NBA Players

18 Best Small Forwards Of All Time Ranked

By Abhay Acharya / 21 December 2023 10:36 AM

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NBA small forwards are a playground for freaks of athleticism and offensive magic. These 6'6"–6'9" athletic wonders are expected to accomplish everything while standing between the guards and the big men.

They are anticipated to be playmakers like Scottie Pippen, lockdown defenders like Kawhi Leonard, and primary scorers like Kevin Durant.

The 1980s saw even more outstanding play from small forwards, with players like Julius Erving, James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, and Larry Bird enjoying great success.

However, at present, LeBron James, "King James," leads the league with his unmatched leadership, high basketball IQ, and elegant passing skills.

1. LeBron James

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  • Years Active - 2003 to Present

Career Stats - 1444 Games, 27.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 BPG

Few players have left as lasting an impression in the pantheon of basketball greats as the four-time NBA champion LeBron James.

Although his domination transcends positions, he made his mark as a small forward. The Los Angeles Lakers' Small Forward, LeBron, is one of the greatest in the league, with four NBA MVP awards.

He has a great basketball IQ and passing vision. James is an exceptional facilitator, ranking fourth all-time with 10575 assists.

He has been selected to the All-Defensive First Team five times and has a history of guarding the best players on the other team.

No other small forward has ever led three different teams to the NBA Finals as LeBron has done throughout his career.

2. Larry Bird

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  • Years Active - 1979 to 1992

Career Stats - 897 Games, 24.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG

There are many amazing players in the NBA, but few have had the same lasting and captivating impact as Larry Joe Bird.

Originating from French Lick, Indiana, this hometown hero overcame his rustic upbringing to emerge as one of the most formidable small forwards in the sport's history.

Larry's three NBA titles, three MVP honors, twelve All-Star selections, and a career scoring average of 24.3 points per game are statistics that speak for themselves.

Stats, however, only provide a partial picture. With the ball, Bird was a magician, deftly navigating around opponents by using his extraordinary sense of leverage and angles.

His rivalry with Magic Johnson went beyond the court, inspiring a generation of basketball fans with their disparate personalities and techniques.

3. Kevin Durant

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  • Years Active - 2007 to Present

Career Stats - 1005 Games, 27.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.1 BPG

The 6'11" forward with the guard handles and a silk weaver's shooting touch, Kevin Wayne Durant, will go down in NBA history as one of the greatest scorers to ever grace the NBA floor.

But he does more than just score goals; he makes a compelling case to be considered the greatest diminutive forward of all time.

With his career three-point shooting percentage of 38.7%, he can quickly shoot over shorter defenders or overwhelm them with his length and quickness.

Regarding defense, the 2014 NBA MVP Kevin's wingspan and defensive IQ enable him to be a lockdown defender.

His two-time NBA championship history and the NBA 75th Anniversary team selection highlight his ability to perform on the biggest stage.

4. Julius Erving

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  • Years Active - 1971 to 1987

Career Stats - 836 Games, 22.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.5 BPG

The 1983 NBA champion Julius Winfield Erving II, the "Doctor," is unquestionably the greatest small forward in history.

His game-changing gravity-defying dunks, unparalleled scoring ability, and all-around genius transformed the position in the ABA and NBA.

His leadership and clutch play helped the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and the ABA's New York Nets win numerous titles.

The fact that he was an 11-time All-Star, a three-time champion, and an MVP four times speaks eloquently about his dominance.

His reputation as one of the greatest players ever was cemented by his championship background, offensive prowess, and sky-walking dunks.

Erving cleared the path for a new generation of small forwards, motivating athletes like Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Scottie Pippen to pursue tremendous success.

5. Elgin Baylor

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  • Years Active - 1958 to 1972

Career Stats - 846 Games, 27.4 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 4.3 APG

Late Elgin Gay Baylor was synonymous with greatness in NBA history, and his influence is most noticeable when he plays a small forward.

Before LeBron James changed the records, Baylor dominated the court with unrivaled statistical dominance.

His 11 NBA All-Star appearances testify to his consistency and dominance throughout his career.

With his unrivaled versatility, he could score inside and outside the court, rebound with determination, and set an exemplary example for others.

His agility and dexterity transformed the small forward role, opening the door for a new breed of aerial killers.

6. Scottie Pippen

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  • Years Active - 1987 to 2004

Career Stats - 1178 Games, 16.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.8 BPG

Beyond being Michael Jordan's sidekick, Scottie Maurice Pippen Sr. is a force to be reckoned with in the annals of NBA legends.

