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Most Undersized Playmakers in the NBA

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2014

Most Undersized Playmakers in the NBA

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Who doesn't love the underdog, and who is more of an underdog than an undersized NBA playmaker? 

    Standing at exactly 5’6.75” myself, I’m all about the little dude. Of course, my playmaking talents are just a smidgen “short” of these guys.

    There aren’t too many jobs where being six feet puts you well below average, but this year that accounts for less than five percent of all NBA players.

    Some of these little men play big, though, creating shots for themselves and their teammates.

    On a quest to see who my kinsmen would be (if I had playmaking ability), I first cut the field down to players that were six feet or under based on their pre-draft measurements per the Draft Express database*. (I used barefoot heights, because contrary to popular belief, shoes don’t make you taller, they just put space between the bottom of your feet and the floor.)

    I then determined which selected players create the most points per game by looking at how many points they generated through assists and unassisted field goals.

    Both numbers were found thanks to the complete data at Basketball-Reference, which provides “points generated off assists” (PGA) and number of assisted field goals (from which you can derive unassisted field goals with a little simple subtraction). You can find the data by going to each players' profile page. 

    The actual formula I used is: [PGA+(FG-Assisted FG)*2+(3P-Assisted 3P)]/G.

    The results are listed in order of how much each of these diminutive ballers contributes to his team.

    *You may notice a difference in heights with some players. There’s a reason for that.

    While I understand that there is often a discrepancy between what a listed height is and actual reality, I can’t just substitute my opinion for the listed height. Draft measurements tend to be more accurate, and I use them when available. However, they aren't always available, and when needed I used listed heights.

    That raises an issue when comparing historical players, such as Isiah Thomas or Tiny Archibald, who were probably listed as taller than they really were. Comparing modern players with their actual heights to historical players with their exaggerated, listed heights, would be a bit of “apples and oranges.”

    Therefore, to keep things even, when looking at the historical perspective I used listed heights instead of actual heights, but when viewing only active players I looked at actual heights.  

11. Nate Robinson, Denver Nuggets, 10.1 PC/G

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    There is no way that this list would be complete without Nate Robinson on it.

    “Kryptonate” is, after all, a three-time slam dunk champion, but the highlight of his career was probably Game 4 of the 2013 playoffs, when the Chicago Bulls were facing the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round.

    With the Bulls trailing by 14, and with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Robinson went on a 12-0 run all by himself and then assisted Carlos Boozer to tie the game. Robinson ended up scoring 34 in leading the Bulls to a triple-overtime win.

    For a man who was officially measured at just 5’7.75, it’s phenomenal that he’s had the kind of career he has had. There are only three players in NBA history who were shorter than his listed 5’9” and have more career win shares than Robinson.

10. Will Bynum, Detroit Pistons, 13.0 PC/G

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Will Bynum is a little dude at 5’10.5”, but when he gets hot he can play big, whether it’s by producing points for himself or his teammates.

    He had to fight to get to the NBA. According to his NBA bio page, he had go through the D-League (where he was the 2006 NBA Development League Rookie of the Year) and after that “was a member of the 2006-07 Maccabi Tel Aviv team that won the Israeli National Championship.”

    He finally landed a permanent spot in the NBA when he signed with the Detroit Pistons on July 30, 2008.

    He’s had a couple of monumental games since then.

    In a game played April 5, 2009, Bynum had a monster performance, netting 26 points in the fourth quarter, breaking the Pistons’ franchise record for points in a quarter.

    On March 12, 2010, he dominated the game with his passing, dealing 20 assists against the Washington Wizards. According to Chris Lott of Michigan Live, “It marked the first time a Pistons player had 20 or more assists since Isiah Thomas had 21 against Washington on April 12, 1985.”

    There must be something about Washington.

9. Jose “J.J.” Barea, Minnesota Timberwolves, 13.6 PC/G

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Jose “J.J.” Barea helped the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA championship by being a spark off the bench. During that run, the little man took a couple of big shots during the Mavs' series against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round.

    First, at the end of Game 2, Ron Artest (as he was still known then), “grabbed Barea by the face and essentially clotheslined him,” per ESPN Los Angeles.

    Then, after the Mavericks had essentially won the series, Andrew Bynum went psycho. ESPN Los Angeles describes the play.

    With 8:21 left in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinal series, and the Lakers down by 32 points, Barea beat Steve Blake off the dribble, drove the lane and soared to the basket for what looked like an uncontested layup. But the 7-foot, 280-pound Bynum closed in and threw a right elbow into the 6-foot Barea's ribs. Barea flew sideways to the court and remained there writhing in pain.

    Eventually Barea would stop writhing and go on to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he is now, and for whom he had the best game of his career when he notched a triple-double with 25 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds in a loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

8. D.J. Augustin, Chicago Bulls, 14.7 PC/G

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    D.J. Augustin’s career was spiraling downward to start the season. It took just 10 games before the Toronto Raptors waived him.

    Then the Chicago Bulls picked him up off the waiver wire. The Bulls’ season was also on course for disaster when they did so, having lost Derrick Rose for the year, and being without any kind of shot creator.

    However, the two have given one another what they needed, and the result has been fantastic for each. The Bulls are 26-15 with Augustin. They were 3-7 in the 10 games between Rose’s injury and the Augustin signing.

    That’s because Augustin is averaging 13.9 points and 5.3 assists per game in his new stomping grounds. His 170 assists off the bench this season are good for sixth in the NBA.

    His average “game score” (a metric designed by John Hollinger to determine the value of a player’s game) is 9.6 when coming off the bench for the Bulls. That would be good for sixth best in the league if it weren’t for the Toronto numbers dragging him down.

