Not too big, but not actually small, the small forward is the in-between guy or gal on a basketball squad.
The term small-forward is a bit of an oxymoron, at least at the highest levels of the game. To be a forward, you would naturally be a larger or more stout player. Depending on the lineup of your team, the small forward can be expected to play on the perimeter or occassionally down in the post depending on the flow of the game.
Often a "jack-of-all-trades" for a team, the role of a small forward is varied. Some may be scorers, others may be defenders, and many times they are asked to do a bit of everything.
With versatility being the name of the game, it is best for current or prospective small forwards to do their best to balance their entire game. If the two guards are locked down by a full-court press, it falls to the small forward to become the ball handler. If the two post player get locked up double-teaming in the post, it becomes the small forwards job to get in the paint to protect the weak side.
Most examples of small forwards to watch at the highest level of the game can do a bit of everything on the floor. We will still break it up a bit by scorers, defensive-minded, and Swiss Army Knife type players.
Scoring small forwards
In looking at starting small forwards in today's NBA, it is unusual to find many scorers that don't also make a substantial impact on the defensive end. Even Kevin Durant, who is perennially one of the top scorers in the world, stepped up his defense this year, using his length to become a formidable shot-blocker. Still, he is a great one to watch for his ability to score in the post on out to the three point stripe.
Though he is starting to show signs of aging, Carmelo Anthony is a true example of a scoring small forward. His footwork, fadeaways, and nose for driving lanes make him a good example to emulate on the offensive end.
A few more examples are: Demar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Tobias Harris, and Brandon Ingram. A former pure-scoring SF was Larry Bird. Larry Legend could do a bit of everything on the floor as well from passing to guarding multiple positions. However, post play and early adaptation of perimeter shooting made him a nightmare to guard at the small forward position. A few more are Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Julius Erving.
Defensive-minded small forwards
Historically, Bruce Bowen of the San Antonio Spurs is one of the first defensive-minded small forwards that come to mind. Often pushing the limits with what he got away with, Bowen is still an excellent example of a defender at the small forward position - able to guard perimeter and post players alike. Really there are multiple players to examine from not that long ago; Scottie Pippin, Shawn Marion, and Metta World Peace (Ron Artest) are all standouts.
Also defensive-minded, but a bit more offensively capable than Bowen, current NBA player and former NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala is a tremendous example to watch today. Iguodala did some scoring and distributing for his former teams, but coming off the bench for the Warriors, he is allowed to focus on his specialty; defense. His defense on LeBron James and timely three point shooting is what landed him 2014-15 Finals MVP honors.
A few other examples of current small forwards are Jaylen Brown and Otto Porter Jr. Both of these players have carved out defensive roles on their teams, but are constantly working to enhance their scoring ability as well. P.J. Tucker is an example of a more pure defender.
One takeaway from defensive-minded small forwards is the players that established themselves as defense-first stars and then blossomed their offense later. Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo both broke into the league with defense, but are now well-rounded stars.
Swiss Army knife small forwards
The best small forwards are often the ones that can do it all. The ultimate do it all SF past or present has to be LeBron James.
LeBron entered the league already having great size and speed, allowing him to defend multiple positions. His ball-handling and scoring ability put him on par with any guard on the court. He developed a shooting touch as well, rounding him out as one of if not the best all-around players in the history of the game.
We have already touched on Durant, Antetokounmpo, and Leonard who would now be considered all-around small forwards. Another Swiss Army knife SF that needs to be mentioned is Paul George.
Considered to be one of the best two-way players in the game, PG-13 is one of the top small forwards to watch on both ends of the floor. On defense, he knows when to have active hands vs. when to just use his body and size. On offense, he uses his whole repitoire to score when the defense forces him either out of the paint or off of the three point line.
Gordon Hayward of the Boston Celtics is another example of a good two-way SF, with former Celtic Paul Peirce being a prime example as well. Pierce was known for his scoring, but his underrated defense was fueled by his competitive fire. Some good examples from a little further back would be Chris Mullen and Dominique Wilkins.
If you need some small forwards to watch and mold your game after, the above players should provide you with a great starting point!
Power forwards are up next!