His all-around skill and contribution to the Chicago Bulls' six championship runs cemented his place among the all-time best small forwards.

With six rings, all earned with Jordan, Pippen is arguably the most decorated small forward of all time. His championship history and capacity to perform well under pressure are evident.

Pippen has renowned defensive prowess, which helped him record a career-high nine steals in a game against the Atlanta Hawks on March 8, 1994.

Being named to eight NBA All-Defensive First Teams from 1992 to 1999, his defensive dominance earned him recognition as one of the best defenders ever.

7. John Havlicek

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  • Years Active - 1962 to 1978

Career Stats - 1270 Games, 20.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG

Not just any small forward, John Joseph Havlicek (also known as "Hondo") was a fixture on the Boston Celtics' wing for sixteen illustrious seasons. His name reverberates across NBA history as a chameleon, scorer, defender, and champion.

He was a thirteen-time All-Star, an eight-time NBA champion, and the Finals MVP. However, data only tells a portion of the tale.

Havlicek was a ball wizard, using his trademark spin move to dribble past opponents and finish with various daring dunks and spectacular layups.

A tribute to his unrelenting heart and competitive fire, his clutch steal against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals is still ingrained in Celtics mythology.

8. Kawhi Leonard

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  • Years Active - 2011 to present

Career Stats - 651 Games, 19.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG

Few small forwards among the NBA greats hold the reverence and respect that Kawhi Anthony Leonard does.

His reserved exterior belies a fierce sense of competition and a skill set that is so well-honed it could pass for a well-made weapon.

The LA Clippers small forward Leonard is impressive, with a career average of 19.8 points per game and a field goal percentage of 49.5% and 38.9% from three.

In addition to being selected to the All-Defensive First Team three, he is a two-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP.

These honors depict a player who can turn a game around independently and guide his team to victory.

Leonard has been named the NBA All-Star five times. His reputation stems from his ability to pull off big plays when the game is close.

9. Rick Barry

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  • Years Active - 1965 to 1980

Career Stats - 794 Games, 23.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG

Richard Francis Dennis Barry III was a formidable player on the floor and the only one to lead the NBA, NCAA, and ABA in points per game in a season.

Barry, who stood 6'7", was known as "Miami Greyhound" because of his rapid agility and beautiful shooting touch.

Barry's status as one of the league's top scorers was cemented when he was named to the All-NBA First Team five times for his consistency and excellence.

His eight all-star appearances have demonstrated his significance and popularity throughout his career.

Barry demonstrated his potential to be a valuable member of a championship-winning team when playing for the Golden State Warriors in 1975.

10. Dominique Wilkins

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  • Years Active - 1982 to 1999

Career Stats - 1074 Games, 24.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG

Jacques Dominique Wilkins, often known as the "Human Highlight Reel," was an aerial acrobat who expanded the possibilities of the small forward position and was a scorer.

With his gravity-defying dunks, flawless fadeaways, and unrelenting scoring assault, he became a game legend and a fan favorite.

Wilkins' career stats speak for themselves: he averaged 24.8 points per game, shot 81.1% from the free throw line, and won the 1986 scoring championship.

He was a deadly mid-range player with an exquisite and potent fadeaway jumper. He could generate his shots, drive fiercely to the hoop, and score from anywhere on the floor.

Even though Wilkins was never the winner of an NBA Championship, his skill as a nine-time NBA All-Star and his impact on the game were indisputable.

11. James Worthy

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  • Years Active - 1982 to 1994

Career Stats - 926 Games, 17.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.7 BPG

James Ager Worthy's legacy as a versatile scorer, lockdown defender, and championship-winning cornerstone deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of NBA small forwards.

During his 12-year career, he scored 16,320 points, grabbed 4,708 rebounds, and disheveled 2,791 assists while making 52.1% of his field goals.

His offensive toolkit was impressive, including a deft mid-range shot, a potent post-up move, and the quickness to finish strong at the rim.

In the 1980s, he played a crucial role in the Showtime Lakers dynasty, winning three NBA titles with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.

His status as a significant player was solidified by his clutch playoff exploits, which included a series-clinching fadeaway against the Detroit Pistons in the 1988 Finals.

12. Carmelo Anthony

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  • Years Active - 2003 to 2022

Career Stats - 1260 Games, 22.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG

In basketball, the name Carmelo Kyam Anthony elicits many feelings. His clutch shooting, effortless scoring style, and unwavering swagger have made him an NBA legend.

