Building the All-Under-the-Radar NBA Team, All-Star Break Edition
The NBA is about more than just All-Stars.
So much attention is paid to the exploits of guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant that we often lose sight of the other guys.
Not every player is a superstar or a walking highlight reel. Some are just genuinely good players, many of which you don't realize are even valuable until you really watch them play.
They may not be household names and their stat lines may not be what you consider gaudy, but their effort and resulting impact deserves an extensive look and subsequent appreciation.
Recognition may never come in the form of an All-Star selection, but it's important all the same.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
Starting Guard: Greivis Vasquez, New Orleans Hornets
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Years Pro: Two
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 9.4 assists, 43.6 percent shooting
No Chris Paul? Austin Rivers struggling? Eric Gordon too injury-prone?
Greivis Vasquez has been a stud for the New Orleans Hornets this season.
The point guard isn't especially athletic, but he's extremely resourceful. His decision making has improved a great deal, he's phenomenal when it comes to initiating pick-and-rolls and drive-and-kicks, and he's now a deadly jump shooter as well.
Some wouldn't even think to look twice at Vasquez, yet he's developed into one of the most valuable playmakers in the game. Not only is he third in assists per game, but he's assisting on 47.2 percent of his team's field goals while on the floor, also third.
New Orleans' floor general is also one of just three players averaging at least 10 points and nine assists. The other two, you ask? Chris Paul and the injured Rajon Rondo, both of whom were selected to start in this year's All-Star Game.
Vasquez's defense isn't what you would consider "lockdown." His footwork is spotty (bordering on nonexistent), he's prone to getting beat on the weak side, and he's allowing opposing point guards to post a PER of 18.1 per 48 minutes. What he lacks in man-to-man coverage, though, he more than makes up for in snagging long rebounds.
Had you asked almost anyone prior to the start of the regular season, few would have considered Vasquez a legitimate starting point guard. And that trend would likely continue to today.
It just wouldn't be true.
Starting Guard: Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers
Years Pro: Three
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 43.2 percent shooting
When you think about the Portland Trail Blazers, your attention is immediately drawn toward Damian Lillard. Or LaMarcus Aldridge. Or Nicolas Batum. But there's a fourth co-star in Portland's movie—Wesley Matthews.
Though Matthews' 14.4 PER implies otherwise, he's actually having a well-rounded year. His 38 percent clip from deep and 1.4 steals per night lead the team, and the Blazers are nearly six points better per 100 possessions on offense with him lineup.
The shooting guard has made some nice adjustments on the defensive end as well. He's fighting over screens with more gusto and manning the passing lanes with added vigor. He's also holding opposing shooting guards and small forwards to below-average PERs when he's on the floor.
At 6'5" and playing nearly 35 minutes a game, you'd like to see Matthews' rebounding totals increase slightly. It's tough to get on him too hard for his rebounding, though, when he has made a concerted effort to move the ball better on the offensive end.
He's opting for fewer isolation sets and even looking to facilitate when Lillard and Batum play off the ball. The 13.1 percent of baskets he's assisting on while in the game is the highest of his career.
Per hoopsstats.com, Portland's bench is the lowest-scoring second unit in the league, increasing the need for strong performances from its starters. Matthews continues to fly under most radars, but he has proven to be a consistent source of offense capable of logging excessive minutes without compromising the pace at which the Blazers play.
The future is bright in Portland, and Matthews is as big a part of the team's success as anyone.
Starting Forward: Evan Turner, Philadelphia 76ers
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Years Pro: Two
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 42.7 percent shooting
Not enough good things can be said about Evan Turner.
The coined small forward is easily one of the most versatile athletes in the game and can play and defend four out of the five positions on the floor.
Defensively, Turner is an on-ball force. He's great at reading first steps, deciphering pump fakes and contesting shots in general. The spacing he leaves between him and the defender constantly varies and is tailored to exploit the weaknesses of each opponent.
Turner does tend to take some risks on the defensive end, often favoring which side he believes his man is likely to drive. Such reliance upon instincts can prove detrimental, yet for Turner, it's wildly effective.
