NBL: The Top 5 Small Forwards of the Season
As we look back at the midway point of the 2017-18 campaign, it’s time to review and assess the premier players at each position in the 40th Anniversary season of the NBL.
In this final review, it’s all about the talk of the league in 2017-18: the small forwards.
If the first 12 rounds revealed anything – from the otherworldly athleticism of JP Tokoto and Demitrius Conger, the bullish will and nous of Mitch Creek and the unmatched two-way dominance of Perrin Buford, it’s that the position of prominence rests squarely in the league’s small forwards hands.
But who’s the best?
Unfortunately, the elbow injury to Casey Prather will stop him from playing for several weeks (and likely end his MVP calibre season) but he has done enough in 14 games with Melbourne United to qualify for these rankings. His replacement, Carrick Felix, can’t be rated due to lack of game time.
Before we dive in, let’s lay down a few ground rules.
We’ve evaluated these players from the beginning of the current NBL season to the conclusion of round 12 only. The last five years and potential future don’t matter one iota, but I’ve watched endless reels of film (so to speak) and poured over countless reams of statistical data from RealGM, NBL.com.au and crunchtimeshots to compile this list.
To be eligible, players must hit one of two benchmarks to qualify: either 8 games or 100 minutes game time. That means Michael Carrera and Jeremy Kendle, for example, don’t match the criteria and don’t get in.
Also, some websites list certain players in the wrong position, for example: Mika Vukona and Josh Childress are both listed as small forwards on RealGM. There’s no way in hell we can abide this oversight, Mika Vukona is HUGE not small, so I’ve swapped certain players to the position I believe they play more often.
If your favourite player doesn’t appear on this ranking they may appear on the rank for a different position.
If they don’t appear on that list either… you should find a new favourite player.
Now, let’s get to ranking.
The Almosts (10-6):
10. Anthony Drmic, Adelaide 36ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.0 blocks
Shooting: 53.7 FG%, 43.2 3PT%, 66.7 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 15.3 PER, 126.7 ORTG, 111.3 DRTG
Currently injured and on the sidelines for an Adelaide team that is starting to make it’s late season run into the playoffs.
The 2016-17 NBL Rookie of the Year winner came out breathing fire to start this season, with double figures in three of the first four games, scoring 17, 11 and 16 in three Adelaide wins.
His October averages of 10.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 20.4 minutes per game, tailed off to 7.2 PPG and 1.0 RPG in December as Joey Wright slashed his minutes to 15.7 per game. Possibly due to Josh Childress being added to the roster but probably more to do with the 2.5 turnovers per 15 minutes. Far too many for someone who doesn’t handle the ball that often; a sure sign he forces the action a little bit.
Is a deadly sniper who’s shooting better than 53% from the field and 43% from three.
9. Jesse Wagstaff, Perth Wildcats
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
Shooting: 43.2 FG%, 45.1 3PT%, 77.8 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 16.3 PER, 135.1 ORTG, 110.0 DRTG
If you get into the The Pick and Roll Power Rankings each fortnight, you’d know Jesse Wagstaff is the poster boy of consistency.
Wagstaff has given Perth between 8.4 and 11.4 points per game for his entire 9-year NBL career and this season is no different. It’s incredible how consistent the numbers are in almost every category.
On top of the 4 championships, people sometimes forget Jesse was Rookie of the Year (09-10) and Sixth Man of the Year (11-12) in the NBL. In #NBL18, Jesse is making a run at another Sixth Man award with averages of 8.8 PPG and 2.9 RPG and a shooting line of 43-45-78 in 19 minutes per game.
Jesse has swung many Wildcat games with his clutch shooting. In fact, when Jesse makes at least one three pointer, Perth’s win loss record is 9-2.
It can’t be overstated how important Wagstaff is to the Wildcats. When he fires, Perth wins.
8. Brad Newley, Sydney Kings
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
Shooting: 42.1 FG%, 33.8 3PT%, 70.0 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 13.3 PER, 110.9 ORTG, 119.7 DRTG
Seemingly disinterested and frustrated with his team. The body language hasn’t been great in a lot of games as Brad has appeared helpless to stop the onslaught (particularly the end of November/early December when Brad was a complete non-factor). Losing a tonne has that effect.
