent-St. Mary HS (OH), #3 Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse)
1994 - #1 Glenn Robinson (Purdue), #3 Grant Hill (Duke)
While it is entirely coincidental that the prospects selected on both of those occasions made it to multiple All-Star games, it is worth noting that this league simply doesn't welcome two high level small forwards into its ranks at the top of the draft all that often, as the top-3 has been largely dominated by guards and big menpower forwards in particularover the last 20-some years. One of the unique traits of the 2014 NBA Draft, on top of its quality relative to recent editions and the hype that's ensued as a result, is the presence of Wiggins and Parker at the top and the potential they have to alter the landscape of the league, which we'll dive into later.
Before we look at why the prospect of drafting a small forward with the potential of a Wiggins or Parker is so inimitably appealing, let's first take a look at how Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker stack up against their predecessors. While it is impossible to provide a comprehensive, unbiased statistical portrait of all small forwards selected in the top-3 due to the differences in age, class, role, system, and quality of competition that separate the players in that group, we've compiled and color-coded the per-40 minute freshman statistics of every small forward selected in the top-3 since 1990.
In looking at where Parker and Wiggins fall in each of the metrics, their lack of polarizing characteristics on paper, positive or negative, stands out. Though Wiggins ranks below average as a 2-point shooter and rebounder, he ranks as one of the best free throw shooters in this group, both in terms of attempts and conversions. Parker, who also ranks poorly as a shooter from inside at the arc and was among the least prolific assist men, earns high marks as a scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker relative to his peer group, the latter two statistics bolstered by the playing time he saw at the center spot out of necessity. Regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses statistically, the bottom-line is that both Parker and Wiggins obviously do not look out of place in this group. Even if we limit the sample to only the players who made at least one All-Star appearance, both 2014 prospects still hold their own.
It is interesting to note how the perception of both Wiggins and Parker among scouts compared to some of the last two decade's top small forwards.
Although both Parker and Wiggins produced at levels comparable to the others players in this group, its notable that many of the players listed, for a variety of distinct reasons, did not, or have yet to, become the franchise-level talents the teams who selected them were hoping they were investing in regardless of their collegiate exploits. Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley stand out on the two tables above, with the latter having a clear edge over every last player on the list statistically, though they've had wildly different levels of success at the NBA.
Even as Parker and Wiggins rank better or worse in a particular area than any of their predecessors on paper or in practice, it will be their ability to grow as players and blossom in the situation they're drafted into that'll dictate how we look back on them as draft prospects. Time and familiarity often lead us to forget how far some of the top players in the NBA have come, which is especially worth keeping in mind as the stars of the one-and-done era begin to emerge, as many of the game's rising stars did much of their developing after getting drafted. Mike Schmitz compiled a video recapping the evolution of 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard from high energy NCAA tweener to well-rounded, budding star for that very reason.
What makes Parker and Wiggins so compelling that they'll be given every opportunity to evolve into elite players due in part to the position they play.
What Makes the Small Forward Position Different
As much as the current crop of talent at the point guard position gets much of the attention as the increasingly pick and roll heavy NBA's most talented position, a peek at the league's scoring leaders, PER leaders, and this year's MVP voting results puts the outrageously high level that the game's best small forwards are playing at in perspective, as their combination of size, skill, and focus allow franchises to build around their tremendous talents.
To illustrate the value of the small forward position in the NBA today, we've dug a little deeper into the freedom the game's elite enjoy on the offensive end, compiling the chart above which shows play-type usage per-40 minutes, courtesy of Synergy Sports Technology. There's two points we're aiming to illustrate here.
1. The small forward position has become the position in today's NBA that is most frequently tailored and stretched to fit the immense talent of the game's best players.
At face value, the three players included in the graph above above do a little bit of everything, including moving without the ball, spreading the floor, and scoring from both the inside and outside alike.
