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The NBA Positional Census: Small Forward

Three players who show where the 3 spot has been, is now, and is headed as the league grows more and more amorphous. Brandon Ingram, Joe Ingles, and Justise Winslow all represent the blessings and the plight of the position, arguably the most versatile in the league.

Joe Ingles, Brandon Ingram, and Justise Winslow Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is becoming a positionless league. Coaches are more comfortable playing nontraditional lineups, cross-switching defensive assignments, and sliding players between positions. However, there are still five spots in a lineup, and what spot a player occupies still matters. Every five-man group needs someone to perform a few basic roles so everything one guy does (or doesn’t do) impacts his four teammates. That’s why who plays where is more important than ever. More positional flexibility means more diversity in the types of players at each spot. This series will take a look at how each position is changing, through the lens of three starters, each with a different skill set.

The best small forwards are centers these days. Kevin Durant and LeBron James came into the NBA as 3s, primarily because they played on the perimeter and not in the paint. Durant and LeBron had big-man size, but their teams flanked them with post-oriented giants at the 4 and 5. However, as the league has gotten smaller and smaller, the lines dividing the three frontcourt positions have blurred. In last season’s NBA Finals, Durant and LeBron were often the two biggest players on the floor, squaring off as small-ball 5s.

The Cavs and Warriors have traditional big men on their rosters, but few could keep up in the spaced-out game the two teams played in the Finals. At the highest level of the sport, a player who can’t stretch the defense or switch screens is now a liability. Golden State has spent the last three years running bigger and slower teams off the floor, and the only teams that have been able to keep up are the ones who have downsized with it. Instead of playing their biggest wings at the 3 and overwhelming opponents with size and strength, the best teams in the NBA are playing those guys at the 5 and winning with speed and skill. The best wings can do everything, so why not have as many of them on the floor as possible?

The small forward position has become a victim of its own success. If the best 3s are sliding up to the 4 and 5, the players left over are the ones who don’t have the physique to make the same transition. In a positionless NBA, where all five players in a lineup can shoot, handle, and pass, the 3 is the base position from which you can shift either up or down. Every good small forward has to be versatile, but the guys playing the position at the end of the game aren’t quite versatile enough. Here’s a look at three, and how they fit with the way the league is going:

Brandon Ingram

Ingram’s rookie struggles shouldn’t have been a surprise. He turned 19 last September, making him one of the youngest players to enter the NBA since the one-and-done rule began. To put his age in perspective, Ingram is five months younger than Josh Jackson and close to two months older than Lonzo Ball; he wasn’t developed enough physically to handle the grown men he was going up against. Ingram is listed at 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds, only five pounds heavier than Isaiah Thomas, who is a foot shorter than him. He played as a small-ball power forward in his only season at Duke, and that was never in the cards for him at the next level, at least this early in his career.

Ingram is often compared to Durant, but even Durant, who famously couldn’t bench 185 pounds at the NBA combine, weighed 215 pounds as a rookie. While the Lakers have the no. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft on a weight-gain program, they have been cautious about him packing on pounds too quickly. Ingram didn’t want to suffer the same fate as Ben Simmons, who broke his foot after putting on 30 pounds in the summer he was drafted. Last season was essentially a redshirt year for Ingram, who got valuable experience and (hopefully) accelerated his development in comparison with the guys his age playing in college. One year isn’t a big deal when players are in their late 20s, but it can make a huge difference as teenagers.

Ingram didn’t exactly walk into a great situation in the NBA, either. The Lakers lacked pass-first players: They were no. 26 in the league in assists last season, even though Luke Walton’s offense borrows from the motion-heavy system he used with the Warriors. Ingram should benefit from playing with Lonzo, one of the best pure passers to enter the NBA in some time. The Lakers’ prized rookie has already said Ingram is the teammate he’s most looking forward to playing with, and that he thinks Ingram will be a superstar. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Ingram was in the 10th percentile in the NBA as a transition scorer, a number that should improve significantly when he runs the break with Ball. Summer league doesn’t mean much, but the two showed good chemistry in Ingram’s one game in Las Vegas:

Ingram was a mismatch nightmare in college, taking bigger defenders at power forward out on the perimeter and either using his freakishly long arms (7-foot-3 wingspan) to shoot over the top of them or his advantage in quickness to blow right past them. In the NBA, he moved down a position, losing a lot of his advantage in athleticism, and he wasn’t able to consistently punish defenses from behind the deeper 3-point line. The most concerning part about Ingram’s rookie season was that he shot only 29.4 percent from 3 (on 2.4 attempts per game) and 62.1 percent from the free throw line (on 2.7 attempts per game). Ingram was a 41 percent 3-point shooter in the NCAA, but he shot only 68.2 percent from the free throw line, a number that has been more predictive of NBA-level shooting ability. A player with his spindly frame and average first step needs the threat of the jumper to open up the rest of his game. This is how a lot of Ingram’s isolation attempts went last season: He was forced to rise up for a contested perimeter shot when it was clear he couldn’t get by a smaller defender, like Jrue Holiday in the clip below.

