OrlandoMagic.com’s Josh Cohen projects the top 10 small forwards in the NBA during the 2022-23 season.
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Tied #10 DeMar DeRozan/Scottie Barnes/Franz Wagner
All three deserve to be on this list, which explains the tie. DeRozan had a marvelous first year in Chicago, exploding for 40-plus points five times, including racking up 50 against the Clippers on March 31. Barnes earned Rookie of the Year honors for his all-around excellence. He’s a dynamic two-way player with a unique set of skills at 6-foot-9. Also quite unique is Wagner, who possesses some of the best footwork on drives ever seen in a 6-foot-10 guy. He had a 38-point performance against the then defending-champion Bucks on Dec. 28.
Honorable Mentions for this list include Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr., Saddiq Bey, De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward, Bojan Bogdanovic, Harrison Barnes, Mikal Bridges, and Dillon Brooks.
#9 Khris Middleton
Many believe the Bucks would have won their second straight title last season if Middleton didn’t get hurt early in the postseason. While there’s no way to know for certain either way, what’s more apparent than ever is that Milwaukee needs Middleton, one of the craftier scorers in the league, to truly be in the championship mix. A three-time NBA All-Star, the 31-year-old scored 30-plus points four times last season, including against the Suns on March 6 when he amassed 44 points.
#8 Brandon Ingram
There’s something brewing in New Orleans. Obviously, the only way they can seriously compete for a title is if Zion Williamson is playing and fully healthy. But the way they finished last season, particularly after acquiring CJ McCollum, gives them hope that with a healthy core they can climb up the standings rapidly. Ingram, an All-Star a few seasons ago, is without doubt a big part of what they do, particularly on the offensive end where he is one of the premier isolation scorers of this era.
#7 Andrew Wiggins
It was surprising, even before what he showed during the postseason, that Wiggins did not make an NBA All-Defensive Team. Just based on key defensive data, there’s an argument to be made that he should have been in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. He locked up so many of the game’s best, and it wasn’t until the playoffs when observers truly started noticing how amazing of an on-ball defender he has become. Obviously, he’s found the right situation for himself in San Francisco, where he's a defensive stopper first and a tertiary scoring option second.
#6 Jimmy Butler
There’s regular season Jimmy, and then there’s playoff Jimmy. The regular season version is probably somewhere between 15th and 20th best in the league. His postseason form, on the other hand, might very well be top five. When the lights get brighter, as we’ve seen in two of the last three seasons, Butler is on another planet. As he was in the Disney bubble in 2020 when the Heat reached the NBA Finals, the six-time NBA All-Star was arguably the best all-around player on the court in all three of Miami’s playoff series in 2022. He scored 40-plus points in four of those 17 playoff games, including that unforgettable 47-point effort in Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
#5 Paul George
A case could have been made after the first month of last season that George was the best small forward in the league. He scored 30-plus points in six of his first 20 games, including twice exploding for over 40. With Kawhi Leonard coming back, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue will need to figure out the best role for George, who’s had his ups and downs since getting traded to Los Angeles in 2019.
#4 Jayson Tatum
Tatum had a disappointing NBA Finals. That was a highly discussed storyline this past June. But, as we’ve seen throughout NBA history with budding superstars, sometimes it takes a substandard series performance to fuel them for future gains. Tatum, still just 24 years old, made significant progress last year as a playmaker and defender. We know how electric of a scorer he is, but now it’s about consistency from him. After his great performances, some might say he's the best player in the world. Then, after an off-night, some question whether he's in the top 10.
#3 Kawhi Leonard
Way too many seem to be sleeping on Leonard’s return, and what that means for the landscape of the Western Conference. It wasn’t long ago when many felt that Leonard – not LeBron, KD, Jokic, Embiid, Doncic or Tatum – was the best player in the world. Obviously, it’s been a while since he suited up, but if he is completely healthy, watch out for the Clippers, who also signed John Wall this summer.
#2 Kevin Durant
The top storyline this offseason was Durant’s reported trade requested, which eventually he pulled back on (for now). The question now is how mentally committed is he to the Nets, and if it’s not near 100 percent, could that at all affect his play? Regardless, though, KD is the game’s best pure scorer right now, and there’s no reason to believe, assuming he’s healthy, that he won’t rank near the top in scoring once again this season. In 55 games last year, he scored 30-plus points 25 times, including on April 2 at Atlanta where he had a double-nickel.
#1 LeBron James
Expect James to be more motivated than ever. He’ll be 38 in December, and the window of opportunity to win another championship will inevitably be closing soon, if it hasn’t closed already. With that said, he certainly didn’t look like the average 37-year-old last season despite the Lakers’ struggles, scoring 30-plus points 34 times, including twice erupting for 50-plus. The 56 points he scored on March 5 against the Warriors was the second-most for a player aged 37 or older. Kobe Bryant scored 60 at age 37 in his last game of his NBA career.