Top 15 NBA shooting guards for 2017-18: It's James Harden, then everyone else
It’s been a lament for years now: The shooting guard position, as we once knew it, has pretty much disappeared. Gone are the do-it-all wings like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Ray Allen and Clyde Drexler, replaced by a much more specialized lot whose job is to simply wait by the 3-point line and fire away.
The one exception in today’s game is James Harden, who was a point guard last season. After him, we get right to the shoot-only types, and beyond the first five SGs in the league, the drop gets precipitous.
1 Evan Fournier, Magic
Key number: 103.7. That was the Magic’s points per 100 possessions last season, which ranked 29th. It was an awful offensive team, which skewed Fournier’s numbers a bit.
Outlook: At 17.2 points, Fournier led the Magic in scoring, which says a lot more about the Magic than about Fournier’s place in the league. Orlando is devoid of scoring options, so Fournier becomes the de facto top option, and that’s just too easy for defenses to shut down.
He had some foot issues last year, but when healthy, he is a solid No. 2 or 3 option on a good team.
2 Victor Oladipo, Pacers
Key number: 21.4. That was Oladipo’s usage rate with the Thunder last year, lower than any of his three seasons in Orlando, where he was expected to generate more of the offense himself.
Outlook: As if Oladipo has not had enough trouble meeting puffed-up expectations in his career, now he goes to Indiana as the main piece the Pacers got in return for superstar Paul George.
Oladipo had to adjust to playing with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City last year, which, in the end, seemed a more comfortable role for him than as a top option who has to do the heavy offensive lifting. But he’s back in that spot now with the Pacers.
3 Eric Gordon, Rockets
Key number: 33.9. That was Gordon’s 3-point shooting percentage after the All-Star break, which makes some sense. He’d played 50 games before the break (shooting 38.5 percent from the 3-point line), which, given his injury history, was about a full season for his body. He tumbled after that.
Outlook: By now, we’re far removed from the memory of what Gordon might have been back when he looked like a budding All-Star with the Clippers. It’s just nice to see him back in a comfortable role, and healthy as he fills it.
Gordon was outstanding off the bench for the Rockets last year, but the late-season swoon was a problem. If he is better conditioned this year, that should change.
4 Dion Waiters, Heat
Key number: 23.8. What got into Waiters last year, anyway? After establishing a reputation as an offensive black hole, Waiters surprised everyone by putting up an assist percentage of 23.8, up nearly 10 full points from his career mark of 14.4 percent. His 4.3 assists per game were a big boon for Miami.
Outlook: All Waiters needs to do now is repeat what he did in 2016-17, which is not going to be easy — it was easily Waiters’ best NBA season, rescuing his career from bust-hood, as he averaged 15.8 points and shot 39.5 percent from the 3-point line.
He will have his skeptics. Last year was a contract year, and now that he got big money (four years, $52 million) from the Heat, he’ll have to stay motivated.
5 Avery Bradley, Pistons
Key number: .541. That was the Celtics’ winning percentage in Bradley’s seven years in Boston, which included six trips to the postseason and two trips to the conference finals. The Pistons are a team that can’t seem to figure out how to win, and the challenge for Bradley will be to change that.
Outlook: Before his Achilles injury last year, Bradley was extraordinary for his consistency — he scored 11-plus points in each of his first 35 games, and was among the best backcourt rebounders in the game. His defensive reputation is established.
Bradley is not going to compete for an All-Star spot, but on a roster packed with wild cards, his reliability will be greatly appreciated by coach Stan Van Gundy.
6 Rodney Hood, Jazz
Key number: 38.8. That was the combined scoring average of George Hill and Gordon Hayward, Utah’s top two scorers from a year ago (Hill was only healthy for 49 games). Someone’s going to have to make up that loss of scoring punch, and Hood is a good candidate.
Outlook: Hood’s second NBA season did not go well, as he was sidelined for a month because of a knee injury — one that could have been much worse.
In that regard, Hood is lucky that he enters Year 3 with a chance to make some real progress. He played in seven games without Hayward last year, and averaged 17.9 points in those games.
7 Nicolas Batum, Hornets
Key number: 47.2. That was Batum’s effective field-goal rate, which ranks as the worst in his career. Prior to last season, his effective field-goal percentage was 52.8, and the Hornets would gladly welcome a return of his efficient shooting.
Outlook: Batum’s numbers (15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists) were not out of whack last year, but the fact that he had just been given a five-year, $120 million contract left Hornets fans wanting a bit more. Fans in Portland can commiserate: They long wanted Batum to be a more aggressive scorer.
But he is not going to change his stripes now — he will continue to be a solid, versatile contributor, but uncomfortable if asked to be a No. 2 scorer.
