Ranking NBA's Top 15 Shooting Guards Entering 2018-19 Season
As our romp through the NBA's top players soldiers on, let us pay homage to the league's best, most awesome shooting guards.
Before we get started, be sure to check out the previous installment in our NBA 100 series:
The ranking methodology did not change for shooting guards. But rather than rehashing last year's chain of command, we evaluated players based on who we'd want to acquire for all of 2018-19.
That meant everything was up for consideration—including prospective regressions and improvements, changes in roles and team fits, projections following recoveries from injuries and everything else that might impact where a player stands relative to his peers.
Committing players to positions is almost impossible these days, so bear with us. Qualifications were determined using a mix of depth-chart interpretations and possession data available at Cleaning the Glass.
Players can, and did, move into different categories compared to previous seasons. Jrue Holiday has typically been considered a point guard, but he logged 60 percent of his possessions last season at the 2, according to Cleaning the Glass. The New Orleans Pelicans roster suggests that distribution won't change in 2018-19, so he made his NBA 100 cameo here.
Switching teams also affected a player's status. DeMar DeRozan played more at small forward last year, according to Cleaning the Glass. That doesn't figure to continue with the San Antonio Spurs, so he was treated as a shooting guard, too.
Since we prioritized full-season performances, note that anyone at risk of remaining on the sideline until the calendar flips to 2019 was stripped of their eligibility. That caveat didn't impact the shooting guard ladder, but it will be necessary to keep in mind as the series rolls on.
15-11: Doncic, Williams, Barton, Evans, McCollum
15. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats (Euroleague, Liga ACB): 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 22.8 player efficiency rating, N/A total points added, N/A real plus-minus
Forecasting rookies is always hard, but predicting Luka Doncic's first NBA march is particularly difficult. Will the Mavericks pencil him in as a shooting guard? Let him run some point? Use him at the 3 in smaller lineups? How much control will he actually have over an offense that must also feed Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr.?
We can't be sure of anything this early in the game. But Doncic begins his career with an idyllic profile. Every team in the league is after a 6'7" wing who can jump-start pick-and-rolls, drain jumpers off the bounce and seamlessly flitter between on- and off-ball duties. Doncic won't have the green light Smith did during his debut, but his wide-ranging offensive utility should shine through enough to justify his inclusion here.
Note: This positional designation was made before the Dallas Mavericks went with a new-look starting five that might feature the uber-malleable Doncic at the 4.
14. Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
Lou Williams' numbers are bound to suffer from the Clippers' backcourt surplus. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Avery Bradley, Jerome Robinson, Milos Teodosic and a healthy Patrick Beverley will all eat into his usage. His downtick will be more stark than anticipated if both Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris last the entire season in Los Angeles.
And yet dragging Williams any lower feels criminal—even with his non-factor defense taking center stage. He was too friggin' good last year. He piloted the offense, earned frequent trips to the charity stripe and hit a ridiculous number of tough jumpers. Five other players cleared 24 points and five assists per 36 minutes while matching Williams' true shooting percentage, and they're all megastars: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard.
13. Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 16.2 PER, 54.1 TPA, 0.7 RPM
Good luck figuring out Will Barton's role with the Nuggets. Yes, he's expected to start. But most of his time came at the 1 and 2 spots last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. His promotion should translate to a co-op at shooting guard and small forward. Then again, Denver is not especially flush at point guard beyond Jamal Murray and Isaiah Thomas. Barton could once again absorb more reps as the primary floor general.
Either hybrid role suits him. He shot better than 75 percent on cuts and almost 40 percent on spot-up threes last season. Like Denver's other most prominent ball-handlers, he's no stranger to working away from the action, predominantly off Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap or Mason Plumlee.
Still, his table-setting should not be underestimated. He averaged more assists per 36 minutes than Murray last year and turned the ball over at a fairly low clip when running pick-and-rolls. The Nuggets may not have anyone more adept at shape-shifting offensive identities.
12. Tyreke Evans, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 21.1 PER, 114.4 TPA, 3.5 RPM
Can Tyreke Evans provide an encore to his career performance in 2017-18 while playing on a deeper Pacers team that counts Victor Oladipo as its primary crutch? The short answer: Maybe. For the longer answer, we turn to Indy Cornrows' C. Cooper:
"During the playoffs, Darren Collison's low-volume efficiency and safe shot-creation from the regular season struggled to cover for Oladipo going 12-of-50 from the field over the middle three games of the series, connecting on just 7-of-26 shots across that same span with only two makes coming outside the paint.
"Evans, on the other hand, committed turnovers at a higher rate, but his ability to drain threes off the dribble and draw and shake opponents to and from the ball with head fakes and hesitations has the potential to put undue stress on the nail defender when given the opportunity to manipulate the pick-and-roll with Indiana's first-time All-Star situated on the opposite slot."
