As the NBA continues its evolution towards the perimeter, talented forwards who were without a position in the previous back-to-the-basket era and seemingly without a role in the current pace-and-space era have emerged as the league’s newest super-subs.
These forwards are the antithesis of the modern NBA big man: They post up fewer than five times a game, attempt fewer than two three-pointers a night and aren’t true rim protectors.
Yet Julius Randle, Domantas Sabonis and Montrezl Harrell are all front-runners for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Another forward playing a similar role, Marvin Bagley, will most-likely be a First Team All-Rookie performer, too.
In the past if a power forward didn’t have a traditional low-post game or size or couldn’t stretch the defense from the three-point line, then more often than not, that guy couldn’t stay on the court — no matter how talented and athletic he was.
There were occasionally those who did carve out a role, such as Corliss Williamson and Thad Young, but for every one of them, there are probably twice as many guys, such as Ike Diogu, Derrick Williams, Earl Clark and Anthony Randolph, who were out of the league before turning 30.
Meaning Randle, Sabonis, Harrell and Bagley are simply outliers? Or are they pioneers for a new age, star sixth man — an alternate to the score-first, Lou Williams-type guard off the bench?
After examining these super-subs’ respective games, it appears that teams have gotten smarter about exploiting mismatches against other teams’ second units by bringing these talented forwards off the bench and playing to their respective strengths.
Each of these players has a unique game with certain high-level attributes. For Randle, they are his powerful drives to the basket and his ability to finish through contact. For Sabonis, they are his screening and touch inside the paint. For Harrell, they are his smart cutting and relentless finishing at the rim. And for Bagley, they are his speed in the open court and vertical athleticism on lobs and offensive rebounds.
Did you know that only four non-guards have won Sixth Man of the Year this century? Or that the last non-guard to win was Lamar Odom in 2011? The sixth man du jour around the NBA is ripe for change, and these aforementioned niche forwards seem ready to take the mantle from the heat check combo guards.
If this trend continues, look for the Lakers to ultimately test this role out with Kyle Kuzma, or better yet, Brandon Ingram. If Jabari Parker can recommit himself to the game, he would seem like an ideal candidate for this role as well.
Same goes for guys such as Dario Saric, Jonathan Isaac or even Michael Porter Jr. when he gets healthy. Any forward who has an obvious set of skills but doesn’t have a true position can potentially thrive in this role.
By EDDIE G. ALINEA