Small forward is an interesting position in fantasy hoops. It’s one of the deeper positions of the five, but there aren’t too many premium options. Once it gets past the top 15 picks, it can get interesting.
Today we’re going to talk about how some elite small forwards get their points. Each of these seven guys will have a heat map provided via basketball-reference.com – a fantastic site for stat nerds, by the way. The heat map charts where points come from and there will be an explanation with some stats. Before getting into each of the players, let's go over some info on the different shot locations.
Follow me on Twitter for random stats and analysis @MikeSGallagher.
Starting with the close shots, LeBron led all small forwards in shots at the rim, but he also led them in fast-break points with 5.4 per game. The fast-break points can help out a lot of players because they're likely to be attempted with little to no defense. For small forwards that are charged with play-making duties, it’s essential to get shots at the rim to help buoy their overall field goal percentage, so those fast-break freebies can help. The league average for small forwards was 65.7 percent at the rim, which is far and away higher than the overall 44.2 percent. In other words, the more a player shoots at the rim, the more likely a solid field goal percentage can be sustained. We’ll discuss this further in LeBron’s section below.
Expanding further, the 3-9 foot shots are some of the toughest shots to hit. The NBA average was just 39.9 percent last season. Personally, I like to call this range No Man’s Land, a tennis term for the region that’s between the baseline and the service line. It has earned this name due to players finding themselves in that area aren’t giving themselves the best chance to get a good shot because a lot of balls bounce there, and players should be at the net or beyond the baseline to take a groundstroke at a normal height. OK, that’s enough tennis talk.
It’s similar in hoops, though. A player wants to be either at the net or in the clear from the defense. Shots from 3-9 feet aren’t too far, so this might be counterintuitive to someone that has never played basketball, but they’ve never had to shoot over a potentially 11-foot obstacle. As alluded to, these shots are almost always going to be contested unless it’s from the baseline. A lot of these shots will come out of the post and a player having an effective hook shot can go a long way in helping him convert. Similar to the scoring at the hoop, added size really helps out. Height helps the players that are going to have to shoot shots over the weak side. Not surprisingly, the small forward that made the most 3-9 foot shots was Kevin Durant. Even less surprising, no player took more attempts from this range than Josh Smith. There's more on both to come.
The shots beyond the 10 feet and in front of the 3-point line aren’t very efficient, either. Unlike the 3-9 footers, shots 10-23 feet tend to be less contested. Obviously, the distance makes it a tougher shot to convert and shots still fall at about the same rate as 3-9 footers. This tends to be the area in which small forwards can make their money and a lot of it has to do with their point guard. A collapsing defense can allow players to hit mid-range Js. If a defender can close out and defend this shot, it’s one of the worst shots a player can take. Usually, if you hear analysts say “that was a terrible shot,” then there’s a good chance it was one of these. Durant also led in this category for total makes, but Carmelo Anthony’s shot-per-game average was greater by 0.5.
The 3-pointer has really changed the game. From a basic math perspective, three is 150 percent as great as two, so basically a player that shoots 33 percent from downtown produces as many points per shot as a guy that makes 50 percent within the arc on the same amount of attempts, but the magic number for three-point percentage has always been 40 percent. That’s something that Kevin Durant has become quite adept in doing. He shot 41.7 percent on his 4.1 3-point field goals per game last season. His 3-point shots turned out to produce 1.24 points per attempt, compared to his 0.84 per shot from 16-23 feet.
This logic really makes the uncontested trey one of the deadliest shots in halfcourt sets. Players like Shane Battier made a living off this last year and he was a reason why Miami had such an efficient offense. It’s also a main reason why Danny Green had a breakout season in San Antonio.
Just a quick side note to anyone that plays pick-up basketball with ones and twos, this info is even more valuable. In other words, go work on your 3-point shooting. Well, after you read the rest of this.
On the whole, the allotment of attempts from each of these locations can go a long way to determine a player’s field goal percentage. For fantasy, hitting 3-pointers can add tons of value. It’s the reason why players like DeMar DeRozan won’t be taken until the second half of your draft while J.R. Smith yielded fifth-round value last season.
