Yesterday, we covered the league’s best point guards. Today, we’re tackling the two guards.
10. Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers - 2015/16 Stats: 15.5p-4.0r-2.4a
Even though 2015/16 was Kobe Bryant‘s last season in the NBA, the play of Jordan Clarkson seemed to be the only other thing that got Laker fans excited. He’s lined up to be the Mamba’s heir apparent, and his game made terrific strides in his sophomore year.
Since D’Angelo Russell was drafted, Clarkson wasn’t responsible for playing a combo guard role and was able to focus more on scoring as opposed to getting teammates involved. Good size and athleticism make him a handful to defend, and he’s slowly developing a solid all-around game while maintaining the point guard abilities he picked up as a rookie.
As he gets set to enter his third year in the league, keep an eye on how he improves his efficiency and defense, the two aspects of his game that looked poor last season — to be fair, no one on the Lakers looked good defensively last year.
9. Bradley Beal, Washington - 2015/16 Stats: 17.4p-3.4r-2.9a
Real Deal Beal got what he wanted this offseason: a max contract. The decision to give an injury-prone player more than $120 million left some puzzled, including myself. For the Wizards’ front office to fork over that kind of money, they must be banking on the thought of what Beal can do if he stays healthy, and that’s enough to warrant a max contract.
Despite playing in less than 70 games in three of his four seasons, Beal has the tools to be a legitimate scoring threat in this league, especially with John Wall drawing attention as his backcourt mate. His outside shot is deadly, and it’s just three-tenths of a percent under forty for his career, a great mark for someone who shot under 35 percent in college. Furthermore, Beal showcased a much improved mid-range game in his short season last year, a welcoming sign for Washington.
As with almost all two-guards in the league, Beal is an outstanding athlete and can finish around the rim; nearly 23 percent of his shot attempts came from within three feet. Once you put into perspective how deadly of a scorer he can be next season if he stays healthy, the Wizards can certainly shake up the East after failing to do so this year.
8. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee - 2015/16 Stats: 18.2p-4.2a-3.8r
The Milwaukee Bucks wholly underperformed in 2015-16, but Khris Middleton did not. On a team riddled with young talent, Middleton emerged as the best scorer and a knockdown shooter, nearing 40 percent on threes. He has the size and ball skills to get into the lane and finish with superb efficiency, but, similar to Beal, his mid-range game is slowly developing.
According to Basketball-Reference, just 41.5 percent of Middleton’s two-point makes were assisted on, down 18 percent from the year before. This is a great indicator for Milwaukee, as it shows Middleton can create for himself and gives them a bailout option at the end of quarters.
As a defender, he collected more than 130 steals for a Bucks team that was shockingly poor defensively, and his versatility lets him guard multiple positions which are always a plus. Since they already have Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton won’t be relied on to make plays for others, but he showed the ability to do so as he averaged more than four assists, a career-high.
7. Nic Batum, Charlotte - 2015/16 Stats: 14.9p-6.1r-5.8a
I’ll preface this by acknowledging that Batum played a ton of small forward last year. With Courtney Lee at the two and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist injured, there was no other choice. Now with Lee gone and MKG healthy, Batum can slide back into the two-guard spot.
There aren’t many better all-around players better than Batum, and his dynamic works wonders for the Hornets. His ability to rebound and pass are more influential than his scoring, and he can lead the break as well as some guards can. Offensively, he’s not great enough to be the first option, but he’s reliable enough to make the defense respect him. And there’s no need for him to be the first option with Kemba Walker.
Any inconsistency on offense is made up for on defense, where Batum can pose mismatches against small guards and Charlotte as a whole is a stellar defensive unit. He won’t be making any All-Star games, but who doesn’t love a player who can go for 15-7-6 on any given night?
6. Gordon Hayward, Utah - 2015/16 Stats: 19.7p-5.0r-3.7a
Few guys fly more under the radar than Gordon Hayward — to the casual fan, at least. Hayward has cemented himself as the Jazz’s franchise player, and the 26-year-old continued his steady improvement last season. This year, however, his position situation will be jumbled, as him and Joe Johnson split time at both the two and three.
Regardless of where he plays, he’ll be Utah’s biggest contributor by utilizing his deceptive athleticism and size to power the ball into the paint with unmatched effectiveness — all while keeping his hair slicked back perfectly. His finishing ability around the basket makes up for a mediocre outside shot, but Hayward isn’t reluctant to test himself from that distance.