The good news for Lakers fans is Holiday couldn’t bother Ingram’s shot. All he could do was hope he missed. The only other starting 3s with arms as long as Ingram’s are Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Comparing a 19-year old with those guys is unfair, but having that type of pronounced physical edge in the NBA is unusual, and Ingram is extremely skilled for a player whose wingspan is comparable to that of most centers. He knows how to use his length already: He was in the 69th percentile in the NBA as a post scorer (on 62 possessions) as a rookie. If Ingram can get strong enough to consistently pin smaller wings with his back to the basket, he will force bigger defenders on him, and he can start to look more like the guy he was at Duke. There’s nothing Arron Afflalo can do here:

Ingram has already shown an advanced feel for the game. While he forced his fair share of ill-advised shots, which isn’t unusual for a guy whose physical tools could bail him out at lower levels of the game, he was able to consistently read the defense on the move and make the right pass. Walton played Ingram with two gunners in the backcourt on the second unit—Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson—and often used Ingram as a point forward. Despite having a big playmaking load, he averaged more assists per game (2.1) than turnovers (1.5). Durant, in comparison, didn’t have a positive ratio until his sixth season in the league. Not many guys as young as Ingram have this type of patience:

Ingram was a below-average defender in almost every category tracked by Synergy, which isn’t surprising given his lack of strength, as well as the Lakers’ inability to cover for him. He had no one behind him who could protect the rim, and L.A.’s best perimeter defender was probably Nick Young. Having Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to guard the other team’s primary option should improve all of the Lakers’ defensive numbers, although KCP wasn’t able to do much for the Pistons last season. In theory, having someone with Ingram’s size at the 3 should allow the Lakers to shrink the floor in the way the Thunder did with Durant and Serge Ibaka at the forward positions. However, that won’t work when he’s paired with Julius Randle, who has one of the shortest wingspans of any 4 in the league. The Lakers could have a lot of turnover upfront over the next few years, and finding guys who can defend and space the floor next to Ingram will be key.

Given that even slender 3s like Otto Porter Jr., who is listed at 6-foot-8 and 198 pounds, are finding minutes as small-ball 4s, Ingram should eventually offer positional versatility, although that is still a few years down the road. His combination of length and quickness when shifted up a position would make him a weapon when guarding the pick-and-roll, and he was in the 87th percentile when defending the big in the two-man game. It all comes back to strength with Ingram. If he can bulk up without sacrificing speed or hurting himself, there’s no telling how good he can be. But while he could become a great small forward, the better he gets, the less small forward he will play.

Joe Ingles

No one knew Ingles would be this good. The Australian native never played college basketball, and he didn’t play in the NBA until he was 27. He had played in the Spanish pro league Liga ACB, the second-best domestic league in the world, and competed in the EuroLeague for FC Barcelona and Maccabi Tel Aviv, but NBA teams thought so little of him that he didn’t get a guaranteed contract when he came over. It’s not hard to see why Ingles slipped through the cracks, and why the Clippers cut him before the start of the 2014-15 season: He’s a mediocre athlete who never averaged more than 11 points per game overseas.

Ingles wound up in Utah, where he spent his first two seasons fighting for minutes in a crowded perimeter rotation with several first-round talents. He became a full-time starter last year, when a wave of injuries decimated the roster. Ingles clicked with the Jazz’s other starters in the rare times they were all healthy: When he played alongside Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert, Utah had a net rating of plus-22.7 in 149 minutes last season. Unfortunately for the Jazz, that was their second-most frequently used five-man unit, and they had only five groups crack the 100-minute mark. The most heavily used lineup in the league last season, in comparison, were the Wizards starters, who played 1,347 minutes together. The Jazz never got to see what they could do fully healthy, and they never will now that Hayward and Hill have departed in free agency.

Ingles was the glue that held everything together. At 6-foot-8 and 226 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he has average size for a small forward, but he’s a crafty player who makes up for any lack of foot speed by positioning himself well, anticipating what the offense will do, and using his quick hands to poke the ball away. Ingles averaged 1.2 steals per game last season, although playing with Gobert behind him meant he could get away with gambling more often than he would elsewhere. While Ingles doesn’t have the physical tools to be an elite individual defender, he has enough size to swing among several positions, which played a big role in Utah’s elite defense. He dominated J.J. Redick in the Jazz’s first-round series win over the Clippers, holding him to 9.1 points per game on 38 percent shooting. Outside of a 26-point performance in Game 5, Redick was never able to get himself free from Ingles, who hounded him all over the court:

The Aussie was even more important on offense, where he shined as a floor spacer (he shot 44.1 percent from on 3 on 3.4 attempts per game) and a passer (averaging 2.7 assists on 1.3 turnovers a game). Ingles can fit with anyone because he can play at a high level either on or off the ball, a huge plus for a team with the roster flux the Jazz had last season. Ingles is one of the best passing wings in the league; once he gets a step, he is constantly probing to create an opening. Even if he doesn’t get the assist, he will make the pass that leads to one, like in this sequence, where he zips the ball cross-court to Boris Diaw, who funnels it to Hill:

