Examining the Dying Breed of Small Guards in the NBA
By: Anthony Rio
The NBA has undergone a shift in which positions are valued. It’s similar to the NFL devaluing running backs, but the reasoning is completely different. In the 2010s decade of NBA basketball, teams like the Warriors popularized “small-ball”. What “small-ball” hinges on is increased versatility. Offensively this means having people on the floor who can do more, whether that be passing, dribbling or shooting. Defensively, versatility can mean different things like being able to individually guard various types of players, or being effective within multiple defensive schemes (such as drop, switching, trapping, etc.). Within the concept of “small-ball”, versatility is being able to individually guard players of different sizes and diverse skill sets. This favors wing sized players, as they are towards the middle of their size spectrum. Guards are often the smallest and quickest players on the floor, whereas bigs are generally the biggest and slowest. Wings usually fit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of size and quickness, thus they are best equipped to be able to guard both “up” and “down” the positional scale adequately. To this end, wing-sized players are more likely to have enough size to not get completely bullied in the paint, while also bringing enough lateral quickness to not get burned on the perimeter. There are other traits that factor into this equation of defensive versatility other than a player’s height. Specifically, vertical and lateral athleticism, arm length, strength, body structure, and basketball intelligence all play a role in a player’s defensive versatility.
However, wing-sized players have been increasingly valued to limit the players who can be picked on by defenses. Think of teams running high ball-screens to target slower-footed big men and bring them up to the level of the screen in space, far from the basket against quick ball handlers; Golden State doing this to Nikola Jokic in last year's playoffs would be a prime example of this. On the other hand, teams will try to expose defense switching smalls onto bigs with post seals and entries. Staying with Golden State, in three matchups against the Kings this season, Sacramento has deployed this strategy. They’ve exposed the Warriors switching smaller guards Jordan Poole and Donte Divincenzo onto Domantas Sabonis, by feeding Sabonis and letting him body these guards in the post to generate point blank looks. Plays like this have caused NBA teams to increasingly phase out smaller guards, and look for players who have guard skills, just at a bigger size. In this piece, small guards are defined as being 6’3” (190.5 cm or 75 in) and below.
This trend of smaller guards being a dying breed in the NBA poses the question: What do small guards need to do to be successful in the NBA? At the most base level players need to provide a positive impact. If they’re getting taken advantage of on the defensive end because of their size, they need to more than make up for it on the offensive end. So, which specific skills are most common in effective small guards and what patterns emerge within this group of outliers?
A quick example of an extremely high level small guard college prospect being minimally valued by NBA teams took place in the 2021 NBA draft. Auburn freshman point guard Sharife Cooper averaged over 20 PPG, 8 APG, and 4 RPG. Cooper is a special playmaker, so to try to provide context to just how rare of a freshman season he had on the offensive end, I took a look at a catch-all offensive stat called “Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game” (PRPG!). The statistic estimates the number of points a player adds per game relative to a hypothetical replacement level player. In the last 10 years, there have been 19 freshmen with a “PRPG!” of 5 or above and Sharife’s 5.7 “PRPG!” in 2021 ranks 7th over this time. However, all of the player’s ranked above him were 1st round picks, with five of the six being top 5 picks. Further, if we look at all 17 players, all of them who aren’t still in college were 1st round picks, and 15 of them were lottery picks, 10 of which were top 3 picks. Clearly, this stat is pretty indicative of NBA success or at least draft position.
Aside from Sharife, the only player who wasn’t a 1st round pick is Antoine Davis who plays at Detroit in the Big Sky conference. As a freshman, Davis averaged over 26 PPG on decent efficiency. Now, he’s still playing for Detroit with the same success as a fifth-year senior. As expected, he’s a 6’1”, 165 pound small guard. If he was three or four inches taller, there’s no doubt in my mind he’d be a 1st round draft pick by now. Returning to Cooper, he’s the only player of the 17 who was draft eligible and not drafted in the 1st round. He was selected 48th in the 2021 draft, and his size was easily the biggest reason he fell.
During his lone season in college, Cooper did not shoot the three well. His percentage from downtown ended up finishing below 30% on good per game volume, despite the sample being a mere 12 games. Cooper has impressive lateral quickness, but is listed generously at 6-1, 180 pounds and was a clear net-negative defensively in his lone college season. However, Cooper was a generational playmaker. His ability to touch the paint with ease, manipulate defenders to open up passing lanes, and make drop offs and kickouts to create easy looks for his teammates was other-worldly.
Clearly, it's tough to be valued and carve out a role as a smaller guard entering or in the NBA. To try to figure out which skills and abilities are most crucial for NBA opportunity and success, I executed two different methods looking at last year’s (2021-22) NBA regular season data. To begin, the response variable I used was minutes per game during last season. The features considered were an assortment of advanced stats. I used a random forest decision tree method initially. From this method, I ran 10000 trees and then looked at which variables added the most information by examining the “importance” metric. Based on this, in order the top 8 most important variables in order were “Offensive Box Plus-Minus” (OBPM), “Block Rate” (BLKr), “Box Plus-Minus” (BPM), “True Shooting Percentage” (TS%), “Offensive Rebound Rate” (OREBr), “Steal Rate” (STLr), “Assist Rate” (ASTr), and “Usage Rate” (USG). These top eight metrics in terms of importance can be seen visually below.