Surrendering touches to Oladipo will curtail Evans' production. The Pacers may not even deign to play him 30 minutes per game if he's coming off the bench. But if he keeps hitting pull-up jumpers at superstar clips and orchestrating half-court possessions, he'll settle into this spot without much issue. He might even make it look foolishly low.
11. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 17.0 PER, 23.5 TPA, minus-0.3 RPM
CJ McCollum is still among the NBA's smoothest scorers—a mid-range savant with a devastating floater who boasts the evenness on pull-up jumpers of a No. 1 option. He could feasibly finish 2018-19 as one of the more underrated players on this list.
At the same time, McCollum doesn't get to the line nearly enough (3.1 attempts per game last season). Nor does he shoulder as much playmaking responsibility as many of his contemporaries. His most incriminating weakness, though? Defense.
Among all Blazers players last season, no one rated as a less valuable stopper, according to NBA Math's defensive points saved. McCollum is closer to serviceable in some of Portland's more conservative schemes but unlikely to hang when switching or getting around screens, or when left to his own devices in space.
10. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 16.5 PER, 41.8 TPA, 1.9 RPM
Gary Harris might not throw up glamorous per-game numbers and doesn't always grade out as a beneficial defender, but his importance to the Nuggets should be clear enough to anyone watching. Not only is he a solid stopper who typically draws tough assignments from head coach Mike Malone, but he's willingly accepted an offensive role that constantly features him in off-ball situations.
Perhaps the Michigan State product wouldn't be thought of so highly if he didn't have Jokic feeding him the rock with picture-perfect dimes, but that's a hypothetical about which we don't have to worry. He does play alongside Jokic, and he shot an impressive 50.5 percent from inside the arc off the big man's passes while connecting on 40.7 percent of the relevant three-point attempts.
Of course, Harris also deserves credit for the synergistic relationship. He's become a devastating dual threat away from the primary action, capable of thriving on cuts (84th percentile) and spot-up jumpers alike (81st percentile). Defenders constantly get caught in pickles, unwilling to cede back-door cuts along the baseline but simultaneously attempting to remain cognizant of his catch-and-shoot acumen.
Developing more off-the-bounce skills would lead to further movement up the leaderboard, but Harris is already in a solid spot as an ideal complementary 2-guard for one of the league's best offenses.
9. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 18.1 PER, 19.5 TPA, minus-1.0 RPM
Devin Booker is a conundrum.
Despite what many catch-all metrics indicate, he's most certainly not a net negative for the Phoenix Suns. He posted a shoddy RPM, barely crested above the league average in TPA and made his team 0.7 points per 100 possessions worse while on the floor during the 2017-18 campaign. But that doesn't alter his status as a promising young talent already able to score in remarkably effective fashion while still operating as a willing facilitator.
Plus, we can reasonably expect massive strides in 2018-19 because of a drastically different situation, as Danny Chau of The Ringer summarized:
"For the first time in his career, Booker has a team with a functioning roster that more or less makes sense at each position. For once, after dealing with three coaches in three seasons, he'll have one who has the front office's full support in Igor Kokoskov. He has the outline of the ideal modern basketball player: a 6-foot-6 initiating wing with limitless range on his jump shot and the ability to run the pick-and-roll and spot up in a second's notice. These are the tools that every team needs to build around. That outline will be easier to spot and embrace once the shock of his $158 million contract subsides."
Booker remains a puzzling presence who needs to polish his defensive warts. He has to prove he can do more than submit gaudy numbers on a losing team. He must coexist with other offensive talents rather than maintain massive usage figures.
But his sheer talent is already abundantly clear, and that makes it so much easier to look past the troublesome numbers and expect value moving forward.
8. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 18.4 PER, 101.9 TPA, 1.3 RPM
Bradley Beal had some trouble maintaining his lofty shooting percentages in 2017-18, but he still made appreciable strides that will have positive long-term effects. Assuming he shores up his shot profile moving forward, he'll be able to capitalize on increased efficacy as a distributor and shot-creator. This will likely happen when the Washington Wizards endure fewer injuries and aren't tasking their stars with carrying strange lineups.
During the 2016-17 campaign, Beal required assists on 48.6 percent of his two-point makes and 80.3 percent of his successful triples. One year later, those numbers dipped to 35.5 and 78.4 percent. Both were career lows, and the eye test backed up these observations as the former Gator seemed far more comfortable breaking down defenders off the bounce.
Plus, we can't overlook his passing strides. Averaging a personal-best 4.5 dimes, he was often asked to initiate the offense within Washington's half-court schemes. He handled that request nicely while also hitting more shooters in the pocket.
