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October 19, 2007

Top small forwards found in Pac-10

Cast your vote: Who is the nation's best small forward?

Everybody is talking about the big men in the Pac-10, and it is a deep and talented group. But the wing men in the league aren't exactly slouches.

Five of Rivals.com's 2007-08 preseason top 10 small forwards are in the Pac-10, including three of the top five. No doubt it helps to have the muscle up front creating room for these talented players to operate, but they would find ways to wreak havoc no matter the guys around them. No other league in the country has more than one of our top 10.

The group as a whole is diverse. It has pure scorers, big-time defenders and solid distributors. It ranges in height from 6 feet 5 to 6-8. It has three seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and one redshirt freshman. It has two players who are transfers.

The common thread is they're all winners. Of the eight who were playing last March (one was sitting out because of his transfer; the other was injured), seven were on teams that played in the postseason. That doesn't figure to change this season, with all 10 on teams ranked in Rivals.com's Top 64.

Here are Rivals.com's 2007-08 preseason top 10 small forwards:

Rivals.com Top 10 small forwards
1. Brandon Costner, Soph., North Carolina State, 6-8, 230
Costner was a revelation for the Wolfpack after sitting out a season because of a stress fracture in his leg. He led NC State in scoring (16.8 points per game; ninth in the ACC) and rebounding (7.3; sixth in the ACC), becoming just the seventh freshman in ACC history to lead his team in both categories. The big left-hander is a matchup problem for other small forwards because of his size and his ability to play in the low post and on the perimeter. Costner led the Wolfpack with 61 3-pointers and shot a credible 38 percent from long range.
2. Chase Budinger, Soph., Arizona, 6-7, 203
An explosive leaper with superb offensive skills, the former five-star prospect delivered big time as a freshman, when he averaged 15.6 points (seventh in the Pac-10) and 5.8 rebounds (14th). He has a high basketball IQ, too, making sure he takes good shots (48.5 percent from the floor) and moving well without the basketball to get himself open. If coach Lute Olson can get Budinger to take the ball to the basket a little more, he could raise his scoring average significantly. He's one of the best free-throw shooters in the country (84.5 percent), but he got to the line only 97 times last season.
3. Josh Shipp, Jr., UCLA, 6-5, 205
Shipp will be counted on to pick up much of the scoring slack left by Arron Afflalo's early departure for the NBA. Shipp is known for his versatility and savvy. The Bruins need him to be more aggressive on the offensive end, and it would help if he can improve his outside shooting. He shot 31.6 percent (42-of-133) from beyond the arc last season. Still, he averaged 13.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals. He had one of his best games of the season in the Final Four loss to Florida, going for 18 points, five assists and four steals.
4. Kyle Weaver, Sr., Washington State, 6-6, 201
Weaver is a stat-sheet filler. His offensive numbers don't begin to tell the story because it's his defense that really shines. He led the Pac-10 in steals (2.2 per game) and was sixth in blocks (1.2 per game) despite being a skinny wing guy. He also led the Cougars in rebounding (5.6 per game). Thanks to his long arms and defensive intelligence, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He's not particularly explosive on offense (11.2 points per game; 23.7 percent from 3-point range), but he moves well without the ball and has a solid mid-range game (52.8 percent inside the arc).
5. Terrence Williams, Jr., Louisville, 6-6, 220
The Cardinals' point forward does a little bit of everything. He was one of a select few college players to lead his team in scoring (12.4 points), rebounding (7.0) and assists (3.8). He easily could improve on his scoring average with better shot selection; his 36.7 field-goal percentage including 26.1 percent from 3-point range is the worst of any of Louisville's returning starters. He worked this summer on his jumper, and he probably will make more forays to the basket this season to take advantage of his superior athleticism.
6. Tyler Smith, Soph., Tennessee, 6-7, 215
After an impressive freshman season at Iowa, Smith transferred home. He obtained an NCAA hardship waiver that makes him eligible immediately, giving Bruce Pearl another major weapon in a serious arsenal. Smith averaged 14.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game for the Hawkeyes. He should be a great fit for Pearl's helter-skelter style because he can run and jump with the best of them and is at his best offensively when slashing to the hoop. If he improves his perimeter shooting (25.4 percent from 3-point range) he'll be even more dangerous.
7. Malik Hairston, Sr., Oregon, 6-6, 200
In this, his final season in Eugene, Hairston has to remove completely the label of "potential" and turn it into "realization." His scoring average last season (11.3 points per game) was the lowest of his career, but his rebounding average (6.0) was his best. He also had more assists than turnovers for the first time, and he shot a career-best 52.3 percent from the floor and 42.6 percent from 3-point range. He had maybe his best stretch of the season in Oregon's final three games in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 15 points and 7.3 rebounds.
8. Robert Vaden, Jr., UAB, 6-5, 200
Remember Vaden? He was last seen tearing up the Big Ten while at Indiana. He averaged 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a sophomore for the Hoosiers, playing for then-IU coach Mike Davis. When Davis resigned and got the job at UAB, Vaden followed. The Blazers are getting a player with a high basketball IQ who works hard on both ends of the floor and really knows how to score. He's outstanding from the perimeter (41.5 percent as a sophomore), and he can drive past people and finish, too.
9. Lawrence Hill, Jr., Stanford, 6-8, 215
The lanky Hill made a huge jump from his freshman year to his sophomore season. His minutes per game doubled from 15 to 30. He started all 31 games after starting none. He took his scoring average from 4.7 per game to a team-leading 15.7, the biggest jump of any player in the Pac-10. He shot a sizzling 50.9 percent from the floor seventh in the Pac-10 after shooting only 38.6 percent in his first year. He also pulled down six rebounds per game, tying for the team lead. It all added up to well-deserved all-conference honors. Hill scored in double figures in 27 of 31 games; the Cardinal lost all four games in which he didn't reach double figures.
10. Bill Walker, Fr., Kansas State, 6-6, 220
The former five-star prospect played in six games for the Wildcats last season before rupturing the ACL in his left knee at Texas A&M on Jan. 6. But his limited action was enough to confirm that he's a big-time talent who plays above the rim and has athleticism to spare. Walker averaged 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, not so pedestrian when you consider he did it in only 19.9 minutes per game. Word out of Manhattan is that he is fully recovered from his ACL surgery and is ready to go, and with Rivals.com's No. 1 recruit Michael Beasley alongside, Walker could have a breakout season.

Cast your vote: Who is the nation's best small forward?

Note: Kansas' Brandon Rush would have been ranked No. 1 were he not recovering from a torn ACL. With him not scheduled to return until Dec. 1, we decided not to rank him here. Once he returns and is back in pre-injury form, look for him to climb in our weekly Power Rankings.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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