Like the combo-guard, the combo-forward possesses qualities of each forward position. It’s a fairly new edition to the basketball dictionary, though one that’s necessary when classifying and projecting future roles. The combo-forward community has a number of different sub-classes. With the exception of the stretch 4, combo-forwards require three physical tools: Size, Strength and Mobility.
The size and strength of course reflect a power forward’s ability to rebound, finish at the rim and or score in the post. Mobility allows the player to operate on the perimeter with or without the ball, as well as fly in transition, qualities of a natural small forward. Here’s a few examples of each type of combo-forward:
Off-the-Ball Combo Forward
This off-the-ball combo is usually a high energy player– someone with a big-time motor that offsets a lack of ball skills with heavy activity. In the past we’ve seen Shawn Marion excel in this role. Though undersized for a natural 4, he averaged at least 9 rebounds for 9 consecutive years, using his athleticism and motor to stay active on and above the glass. On the other hand, he played a majority of his possessions on the perimeter, slashing off the ball and finishing in transition like a 3. He wasn’t a guy you’d give the ball to and say, "Go get us a bucket"– but he’d use his versatile physical tools to exploit the mismatch and make a play off the ball. Josh Smith, Thaddeus Young, Andre Kirilenko and arguably Lamar Odom impact an offense in similar fashion.
It’s such a likeable breed of combo-forward because it fits in any lineup. The "OTB" combo-forward affects an offense without disrupting its flow, while providing defensive flexibility guarding 3s and or 4s based on matchups. James McAdoo and Andre Roberson are current college ballers who fit this bill, and both are highly touted.
The Scoring Combo-Forward
The scoring combo-forward has deadly offensive impact because of the mismatch they present. Antoine Walker was no easy assignment at his peak. During his six-year prime with Boston he averaged 21 points and 8 rebounds, bullying defenders down low and shaking them on the perimeter. He played baseline to arc– taking advantage of slower-footed big men 26 feet out while having the strength to battle them inside. Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Antawn Jamison were also combo-forwards with the ability to score inside and out, as well as rebound.
The Stretch 4
The stretch 4 is generally a one-dimensional player, varying based on athleticism. The key to this position is the ability to knock down "catch and shoot" three-pointers, hence the word "stretch", as in stretching the defense and spreading the floor. A stretch 4 is really a 3, yet has the size to draw opposing power forward defenders away from the rim, keeping them out of their comfort zone while diminishing their presence in the paint. Rashard Lewis signed a $118 million contract as an athletic stretch 4 who can slash off the ball and spot up anywhere in the half court. Keith Van Horn had a similar skill-set, as does Ersan Ilyasova currently of the Bucks. Ryan Anderson scored 16 a game lacking any true athleticism, by simply stretching the floor, catching and shooting. It’s a player-type that lacks strength, making it difficult to convert contested shots inside and defend true power forwards. This limits a stretch 4’s upside, leading to a more complimentary role in a rotation. In other words, stretch 4’s aren’t worth max contracts, Orlando.
Some guys have the qualities of both a 3 and a 4, but can’t figure out how and when to use their strengths. Anthony Randolph has the mobility and athleticism of a 3 and the size of a 4 or 5, but doesn’t excel as an off-ball combo or a scoring one. A lot of that has to do with intangibles– awareness, basketball IQ, recognition and the ability to adjust– which is what’s kept him off the floor in his brief yet disappointing career. Randolph hasn’t established an identity at either the 3 position or the 4, giving a coach little reason to extend his role. This is what potentially worries me about Perry Jones.
Make Up Your Mind
Sometimes a small forward or power forward tries to master both positions in an attempt to increase their appeal as a "versatile" player. Derrick Williams has the strength and athleticism to compete at the 4, but has the tendency to spend too much time on the perimeter as a 3. If Williams doesn’t hone his perimeter skills, he’s better off dropping the "combo" label and focusing primarily on power forward duties, such as rebounding and post play. His 41% from the floor mark was evidence he spent too much time imitating a small forward’s role (To Williams credit he was thrust into a difficult situation in Minnesota). Michael Beasley, Charlie Villaneuva and Al Harrington suffer from the same issue at times, resulting in low percentage offense.
Looking ahead, there’s a ton of combo-forwards to get excited about. North Carolina’s James McAdoo, Kentucky’s Alex Poythress, North Texas’ Tony Mitchell 2586, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, NC State’s CJ Leslie and UNLV’s Anthony Bennett all are lottery, and even potential top 10 picks. This 2012 draft saw Moe Harkless, Royce White, Terrence Jones, Perry Jones, Draymond Green and Jae Crowder all go top 35, yet they all offer different services.
If the player understands when and how to efficiently play each position, it creates a mismatch that could be difficult for defenses to solve.
Like any position in any sport, as the athlete evolves, so do their capabilities. I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more combo-guards and combo-forwards entering college in the foreseeable future.