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.