As Bryant so wisely pointed out in yesterday’s 30Q, over the last decade-plus, no question has haunted Kings fans more than “can so-and-so play small forward?” And over the last decade-plus, the answer has mostly been “not really, but we have no other choice”. James Anderson, Garrett Temple (the first and second time around), Buddy Hield, Iman Shumpert, Arron Afflalo, and Kent Bazemore (the first time around) are just a few of many names that come to mind when considering Sacramento’s history of throwing smaller players to the wolves at the wing.
As the Kings head into training camp, their options are once again questionable, although maybe not as concerning as in years’ past. Harrison Barnes has proven himself as a reliable small forward in the past, but the last few years have shown him to be more effective as a stretch-four, rather than as a true perimeter player, especially on the defensive end. Keegan Murray is a rookie who also looked more natural as a four in both college and in Summer league, while Kent Bazemore and/or KZ Okpala hopefully aren’t playing too many minutes for a Kings team with their eyes locked on the postseason. And so enters Kevin Huerter, Sacramento’s latest edition of shooting guard, small forward, or both?
When comparing Huerter to wannabe forward of the past, one of the more obvious things that stands out is his size. Standing at 6′ 7″ with a neutral to slightly positive wingspan, Huerter fits more into the mold of traditional wings, although his slight frame (200 pounds) detracts from that advantage a bit. He certainly doesn’t carry the bulk of a Harrison Barnes-esque player, but Huerter also isn’t punching up quite as much as some players in previous seasons.
In addition to his height, Huerter was also a more impactful player at the wing than at shooting guard for the Hawks last season. Overall, Atlanta was better with him on the floor last year, posting 3.8 more points per 100 possessions (73rd percentile) with him in the game, but those numbers get even better with Huerter at small forward. Fifty-seven percent of Huerter’s minutes came at the wing, and the Hawks outscored their opponent by 5.2 points per 100 possessions, versus just 0.4 points with him at shooting guard.
To be clear, that positive impact was entirely on the offensive side of the floor, although the impact was quite significant. Overall, the Hawks scored 1.2 points per possession with Huerter at the wing (91st percentile), while they put up 1.14 points per possession with him at guard (57th percentile). On an individual level, Huerter was also much more effective at the wing, scoring 1.17 points per possession, while posting an effective field goal percentage of 57.1%, compared to 1.09 points per possession and an eFG% of 53.1% as a guard. Interestingly enough, Atlanta may have recognized those splits, as Huerter actually saw 1,247 minutes at the wing, versus 875 minutes at shooting guard, the first time in his four-year career in which he saw more time at the three than the two.
Unlike the Kings, however, it wouldn’t be wise to ignore the defensive side of the floor, and this is where things get a little rougher for Huerter. The Hawks surrendered 1.8 more points per 100 possessions with him at the wing compared to the two-spot, and that’s likely due to Huerter’s frame, which often allows bigger wings to move past him without proper resistance or causes him to get trapped against screens that heavier players might be able to fight through. Overall, Atlanta didn’t actually see that much of a difference in points per 100 plays (96.3 with Huerter at SG, versus 96.9 with Huerter at SF), meaning that increase of 1.8 points per 100 possessions was due to a combination of surrendering more three-point makes and free throw attempts with Huerter at the three-spot.
There’s no doubt that the defensive prospect of Huerter at the wing isn’t exactly encouraging, but frankly, neither are any of the options for Sacramento, which is more of a roster construction than individual player concern. Last season, Harrison Barnes was one of the least effective defenders in the league, and far worse than Huerter. The Kings surrendered 117.6 points per 100 possession when Barnes manned the wing (18th percentile), and they gave up 6.7 more points per possession with Harrison in the game, the worst mark of any NBA player to post at least 2,000 minutes last season. In comparison, the Hawks were actually slightly better with Huerter on the floor than off, allowing 0.3 fewer points per 100 possessions. This isn’t to say that Huerter is a good defender, but rather that he may be at the same level or even be slightly more effective than Barnes at this stage in their careers.
Can Kevin Huerter fill in at small forward? Yes, he can, especially for a team competing for the 10th seed, rather than for an NBA championship. His offensive impact will hopefully outweigh his negatives on the defensive end of the floor, and even if those differentials are closer than one would hope, he’s still a much better option than most players on an improved, but imperfect roster.