Beal is now an established offensive weapon who can do damage in multiple facets of the game. He's also an improving defender who didn't let his increased responsibilities prevent him from making the necessary effort on the stopping side. Though he's by no means a preventing ace, just playing like less of a liability allowed him to squeeze ahead of Booker...for the time being, at least.
7. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 13.6 PER, minus-4.3 TPA, 1.4 RPM
A malleable ball of clay who can already capably fill so many different roles for the Boston Celtics, Jaylen Brown showcased the well-rounded nature of his upside throughout a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017-18. While Irving and Gordon Hayward were watching in street clothes, he averaged 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks per game in the playoffs, doing so while shooting 46.6 percent from the field, 39.3 percent from downtown and 64.0 percent at the stripe.
If the Celtics need someone who can control a possession and create his own look, Brown is there. If they need a spot-up threat, he's ready on the wings, waiting to use his impressive and replicable form to splash sphere through nylon for three points. If they need a defensive stop, he can parlay his physicality and instincts into solid work against myriad positions, often switching along the perimeter to fit in perfectly with the Beantown schemes.
We have no idea what peak Brown might look like. His development could veer in so many different directions, all based around the needs of the deep Celtics roster. Maybe he'll focus on one end, or perhaps he'll morph into an all-around standout.
But none of these outcomes, whether the more limited or fully realized ones, should be viewed negatively. After all, he's flashed enough across-the-board upside that all iterations of peak Brown should boast immense value.
6. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 17.8 PER, 128.7 TPA, 3.7 RPM
Yes, Jrue Holiday is a shooting guard now.
Despite his longstanding status as a 1-guard, he's played the 2 enough with the Pelicans to validate a different listing. Basketball Reference recorded a 1/40/59 split between the three smallest positions in 2017-18. Cleaning the Glass indicated 60 percent of his minutes came at shooting guard, and the presence of Elfrid Payton ensures Holiday will continue filling a void on the wings, just as he did while operating with Rajon Rondo.
But no matter where Holiday plays these days, he's effective. Anthony Davis wasn't the only player who assumed more responsibilities after DeMarcus Cousins went down with a ruptured Achilles.
After Cousins' last game in a New Orleans uniform (Jan. 26), the 28-year-old Holiday averaged 19.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.2 assists while shooting 49.2 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from downtown and 76.0 percent at the stripe. As if that weren't enough, he doubled down on his reemergence as a celestial presence by outplaying both Lillard and McCollum in an opening-round sweep of the Trail Blazers.
Holiday functioned as a dangerous dual threat on offense, capable of either scoring with aplomb or setting the table for his teammates. He also never stopped playing pestilent perimeter defense, which should be evidence enough that we're finally seeing what a healthy version of this veteran backcourt presence can do for a team willing to trust his far-reaching talents.
5. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 16.7 PER, 57.9 TPA, 2.2 RPM
Donovan Mitchell came out swinging during his rookie season and didn't let up until the conclusion of the Utah Jazz's two-round playoff run, during which he proved his scoring talents could translate nicely to the postseason portion of the calendar. That's impressive enough for a first-year player, but it's perhaps even more notable the 22-year-old got better as he jelled with his teammates and coaching staff.
As one of many examples, take a gander at the month-by-month progression of his finishing ability no further than five feet from the basket:
- October: 42.3 percent on 3.7 attempts per game
- November: 54.2 percent on 4.8 attempts per game
- December: 73.6 percent 6.7 attempts per game
- January: 60 percent on 5.0 attempts per game
- February: 47.1 percent on 5.1 attempts per game
- March: 61.1 percent on 6.0 attempts per game
- April: 52.4 percent on 7.0 attempts per game
- Playoffs: 57.8 percent on 9.9 attempts per game
If you were expecting a linear progression with a ceaseless positive trend, you were overly optimistic. But baking in Mitchell's ever increasing willingness to attack the basket and upped responsibilities within the stratagems employed by head coach Quin Snyder, this is still almost unmitigated growth.
He became more and more of a reliable finisher throughout his rookie go-round, culminating in extreme volume and respectable efficiency during a postseason run in which so much defensive attention was focused squarely on him. And that alone should have you plenty excited to see how he might develop in Year 2.
4. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
- Klay Thompson, 1.7
- Karl-Anthony Towns, 2.0
- LaMarcus Aldridge, 2.2
- Anthony Davis, 2.3
- Paul George, 2.8
- Joel Embiid, 2.8
- Khris Middleton, 3.1
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 16.1 PER, minus-31.2 TPA, 1.8 RPM
Sure, we could regale you with stories about Klay Thompson's three-and-D prowess, even if the latter part of that categorization often gets undersold by advanced metrics. He's one of the deadliest snipers in the sport's history, and his willingness to assume tough assignments against opposing guards—both of the point and shooting varieties—opens so many possibilities for the Golden State Warriors.