On the season, he's holding opposing shooting guards and small forwards to a combined PER of 12.8 per 48 minutes, well below the league average of 15.
While Turner has always been valued for his defense, though, he has often received criticism for his offense. He's known as someone who can dabble in a bit of everything but excels at almost nothing. Until now, that is.
Perhaps the biggest knock against the Philadelphia 76ers swingman was his shooting. Prior to this season, he had combined to shoot 27.1 percent from beyond the arc in his first two years. During the 2012-13 campaign, he's upped his conversion rate to an impressive 37.9.
Even with the emergence of All-Star Jrue Holiday, Turner has managed to strengthen his reputation as a facilitator. He's dropping a career-high 4.4 dimes per contest and assisting on a career-best 19.7 percent of his Philly's field goals.
Also one of the best rebounders at his position, Turner has used his diversified skill set to become one of only 11 players currently averaging at least 10 points, five rebounds and four assists per game, a list that includes heralded superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
For Turner, potential has never been the issue. It's been a general question of when he'd start to reach said potential, which he now is.
We're just hardly talking about it.
Starting Forward: J.J. Hickson, Portland Trail Blazers
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Years Pro: Four
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 blocks, 56.6 percent shooting
J.J. Hickson is going to get paid this summer. I'm not sure if the Portland Trail Blazers will be the ones doing the paying, but the power forward is going to get paid regardless.
After three-plus disappointing years, Hickson came alive with Portland for 19 games last season. During that time, he averaged 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds in 31.6 minutes per game.
Impressed though many of us were, the prospect of his performance being a fluke that was overemphasized by a limited sample size was all too real.
As it turns out, the only thing that was "all too real" was Hickson's potential.
Presently, Hickson is one of just 12 NBA players averaging a double-double with points and rebounds. He ranks 10th in rebounds a night, and his 56.6 field-goal percentage is a career best. The way he has helped compress defenses even further for his teammates and alleviated some of the two-way burden on LaMarcus Aldridge is not to be understated, either.
For the first time in nearly half a decade, Hickson is playing like the athletic beast we knew him to be. He's working hard in the post, battling for rebounds and setting some really nice screens for point man Damian Lillard on the offensive end.
The fifth-year man out of N.C. State still has plenty of work to do on the defensive end, specifically when defending off the dribble or when being forced out onto the perimeter, but he has been one of the brightest spots for the Blazers this season.
A bright spot that continues to play seemingly out of sight and out of mind.
Starting Center: Robin Lopez, New Orleans Hornets
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Years Pro: Four
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 56.3 percent shooting.
I get that Robin Lopez isn't as flashy a producer as his brother Brook, but the dude can still straight-up ball.
His rebounding has improved a great deal since joining the New Orleans Hornets, and he's starting to capitalize off his size around the rim on offense.
Lopez's per-game stats may not seem like much, but he's averaging 16.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes. Not bad for the other brother with unfortunate hair.
The impact the seven-footer is having on his team remains understated as well. New Orleans is both scoring more and allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
The real kicker, though? Lopez's PER of 20.4.
Perhaps we should think twice (or however many times it takes) before undervaluing Mr. Lopez from here on out.
Reserve Guard: Eric Bledsoe, Los Angeles Clippers
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Years Pro: Two
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 9.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks, 45.1 percent shooting
The secret's almost out on Eric Bledsoe.
I say "almost" because most still don't understand how important he is to the Los Angeles Clippers, which was helped along by the team's poor play sans Chris Paul.
Much like Robin Lopez, Bledsoe's per-game stats don't seem like much. Extrapolate those numbers over 36 minutes, though, and you start seeing averages like 15.9 points, 5.5 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.4 blocks.
In case you're wondering, Bledsoe is the only player in the NBA who is averaging at least 10 points, five assists, two steals and one block per 36 minutes. It doesn't get much better than that.
Bledsoe has proven to be one of the most potent backcourt reserves in the league while also being considered expendable.
Sure, the Clippers won't likely deal him unless they're sure Paul isn't going anywhere, but this kid may be the best backup point guard in the league. Yet little to nothing is made of it.