Scored a season high 24 points in the first game of the season. Hasn’t scored more than 18 since but has scored in double figures in 14 of 19 games. Tied for 11th in the league for assist to turnover ratio (2.3)
The Kings better play of late has appeared to reinvigorate Brad. He’s re-engaged with his team again and playing better.
7. Thomas Abercrombie, New Zealand Breakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 blocks
Shooting: 40.0 FG%, 40.2 3PT%, 69.8 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 13.4 PER, 117.5 ORTG, 112.0 DRTG
Incredibly, Tom is second in the league in block shots per game.
Abercrombie, who has never blocked more than 1 shot a game, is currently sending back 1.5 shots a game. He is 4 blocks away from setting a career best season total with 11 games still to go. Joins a plethora of 30+ year olds that are ballin’ out and having career years.
Has one of the sweeter shooting strokes in the NBL and has been a 40.0% three point shooter practically since birth.
Can be maddeningly inconsistent: scored 20 points or more in four games but 7 points or less eight times, including scores of 3, 5, 2 and 3 points (in the next game after scoring 23). Is too good to be dishing that up.
6. Cam Gliddon, Cairns Taipans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks
Shooting: 42.2 FG%, 43.0 3PT%, 100.0 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 15.4 PER, 125.1 ORTG, 109.4 DRTG
By the time you read this Cam Gliddon should have set a new NBL record for consecutive free throws made to start a season. He needs to hit 30 straight to set the new mark and will likely get it in Round 13. (ED Note: Cam did get the NBL record and continues to extend it after Rd 13).
Is on track for career high’s in three pointers made, attempted and percentage (43.0%), assist to turnover ratio (2.1) steal to turnover ratio (1.2) and offensive rating (125.1).
Putting together a sneaky efficient season: top 25 in the league for PER, points per game, effective field goal percentage, true shooting %, three-pointers made, attempted and percentage, turnover %, steal %, assist to turnover ratio, steal to turnover ratio, offensive rating and offensive win shares, defensive rating and defensive win shares.
Those are the hallmarks of an efficient and elite player.
I’m going to put in a disclaimer for this particular top 5. You can basically throw a blanket over each one of these guys. They all have their own style and strengths but there is no definitive standout, we’re basically splitting hairs here. If you have one of these players on your team you should be thankful.
As fans of basketball it doesn’t get much better than these five players.
5. Mitch Creek, Adelaide 36ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks
Shooting: 69.3 FG%, 30.0 3PT%, 76.9 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 19.2 PER, 135.8 ORTG, 109.3 DRTG
Probably one of the toughest players in the league, certainly one of the hardest. Uses Ox-like strength to bullock his way to winning plays over and over and over again.
On track to set new career highs in scoring, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted and percentage, assists per game, steals per game.
Mitch has amazing shooting numbers because he doesn’t shoot a lot of threes (3 of 11). Prefers doing his work on cuts to the basket, fast break opportunities and head-down bull-runs to the rim. A steady diet of shots at the rim are why he leads the league in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. Also has the third best offensive rating amongst all qualified players.
What I like about Mitch is that there is no discernible drop off in performance whether he plays in a win or a loss. You know what you are going to get every time he steps foot on the hardwood. He’s going to push it at every chance, hit his shots, play team ball, inspire his teammates and never give in.
4. Perrin Buford, Brisbane Bullets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks
Shooting: 50.7 FG%, 40.7 3PT%, 68.1 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 18.5 PER, 111.7 ORTG, 111.2 DRTG
Replacing the 2017-18 NBL Defensive Player of the Year Torrey Craig, was always going to be tough to accomplish for anyone, but for a 23-year-old just one year removed from college? Good luck!
Perrin Buford has come in and filled those shoes with aplomb. It was an immediate baptism by fire too. First game, Perth Arena in front of a sellout crowd that was celebrating the commencement of the Wildcats back-to-back NBL Championship defence.
Buford quickly showed he wasn’t overawed in that setting and hasn’t looked back since, scoring in double figures in his first 17 games and banking four double-double’s (second most to J. Boone). Recorded a steal in every game, bar the first four. Has had at least one block in all but four games too. Is second in the league for rebounds per game (8.2).
Amongst the glut of quality small forwards in our league, Perrin is 1st in defensive rebounding and total rebounds per game, 4th in scoring (16.2) and 3rd in player efficiency rating (18.5).