The other method I used was running each variable through a linear regression model as a singular feature, and then finding the standardized regression coefficient to account for statistics of different forms and sizes. For example BPM catch-all metric adding OBPM and DBPM to measure total impact and is a number usually within the single digits, whereas STLr is the percentage out of 100 defensive possessions that a player steals the ball. This method yielded a top 8 most important variables of “Assist Rate” (ASTr), “Offensive Box Plus-Minus” (OBPM), “Block Rate” (BLKr), “Box Plus-Minus” (BPM), “Total Rebound Rate” (TRBr), “Defensive Rebound Rate” (DRBr), “Ball Security” (BS), and “True Shooting Percentage” (TS%). For clarification, “Ball Security” is just the inverse of turnover rate, so instead of the percentage of possessions a player turned the ball over, BS is the percentage of possessions a player does not register a turnover. The top eight standardize regression coefficients in relation to minutes per game are visualized below.
When averaging the rankings of the two approaches, the top 5 features were “Offensive Box Plus-Minus” (OBPM), “Block Rate” (BLKr), “Box Plus-Minus” (BPM), “Assist Rate” (ASTr), and “True Shooting Percentage” (TS%). In other words, total offensive impact was most important, followed by BLKr. Block rate is the percentage of defensive possessions a player registers a rejection, and in summation with steal rate is a historically good indicator of overall defensive performance and for guards specifically, versatility. For context, since 2008 drafted here are all the college freshmen with a high “PRPG!” number of at least 4.0 and a block rate above 1.0.
The only seven players to meet these criteria were all lottery picks. However, one thing that should be noted is that other than Eric Gordon, these players aren’t known for being strong defenders. So despite the fact block rate is a good indicator of an NBA player's nightly minute total, individually it doesn’t necessarily say a lot about the level of play they put forth on the defensive end.
The third most important statistic was BPM which essentially represents overall impact, and in the case of most small guards, means that their defensive shortcomings don’t outweigh their offensive impact. This statistics is directly related to OBPM so the fact that it is towards the top isn’t surprising. Next, was ASTr which is a playmaking metric and lastly TS%, which measures overall shooting efficiency.
For many NBA players, it is enough to bring one good thing to the table every time they step on the court. For smaller guards, this is not quite the case though because they have less margin for error. Generally, smaller guards need to bring more to the table than bigger players which usually means at least two of the following point-of-attack defense, perimeter shooting, playmaking, or in rare cases finishing. Gary Payton II was a great example of this. He functioned as a “big” on offense, hanging out in the dunker spot or cutting to the rim to convert finishes, while bringing elite defense on-ball against the opposing team’s most dangerous perimeter threat. With only one of these two abilities, he wouldn’t have had the same impact and might not have been playable enough to make a name for himself and earn a significant long-term contract.
The final thing to consider regarding smaller guards is what sets them apart, making them close to or at an all-star level player. One incontrovertible statistical pattern is the importance of shooting to these players. Being able to bomb away from deep is not only an effective means of scoring the basketball, but it opens up so much more. Specifically, when dangerous three point shooters are taken into account by defenses, they are given less air space further from the basket. This makes life easier when attacking the rim and playmaking because they are being played to take away the jumpshot. Thus, jump shooting opens up other parts of the offensive game, making them overall more effective and well-rounded players on this end. This trend shows up blatantly, as four out of the top five leaders in made pullup 3s during the 2022-23 regular season were small guards (in green text) as seen in the graph below.
Beyond the numbers, the vast majority of the NBA’s best small guards are flamethrowers from beyond the arc- Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, Anfernee Simons, CJ McCollum, Terry Rozier, and Darius Garland to name some of the high level players (many of whom are All-Stars). Thinking about players who don't meet this criteria yet are elite smaller guards, brings to mind Chris Paul and Ja Morant. However, these players are similar in the sense that they are so dangerous in a particular area of the court that the opposing team plays to take this away (usually unsuccessfully) which opens up other things on the offensive end and further accentuates their impact. Specifically, Ja Morant has a generational ability to slash and generate points around the rim, while Paul has an all-time midrange jumper.
As previously stated, smaller guards are a dying breed as teams look to exploit them more on the defensive end. However, the bottom line is that smaller guards simply need to have an offensive impact that can outweigh any defensive deficiencies in regards to their total impact. For smaller guards, physical limitations make this harder to do but there are still plenty of NBA players within this archetype. One positive indicator pointing to small guard success and the ability to hold their own on defense is block rate. Though assist rate and true shooting percentage also show up as important factors in a thriving small guard, the key offensively is to have an area of the floor defenses must sell out to take away. In the modern NBA for many, this area is three point land, however there are exceptions in the case of Ja Morant (paint) and Chris Paul (midrange) for example. Having an area where a player is especially dangerous and efficient causes defenses to adapt, try to take it away, thus opening up other parts of that player's offensive game, adding to their overall impact. Players and smaller guards who have this ability are stars in the league. This is almost always required for smaller guards to play even close to an all-star level in the NBA, whereas for other positions this is not necessarily the case. Though small guards have it much tougher in today’s NBA, they still have a clear place in the league whether it be as a role player or a star offensive catalyst.