I'll stop short of calling Bledsoe a future All-Star, though. Not because I don't believe he has the talent or potential, but because he's flown under the radar for so long while playing so well that I'm no longer sure what he needs to do to rise above it.
Reserve Guard: Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings
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Years Pro: One
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 1.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 41.2 percent shooting
Someone get Jimmer Fredette more playing time. Like now.
The Sacramento Kings are giving the sharpshooting guard just 14.2 minutes per contest, an absolute travesty considering how far he's come.
Fredette's decision making and shot selection (sort of) has improved by leaps and bounds. His 41.2 percent conversion rate from the floor isn't eye-popping, but the 42.1 percent clip from behind the rainbow is.
In order to accurately measure and fully understand how well he is playing, though, you've got to take a look at his expanded numbers.
Fredette is averaging 18.5 points per 36 minutes, exponentially better than the 14.7 he posted last season. He's also the only player in the league who has appeared in more than 20 games and is averaging at least seven points in fewer than 15 minutes per contest.
To that end, we always knew Fredette could score. What he could never do was defend. And as an undersized guard who spends a majority of his time at the 2, that's a problem.
Or, rather, it was a problem.
Fredette isn't going to be winning any defensive honors, but his instincts on that end of the floor have improved. His ability to defend the crossover and the manner in which he gets over and under screens is quite impressive. The spacing he now leaves between him and the ball-handler is optimal compared to how it was last season.
His adjustments aren't just for show either; they've yielded results. He plays most of his minutes as a shooting guard, and in those instances, he's holding opposing 2-guards to a PER of 13.5 per 48 minutes, a drastic improvement over the 16.5 he allowed them to post last season.
Though he still has a long way to go (reading first steps, reacting to weak-side penetration, etc.) his evolution in the face of limited playing time has been admirable.
If the Kings were smart (they're not), they'd give him more burn and help perpetuate his ongoing development.
Reserve Guard: Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors
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Years Pro: Seven
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 47.2 percent shooting
Yeah, we're going super small with this team.
Much like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James have succeeded playing out of position, so has Jarrett Jack.
According 82games.com, most of Jack's minutes have been spent manning the 2, a tough adjustment for any who consider themselves a point guard.
Jack, however, has thrived. He's still managed to assist on 32.7 percent of the Golden Warriors' buckets while on the floor (second-highest mark of his career) and is putting up some incredible per-36-minute averages.
In fact, Jack is one of just seven NBA players averaging at least 10 points and five assists per game while shooting 40 percent or better from beyond the arc. As far as I know, putting yourself in limited company that includes LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Steve Nash isn't a bad thing.
Golden State's point guard turned off-ball wonder has amped it up defensively as well. He's always been great at reading first steps, and that's helped him hold opposing shooting guards to 13.6 PER per 48 minutes.
Few believed Jack could make a sizable impact on a good team. He's only been to the playoffs once in his career, and that was back when he played beneath the shelter of Chris Paul with the New Orleans Hornets.
Such doubt must finally be put to rest, though. Golden State is in sixth place in a talent-heavy Western Conference, headed for its first postseason appearance in six years.
As a statistical gem, versatile athlete and selfless leader, Jack has been an enormous part of the Warriors' resurgence.
Reserve Forward: Corey Brewer, Denver Nuggets
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Years Pro: Five
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 42.3 percent shooting
Someone should tell Corey Brewer he's not supposed to be this good.
After being drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, the small forward has done nothing but disappoint (mostly). He showed some signs of life with the Denver Nuggets last season, but but he's never been considered a dependable two-way player.
That is, until now.
Brewer has proved to be one of the best defenders a defensively challenged Denver has to offer. He's been great at manning the passing lines, fighting over screens and just defending isolation sets in general.
His ability to guard most of the positions on the court is a luxury the Nuggets continue to exploit as well. He routinely defends shooting guards and both forward positions. And while guarding those positions, he's holding the opposition to a combined 13.1 PER, well below the league average of 15.
Admittedly, Brewer has always been valued for his defense. It's his offense that has been the source of perpetual ambiguity—just not this season.
