At small forward, the NBA features two of the best players in the world right now. There could be a valid argument that there are 10 small forwards in the league that could contend for an All-Star appearance this season. The position is integral to a succeeding team two of the top small forwards helped their teams make the NBA Finals last season.
Small forwards are usually the shorter of the two forward positions but play a very versatile role out of the starting give. Small forwards can be the second or third-best shooters on the team. In the end, they could do a little bit of everything. Let’s take a look at the top small forwards in the league by tiers.
LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard
Both players are considered early MVP candidates each season. For now, LeBron has the edge as he is one of three players considered to receive heavy attention for the award this season. LeBron is averaging 25.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.6 blocks. Last season, LeBron led the league in assists at the age of 35 and he now looks to become the oldest player to ever win the MVP. With Anthony Davis sidelined with an injury, James has helped the Lakers remain near the top of the Western Conference standings.
Speaking of teams near the top, move right across the building to another top-5 player in the league in Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is averaging 26.8 points per game, 6.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game. While Paul George’s resurgence has helped the Clippers to the fourth-best record in a very close contest West, Leonard has everything to do with keeping the Clippers near the top. With huge hands and a high basketball IQ, Leonard is arguably one of the best two-way players in the game.
Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Jimmy Butler
With the way that Tatum has been playing these last three seasons, he could likely be in Tier 1 by the time LeBron leaves the league. When it’s all said in done, by the time Tatum enters his true prime years, he will be the best small forward in the league. Tatum has been a huge piece in helping the Celtics qualify for the Eastern Conference Finals in two of the last three seasons. Tatum qualified for the All-Star Game as he is averaging a career-high 24.9 points per game.
Brandon Ingram will give Tatum a run for his money. While Tatum was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Ingram was the No. 2 overall pick in 2016. The former Most Improved Player made his first All-Star team last season and is slowly showing flashes of becoming an elite scorer in this league. Ingram is averaging a career-high 24.2 points per game this season.
As for Butler, the Miami Heat are not playing the same brand of basketball compared to last season’s NBA Finals run. With that said, Butler is a swiss army knife of versatility. Along with 20.1 points per game, he is averaging a career-high 7.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. Butler is intense, focused, and can lead. Without Butler last season, the Heat wouldn’t have made it as far as they did.
Gordon Hayward, Andrew Wiggins, Khris Middleton, Jerami Grant, DeMar DeRozan
Want to know how good the position is? In Tier 3, the all-time leader in points for the Toronto Raptors in DeMar DeRozan resides. DeRozan is a potential trade trip this season for the San Antonio Spurs and is having another 20.0 points per game season.
Both Gordon Hayward and Andrew Wiggins have somewhat revitalized their careers with the Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors respectively. Hayward has been plagued by injuries after his time in Boston and received quite a bit of criticism for his max deal with Charlotte. He is shooting a near career-high in points and is shooting the best he ever has from the three-point range as the Hornets compete for a playoff berth. Wiggins is showing that he doesn’t have to be the best player on the team and is helping the Warriors contend for the postseason despite averaging his lowest points per game total since 2014.
Middleton is a former two-time All-Star and the second-best player on the Bucks. Middleton is the true representation of a versatile small forward as he is averaging 20.5 points per game, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.8 assists. The lefty is also shooting 50.0% from the field and 43.5% from the three-point range. That brings us to Jerami Grant, the potential Most Improved Player of the Year. While the Detroit Pistons are doormat in the East, Grant elevated his game compared to last season. That includes 23.4 points per game (12.0 last season), 5.3 rebounds (3.5 last year), and 2.9 assists (1.2 last year).
De’Andre Hunter, Joe Harris, Tim Hardaway, TJ Warren, Anthony Edwards, Harrison Barnes, Bojan Bogdanovic, Michael Porter Jr.
At this tier, many of these players are key contributing players in the starting lineup. This year’s No. 1 in Anthony Edwards has a long way to go but the 19-year old is having a serviceable year where he is averaging 14.8 points and 4.0 rebounds. Last year’s surprise in the bubble, TJ Warren, has battled injury and COVID, so he has not been able to showcase his scoring talent.
Joe Harris is leading the league in three-point field goal percentage. Nobody has benefited more from the James Harden trade to Brooklyn than Harris and his 50.0% shooting clip from deep. Harrison Barnes has also been a sneaky three-point shooter this season, shooting 40.3% from deep.
Michael Porter Jr. is somewhat of an enigma at this point. There are times that we see the 22-year old show flashes of being great but then there are times he looks like a Tier 4 small forward. Given his age, he has time to develop. After all, this is just his second full season in the league. As for De’Andre Hunter, the jury is out on him too In 17 games, Hunter was averaging 17.3 points per game. Both are capable shooters but need to stay healthy.
Finally, Bojan Bogdanovic is the central piece of the Utah Jazz’s starting five. When he was healthy last season, the team was poised for a similar run as right now. He was averaging 20.2 points per game last season, which has dwindled to 15.7 points per game. He solidifies the offense as a true role player. If he were on a non-contending team, he would likely show us more individual talent and be moved up a tier, but he is probably happy right where he is given that the Jazz is the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Will Barton, Kyle Kuzma, Kyle Anderson, Luguentz Dort, Mikal Bridges, OG Anonoby, Cameron Johnson
The Nuggets were missing Barton last year in the playoffs. Before he was lost for the season, Barton was averaging 15.1 points per game and a crucial piece to the team’s depth. Barton’s role for the team was similar to what Kyle Kuzma brings to the Lakers. Both are valuable swingmen that can lead the second unit and score from outside; Kuzma might be a tad more athletic.
Kyle Anderson is having a career season for the Memphis Grizzlies, 13.6 points, and 6.2 rebounds, and is making a case to remain in the league. In last year’s playoffs, Dort became a fan favorite during the Thunder’s playoff run. the second-year small forward is just 21 years old and one of the league’s most intriguing up-and-coming prospects. Cameron Johnson is proving to be a solid bench piece, showing growth in his second season with the Suns.
His teammate, Mikal Bridges, is definitely the best contender for moving up this list. Bridges is making a name for himself on the defensive side and could receive votes for All-Defensive Team this season. He can guard the wing very well but has also shown growth on the offensive side as well. Bridges is shooting a career-high 13.9 points and shooting 42.6% from three. Both his rebounds and assists are career-highs right now. In Year 4, who knows how much more growth he will have?