We’re ranking all 30 NBA starters at every position during the offseason. Small forward is up next.
A few caveats before we begin — coaches don’t release their starting fives before tipoff of games, let alone in October when they’ve barely seen how their players perform together. These starting units for all 30 teams are my best guesses, but there will inevitably be some that I get wrong.
Some of these positions may also look a little funky. But what do you do with a team like the Raptors when their small forward, power forward and center are all between 6-7 and 6-9? Stick ’em all somewhere.
More and more, teams play a positionless form of basketball. As Jalen Rose noted in his live roasting of Skip Bayless, positions are more designations for fans than anything else these days.
With that out of the way, here are the 30 best small forwards for the 2022-23 season.
1. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
Leonard’s last game played was in March of 2021, so it’s understandable if many people have forgotten just how good he is. Prior to an ACL tear that he suffered that season, he was one of the best players in the league. At 31, he still has a few high-level seasons left in the tank.
Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and has been named to an All-Defensive team seven times. He’s also a deadly offensive player. He’s able to bully players with his strength and get to his midrange spots or step out to the 3-point line.
He can manufacture offense whenever he needs to.
2. LeBron James, Lakers
At age 37, James doesn’t have quite the pop at the rim that he did when he was younger. But he’s made up for it with the greatest understanding of the game of all time. He’s still an All-NBA level player, and it should be another historic year for him. He’s set to break the all-time scoring record about two-thirds of the way through the year.
James isn’t really a small forward these days. He played more at the center position than ever last year, and he did it extremely well. But the Lakers could be starting both Anthony Davis and another big (Thomas Bryant or Damian Jones), pushing James back to the wing.
3. Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Tatum took his game to another level in the second half of the season and NBA Playoffs before being hampered by a wrist injury in later rounds. His regular season averages of 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists had him as a sixth-place finisher in the MVP balloting.
At 24 years old, he should continue to improve. Behind Tatum, the Celtics are firmly in the championship conversation.
4. DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
DeRozan led the NBA in fourth quarter scoring last season. He was one of the most clutch players that the team had seen since Michael Jordan.
DeRozan is still able to trick defenders with a flurry of shot fakes and superb footwork, even though all of his moves have been on scouting reports for years. He truly is a master of his craft.
Bite on that pump fake, and he’s going to the line for two free throws. When defenders stay down, he’s rising above them and canning jumpers as well as anyone else in the league.
5. Khris Middleton, Bucks
The Bucks couldn’t recover from Middleton’s absence in the NBA Playoffs, proving how vital he is for that team.
The three-time All-Star is another solid shot creator on the roster that can take the load off Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s also a career 39.2 percent 3-point shooter that helps spread the floor. And defensively, he’s a solid presence.
6. Brandon Ingram, Pelicans
Ingram has improved significantly since joining the Pelicans three seasons ago. He got a chance to show his skills on a national stage, averaging 27 points per game in their first-round series with the Suns.
Ingram has developed into a dangerous shooter, hitting 37.3 percent of his 3-pointers since joining the Pelicans. He really does his damage from the midrange area, though, where he hit 46.6 percent of his shots last season, per NBA.com.
His playmaking has gotten better, too. He averaged a career-high 5.6 assists to go with his 22.7 points per game.
7. Mikal Bridges, Suns
Bridges might be the best wing defender in the league. His length, instincts and ability to be in the right place schematically are all elite.
Bridges is no slouch on offense, either. He’s solid from 3-point range (37.4 percent over four seasons), and he averaged 14.2 points per game as a fourth option for the Suns. He is quickly rising up the ranks of best two-way players in the game.
8. Andrew Wiggins, Warriors
Wiggins is coming off a season in which he was an All-Star starter and NBA Playoff X-factor. Between those highs, he also faded for stretches of the season. That’s been the Wiggins experience throughout his career, but maybe he’s finally turned the corner for good this time.
Wiggins was a tenacious defender in the postseason, and his rebounding took a huge jump as well. With the Warriors, he can contribute more to various areas of the game rather than focusing primarily on scoring.
9. Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets
Porter looked to be one of the best young players in the league before back injuries held him out of all but nine games last season. Those same issues red-flagged him in the NBA Draft and forced him to miss his entire rookie year.
If Porter can return to the lineup, as the Nuggets are expecting, then he is a natural three-level scorer. He was coming off a great second season in which he averaged 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Porter is a marksman from 3-point range, hitting 41.9 percent of his attempts for his career.
He’s improved defensively, but he still gets targeted. He’s limited in other facets of his game, too, but his offense is incredibly valuable.
10. O.G. Anunoby, Raptors
Anunoby is a career 37.2 percent 3-point shooter on big volume. He’s a good finisher at the rim, too. That in-between game still needs some work, and while he took some strides in self-creation, it’s still not one of his strong points.
