Small Forwards, also referred to as “wings,” are often the most versatile players on the floor. They possess the perimeter abilities of a guard, but have more size and usually more ability to create offense on their own. Their combination of length and athleticism usually makes them tough defenders as well. So to be a great small forward, you need to be able to do a little bit of everything on the court. Oh, and being an athletic freak might help a little bit too. This year’s class of small forwards was tough to rank, partially because all of these players have different playing styles, but mostly because there isn’t a Michael Beasley or a Kevin Durant to be a clear-cut number one.
1. Robert Vaden: In one of the most stunning single half performances of the year (second only to Tyrese Rice’s 34 point half vs. UNC), Vaden put up 28 points in the second half for the Blazers in their non-conference victory against Kentucky. Vaden took the C-USA by storm last year by increasing his PPG to 21.1, up almost 8 points from his 13.5 PPG the year before. One thing that really stands out about Vaden is that he isn’t afraid to shoot the ball. He had 10 or more field goal attempts in every game he played in except for one last season, in which he shot eight. He shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc, which is good, but what I’d like to see him improve on his his overall field goal percentage. He shot 40.8% from the field last year, meaning he wasn’t much more effective inside the arc than he was from outside. If he improves his slashing ability, he could very likely be C-USA’s leading scorer next season, as well as a nationally known star.
2. Sam Young: Last year, Young took on a much bigger roll for Jamie Dixon and the Panthers and performed very well throughout the season. He won Big East’s Most Improved Player, and returns to lead Pitt in what looks to be a very promising season. Young averaged 18.1 PPG last season, 11 more PPG than the previous season, and his only single digit scoring game came against Georgetown when he scored nine points. Young is a very smart, hard working player that has great fundamentals. Also, he can post up or drive and shoot, making him very tough to guard. Since he doesn’t possess blazing speed, he uses his high basketball IQ, strength, and his plethora of tools to beat his opponents.
3. Chase Budinger: Budinger has tested the NBA waters after each season of his college basketball career, but has decided to come back to Arizona each time. To me, this is the right decision because Budinger has some things to work on in his offensive game. His combination of height and athleticism makes him a dangerous wing player, but he’s a streaky shooter and needs to work on his dribble penetration ability. He’ll get plenty of chances to showcase his ability next season as the Wildcats’ main offensive threat. If he becomes a more consistent shooter and a better penetrator, Budinger can be a late lottery to early second round pick next year.
4. Tyler Smith: After garnering First Team All-SEC and Honorable Mention All American, Smith returns to the Vols as a leader for the 08-09 season. Last season, Smith led the Vols in rebounding (6.7 RPG), assists (3.4 APG) and in field goal percentage (53.6% from the field) and was third on the team in scoring with 13.6 ppg. He will see a much bigger offensive role for Bruce Pearl with the departure of leading scorer Chris Lofton. Look for Smith to continue filling up the stat sheet, to keep his high field goal percentage and to keep up his great defense next season.
5. Al-Farouq Aminu: Dino Gaudio landed one of the most versatile freshman of the 2008 class in Aminu. At 6’8″, he has great size for a small forward and he possesses the ability to effectively face up on the perimeter. He has a good shot, can penetrate pretty well, and could potentially post up his smaller opposition at the small forward. If he develops his inside and mid-range games, he will be able to score in a number of ways for the Demon Deacons.
6. Nick Calathes: Calathes was forced into a leadership role for Billy Donovan’s baby Gators last season because there was next to no experience around him. He can do everything on the floor: he averaged 15.3 ppg, 6.1 assists/game and 5.2 rebounds/game last year as a freshman but he’s a bit inconsistent. He’ll have to improve on his scoring ability as well as his consistency if he and the Gators are to be successful. I think Calathes will step up to the challenge as the leader of the Gators.
7. Devin Ebanks: Ebanks joins a free-flowing Mountaineer offense in which he should flourish. He has a great ability to create offense on his own, meaning he has a pretty good perimeter shot, has good penetration skills and can score around the rim. His size at 6’8″ will help see the rim over his opponents and his length makes him deceptive when he drives the basketball. Huggins brought in a freshman with plenty of raw talent and scoring ability, and I think Ebanks will turn into a great scorer in the Big East.
8. K.C. Rivers: Rivers does a lot of different things for Oliver Purnell. He plays the wing, as well as some guard, and can score, rebound and is one of the best defenders in the ACC. He averaged 14.7 ppg last year, 6.8 rebounds/game, which is very impressive for a 6’6″ wing, and 1.9 steals/game. Rivers is a good 3-point shooter at 40.2% from the beyond the arc, and plays bigger than his size might indicate. Rivers will be the leader for the Tigers next season and will be the source of a lot of their offense, whether it be from beyond the arc or in the paint.
9. Austin Daye: As a huge recruit, everybody expected Daye to come into Spokane and perform right away for the Zags. The 6’10″ freshman only averaged 18.5 minutes/game last year, in which he scored 10.5 PPG and grabbed 4.7 rebounds/game. This year, Daye may see almost double the minutes he did last season, meaning theoretically, he should double his statistics. He was a raw talent as a freshman, but after an off-season with Mark Few and company, I think Daye will vastly improve his game and see more time on the court during the season.
10. Earl Clark: Clark is a very athletic forward for Rick Pitino and has a very strong game in the paint. He averaged 11.1 PPG and 8.1 rebounds/game in 28.5 minutes/game. He is a great player off the dribble and uses his strength to finish round the rim. If Clark can add a mid-range and perimeter game, he is a lock for an NBA lottery pick because of his athleticism. He can defend well and can block shots (1.7 blk/game), but turns the ball over too much. Clark will see more time next season as an upperclassman and I think will attract a lot of NBA scouts with his scoring ability.
Also Considered: Wes Matthews, Josh Shipp, Terrence Williams, Danny Green, Delvon Roe, Robbie Hummel.