|Never before has a player been anointed "The Next" before the end of his junior year in high school, but LeBron James never was ordinary. |
By the time he graduated and was ready to leave the comfortable confines of Akron, Ohio, he was already bound for the Cleveland Cavaliers just up the street as the winners of the "LeBron Lottery."
|The next step for LeBron James is to make the Cavs a contender. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE via / Getty Images)|
Well, for starters, he averaged better than 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists last season. He also improved to 47 percent shooting from the field and hung around 40 percent from 3-point range most of the season before slipping back to 35 percent. Nevertheless, we're stuck wondering about his overwhelming numbers and the inability of the Cavs to make the playoffs in his first two season.
The odds seem much better this season, which is why there is no doubt that James is easily the best small forward in the game today. He's extraordinarily strong, athletic and his shooting ability continues to amaze.
Perhaps more importantly, the rest of the list has grown to exceptional proportions after a five-year lull when it was causing people to wonder if there would ever be an effective group of small forwards in this league again.
Just consider the list, from the obvious growth of players like Shawn Marion, Richard Jefferson and Rashard Lewis; to the potential of Andrei Kirilenko, and the possibilities from Lamar Odom and Carmelo Anthony.
Then there is confusion surrounding three very talented small forwards in their prime and responding erratically. What of Ron Artest, Paul Pierce and Peja Stojakovic? They were blossoming stars in this league and entering this season, nobody is quite sure what to expect out of them other than explosive games, but the dependability quotient has slipped dramatically.
Even more curious will be what we'll see from Grant Hill. He was a great story last season after four year of virtual non-existence in basketball due to repeated ankle surgery and a near death experience from a subsequent infection. But he played 67 games a year ago and was effective as can be until late, when he prematurely called it a season. He could be an All-Star again, or he may not have much left at all after a season filled with excitement and adrenaline.
That's the irony of what this season offers, particularly at this position, and we haven't even gotten to the potential of Atlanta Hawks rookie Marvin Williams.
All we know for sure is it won't be dull … from LeBron to Marvin, to call these forwards small certainly is a misnomer.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Ht./Wt.: 6-8, 240
Numbers: 27.2 pts., 7.4 reb., 7.2 ast.
He has performed at a level from Day One that only Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan realized. The next step is to lead his team into the playoffs and become serious contenders. Lest we forget, he's still only 20.
2. Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns
Ht./Wt.: 6-7, 230
Numbers: 19.4 pts., 11.3 reb., 1.9 ast.
Outside of the nightmare against Bruce Bowen in the 2005 conference finals, Marion showed how special he is playing out of position at power forward the entire season. This season will be even better as he moves back to his natural spot.
3. Andrei Kirilenko, Utah Jazz
Ht./Wt.: 6-9, 215
Numbers: 15.6 pts., 6.2 reb., 3.2 ast.
Provided he stays healthy, Kirilenko is the most dynamic all around defensive player in the game and continuing to blossom on the offensive end as well. He can do everything and the Jazz need to play through him as much as possible.
4. Richard Jefferson, New Jersey Nets
Ht./Wt.: 6-7, 225
Numbers: 22.2 pts., 7.3 reb., 4.0 ast.
This should be Jefferson's best season. He had to carry the team last season until he ruptured a ligament in his wrist, but surprisingly returned for the playoffs and a glimpse with Jason Kidd and Vince Carter — potentially awesome.
5. Ron Artest, Indiana Pacers
Ht./Wt.: 6-7, 245
Numbers: 24.6 pts., 6.4 reb., 3.1 ast.
He should be at the top of the list with his dominant capabilities on both ends of the floor. But he has to prove he can be effective without losing it emotionally. The Pacers need him on the court. This is a key year for his future.
6. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
Ht./Wt. 6-6, 230
Numbers: 21.6 pts., 6.6 reb., 4.2 ast.
Despite his obviously immense talent, a lot of people are split on what Pierce's value is because of his moody, erratic play that always affects his play and his teammates. He could play at a superstar level again, but most people doubt it.
|Paul Pierce needs to stop being moody and start playing like he did a few years ago. (Elsa / Getty Images)|
. 7. Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento Kings
Ht./Wt. 6-10, 230
Numbers: 20.1 pts., 4.3 reb., 2.1 ast.
Often considered the best perimeter shooter in the game, he is coming off his worst performance in several years. It's hard to figure where he's coming from because he's been such a disappointment in the postseason and last year it seeped into the regular season. Like Artest and Pierce, this is a crucial year.
8. Rashard Lewis, Seattle SuperSonics
Ht./Wt.: 6-10, 225
Numbers: 20.5 pts., 5.5 reb., 1.3 ast.
He stepped up to be an All-Star last season, but once again injuries ruined his season. Whether it's his shoulder, knees or toe, there always seems to be something with him and at 26, this is a disturbing trend.
9. Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets
Ht./Wt.: 6-8, 225
Numbers: 20.8 pts., 5.7 reb., 2.6 ast.
The beginning of last season was a nightmare for Anthony, but when coach George Karl rescued the team from disaster, Anthony snapped out of his funk and began to perform at an All-Star level. If he continues to grow up, stardom is inevitable. 10. Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Lakers
Ht./Wt.: 6-10, 230
Numbers: 15.2 pts., 10.2 reb., 3.7 ast.
If playing point forward in coach Phil Jackson's triangle offense doesn't turn him into an All-Star, nothing will. He was on the brink in Miami, but last season was a mess because he couldn't fit in with Kobe Bryant. That should be remedied this year, and Odom should blossom like never before. Remember, he's still only 25. Also receiving consideration: Grant Hill, Orlando Magic; Tayshaun Prince, Detroit Pistons; Shane Battier, Memphis Grizzlies; Bobby Simmons, Milwaukee Bucks; James Posey and Antoine Walker, Miami Heat; Corey Maggette, Los Angeles Clippers; and Wally Szczerbiak, Minnesota Timberwolves.