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The Point Forward in the Modern NBA

The Point Forward in the Modern NBA

Ryan Stivers (@ryanMstives)

What is a point-forward? The term has cropped up in recent years among NBA discussions. Traditionally, the term describes a big-man (at least someone taller that “transcended” the label of “guard”) who ran the offense for the team getting his teammates involved as the primary ball-handler. Now, the concept of a big-man playing the point guard position is nothing new, Magic Johnson stood a full 6’9” and ran the offense for the famous showtime Lakers. Oscar Robertson was 6’5” and averaged a triple-double for a season; even Penny Hardaway stood a shocking 6’7”. But despite all of these guards being as big as they were, they were just that, true guards. None of them fell into the category of a “point forward.” So, height and size aside, what is it that makes a true Point Forward and not only that, what makes a great one? For the purposes of this article, it needs to be tossed out that anyone considered a true Oscar have all already been discussed.

As for a point of reference in this argument, each of the four selected typically plays the forward position but at one point or the other in their career run the offense through their use of ball-handling or offensive output. Each of the four was ranked using metrics such as Player Efficiency Rating (PER), assists per game (APG), turnovers per game (TOV), and points per game (PPG) throughout their career. Each category was then ranked one through four for each player and an average score was taken for the ranking of the category. Not the most mathematically nuanced, but combined with the eye-test, it can help us rank these players.
Let’s go:

#4

Ben Simmons
PER – 17.1
APG – 7.2
TOV – 4.0
PPG – 16.3

To start with and not to be unfair to him, Simmons has the smallest sample size of the four players. After having spent his “rookie” season on the bench for the Sixers, the 21-year-old is making a splash, running the offense in Philly. It doesn’t hurt a bit that he has Joel Embiid to help hold down the paint or guys like Robert Covington and JJ Redick to stretch the floor, but what is most intriguing and exciting to watch with Ben is his passing. Through a career total of 42 games, his average of 7.2 assists a game ranks him first among all current rookies with only Lonzo Ball even close at 7.1 (and he’s only played 36 games for the Los Angeles Lakers).

So what is Ben Simmons’ ceiling? Where is his weakness? If his time at LSU (and so far in the league) is any indication, then the only handicap in his game would be his jumpshot. While his field goal percentage at the rim is fine (43.6 percent), he seems to have no confidence in his jumper — for good reason. Between three and ten feet from the basket Simmons is shooting 32.3 percent, and it gets worse. From ten to 16 feet out (known as mid-range) he is shooting 19.8 percent — not good. His three-point shot is practically non-existent. Ben’s game is still young and working its way through The Process but that certainly hasn’t stopped him from showing flashes of greatness.

#3

Giannis Antetokounmpo
PER – 19.8
AST – 3.7
TOV – 2.4
PTS – 16.4/28.2 (2017-2018)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now, Giannis is a freak, in every sense of the phrase, word or what have you. Every game Giannis is like a baby deer learning how to walk and going from that walk to an outright sprint in four seconds. His eye-test is through the roof to where most people agree he could win an MVP before he turns 25. His points per game are included above only because of how high it is this season compared to his first four years; two of which he was listed as the starting SG/PG —
Giannis has done it all. This is a 6’11” terror who is listed on BasketballReference.com as playable at every head coach to design a perfect player and then develop him into a Hall-of-Famer (except for his shooting, which was bad, but is steadily improving). For his first three years, jumpshot. Through last season and this year he has increased his volume as well as his accuracy to an insane 54.6 field goal percentage (obviously a lot of those are layups/dunks using his incredible 7’ wingspan and massive hands). He is even attempting 1.6 threes a game (with not great accuracy, but it’s improving). Much like with Simmons, Giannis’ upward potential relies entirely on his ability to build up his jumpshot — and he has already made TWO All-Star games!

#2

Kevin Durant
PER – 25.2
AST – 3.9
TOV – 3.2
PTS – 27.1

This may be an unconventional pick for this discussion but it needs to be argued. Durant began his career with the (now long-gone, RIP) Seattle Sonics where he played the shooting guard. To refresh, Earl Watson, Luke Ridnour, and Delonte West were the three point guards for the Sonics that season and for some reason head coach P.J. Carlesimo believed playing the true seven-footer (he is, don’t even deny it) in an off-ball role would benefit this team. In hindsight, it didn’t really help the team, but it did help Durant.

Durant started out hot in his rookie season averaging 20.3 points per game on 43.0 percent from the field and a below-average 28.8 percent from deep. Once moving to OKC and playing with high-usage players like Westbrook and Harden, he wasn’t able to really show what he could do with the ball in his hands. Coincidentally, it wasn’t until he came to play in Golden State that his usage rate as the primary handler really became a thing. Playing alongside one of the greatest shooting point guards (do you need to ask?) in the history of basketball as well as an accurate shooting guard (Thompson) with probably the quickest release of all-time, occasionally, Durant was able to flourish in a more primary role while the others either rested or played off-ball. Durant would probably be mad he comes in second again, but still, coming in at number two on this list isn’t so bad.

#1

LeBron James
PER – 27.6
AST – 7.1
TOV – 3.4
PTS – 27.1

If positionless basketball is just now taking on, then somewhere around 2007-08 is when this OG of all positions invented it. There’s a reason he’s known as The King, The Chosen One and The Akron Hammer. His ‘07 season was the mountaintop of “drag every single one of you to defend the Eastern Conference no matter what I have to do” (seriously, look at the rest of that roster). During that season, LeBron averaged 30 points a game on an excellent 48.8 field goal percentage, while shooting 31.5 percent from behind the arc. His points were a career-high that season while his assists were 7.4 a game, tied for fourth-highest of his career. This was a season in which his roster consisted of Shannon Brown, Larry Hughes and Delonte West (dude has taken a beating this article – clearly he was not a great point guard).

LeBron began his fifteen-year career as a shooting guard and eventually evolved into the primary ball handler/offensive threat on every team he has played on. Currently, he is averaging 8.6 assists a game which is a near career-high through the better part of the last two decades. He is a freight train in transition, unstoppable in the post, with the incredible vision to break down your defense if you dare bring a double-team. The King has transcended what it means to be a big man running the offense and for that, he has to be the true winner in this contest.