A worthy replacement for Torrey and a player to keep an eye on every time he plays.
I still can’t believe how young he is.
3. Casey Prather, Melbourne United
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks
Shooting: 46.6 FG%, 37.0 3PT%, 80.0 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 19.3 PER, 114.2 ORTG, 103.4 DRTG
Was in the MVP conversation when he went down with a dislocated elbow in round 11. Scheduled to miss several weeks of basketball and could/should return for the playoffs if Melbourne United maintains their top 4 slot.
Up to the point of injury, Casey was 2nd in points per game (17.0), 2nd in player efficiency rating (19.3), 7th in offensive rating (114.2) and 2nd in defensive rating (103.4) amongst all small forwards.
In his first season for Melbourne United, Prather is setting career high numbers for field goal percentage (46.6%), three pointers made and attempted per game, offensive (1.6), defensive (3.8) and total rebounds (5.4), offensive rating (114.2) and blocked shots per game (0.7). Is taking care of the ball like never before with a career low 2.07 turnovers per game. Not bad for a two-time Perth Wildcat club MVP.
He’s doing all this on a star studded Melbourne unit with the lowest usage rate of his career.
In 14 games, scored 20 or more points seven times, had 5 or more rebounds eleven times, 4 or more assists five times and 2 or more steals 6 times.
The league is better and more exciting when he’s playing.
2. JP Tokoto, Perth Wildcats
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.6 blocks
Shooting: 47.3 FG%, 24.0 3PT%, 76.1 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 19.3 PER, 109.5 ORTG, 103.9 DRTG
Is an athletic marvel and if this was based purely on highlight reel dunks, steals, blocks, swagger and defending the out of bounds like a pogo stick with crazy hair, then Tokoto would far and away be the best by a long way. It’s not. The game is more than highlights.
His lack of outside shooting ability hurts him here. Of all the small forwards ranked, only Mitch Creek has made less threes than Tokoto’s six.
Still, Tokoto combats his lack of range with the deadliest mid-range shot and dribble drive spin move there is. That move alone is the major reason he gets to the line 5.5 times a game (3rd in the NBL behind Conger and Daniel Johnson). Defenders are left stunned and hack reach almost every time he does it.
Has scored 20 or more points four times and double figures in all but two games. Has registered one steal in every game but one.
Statistically he leads the league in steals per game (1.9) and is top 10 in the league for points per game, field goals attempted, free throws made and attempted, defensive rebounds, total rebounds per game, defensive rating and steal percentage.
Had possibly the best game of any player against Illawarra (October 26): recording a staggering 23 points on 10 of 15 shooting, along with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and league high 6 steals. In 19 minutes!
The swag of this man is off the charts, he has already shown enough to be on the All-NBL 1st team and is a likely top 5 MVP finisher.
1. Demitrius Conger, Illawarra Hawks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks
Shooting: 55.9 FG%, 40.4 3PT%, 82.3 FT%
Advanced Metrics: 21.3 PER, 122.6 ORTG, 113.9 DRTG
Another player along with Cody Ellis, Adam Gibson and Daniel Kickert that is awfully close to joining the 50/40/90 club. Just has to raise his free-throw shooting numbers a touch.
Was my pre-season pick to dominate the competition and contend for the MVP award. So far, Conger has not disappointed: Best among small forwards and 3rd in the NBL for points per game (19.5), 10th overall in rebounding (5.9) and 14th in assists (2.9). Has scored 16 or more points in 14 of his 16 games to date.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been disappointing at all this season because he has been. The one game suspension for his elbow on Brad Newley being a particularly bad look that he wasn’t proud of and used as a spark.
Since the incident he has been a man on a mission, particularly the last five games: 23.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.4 APG and 1.2 SPG. His efficient shooting across that patch is utterly eye-popping: 60/52/89.
Leads all small forwards in player efficiency rating and offensive win shares, is 4th in offensive rating (122.6).
Ask most basketball people who the leading candidate for the NBL MVP award is. They would say, the man on a mission – Demitrius Conger.
Matthew L Smith contributes NBL coverage for the Pick and Roll. Follow him on Twitter: @ALLeigHOOPS
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from RealGM, NBL.com.au or Crunchtimeshots and are current at the conclusion of Round 12 and heading into games on January 5.
Thank you for loving Aussie hoops! From Kein, Damian and #TeamPnR