Close your eyes for a moment and picture an NBA small forward. You’re probably picturing a 6-foot-8, 240-pound behemoth, with length and athleticism. You’re probably picturing a player who can shoot, pass, dribble and defend the other team’s best wing. A player who can rebound and get out in transition. A player who can attack the basket and throw down nasty dunks.
Unfortunately, you’re picturing LeBron James. It’s perfectly natural to want your team’s small forward to mimic the best, but LeBron’s brilliance has put incredibly unrealistic expectations on the position. These expectations are so unrealistic it’s made us convinced that Anthony Edwards is a guard, even though his most natural position in the NBA is small forward.
First, I want to push back on the idea of positionality a bit. More and more in today’s NBA, teams — especially successful teams — are pushing the boundaries of positionality. The term positionless basketball has become hackneyed, but it reflects the current state of the NBA.
Think of it like this: On the court, there are very specific roles that need to be filled. Someone needs to protect the rim, someone has to be able to rebound the ball and someone needs to be the primary creator off the dribble. You need plenty of shooting to provide space for the primary creator, so someone needs to be able to guard the other team’s primary creator, etc. The fun and creative part for NBA coaches is figuring out who plays those roles, when they play those roles and how those roles are played.
Teams that can fill these roles in unique and diverse ways are some of the most successful in the NBA. Let’s use the Denver Nuggets as an example. For much of the game, their primary creator off the dribble is Nikola Jokic. Often, we think of the primary creator as a point guard, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would look at the 7-foot, 284-pound big man and say, “Yup, that right there is NBA point guard.”
The Nuggets are also able to diversify their offense by switching Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and maybe soon, Michael Porter Jr. into that primary creation role. This diversity in their offensive attack creates a dynamic brand of basketball that was good enough to get them to the Western Conference Finals last season.
I realize that just like there is only one James, there is also only one Jokic. My point here, however, is that when we focus on what position a player should play, we fail to have the opportunity to maximize a player’s skillset by thinking about what position they could play. Alternatively, what role they can fill.
In theory, Edwards should be able to space the floor and operate as the primary creator for stretches of the game. His large frame also suggests that he should be a quality wing defender, even though he didn’t show high-level defensive ability in college. This brings me to my second point about positionality: Defense.
When we think more deeply about positionality, it’s important to keep in mind who a player will guard. It is easy to throw out the idea of position on the offensive side, but there are inescapable truths about positionality on the defensive end.
Sticking with our Denver example from earlier, in the bubble we saw the Nuggets trot out a mega-super-duper-sized lineup that featured Jokic, Jerami Grant, Bol Bol, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. This was perhaps the biggest lineup we’ve ever seen take an NBA court. All-in-all this lineup had a combined height of over 34 feet, 36 inches of arms, and an astounding 1,225 pounds of man.
Although I admire their creativity, this lineup is nothing more than a novelty. Grant and Millsap provide some defensive versatility, but neither of them can operate as the primary defender against lead guards in the NBA. Conversely, Grant and Plumlee are limited enough on offense that an opposing team would likely be able to hide a smaller defender on one of them without giving up too much defensively. This is to say that Edwards’ offensive game looks to be dynamic enough to afford him great positional versatility on that end of the floor. The real question is: Who can he guard?
Last week, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks reported that Edwards has grown since declaring for the draft and “…is now 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan.” I wanted to see how Edwards compared to other small forwards in the league, so I found the average height, weight and wingspan of every NBA team’s starting small forward in the 2019-20 season.
If Tjarks’ report is correct, this is how Edwards stacks up:
Surprisingly, Edwards is actually bulkier than the average NBA small forward. But really, this is exactly my point. The question is too often “Who will guard LeBron?” or “Who will guard Kawhi?” The answer to that question is no one. If your expectations of Edwards are to be good enough to lock those guys down, then you need to change the way you think. Kawhi and LeBron are singular, generational talents. When it’s all said and done, LeBron may be the greatest player of all time. Kawhi is already a Hall of Fame lock and a two-time finals MVP. No one is stopping these guys.
Since Edwards will only have a month to get ready for this season, he’ll likely have a rough start. But he has the physical profile to be successful in the NBA, so before you know it he’ll be the starting small forward for the Timberwolves.