Ingles was one of the primary playmakers in Quin Snyder’s offense, even though he had a miniscule usage rating of 13.9, a number typically reserved for defensive specialists. Ingles has a rare combination of skills: He’s like Ricky Rubio, Utah’s new point guard, in that he can improve the offense and make everyone better without taking a lot of shots, but unlike Rubio, he’s also capable of spacing the floor. With Hayward, Hill, and Diaw all gone, there will be an opportunity for all of the remaining players in Utah to get bigger roles, but even on an offensively starved team like the Jazz, there’s still no shortage of guys who need the ball. Don’t expect Ingles to force shots; it’s not in his DNA. Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Alec Burks, and Dante Exum should vacuum up a lot of the extra opportunities to score, as will rookie lottery pick Donovan Mitchell, one of the stars of summer league. Ingles will set up all those guys, and his 3-point shooting will be crucial with Rubio at point and the space-clogging duo of Favors and Gobert likely to play together more often.

The Jazz gave Ingles a four-year, $52 million contract in the offseason, and they were counting on him to help convince Hayward to sign with them long-term. While his per-game stats aren’t particularly impressive (7.1 points on 45.2 percent shooting, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.2 steals per game), he’s a consistent two-way player who guys enjoy sharing the floor with.

Ingles was hyperefficient in a small role last year, with a true shooting percentage (60.4) behind only Gobert’s on the team, so it will be interesting to see how he fares as his usage rate increases. Utah needs him to keep getting better to stay in the playoff hunt in the crowded Western Conference, and he just might be good enough to do it. His success is a testament to how far savvy, skill, and shooting ability can take a player, and NBA teams should be wondering if there are more late bloomers like him overseas.

Justise Winslow

Winslow’s second season in the NBA was cut short before it even had a chance to get going. He managed only 18 games before tearing a labrum in his shoulder and getting season-ending surgery. Winslow was arguably the best player on a Duke team that won the national title in 2015, but he has not been able to translate that success to the next level. The Heat are still figuring out how to use him: He had the third-highest net rating (plus-3.9) of their rotation players as a rookie, and the worst net rating (minus-0.4) of any of their rotation players last season. He’s only 21, so he still has plenty of time to improve, but it’s not going to be easy for him to keep his job as a starting small forward, much less become the star many projected him to be out of college.

Two things have happened to Winslow in the NBA. The first is that he completely lost his touch from the perimeter. After shooting 41.8 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game in his one season in college, he has shot an abysmal 25.8 percent on 1.6 attempts per game from the deeper NBA 3-point line. Judging a player’s shooting ability from only 110 college 3s, many of them wide open, can be misleading, and his 64.1 percent free throw shooting percentage (on 156 attempts at Duke) was its own warning sign. While Winslow can handle and pass at a high level for a player his size, his inability to shoot handcuffs the rest of his game. Defenses can sag off him when he has the ball, and they don’t even bother to guard him when he doesn’t have it. His poor shooting is a particularly big problem in Miami’s pace-and-space offense, and it’s probably not a coincidence the team took off soon after inserting Rodney McGruder, a much better outside shooter, into Winslow’s spot in the lineup. Watch Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on this play. He’s supposed to be guarding Winslow, but instead sits in Hassan Whiteside’s lap:

The second issue for Winslow in the NBA is changing positions. Coach K turned Duke’s season around two years ago when he moved Winslow from the 3 to the 4 and began using four perimeter players around Jahlil Okafor. At 6-foot-7 and 222 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Winslow was big and physical enough to hold his own against college big men in the paint, and he was much too fast for them to hang with him on the perimeter. Playing him at the 4 wouldn’t be as easy in the NBA, as he’s not nearly as long as other undersized 4s like Draymond Green and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, both of whom have over-7-foot-1 wingspans. He would be the smallest starting power forward in the league. Winslow has been just a guy as an NBA 3, and his defense isn’t yet to the point where his team can live with him not contributing on offense, à la Kidd-Gilchrist or Andre Roberson.

Even if Erik Spoelstra wanted to move Winslow back to his college position, there wouldn’t be any room for him there in Miami. The Heat signed Whiteside to a max contract, took Bam Adebayo with the no. 14 overall pick, and just gave a combined $110 million to James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. One strategy teams have used to keep nonshooting wings on the floor is to invert the offense and use them as the roll man with a center spotting up at the 3-point line: see the Nets with Hollis-Jefferson and Brook Lopez, and the Thunder with Roberson and Serge Ibaka. However, neither Whiteside nor Adebayo is much of an outside shooter, so Winslow’s best chance to succeed may be with either Olynyk or Johnson at the 5 in a small-ball lineup on Miami’s second unit.

The crowded frontcourt rotation in Miami is hardly unique, either. The old rule of thumb is that if a forward splits time between the 3 and the 4 in college, he’s going to be a 4 in the NBA. However, if every combo forward is better at the 4, there has to be someone left to play the 3. No matter what position he is slotted in, Winslow needs to play with a lot of 3-point shooting around him to be successful, and an NBA team can fit only so many players like that in a lineup at the same time. Either Winslow will learn to shoot, or he’s going to have to come off the bench. Let’s hope he used all the time he had off last season productively.