NBA Counterparts for College Basketball's Top Small Forwards
Out on the wing is where you often find the most athletic players in basketball, both in college and in the pros. And with college basketball essentially a feeder league to the NBA, it stands to reason that scouts keep a close eye at what happens with college players who operate at the small forward position.
Part of the evaluation process often involves finding a comparable professional, either current or former, that each prospect resembles in the physical makeup and skill set. This doesn't mean they'll end up being the same kind of player, or have the same level of success, but for comparison purposes it makes sense.
As part of our offseason series highlighting college basketball's top professional prospects, we've already listed NBA counterparts for the best point guards and shooting guards. Now we move on to small forward, with a breakdown of the 10 best at that position heading into the 2016-17 season.
OG Anunoby, Indiana
Compares to: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Lightly used during much of his freshman season, when OG Anunoby did get on the court for Indiana there was plenty to enjoy. It won't show in his numbers, as he averaged 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 13.7 minutes per game, but the scouts saw enough to be very intrigued about his future.
His work on the defensive end during the NCAA tournament against Kentucky led Sporting News' Kevin O'Connor to write that Anunoby "has the length of DeAndre Jordan, the height of Jimmy Butler and the quickness of Tony Allen." And all three of those guys are noted for what they can do on the defensive end, which figures to be how Anunoby will first make his mark at the next level.
In order for him to be a complete player, though, he has to show more ability on the offensive end. He shot 56.9 percent (including 44.9 percent from three-point range) but only attempted 116 shots in 34 games so that's not enough of a sample size to know what he can do.
That—along with a ridiculous 7'6” wingspan—is why we're comparing the 6'8” Anunoby to Leonard. He struggled mightily with his shot in college but quickly made inroads in the NBA because of his defensive intensity. Now that he's learned how to shoot, he's among the best all-around players in the league.
V.J. Beachem, Notre Dame
Compares to: Kyle Korver, Atlanta Hawks
To this point in his career, V.J. Beachem has established himself as a known quantity as a perimeter shooter. It's how he develops other parts of his offensive game, though, that might indicate what his pro prospects are like.
The 6'8” senior made 130 of 299 three-pointers the past two seasons, a 43.5 percent clip, accounting for more than 62 percent of his shots. This fits well in Notre Dame's system, which is often a four-out, one-in approach, but with the Fighting Irish losing both point guard Demetrius Jackson and post player Zach Auguste he may need to take on more responsibilities in the interior and find a way to create his own shots.
"Even if the offensive progression doesn’t come, if he can be a 40+ percent three-point shooter again, NBA opportunities will be there," Fansided.com's Ed Isaacson wrote.
Since we're making these projections based on how the players currently look, and on what they do, Korver fits well for the comparison. He was a three-point specialist at Creighton, accounting for 69 percent of his college attempts, and that's continued in the NBA where he's a 42.9 percent three-point shooter over his 12 NBA seasons.
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson
Compares to: Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings
Jaron Blossomgame is coming off a monster season, one which saw him enter the NBA draft but back out just before the deadline. He said he felt he's better than a second-round pick, as it was suggested he'd be, and thus coming back for his senior year gives the 6'7” Blossomgame a chance to prove this.
One of the older players in college, Blossomgame will turn 23 this month. That means he's not going to be looked at as a project but rather someone who can play immediately. For that to happen will require Blossomgame remaining efficient. His player efficiency rating of 27.1 in 2015-16 was the result of 51.3 percent shooting overall and 44.1 percent from three-point range.
"My junior season I took better shots and shot with confidence. I continued to shoot every day which resulted in an outstanding shooting season statistically," he told SB Nation's Dakota Schmidt.
In addition to averaging 18.7 points, he pulled down 6.7 rebounds per game and 11.4 percent of available rebounds. That's a high rate for a team's primary scorer, and one who doesn't work on the interior that much.
Gay enters his 11th NBA season with solid across-the-board numbers, not really a star but never considered a liability. Blossomgame could do worse than gaining the same reputation.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Compares to: Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
On a team that lost most of its key players from a year ago, Miles Bridges has the chance to be the most impactful freshman in college basketball in 2016-17. And because he's shown to this point his ability to handle assignments inside and out, this bodes well for Michigan State as well as for Bridges' pro prospects.
A 6'6” "power wing," as Bleacher Report's Scott Phillips wrote, Bridges will start for the Spartans at the three but figures to get plenty of work in the trenches with MSU thin in the frontcourt. If he can show the ability to rebound and score inside, despite going against mostly bigger opponents, it will help establish himself as a versatile player who can step right into an NBA lineup, presumably a year from now.
It's the same track that Winslow followed in his one season at Duke, where he began at the three but found himself as an undersized four during the second half and into the postseason. That track finished with a national title and Winslow becoming the 10th overall pick, and though he only started eight games for the Heat as a rookie he's projected as a rising star in the pros.
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
Compares to: Mike Dunleavy Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers
A well-regarded pro prospect who briefly toyed with the idea of trying to enter the NBA straight out of high school, Jonathan Isaac had an interesting tweet back in July when he noted that “you can work on NBA moves and shots all you want, but they have nothing to do with being a good (college basketball) player.” That makes working on his pro comparison before seeing him play a game with Florida State easier than it would be after his freshman season since he seems to understand the importance of fitting into a system at the college level.