For someone who’s an average defender at best, Hayward does his part not to get exposed so often, and it helps to have Rudy Gobert protecting your backside. If he has another year that shows improvement, Hayward could be on the cusp of an All-Star year.
5. Dwyane Wade, Chicago - 2015/16 Stats: 19.0p-4.6a-4.1r
Flash has been on a noticeable decline the past few years, but the soon-to-be-35-year-old has still been effective, despite his knees wanting to fail him. With his new home in Chicago, his usage rate won’t be sky high as it was with the Heat, allowing Wade to be more efficient with less volume.
His mid-range game isn’t what it used to be, but Wade’s strength and savvy still gives him an edge in the post. Similarly, his athleticism is also diminished, but he’s developed a veteran craftiness that lets him retain his consistency in the lane; no longer going above guys, but going around them instead.
More nights than not, unfortunately, it’ll be a struggle for Wade, whose waning athleticism is a crutch when guarding younger players who don’t have 13 years of carrying a team weighing on them.
If he were still on the Heat, Wade would’ve been lower on the list, but his decision to return to his hometown helped his case immensely.
4. C.J. McCollum, Portland - 2015/16 Stats: 20.6p-4.3a-3.2r
There’s a reason why McCollum was named 2015-16’s Most Improved Player — he literally exploded on the NBA. The reputation he earned at Lehigh of being a dynamic playmaker finally caught up to him, and he and Damian Lillard carried the Trail Blazers to a win-loss record that surpassed all expectations.
McCollum is radically proficient at either guard position but is more feared as a scorer than anything else. He isn’t an earth-shattering athlete, but he has a tight handle and a killer mid-range pull-up J. That jump shot extends farther out, and McCollum has turned into a lights-out three-point shooter.
However, for Portland to take that next step, McCollum will need to improve defensively, but some of his struggles on defense to be traced back to his load on offense. Should that be an excuse? No, but it’s something to consider.
3. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto - 2015/16 Stats: 23.5p-4.5r-4.0a
DeRozan had the best season of his career during the Raptors’ best season as a franchise, and next year is a year where DeRozan might have his most explosive season yet. It’s amazing how efficient DeMar is without an outside shot, and he’s built his entire game around his world-class athleticism.
He’s a slasher in every sense of the word. And draws as much contact as anyone else in the league; should he choose to establish a consistent outside shot, he’ll be at James Harden-type scoring levels. But, with Kyle Lowry‘s accuracy from outside, the floor is already opened up for DeRozan, and his handle on the ball suits him well enough to take him to the basket.
Defensively, he still has some improving to do, but his situation is similar to Hayward’s, and the team is so great defensively that it doesn’t bring him down as much as it would if they were poor.
2. Klay Thompson, Golden State - 2015/16 Stats: 22.1p-3.8r-2.1a
One-half of the Splash Brothers has already come out and said that he’s not changing his game because of Kevin Durant. And he probably won’t need to. More than 72 percent of his twos were assisted on last year, and that number jumps to 92 on threes. He’s not a shot creator, so as long as Golden State keeps up that brand of team basketball, KT shouldn’t need to sacrifice anything.
His offensive game is so well-rounded that he can take — and make — almost any shot that comes in the flow of the game: layups, post-ups, alley-oops, 38-footers, you name it.
His numbers may fall, but his efficiency won’t, and he’s up this high on the list because he’s the best two-way two guard on this list. (If Wade didn’t go to Chicago and bump Jimmy Butler to small forward, it would’ve been a tougher decision.) If you look at the most recent playoffs, Thompson guarded the opposing teams’ best guard: James Harden, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving. No other guard on this list does that.
1. James Harden, Houston - 2015/16 Stats: 29.0p-7.5a-6.1r
Remember how I said that there “aren’t many all-around players better than [Nic] Batum”? Well, James Harden is one of them. His season was so ludicrous that he became the fourth player ever to average 29 points, seven assists, and six rebounds, according to Basketball-Reference.
Everyone knows what he does — he gets buckets. And a lot of them at that.
Unfortunately, it didn’t translate toward his team’s success but expect nothing less from Harden this coming season. Fans — and people around the league — rag on him for his atrocious defense, but The Beard is no doubt the NBA’s top shooting guard, and if he played defense at a Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson level, he’d have a valid case for being the best player in the association. However, he probably wouldn’t produce as well offensively, and Houston badly needs his offense.
Honorable Mentions: Avery Bradley, BOS; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, DET; Tyreke Evans, NOLA; Zach LaVine, MINN; Devin Booker, PHX
All data courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted
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