Let’s start off the player analysis with the ultimate FG% contributor at small forward: LeBron James.
Last year, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player took his game to new heights with his six-game streak of shooting at least 60 percent while scoring 30 points in each. It was the highlight of his regular season and some of the best basketball ever played from a field-goal efficiency standpoint. It wasn’t a flash in the pan and he really did it all season, making a career-high 56.5 percent of his shots.
How? In case you skipped over the intro, he shot 78.3 percent at the rim, which was a career high. The stats are nice and all, but anyone that has watched LeBron play would hardly be surprised by that eye-popping number. The buzzer-beating play in the Eastern Conference Finals against Paul George is all you need to see.
LeBron is a once-in-a-generation player in finishing at the basket. He has the confidence and creativity to go up against any big man and convert. His highlights are going to be almost all dunks, but the two-foot layups or floaters have become a big part of his game. The MVP made 67.6 percent of his layups and those shots accounted for 27.3 percent of his field goals. As his heat map indicates, James was effective on his shots from 3-9 feet, making 45.5 percent of those attempts.
He also added a productive shot from beyond the arc. King James shot a career-high 40.6 percent from deep, shattering his previous high of 36.2 percent from 2011-12. LeBron’s the man.
The consensus is that Kevin Durant is the second-best scorer in the NBA and it’s plausible to argue he’s better than James. The two do it in such different ways and Durant isn’t quite as adept around the basket as LeBron is – that’s not saying much. His heat map alone just shows the wide variety of his scoring arsenal. Durant’s length on the perimeter gets him plenty of looks, but he’s just not as strong as James in finishing yet. His blocks allowed has dropped in each season and shot a tremendous 75 percent on shots at the rim over the last three years, so he's getting better. Don’t forget he’s just 24 years old. Durantula’s game has evolved immensely from his rookie season and he had more total points than any other player in each of the past four years. In fact, it really hasn’t been close and over that span, he’s accomplished that feat by an average of 152 points per season. Statistically, he’s the biggest offensive force in basketball.
Although, he doesn't quite do it all by himself. Russell Westbrook has also gone a long way to help KD. In the playoffs, Durant shot just 45.5 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from downtown. His shots per game went up and he had to fight a lot more to get better looks, so fatigue may have been a factor. Anyone that says RW is overrated and doesn’t make anyone better, they’re almost certainly overlooking this aspect. He’s a top-10 NBA player, but that’s’ beside the point. Durant is a superstar and should be off the board first in nine-cat leagues.
Carmelo Anthony is a big guy at 6’8” and 230 pounds, but he doesn’t play like it. Even though he played in just 67 games, no small forward took more jumpers than Melo in the playoffs and regular seasons combined. His points off jumpers accounted for 68.3 percent of his total field goals. He hasn’t been nearly as effective around the basket as LeBron and KD, making just 54.9 percent at the rim in the regular season. That percentage has also dropped in each of his three seasons with the Knicks while his attempts per game from that range have gone up.
The acquisition of Andrea Bargnani is expected to help alleviate Carmelo and give him more space on the court. As his heat map shows, he likes that baseline jumper and just about any mid-range shot. His field goals outside of the paint accounted for 59.5 percent of his makes, including his career-high 6.2 3-point attempts per game. Melo should put up big scoring numbers, but don’t expect him to improve on his 44.6 percent from the field.
Paul George is going to play more shooting guard this year with Danny Granger back. That said, it would be an injustice to not break him down. He ran away as the Most Improved Player last season, but his scoring efficiency isn’t there yet. He’s got the size and he counts on his jump shot more often that he should. He does take a lot of mid-range shots, an area in which he struggled, making just 27.8 percent on attempts from 3-9 feet.
Looking ahead, George is spending a lot of time working on being a pure scorer. He stated that last season he didn’t have the opportunity to be the main guy since Granger didn’t have surgery until October. In fact, DG even suited up for some preseason action. George is emphasizing conditioning in his offseason program. That suggests that he’s going to be asked to create more. It’s not easy to get to the basket in isolation and doing it repeatedly can test a player’s cardiovascular system. PG didn’t look tired often during his breakout season, so he’s probably up to the task. He should see a decent increase in his 41.9 percent from the field.