Defensively, Anunoby is one of the most talented and versatile players at his position. He has great strength and mobility, able to guard bigs in the paint or guards on the perimeter. It’s only a matter of time before he starts making All-Defensive teams.
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11. De’Andre Hunter, Hawks
12. Tobias Harris, 76ers
13. Franz Wagner, Magic
14. Dillon Brooks, Grizzlies
15. RJ Barrett, Knicks
Hunter is a solid 3-and-D wing, but he didn’t have quite the consistency of the other players ahead of him. Still only 24 years old, he needs to focus on his finishing at the rim and playmaking going forward.
Harris gets a lot of hate for his contract. His $37.6 million salary is the 15th-highest in the league, and he is nowhere close to that level. But that obscures the fact that Harris is an above-average starter and jack-of-all-trades. He can handle, shoot, rebound and guard adequately, though he isn’t elite at any of those skills.
Wagner is coming off an outstanding rookie season in which he showed some great offensive juice. He has good size, playmaking ability and shooting. He was also solid defensively, making him an intriguing two-way prospect.
Brooks has a tendency to take some crazy shots. That reputation belies an otherwise solid player profile. He’s a great competitor, particularly on the defensive end. His aggressiveness also leads him to make big plays on offense when he has the ball in his hands.
Barrett is a good scorer, averaging 20 per game last season. He is able to create offense for himself. He does need to improve on his efficiency on those shots, although he got better as a rim finisher. Defensively, he took some strides, but he needs to gain consistency.
16. Joe Harris, Nets
17. Harrison Barnes, Kings
18. Gordon Hayward, Hornets
19. Reggie Bullock, Mavericks
20. Luguentz Dort, Thunder
Harris played in only 14 games for the Nets last season because of ankle problems. He was their glue guy the past few years. He’s an underrated and tough defender, and he’s a career 43.9 percent shooter from beyond the arc. He’s a solid, well-rounded player that can make a nice impact if he can stay healthy.
Barnes, the perennial trade target, is somehow still in Sacramento. He’s another well-rounded player that is solid defensively, can hit 3-pointers at a decent clip and can provide some shot creation.
Hayward has been good when he’s been available, spreading the floor and playing decent defense. Unfortunately, he’s only played in 218 games over the past five years.
Bullock is a solid 3-and-D player for the Mavericks. He doesn’t offer much in terms of creation, but he’s a good movement shooter that pairs really well with Luka Doncic.
Dort is a great defender whose scoring took a leap last season. He averaged a career-high 17.2 points per game. For as much of a gunner as he’s become, he does need to still improve on his 3-point shot (33.2 percent last season).
21. Josh Hart, Trail Blazers
22. Keldon Johnson, Spurs
23. Max Strus, Heat
24. Eric Gordon, Rockets
25. Saddiq Bey, Pistons
Hart is a great glue guy in the league. He’s a feisty defender and an average 3-point shooter that finds ways to contribute wherever he’s needed.
Johnson improved his shooting substantially, hitting on 39.8 percent of his 3-point looks last season. He’s a good role player for the Spurs, but he still needs to improve defensively. A shoulder injury is keeping him out of training camp, but he should be good to go for the season.
Strus has turned into a great role player for the Heat. He helps stretch the floor (41 percent on 3-pointers last season), and he is solid defensively.
Gordon has continued to languish on a rebuilding Rockets team. He could still help a contender with his shooting. He canned 41.2 percent of his 3-pointers last season.
Bey is a solid 3-point shooter on high volume, but he’s limited in other areas offensively. He struggled trying to create his own looks last year as an NBA sophomore. He’s got good size defensively and competes, which makes him an intriguing two-way prospect.
26. Will Barton, Wizards
27. Talen Horton-Tucker, Jazz
28. Isaac Okoro, Cavaliers
29. Jaden McDaniels, Timberwolves
30. Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers
Barton’s a solid 3-point shooter and defender, but his inconsistent play led to the Nuggets swapping him for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this summer.
Horton-Tucker hasn’t lived up to the promise that he showed in his early days with the Lakers. A new role with the Jazz should help open up some of his playmaking skills. He still needs a lot of work on his jump shot to be a difference-maker.
Okoro is a defensive stud, but his offensive game has been extremely lacking. He did start shooting corner 3-pointers more effectively last year, but many of his attempts were wide open.
McDaniels is already a good defender that can make big impact plays. He’s still limited on offense, and he needs to find a more consistent 3-point stroke.
Mathurin, the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft, was a 38.3 percent 3-point shooter for Arizona, a good passer and a nice athlete. He will have to gain consistency as a defender in the NBA, as he was up-and-down in college.