His ability to score goals enthralled fans throughout the league, and he was selected to the All-Star game an astounding ten times.

He became the 2013 NBA scoring champion after a stunning 28.7 points per game average in the 2012–2013 campaign.

It's indisputable that Anthony can rise to the situation. His 23.1 points per game career playoffs average is proof of his clutch shooting and unyielding will.

13. Paul Pierce

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  • Years Active - 1998 to 2017

Career Stats - 1343 Games, 19.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG

One name always comes up higher than the others when discussing the NBA's all-time great small forwards: Paul Anthony Pierce, the 2021 Hall of Fame inductee.

Adoredly called "The Truth," he was more than simply a scorer; he was a master of clutch plays and mid-range daggers in basketball.

Throughout his 19-year career, he averaged 19.7 points per game, winning the MVP award in the Finals and helping the Boston Celtics win a championship in 2008.

His competitive fire burned bright, his icy demeanor masking an unwavering determination to win. He became the NBA Three-point contest champion in 2010.

14. Alex English

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  • Years Active - 1976 to 1992

Career Stats - 1193 Games, 21.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.6 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.7 BPG

Though outranked by his more spectacular peers, Alexander English left his mark as one of the NBA's most formidable small forwards thanks to his unwavering consistency and prolific scoring.

English had the best career average of any small forward in the 1980s, scoring 25.6 points per game. To accomplish this incredible feat, he used a well-tuned mid-range game instead of highlight-reel dunks.

Throughout his 16-year career, English pulled down a fantastic 5.5 rebounds per game, demonstrating his hustle and versatility as a player.

While individual accolades like MVP awards eluded him, he was named the NBA All-Star eight times and led the league in scoring in 1983.

15. Paul Arizin

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  • Years Active - 1950 to 1965

Career Stats - 713 Games, 22.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.3 APG

Paul Joseph Arizin set the stage for small forward domination in the NBA before LeBron James revolutionized the position and Larry Bird dazzled with his basketball ballet.

Arizin was a scoring machine with ten NBA All-Star selections. He was known as "Pitchin Paul" for his spectacular drives and unconventional shooting style.

Arizin, who was 6'4" in an era of giants, depended on his superb footwork, lightning-fast release, and remarkable sense of where open space was.

Considering the slower tempo and more lax defensive standards of the 1950s, it is astounding that he averaged over 22.8 points a game over his career.

His success on the highest stage was demonstrated in 1956 when he led the Philadelphia Warriors (currently known as Golden State Warriors) to the NBA title.

16. Bernard King

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  • Years Active - 1977 to 1993

Career Stats - 874 Games, 22.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG

Although younger fans may not be familiar with Bernard King, his offensive skills and reign in scoring during the 1980s solidified his status as one of the all-time great small forwards.

He led the NBA in scoring with a career-high 37.5 points per game in 1984–85. King was a deadly mid-range assassin before the three-point revolution.

He holds the record for one of the highest field goal percentages for a small forward in his career, 51.8%. He even shot over 55% from the field in three different seasons.

Regrettably, King's career was marred by knee problems, which led to his early 1993 retirement. His accomplishments and legacy may have been even more remarkable had he remained well.

17. Adrian Dantley

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  • Years Active - 1976 to 1991

Career Stats - 955 Games, 24.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.2 BPG

Adrian Delano Dantley carved his path to NBA immortality, leaving behind a legacy of breathtaking efficiency and underappreciated brilliance.

During his four years with the Utah Jazz in the early 1980s, he averaged a career-high 30.7 points per game.

Even more impressive is that he shot an incredible 54.0% from the field to accomplish this achievement, which is evidence of his fantastic consistency in finding the basket.

In addition to becoming a two-time scoring champion and a six-time All-NBA pick, he was named to the All-NBA Second Team twice.

Throughout his career, he played for six different teams, never quite finding the perfect match to develop a team that could fight for a championship.

18. Paul George

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  • Years Active - 2010 to Present

Career Stats - 816 Games, 20.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.4 BPG

NBA arenas resound with the name Paul Clifton Anthony George, dubbed the "PG-13, " known for his clutch heroics, dominating defense, and offensive arsenal.

George is a walking highlight reel with a career average of 20.7 points per game. His graceful mid-range jumper has a career accuracy of 43.7% and is beautiful.

Even though he is still in the prime of his career, George has already won six All-NBA honors and eight All-Star selections.

He has contributed significantly to several postseason runs and is still developing with the LA Clippers, adding playmaking abilities to his remarkable skill set.