8 Gary Harris, Nuggets
Key number: 11th. That was the Nuggets’ rank in 3-point shooting last year, which was a small miracle, led largely by Harris. Prior to last year, Denver had ranked 24th or worse in 3-point shooting in four of their five previous seasons.
Outlook: Harris’ third-year emergence was obscured by the fact that he played only 57 games and that Denver did not have much of a national profile, but both of those factors could change this season.
Harris averaged 14.9 points and made 42.0 percent of his 3s, and he got better after the All-Star break, when he averaged 16.8 points and had a true shooting percentage of 64.8.
9 Devin Booker, Suns
Key number: 70. Booker put up a 70-point performance in a meaningless game in Boston, an impressive reminder of his scoring prowess. But his ability to blossom into a superstar will depend on his willingness to expand his game beyond scoring.
Outlook: Booker could stand to be more consistent as a finisher at the rim, but one encouraging aspect of last year, his second in the NBA, was that he improved his shooting percentage from every distance on the floor.
According to basketball-reference.com, that came especially on 3s (36.3 percent, up from 34.3 percent) but also from short midrange (37.0 percent to 38.1 percent) and long midrange (38.1 percent, from 36.8 percent). Expect continued improved efficiency with his shot this year.
10 Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves
Key number: 8.7. That was Wiggins’ assist ratio last year, which was easily the worst of any perimeter player who ranked in the top 20 in usage rate. He’s got to be a better and more willing passer.
Outlook: Wiggins takes far more criticism than any quickly improving 22-year-old perimeter player ought to take. He was a better scorer within a better offense last year, averaging 23.6 points and shooting 35.6 percent from the 3-point arc — a significant bump up from the 30.0 and 31.0 percent he logged in his first two seasons.
Downsides remain: Wiggins has the potential to be a better defender than he has shown. He can be too lax in some games, and he has not fulfilled his potential as a passer. But again, he’s 22. He’s probably in for a big Year 4.
11 C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers
Key number: 58.5. McCollum’s true shooting percentage has gone up every year he has been in the NBA, and it hit 58.5 percent last year. He led the league with 91.2 percent shooting on free throws, and it would benefit Portland if he attacked the rim and got to the line more often.
Outlook: McCollum and point guard Damian Lillard make up a potent offensive combo (defense is another story), and McCollum has done well to learn how he can best complement his superstar teammate.
Perhaps most impressive has been McCollum’s ability to become a deadly midrange shooter — he made 50.7 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet last year.
12 DeMar DeRozan, Raptors
Key number: 10.7. That was the number of points DeRozan scored in pick-and-roll plays per game last year, which ranked fourth in the NBA.
Outlook: DeRozan is not much of a defender, nor does he stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting. But he is among the best in the league at setting up in the pick-and-roll, barreling toward the rim and finishing.
He averaged career-highs in points (27.9 per game) and free-throw attempts (8.7 per game), and made 66.8 percent of his shots at the rim. It doesn’t fit in today’s NBA, perhaps, but DeRozan is an effective scorer nonetheless.
13 Bradley Beal, Wizards
Key number: 77. The only thing holding Beal back in his five NBA seasons was his inability to stay healthy. Well, he put that to rest last year, playing 77 games. The five games he missed: three for a hamstring injury in November, one for an ankle injury in December and the season finale for rest.
Outlook: Maybe the best part about Beal’s season for the Wizards was that he seemed to get better as it went on.
Coming out of the All-Star break, through the end of March — 21 stretch-run games — Beal averaged 25.3 points, shot 49.8 percent from the field and 41.0 percent from the 3-point line.be
14 Klay Thompson, Warriors
Key number: 0.3. Remember all that talk about how Thompson would likely be the one who sacrificed his numbers when the team brought on Kevin Durant? He didn’t. His numbers were stunningly similar from 2015-16 to 2016-17. His average field-goal attempts per game actually went up, from 17.3 to 17.6 per game.
Outlook: Thompson does not rack up many numbers beyond his shooting, which works just fine for the defending champs.
His scoring has gone up in each of his six NBA seasons, and he gives the Warriors an effective defensive weapon with a 6-7 frame that allows him to switch onto point guards and small forwards alike.
15 James Harden, Rockets
Key number: 746. It didn’t gain much attention, but that’s how many free throws Harden made last season, which was good for eighth all time and the second-most in the last 30 years. Harden has had three straight seasons of 715 free throws made or more, and all three of those seasons rank in the top 14 in NBA history.
Outlook: Of course, the question for Harden is whether he will continue to attract all those foul calls as he transitions to a bit of a new role playing alongside Chris Paul. That will be a challenge for coach Mike D’Antoni, because both Paul and Harden are ball-dominant guards.
It will probably fall to Paul to do more sacrificing, because Harden is 28 and has shown himself to be the most effective pure offensive weapon in the league, finishing last season with 29.1 points and a league-high 11.2 assists per game.