More importantly though, each takes on a massive share of their team's shot creating responsibilities in a role tailored specifically to their game that defies positional norms. Durant's ability to create off the dribble and make shots when given just a second of daylight has him operating on the pick and roll more frequently than many of the game's high usage guards. Anthony's prolific ability to create his own shot and use his strength on the block make him one of the highest volume one-on-one inside-outside threats in NBA history, and among the league's leaders in post usage, ahead of a number of All-Star caliber big men. James' unrivaled physical tools and versatility has him pushing the ball in transition more often than the game's elite floor generals, while his usage in the half court finds the balance between Durant and Anthony.
2. There is an clear and sizeable gap between what the game's elite small forwards bring to the table and the roles player by the next tier of players at that position.
The above chart shows the average per-40 minute possessions usage of the three players mentioned above compared to the next 16 highest usage players* at the small forward position. While there are some tremendously talented players in the second group (see full list below), including young All-Stars like DeMar DeRozan who ran the pick and roll almost as often as Kevin Durant, or Joe Johnson, who posted up almost as often as Carmelo Anthony, the playtype distribution of the average small forward outside of the three highest volume scorers in the NBA is starkly different.
The obvious disconnect between these two groups is how often James, Durant, and Anthony were afforded opportunities to create for themselves, whether it be one-on-one in the post or on the perimeter. The average small forward spends significantly more time without the ball in their hands, as evidenced by their high usage in spot-up and, to a less significant extent, off screen situations. The proliferation of the pick and roll in the NBA is clear here as well, as the average small forward is now almost as heavily involved in the two-man game as some of the game's stars.
The game's most talented small forwards can change the dynamic of a team's offense and defense for that matter. One of the things that make James, Durant, and Anthony so special, on top of their diverse usage, is how efficiently they score. Both James and Durant scored over 1.1 points per possession this season ranking among the top marks for a high-usage wing this decade while Anthony scored a very respectable 1.02 points per possession against defenses focused on stopping him. Defensively, players like James and Paul George provide additional value with their combination of size and athleticism as they can guard seemingly every position on the floor and allow for liberal switching and personnel shuffling to mask the weaknesses of their teammates. From a coach's perspective, players in that mold who can also act as your primary playmaker give you the freedom to be as creative as you want with your play calling in an effort to find the right matchup.
*Next 16 Highest Usage SFs: DeMar DeRozan, Joe Johnson, Paul George, Rudy Gay, Luol Deng, Evan Turner, Gordon Hayward, Jeff Green, Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Batum, Trevor Ariza, Khris Middleton, Kawhi Leonard
How does that Relate to Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins
The implications of the current state of affairs at the small forward for Parker and Wiggins are fairly clear. If they can develop the ability to create their own offense, and do so efficiently, each has the opportunity to be a special player.
Obviously, any comparisons made of playtype usage across leagues should be taken with a grain of salt, but the above graph shows the playtype usage per-40 minutes of Wiggins and Parker in the NCAA last season to that of the players comprising out elite group. While it is unfair to compare that pair to the likes of James, Durant and Anthony at this stage, those players are setting the standard for what it means to be a star at the small forward position and resizing the shoes that Wiggins and Parker will be asked to fill as top picks down the road.
In the graph above, it is interesting to see how high usage both players were in spot-up situations, given the contrast between their post-up and pick and roll usage. This illustrates how different their roles were as shot creators this past season, even though they both spent plenty of time spreading the floor as their teammates went to work offensively. Parker's relatively high usage in finishing situations around the rim is also notable, as the time he spent at the center spot has the same effect on his cuts and put-back usage as it did on his rebounding numbers we saw in looking at the freshman statistics of other highly touted wings.
While there's little question both Parker and Wiggins have room to grow as shooters, shot creators, and overall scorers, each gained valuable experience in some key areas a year ago and compare favorably to the top players who have come before them at the same stages of their careers. The question moving forward is whether they can translate their impressive, but very distinct skillsets to the next level and develop into the type of game changing player many projected them to be early in their careers, or if they'll largely fall in line with positional norms.
The current group of All-Star small forwards in the NBA provides a blueprint for the two tremendously gifted prospects, and the fact that their respective franchises make heavy use of their versatile skill sets suggest that Parker and Wiggins will get chances early and often to follow in their foot-steps, making the next few years of their careers must-watch basketball.