Oleh has already noted that the New Orleans Pelicans continue to lack a real answer at small forward. In digging through draft profiles on Draft Express (which you should do if you have the time) two candidates stood out to me as possible answers to the small forward question. The Pelicans require size, length, and some competency shooting the 3-point shot. Al-Farouq Aminu clearly demonstrated the limitations when one of those ingredients (shooting) is missing.
Tangent: Yes, Aminu was much more successful playing "small forward" in Dallas. This is largely because he could function as a power forward on offense when surrounded by known shooting threats like Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons. He is not an answer for a starting small forward in the NBA without very specific requirements of the players around him. I don't want Anthony Davis spotting up for 3-pointers to make Aminu viable.
Those two players are Arizona's Stanley Johnson and Virginia's Justin Anderson. Johnson is projected by most to be a top ten pick next month. I do not see a realistic scenario where the Pelicans trade into the lottery; especially high enough to claim Johnson. His combination of size (6'11.75" wingspan, 242 pounds) and shooting touch (37.1% from behind the arc, 74.2% at the foul line) is ideal for the Pelicans.
Anderson, however, is projected to go in the mid-to-late 20's. If he was the same size with the same numbers but younger (Anderson will turn 22 in November, Johnson will turn 19 on Friday) he would also be a lottery pick. Alas not every player develops quickly but still finds their way to carving out a niche in the NBA. Plenty of players who stayed three or more years turned into promising role players (or more) recently; Draymond Green, Jae Crowder, and Chandler Parsons all fell into the early second round. All were 22 or older and therefore lacked the perceived potential of youth.
The below table is thanks to the NBA Combine and Draft Express doing an amazing job archiving the results. The players are ordered by standing reach, not height. How tall you are with your arms up is far more valuable than how tall you are with them down; no one is out there blocking shots with their forehead. I pulled a number of recent draft picks who play on the wing in the NBA today.
|Height||Weight||Wingspan||Standing Reach||Max Vert|
Someone could say "Anderson is only 6'6", he can't play small forward" and I would look at Harrison Barnes (who has played quite a bit of power forward during the playoffs) and point to the grand half inch difference in standing reach. Anderson is actually the longest player in the bunch by wing span while he gives up a couple inches to taller players in standing reach. That vertical of 43" has to also stand out though. In fact, Anderson's standing vertical of 38" would top everyone but Barnes and Butler.
Spacing is paramount
Anderson also projects to be an above average shooter behind the arc. He shot a blazing 45.2% from deep during his junior year at Virginia. The good folks at Nylon Calculus also have their own projections on how 3-point shooting will translate to the NBA. In that model Anderson is expected to shoot about 36% behind the arc while Johnson does slightly worse, around 34.5%.
Per game statistics, especially when talking about a Virginia team that ranked 349th (out of 351) in pace is foolhardy. Anderson attempted nearly half his shots behind the arc and got to the line quite often (0.398 FTAr) considering his propensity to launch from deep. It is his dramatic improvement from 3-point land that is the most intriguing piece of the puzzle.
Beyond the sheer numbers, the form on Anderson's jump shot has improved dramatically, and was obviously a major point of emphasis for Anderson and the Virginia staff over the offseason. Everything from his footwork, to pre-shot preparation, shortening his motion, a tighter shooting pocket, and a more consistent release point has combined to form a much more consistent, accurate shooter from the perimeter.
That, from Draft Express, is a really exciting read. Oftentimes a 19 year old without a jump shot is still considered a reasonable risk because NBA coaches and GMs believe that shooting can be taught. For me, a 21 year old who has demonstrated his ability to learn the skill by reconstructing their shooting motion should also be valued highly.
Potential 3&D candidate
The Pelicans have no lack of 3-point shooters. Eric Gordon, Luke Babbitt, and Ryan Anderson are all noted snipers from behind the arc with obvious defensive limitations. The book on Justin Anderson is different. In fact it is his defense, not his shooting, that will earn his place in the NBA.
That outstanding physical profile forms the basis of his productivity on the defensive end, and plays a big part in his value as a prospect. He has very quick lateral mobility, and changes direction very well on the defensive side of the ball. He also has a long, 6‘11" wingspan and great closeout speed, helping him recover to contest shots, both on the perimeter and at the rim, when he does get beat. Anderson's defensive fundamentals are not always perfect, but his outstanding physical tools and high energy level help cancel this out, suggesting Anderson has even more room to grow as a defender than the already plus defender that he currently is.
The Pelicans need a player with a particular set of skills. Checking just the defense box, the measurables box, or the shooting box is not enough. Justin Anderson has the potential to check every box and grow into a long term answer at small forward next to Anthony Davis.
Quincy Pondexter is an excellent stopgap measure, but ultimately he is best utilized as a shooting guard who occasionally plays small forward. Remember, he primarily defended Steph Curry in the playoffs, thanks in large part to the absence of Jrue Holiday. A back court of Holiday, Pondexter, and Justin Anderson has the length and size to execute the switch happy defensive schemes we are seeing become more and more prevalent as the NBA playoffs wind down.
Trading up to select Anderson will likely cost either Tyreke Evans or Ryan Anderson. Ideally that trade could also open up some more financial flexibility for whoever becomes the head coach to help shape the roster in his image. Draft picks, even one with Justin Anderson's history, are no sure things. That risk could pay off big if Justin Anderson follows in the footsteps of Draymond Green, Jae Crowder, or Chandler Parsons.