Instead, let's focus on his role within the offense run by head coach Steve Kerr.
During the 2017-18 season, 25 players suited up in at least 50 games and scored no fewer than 20 points per contest. Among that group, Thompson was entirely unique because he so rarely needed to control the rock. Perfectly content to run around the floor seeking spot-up opportunities and dribble infrequently, this wing required only 1.7 minutes of possession per game—rather easily the lowest mark among the 25 relevant contributors:
The other 18 high-scoring threats all used more than double Thompson's time of possession. So while he might be viewed as a dangerous spot-up threat, he's really occupying a category of his own: volume-scoring pure spot-up shooter.
This is helpful in and of itself, but it's particularly valuable when he's operating alongside so many other offensive standouts who need control of the rock to maximize their effectiveness.
3. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 21.0 PER, 99.0 TPA, 1.7 RPM
Can DeMar DeRozan regain his All-NBA form after an offseason trade sent him from the Toronto Raptors to the San Antonio Spurs?
On one hand, he no longer has the pleasure of suiting up alongside security blanket/close friend Kyle Lowry. He presumably won't be allowed to operate with such autonomy, and his greatest skill (knocking down contested mid-range jumpers) overlaps with the preferred game of incumbent power forward Aldridge. Spacing could be a concern, hindering the stronger side of the floor for a one-way threat.
On the other hand, head coach Gregg Popovich has maximized the talents of so many lesser players in previous go-rounds, and he's built a system that not only allows those mid-range attempts but actively encourages them in some scenarios. Perhaps DeRozan could even translate some of his physical talents into positive work on the defensive end.
We don't yet know the level of play we should expect from this 29-year-old—which is thoroughly unsurprising after so many years of metrics and the eye test yielding such disparate results. But after DeRozan fully accepted the Raptors' egalitarian offense in 2017-18, buying into the teachings and submitting the best individual campaign of his career, we should probably lean toward a more positive slant.
Consider DeRozan's placement a volatile one, as he could trend significantly higher or lower in the early stages of his Spurs tenure.
2. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.8 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 23.1 PER, 250.1 TPA, 5.9 RPM
Throughout the Indiana Pacers' first-round series against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers—a series in which they outplayed the victors, we should note—Victor Oladipo didn't seem the least bit shaken by the spotlight. Pick out a key moment, and you're more likely than not to see the breakout 2-guard backing up well beyond the three-point arc before attacking the basket with every ounce of his staggering athleticism.
Precious few players can go one-on-one against James and convert opportunities at the basket, but Oladipo did. Consistently. By the time Cleveland had won in seven games, he had embarked upon 11.1 drives per contest and shot 54.5 percent from the field on such plays—numbers only four other players (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, James and Holiday) in the postseason matched.
Of course, this wasn't some new development. During the regular season, he converted 52.1 percent of his shooting attempts on 10.8 drives per game. Once more, just four men matched his combination of volume and efficiency: James, Holiday, Irving and James Harden.
Don't expect 2018-19 to prove this was a fluke.
After years of trials and tribulation with the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder, Oladipo has parlayed all his different experiences into this ascent up the individual hierarchy. He's a defensive ace who can shoot 37.1 percent from downtown (with immense volume—5.8 attempts per game in 2017-18) and thrive when attacking the teeth of the opposition. Even so, he doesn't have to sacrifice his distributing skills.
In other words, he's a bona fide star.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Advanced Metrics: 29.8 PER, 565.4 TPA, 6.7 RPM
Perhaps the manner in which Harden compiles statistics rubs you the wrong way. You might not care for his assaults on the hoop, during which he often seems more concerned with baiting referees into whistles than actually completing the play. You aren't a fan of that shuffling, side-stepping three-point stroke that so often invites contact and sends the bearded 2-guard to the stripe for more freebies.
That's all well and good, but aesthetics don't win basketball games.
The shooting guard understands how to capitalize on his strengths while taking advantage of overlooked areas in the rulebook. And even after the league tried to eliminate gather-through-contact moves to deter one of his pet plays, he responded by having a dizzyingly effective offensive season that resulted in the first MVP of his illustrious career.
Sure, he's not the league's greatest defensive wing. He often plays like a below-average contributor on that end, though the spotlight on his missteps is often too harsh and creates an overblown reputation. But even with the vast majority of his efforts coming on one end, he still submits some of the best numbers in the league.
We're not even talking about his per-game marks, jaw-dropping as they may be. Harden finished behind only the TPA compiled by James in 2017-18. Teammate Chris Paul was the lone man with a superior RPM, while not a single soul topped this 2-guard's RPM wins.
He's elite no matter how you choose to measure his play.