His shooting numbers really took a tumble in the second half of the season thanks to a nagging wrist injury. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field in 16 March games, pulling down his season shooting numbers to 42.3 percent. Batum has a watered-down Durant-style game and he counts on his jumper a little too much. That may be due to his lack of size, but he could still fill out his frame and have a better presence around the rim. A whopping 53.5 percent of his shots came from beyond the arc, which helps explain why Batum is in the mix as a late-first round pick in nine-cat leagues.
The nice thing about Batum is that he has room to operate. LaMarcus Aldridge led all players in shot attempts from 16-23 feet while Damian Lillard ranked fourth in 3-point attempts in his rookie season. Not to mention Wesley Matthews put up his fair share of shots from distance. It was nice to see him get to the hoop more often compared to previous seasons, as well. While becoming a more mature player is part of it, coach Terry Stotts likely had something to do with this and the coach could help more in his first full offseason with the team. The Frenchman should become a better all-around scorer and it’s more than fair to assume that he will improve in knocking down shots. There's a good chance he'll have at least a one-percent increase.
He marches to the beat of his own drum and most people wouldn’t object to saying he’s not elite, but hey, he’s worth discussing considering his massive defensive production. He’s far from that on offense, though. Even the name alone sends chills down the spines for any basketball fan that cares about true shooting percentage. His free throw shooting has been worse and he shot just 51.7 percent last season while his field goal percentage still is just hanging around at 46.5, and that was at power forward. This year, he’s going to shift to small forward. That’s a scary thought considering his lack of discipline on taking smart shots. Last preseason, he said he wants people to call “Mid-Range Shawty.” It turns out J-Smoove probably shouldn’t be allowed to make up his own nicknames. He shot just 32.2 percent on his attempts form 3-23 feet. Plus, his 3-point shooting of 29.9 percent more than eliminates that added bonus discussed in the intro.
The Pistons are going to attack the basket a lot and coach Mo Cheeks will have to come up with some floor-spacing ideas for the team. Early reports are that he’s going to use a backcourt rotation of Brandon Jennings, Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum and Chauncey Billups. Of the 96 minutes per game that will be played at both guard positions, Billups, the only one to have a career 3-point percentage greater than 35.5 percent, may see only 22 minutes per game. For what it's worth, Bynum and Stuckey are both below 29 percent, but Jennings improved to 37.5 percent last year. That means defenses are going to play a little tighter and force the Pistons to take more shots on the outside. Perimeter shots and Josh Smith don’t exactly go together like peanut butter and jelly, so it might be tough for him to improve on his shooting. Be careful, folks.
Jeff Green is in an interesting position this year. While he’s a heck of a lot better than Kendrick Perkins, he’s nowhere near the upper echelon of small forwards... yet. The Georgetown product is going to have enough on his plate to make him need a few doggy bags this year. Boston’s offensive scheme will be one of the more interesting developments. The Celtics don’t really have any floor-spreading shooters on their team right now. In fact, Green, Courtney Lee and Keith Bogans are the only players on their roster to shoot over 30 percent from the 3-point land in the NBA last year. That’s pretty sad considering Bogans and Lee made 69 triples combined last year. It’s not a good formula and Green is probably going to take his lumps in shooting percentage this season. He himself was a good 3-point shooter alone, making 38.5 percent, but he did most of his damage in the corners. He’ll have to hit more triples from above the break, an area in which he shot just 31.4 percent compared to the 45.7 percent from the corner. He still needs some work around the basket and a lack of interior presence poses another challenge to his shooting numbers. He shot just 25.7 percent on shots from 3-9 feet.
While we’re on the subject, there is just too much opportunity for Green to be a star this season. It’s hard to believe that a guy that just had needed surgery for an aortic aneurysm back in December 2011 and he’s truly a great story. Doctor A is all in on Green and I’m with him. He’s probably my second favorite player to target after Jonas Valanciunas.