At 6'10” but only 205 pounds, Isaac looks like he still has room to fill out. Even with added weight, Isaac figures to play more on the perimeter than most players his size. Before sprouting up a few years ago, he was a guard which explains his great ball-handling skills.
Because he's so lanky and wants to play more like a guard than a frontcourt player, it's hard not to compare him to Kevin Durant. We went with Dunleavy, however, because Isaac still has a ways to go in his development but is talented enough to stick around for a while because of his shooting, like Dunleavy has as a 37.6 percent three-point shooter in 14 NBA seasons.
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Compares to: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
When Wiggins was at Kansas in 2013-14 he was as exciting as any offensive player the Jayhawks have had during Bill Self's tenure. And though he wasn't able to get them a national title during his one season, since he left fans have been anxiously waiting for the next player like him to come along.
That appears to be Josh Jackson, the No. 1 player from the 2016 recruiting class. From the moment he picked Kansas over Arizona and Michigan State, the expectations for this next Jayhawks teams went way up and the comparisons to Wiggins were just as frequent. Even from Self.
"He is very similar to Andrew Wiggins," Self said, per ZagsBlog.com. "He's a tall guard that can do a lot of everything. We feel his impact on our program next year will be as much as any freshman will have on any college program."
So it makes sense we're comparing the 6'8” Jackson to the 6'8” Wiggins, since they're basically the same player. And with Wiggins coming off two very strong seasons with the Timberwolves to start his pro career, that's not a bad thing at all.
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Compares to: Evan Turner, Portland Trail Blazers
Another skinny wing at 6'8” and less than 195 pounds, Jackson isn't going to be able to handle bigger players at the pro level so he's going to need to maximize his perimeter and mid-range game. To this point that's been a work in progress, and not one with much noticeable improvement.
Jackson's shooting numbers actually dipped from his freshman to sophomore seasons at North Carolina, down to 46.6 percent overall and 29.2 percent from three-point range. And that was with a 30 percent jump in his three-point attempts as he's tried to make that more a part of his game.
The mid-range shot is a good one, however, and when he gets in transition he can be a major danger because of his length and athleticism. That will get him only so far, though, so he needs to fix that longer shot or abandon it altogether.
This is what Turner has mostly done since getting into the NBA. He was a 36 percent three-point shooter at Ohio State but not as successful in the pros, though he hasn't needed to because of his transition game and ability to slash and drive.
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse
Compares to: Donyell Marshall (retired)
In many ways, Tyler Lydon is like so many other wings that Syracuse has had during Jim Boeheim's tenure: long and lean, with a penchant for three-point shooting and decent rebounding skills. But what might separate from Lydon from those before him—and give him a better NBA shot than many of his predecessors—is his defensive prowess.
"Lydon is an intriguing prospect whose abilities to both shoot the ball and protect the rim will draw a lot of attention from scouts this year," ESPN's Chad Ford wrote.
In addition to making a team-best 40.5 percent of his threes last year as a freshman, the 6'8” Lydon had 67 blocked shots. The latter part of his game stood out in the NCAA tournament when he had 20 blocks in five games, six each against Gonzaga and Middle Tennessee and five in the Elite Eight win over Virginia.
The NBA players who have shot 40 percent from three and averaged at least 3.7 blocks per 100 possessions (Lydon's rate) is a short one, with most cases being a center who happened to take a handful of threes. But among those who were a little less frequent with the blocking but still did it enough to get noticed was Donyell Marshall, who from 1994-2009 had more than 800 career blocks and shot 35 percent from deep.
Devin Robinson, Florida
Compares to: Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
Two relatively unproductive seasons at Florida haven't hurt Devin Robinson's pro prospects, as DraftExpress still has him going early in the second round in 2017. He entered this past draft but pulled out, giving him an opportunity to make his junior year a showcase of the talents that made him a 5-star prospect in 2014.
The 6'8” Robinson has averaged only 21.2 minutes per game with the Gators, producing 7.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 43.2 percent overall and 30.3 from outside. He improved from 25.6 percent to 34 percent from three-point range, so there is hope that he can be the effective outside shooter that he'll need to be in order to catch on in the NBA.
If so, he'd follow a similar track to Porter, who's major leap in perimeter accuracy in his sophomore year at Georgetown launched him the No. 3 overall pick in 2014. From there he had to start over, making only 19 percent of his threes as a rookie but going up to 33.7 and 36.7 percent in the ensuing seasons.
Jayson Tatum, Duke
Compares to: Grant Hill (retired)
With the number of pros that have come out of Duke, we didn't have to look elsewhere to find a comparison for Jayson Tatum. He cited three in particular when telling 247Sports' Andrew Slater how he expects to be used this season by coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"More like Ingram, Jabari Parker, Grant Hill," Tatum said. "You know, that's one of the reasons I chose Duke. All those guys are athletic, in shape, so strength is something I have to work on."
At 6'8” and 204 pounds he could stand to add 20 or so pounds of muscle, much like how Ingram bulked up during last season with the Blue Devils and propelled himself to the second overall pick. But that was also necessary to help him handle the rigors of playing the four in college, something Tatum won't need to do with Harry Giles and Marques Bolden joining him at Duke.
This makes the Hill comparison the best one. Hill had the strength to handle the physicality of the college and pro game but also the outside and mid-range game to be a matchup nightmare. That's what Duke is hoping Tatum will be, and if he continues to progress he's got a shot at matching Hill's stellar 19-year NBA career.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.