The Sacramento Kings have worked hard to improve their roster clarity over the last few years, investing assets and high draft picks in young guards and big men. De’Aaron Fox, picked 5th in 2017, and Marvin Bagley III, picked 2nd in 2018, will hopefully be cornerstones of Kings lineups for years to come. Sacramento also traded for shooting guard Buddy Hield, the 6th pick in 2016. Big man Willie Cauley-Stein was the 6th pick the year before that.
While the positional roles for Fox and Cauley-Stein — as well as Buddy Hield to a lesser extent — were cut and dry last year, things got murky at the forward positions. The table below shows the minutes leader from each position in Sacramento last season.
Minutes Leaders by Position in 2017-18
Bogdan Bogdanovic emerged as a somewhat surprising solution to the small forward problem, but often started games as a guard. Buddy Hield came off the bench in nearly all his appearances and spilt the workload on the wing with Bogdan. Who exactly played the three, or if they were simply three-guard lineups, is largely up to interpretation.
The power forward position was just as split, but the impending debuts of Bagley and Harry Giles III will go a long way to addressing that. As for small forward, the Kings can’t claim as much progress.
The fact is that the Kings haven’t had consistency at the position since Rudy Gay went down with an Achilles injury back in January of 2017. Fans are hoping for more clarity moving forward, but the Kings will have to grapple with the evolution of the position before they can even provide an answer.
What is a small forward in the modern NBA?
Let’s try a simple exercise here. Take a second right now to think of the best small forwards in basketball. Try to come up with a top five, if you can.
My guess is that a majority of your list is made up of the following group: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Gordon Hayward.
Here’s the thing. Those guys are playing at the three less and less. Putting aside Leonard and Hayward, who missed all — or nearly all — of last season due to injury, only George appears to maintain true small forward status. Here is how the time each player spent at the three changed from the 2016-17 season to the 2017-18 season.
Percentage of Minutes Played at Small Forward
LeBron and Durant are playing the four much more often, while Giannis has left the small forward position behind altogether. Butler went the other way, playing on the perimeter more since joining the Minnesota Timberwolves. It is often hard to distinguish if he or his partner on the wing, Andrew Wiggins, is the shooting guard at any given time. Even Paul George’s numbers dipped, but only slightly.
Two younger players may have appeared on your list as well. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are quickly approaching an elite level on the wing. But playing on the same team, can you be sure which player is playing which position at any given time? Brown was the small forward in his rookie year, then moved to shooting guard when Tatum came on the scene. Now add Hayward into the mix for next year. Who plays which position? And more importantly, how much does it really matter?
The thesis of a successful basketball team is no longer simply finding good starters and backups at each position. It’s about finding a group of players that can provide the best and most diverse skill set, while allowing maximal fluidity between individual player roles at any time.
But in the end, even the super flexible Boston Celtics and the dynastically innovative Golden State Warriors can’t achieve the ideal of perfect skill fluidity. So a small forward for most teams is simply the middle position; the player who can provide as many of the necessary skills as possible.
Attacking off the dribble, playing with their back to the basket, shooting threes, playing off the ball, guarding the perimeter, protecting the rim, offensive and defensive rebounding... The list goes on and on.
Small forward has become the jack-of-all-trades position. While size, shooting, and defense matter the most, any and every skill is welcome at the three. So then, the question for the Kings becomes relatively simple: Who on this roster can provide the most of these weapons?
A Look at the Options
Last year’s de facto small forward, Bogi appears to remain the best option at the 3 for Sacramento. His tools are many, if unpolished. He moves well on and off the ball. He can distribute as well as score. He has a sturdy frame and enough versatility on defense to switch assignments when necessary. While his post game and rebounding will need some work, the designation of starting small forward could allow him to focus on improving those parts of his game.
Like Bogdan, Hield has half of the “3 and D” prototype down pat. And while he is listed as shorter than Bogdanovic, Hield’s wingspan has been measured near 6’9”. While that won’t give him an advantage in every defensive matchup, it should be sufficient for Buddy to hold his own if he gives maximum effort. While he is better suited for the two, his inclusion on this list is meant to clarify a simple point: The Kings must find a way for Hield to get the minutes he deserves this year. If that means Buddy must slide to the three from time to time, his size should not stop him from doing so.