He's currently averaging 17.2 points per 36 minutes, the highest mark of his career. He's also one of just five players in the entire league who has appeared in at least 10 games and is averaging at least 10 points and one steal while playing less than 25 minutes per contest.
Brewer's three-point shooting (31.1 percent) is still a work in progress (or hopeless), but he's finally becoming more of an offensive difference maker.
One who has never been more valuable to his incumbent team.
Reserve Forward: Andray Blatche, Brooklyn Nets
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Years Pro: Seven
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 10 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 48.6 percent shooting
Well, the Brooklyn Nets are certainly getting their money's worth in Andray Blatche.
When's the last time you envisioned reading those words?
Blatche is quietly putting together a surprisingly productive season. His 10 points and 5.3 rebounds per game won't earn him All-Star honors any time soon, but he's one of just two Nets (Kris Humphries) averaging a double-double per 36 minutes. His 4.1 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes of burn ranks 10th in the league as well.
Also worth looking at is Blatche's 21.9 PER. It's the second best on the team or, as I like to refer to it, the metric which proves he's more productive during his time on the court than both Deron Williams (17.9) and Joe Johnson (14.4).
Brooklyn's forward can still be a liability on the defensive end, but he is at least averaging a career high in steals per 36 minutes.
No one was sure what to expect from Blatche after his failed stay with the Washington Wizards, but he's proven to be a consistent bright spot on a wildly inconsistent Nets team.
His effort is constant on both ends (for the most part), and though his conditioning remains somewhat of an issue, he's been able to keep pace during his limited time on the floor.
In other words, he's finally developing into the player Washington paid him to be, but at a fraction of the price.
Reserve Forward: Earl Clark, Los Angeles Lakers
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Years Pro: Three
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.7 blocks, 47.1 percent shooting
Earl Clark has gone from an afterthought in the Dwight Howard trade to something of a savior for the Los Angeles Lakers.
He's won over Mike D'Antoni with his varied offensive attack, left Kobe Bryant smitten with his work ethic and, with a 40.5 percent conversion rate from deep, has proven to be one of Los Angeles' most reliable three-point threats.
Not to go overlooked is what he has done defensively for the chaos that is the Lakers' defensive attack. They're allowing fewer points with him on the floor, and he's holding opposing forwards to an average PER of 12.5 per 48 minutes.
I personally have come to admire Clark's willingness to close out seemingly open shooters. Los Angeles' defensive rotations are beyond poor, and Clark can often be found tearing across the court to contest an otherwise open jump shot.
Per Synergy Sports, the stretch forward actually ranks 17th in the NBA at defending those spot-up shooters, allowing just 0.71 points per possession defended. Not too shabby for an "afterthought."
In so many ways, Clark still has to improve, but he's developing his offensive game at an alarming rate, and he's never been more engaged on the defensive end.
Which leaves us to wonder just how much longer he'll be left flying under the radar.
Reserve Center: Samuel Dalembert, Milwaukee Bucks
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Years Pro: 10
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 7.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 59.3 percent shooting
Few people gave a damn about Samuel Dalembert prior to his 35-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets.
Now that there's been time to digest said feat, Dalembert is back to life in the not-so-fast lane, clad in the Milwaukee Bucks' attempt to find him a new home.
Still, as limited as his skill set may be, Dalembert is on a tear this season.
Like Robin Lopez, his 20.4 PER ranks higher than Dwight Howard's (19.1), and his 15.4 points per 36 minutes are the highest of his career. His 12.5 rebounds per 36 minutes rank eighth in the NBA, and his 3.2 blocks are good for fifth as well.
Dalembert will hardly ever receive any recognition because, outside of rebounds and blocks, what he does rarely shows up in the box score. His ability to run the floor, pursue loose balls and create second-chance opportunities for his teammates must not go overlooked, though.
That the big man is having one of the best seasons of his career despite playing just 17.3 minutes per game is nothing short of incredible.
I'd advocate for the tower to receive more minutes moving forward, but it doesn't really matter. Dalembert is proof that the focus should not be on the number of minutes you don't receive, but rather, on what you accomplish with the ones you do.