Basketball, when played by the greats, is like art unfolding before your eyes. Each position has certain responsibilities associated with it.
Traditionally the small forward’s role was to stretch the defense with long range shooting from the wing. As the position evolved and new generations of athletes made their impact on the game, the small forward often became a highflyer cutting to the basket with a gentle finger roll or thunderous dunk. Some have even brought post up skills to the position.
Over the history of the NBA there have been many great small forwards. When it comes to the Top 10 greatest to play the position, there is a vast field of talent from which to pick. See if your favorites made the list.
10) Dominique Wilkins – Heralded throughout the world as “The Human Highlight Reel”, Dominique Wilkins played 11 seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, before finishing out his career with brief appearances with other NBA franchises, as well as professional teams in Greece and Italy. He holds the distinction of beating Michael Jordan in the 1985 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest. He won his second slam dunk title in 1990. A prolific scorer, he was the 1985-86 NBA scoring champion. He was named NBA All-Rookie Team in 1983; All-NBA First Team in 1986; All-NBA Second Team 1987-88, 1991, and 1993l and All-NBA Third Team 1989-1994. He was a nine-time NBA All-Star.
9) James Worthy – Coming out of college, James Worthy was a consensus First Team All-American and co-national player of the year who led the North Carolina Tar Heels to the 1982 NCAA championship. He was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and was drafted with the first overall pick in the 1982 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. One of the best post up players to play the small forward position, Worthy played his entire career with the Lakers, winning the NBA championship three times. He was the NBA Finals MVP in 1988. He was also a seven-time NBA All-Star.
9) Elgin Baylor – A dynamic scorer in high school and college, Elgin Baylor was selected with the number one pick in the 1958 NBA draft by the Minneapolis Lakers. Baylor was still a student at Seattle University when the Lakers drafted him, convincing him to forego his senior year and go pro. Baylor made an immediate impact on the NBA, finishing the 1958-59 season as the league’s second leading scorer, third in rebounding, and eight in assists. Earning NBA Rookie of the Year honors, Baylor took the last place Lakers to the NBA Finals in his first season. Over the course of his career he set many scoring records, including the Lakers’ franchise record of 71 points in a game that was not surpassed until Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a game in 2006. He was a ten time All-NBA First Team selection and an 11 time All-Star. He is regarded as one of the greatest players who never won a championship.
7) Rick Barry – Rick Barry is regarded as one of the greatest scoring threats to play the game of basketball. He is the only player to lead the NCAA, ABA, and NBA in points per game in a season. Starting his pro basketball career with the San Francisco Warriors as the second overall pick in the 1965 NBA draft, Barry won the Rookie of the Year Award. Unhappy with the Warriors for failing to pay incentive monies he was promised, Barry became the first high profile NBA marquee name to move to the rival ABA – even though it involved sitting out a year. After splitting time with a number of ABA teams, Barry eventually returned to the NBA. He was the NBA free throw percentage leader 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980. He was the ABA free throw percentage leader 1969,1971, 1972. He won an NBA championship in 1975 with the Golden State Warriors, for which he was also the NBA Finals MVP.
6) Kawhi Leonard – Although he was originally drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the 2011 NBA draft, he was immediately shipped to the San Antonio Spurs in a draft night trade. He won a championship with the Spurs in 2014, for which he was named Finals MVP. He was traded to the Toronto Raptors in 2018 and led the team to its first NBA championship in 2019. He was again named Finals MVP. As a free agent, he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in July of 2019. An all-around superior athlete, Leonard is a five-time NBA All-Star. He has three All-NBA First Team selections on his resume. He has earned a whopping seven All-Defensive Team selections and won Defensive Player of the Year twice.
5) Julius Erving – Known around the globe for as Dr J, Julius Erving was the premier marquee player in ABA. When the league merged with the NBA, he became just as popular as the centerpiece of the Philadelphia 76ers. In the ABA, Dr. J won championships with the Virginia Squires and the New York Nets. In the NBA he won a championship with the 76ers. He is the only player to have been named MVP in both the ABA and NBA. Erving is often credited with turning the slam dunk into an art form. Many consider him the greatest dunker of all time. As defender he was also considered one of the best; he could guard both forward positions. At the point he entered retirement, Erving ranked in the top 5 in scoring (third), field goals made (third), field goals attempted (fifth) and steals (first).
4) Scottie Pippen – A threat on offense and defense, Scottie Pippen was part of one of the most dominant franchises in recent NBA history. Playing alongside Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls, Pippen was a key player in the franchise’s six NBA championships. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team eight consecutive times and All-NBA First Team three times. He was also a seven-time All-Star, winning the NBA All-Star Game MVP award in 1994. According to the biography maintained by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame “the multidimensional Pippen ran the court like a point guard, attacked the boards like a power forward, and swished the nets like a shooting guard.” He was a member of the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” and then returned for a second gold medal in 1996.
3) Larry Bird – As a slow white guy with a bad back and almost no vertical lift, Larry Bird was perhaps not the prototypical professional basketball player, but his virtually unrivaled basketball IQ and deadly shooting touch made him one of the best to ever play the small forward position. Bird was selected with the sixth overall pick of the 1978 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. However, Bird elected to stay in college one more year. In that final collegiate year, he led Indiana State University to an undefeated season that culminated in an NCAA championship game against the Magic Johnson-led Michigan State. Sharing front line duties with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for most of his career with Boston, Bird led the team to five NBA finals appearances and three championships. He was a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and league MVP three consecutive years (1984-86). He also won Olympic gold as a part of the 1992 “Dream Team”. Following his playing career, he served as head coach of the Indiana Pacers from 1997-2000. He was named NBA Coach of the Year for the 1997-98 season and took the team to the 2000 NBA Finals. He has also served as President of Basketball Operations for the team on two occasions.
2) Kevin Durant – Often referred to by his initials, Kevin Durant (or KD) was the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft by the Seattle Supersonics. He played nine seasons with the franchise (later known as the Oklahoma City Thunder), before deciding to use free agency as a means to win a championship. After signing to play alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the Golden State Warriors in 2016, Durant and company earned back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018. His awards include two NBA Finals MVP awards, four NBA scoring titles, nine All-NBA team selections, eleven All-Star appearances, and one NBA MVP award.
1) LeBron James – Regarded as one of the Top 5 basketball players of all time, LeBron James could have been an All Star at any position on the court. Ultimately, the 6-foot 9-inch monster decided to dominate the small forward position. Entering the NBA straight out of high school, James was an instant record breaker. You knew he was going to be something special. He has won NBA Championships with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat, and the Los Angeles Lakers. He has a total of four championships, he was voted NBA Finals MVP four times, he has won four NBA MVP awards, and he holds two Olympic gold medals. He has been an All Star 17 times, with three All Star MVP awards. He has been selected for the All-NBA Team 17 times. Just as vicious on defense as he is on offense, James has been named to the All-NBA Defense Team five times. And he stars in Space Jam: A New Legacy, that means he’s got the Bugs Bunny seal of approval.