Finally, we get to a player who looks like a small forward. The problem is that he doesn’t really play like one. Not having found real competence at either the “3” or the “D” just yet, he excelled when attacking the rim last year — specifically on cuts toward the basket. He will remain a less than ideal option at both forward positions until he bulks up and improves his shot. Luckily, Jackson has plenty of room to grow in his second season in the NBA.
“Professor Big Shots” provides a lot of the skills that teams look for in a small forward. Unfortunately, the combination of his size and age may be too much for him to keep up defensively against quicker opposing threes. He did play small forward effectively for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year after they lost Jimmy Butler to injury, but a simple eye-test shows that his natural position at this point in his career is probably power forward.
The most common definition of position these days is based on what position that player can defend. By that metric, Iman Shumpert may be the truest three on this squad. However, two major hurdles exist for Iman. First is his woefully inefficient offense. As a career sub-40% shooter from the field, his offensive deficiencies may outweigh his defensive prowess. Secondly, he must make a successful recovery from his knee surgery before anything else matters.
Kings General Manager, Vlade Divac, famously suggested that Bagley could play some three after selecting him in June’s NBA draft. Some fans beg to differ, but if Bagley combines his lateral quickness with a higher-than-expected level of defensive intelligence, there is at least a hypothetical chance that he could be serviceable at the three spot down the line. We haven’t seen evidence of that yet, but no one can say for sure what Bagley will look like as a finished product.
Perhaps the longest of shots on this list, Harry Giles III is expected to be most effective at the 4 or the 5. However, if Bagley has a chance to develop the perimeter skills required to make an occasional appearance in the middle of the lineup, so does Giles. The odds may be slim, but that has never slowed Harry down before.
What makes the most sense?
In a Vacuum
Bogdan Bogdanovic’s varied skill set makes him the best option at small forward this year. He and Buddy Hield should be the starting wings for Sacramento the majority of the time. Not only are they likely the two best players on the roster entering the season, but they both still have room to grow. Justin Jackson should see significant time off the bench as well, as the team tries to continue his development. Bjelica and Shumpert are more situational plays. One provides size and one provides defense — two traits that the primary options currently lack.
With Bogdan Sidelined
The minor procedure performed on Bogi muddies the waters further. It could be wise to play the matchups or simply ride the hot hand between Jackson, Bjelica, and Shumpert for the first few games of the season. If any of the three emerge as clearly better than the others, the Kings would likely take that as a win. While Bogi deserves to be handed the keys to the small forward spot when healthy, the miles he has put on his body suggest the need for a clear second option in case of fatigue or further injury.
The Kings are going to have to play relatively small no matter what, as they lack size in their perimeter players. But things could get really small — and really exciting — in some stretches this year. Don’t put it past the Kings to experiment with super small lineups such as Yogi Ferrell, Fox, Hield, Jackson, and Bagley or Giles. Even a combination of Frank Mason, Ferrell, Hield, Bogdanovic, and Bjelica could happen in small doses if they feel they can push the tempo enough to get away with it against an opposing bench unit.
The final option the Kings could consider is to go completely against the grain of the current NBA and play big. While it is hard to imagine a super sized lineup being effective in the league right now, players who excel in the outside shot could make it possible. A lineup of Fox, Bogdan, Bjelica, Giles, and Cauley-Stein should be expected to make an appearance at some point during the year. Even short runs of a Hield, Bogdan, Bagley, Giles, and Cauley-Stein lineup could work every now and then if ball movement is stressed and the players hit their shots.
While the Kings don’t have a common sense solution at small forward, at least things are going to get interesting. Their small forward may end up looking like another guard or a big man. They may have to scramble to find something that works while Bogdanovic is injured. But a problem can turn to an opportunity in the blink of an eye. The hope of every Kings fan is that from this chaos, a new nightly starter will emerge, and the small forward issue will be resolved sooner rather than later.