    For a man that is a mere 5’10”, the odds are already stacked against him. To bounce back like Agustin has done is truly commendable.

7. Trey Burke, Utah Jazz, 20.6 PC/G

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Trey Burke might be barely 6’0”, but that hasn’t stopped him so far. All he did in college was sweep the Naismith, Wooden and Robertson awards, averaging 19.2 points and 6.7 assists per game. Then he led his Michigan Wolverines to the National Championship Game where they fell to the Louisville Cardinals.

    Burke was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves before being traded to the Utah Jazz last summer. He’s had a bit of an up-and-down rookie season, but he has shown promise.

    The best game of his brief career came December 18, 2013, against the Orlando Magic, when he scored 30 points on 12-of-20 shooting and notched eight assists and seven boards. He narrowly missed a triple-double against the Sacramento Kings on December 7, 2013, when he had 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

    The 20.6 points he creates per game is only the beginning. Most of his career still lies ahead of him.

6. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats, 21.4

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Kemba Walker was drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2011. In case you weren't paying attention then, that was a really bad year to be drafted by the Bobcats. 

    The team would become worst in NBA history the next season, barely winning 10 percent of its games. Expectations probably fell short, even for a man standing 5'11.5." 

    When your career starts like that, the good news is that there's nowhere to go but up, and this year, the Bobcats, with Al Jefferson and Walker leading the way, are finally doing that. 

    Walker is growing into a clutch player, as portrayed by this game-winner versus the Toronto Raptors. 

    Two years after the atrocities of Walker's rookie season, the Bobcats are looking like a lock to be a playoff team—something that no one predicted in the preseason. 

    While they may not be a threat to the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat in the postseason, Walker and the Bobcats could make the series unpleasant with their defense-oriented, slug-it-out style of play. 

    Walker's best game came March 27, 2013, when he scored 34 points, grabbed seven boards and distributed nine assists in a win over the Orlando Magic. 

5. Jameer Nelson, Orlando Magic, 21.7 PC/G

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Jameer Nelson is so short, if he were a wrestler he’d be a half-Nelson.

    His career is not something done by halves, though. The 5’11” point guard for the Orlando Magic has managed a long and successful career in spite of the challenges his height brings. Of all active players who are listed at 6’0” or under, only Chris Paul has more career win shares.

    Nelson is also one of the most tenured players in the history of the Magic, appearing on the career leaderboard in 20 different categories. Most notably he’s second in games played, first in assists and fourth in points scored (surprisingly, even ahead of Shaquille O’Neal.)

    The best game of Nelson’s career came on January 11, 2006, when he scored 32 points and dished eight assists in a losing cause to Seattle SuperSonics.

4. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors, 23.0 PC/G

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Kyle Lowry is playing so well he could market “Lowry’s Postseason Salt” once his Toronto Raptors clinch a playoff berth.

    Lowry was the biggest snub of the All-Star Game in the East, and probably in the NBA, especially once Anthony Davis was named to replace Kobe Bryant.

    Lowry isn’t just having a great season for a short player; he’s having a great season period. His 9.0 win shares are seventh in the NBA.

    While he’s just 6’0”, he’s a dynamo on the boards, averaging 4.5 rebounds a game. His career average of 4.8 rebounds per 36 minutes is the most of any minuscule man in the three-point era.

    Couple that with his 16.8 points per game and his 7.7 assists, and you have a legitimate nightly triple-double threat.

    His career-best game actually came in a triple-double, when he scored 28 points on 14 shots while adding 11 rebounds and 10 assists against the Utah Jazz on March 20, 2011, while he was still with the Houston Rockets.

3. Isaiah Thomas, Sacramento Kings, 24.8 PC/G

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Standing at 5’9”, Isaiah Thomas was the last player taken in the 2011 NBA draft.

    Nearly three seasons later, only three of the players taken ahead of him have more career win shares. Even Kyrie Irving, reigning All-Star Game MVP, is not one of them.

    You might say the Kings hit on that pick. He’s productive.

    There’s also the factor that Thomas is just a flat-out fun player to watch, darting and weaving through traffic, creating shots out of nothing or setting the table for his teammates.

    He’s averaging a whopping 20.6 points per game and adding 6.4 dimes, putting him on pace to become only the second player in history 5’9” and under to average 20 and six.

    His career-best game came on January 19, when he scored 38 points and dropped six dimes on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unfortunately, the Kings lost the game.

2. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets, 30.3 PC/G

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Ty Lawson is on my League Pass list of players to watch. If you can’t enjoy watching Lawson play, you can’t enjoy watching basketball.

    His impact is so much bigger than his size, and he makes the Denver Nuggets go, go, go. At a meager 5’11.25”, he has a tremendous effect on the game. Kevin Keller of Hoops Habit explains just how much.

    Since Ty Lawson’s return from the rib injury that sidelined him nine games, the Nuggets are averaging 121.5 points a game. During his absence? The team only managed to score 93.6 points a game. That is a 28 point increase in points per game! That, ladies and gentleman, is called the Ty Lawson effect.

    His finest game came against the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 11, 2011. Lawson scored an amazing 37 points on just 16 shots, aided by his 10 of 11 three-point shooting on the night. His lone miss came on an end-of-quarter heave. Since at least 1985, no player has had a higher three-point percentage on at least 10 attempts.

    For what it’s worth, he added seven rebounds and six assists for good measure.

1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers, 35.1 PC/G

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    Chris Paul is officially measured at only 5’11.75”. His game is about as big as they come.

    He’s already in the conversation for greatest player ever under six feet (depending on what you believe Isiah Thomas’, Tiny Archibald’s and Allen Iverson’s real heights were).

    There are two things that set him apart from every other player on this list. First, he’s the best scorer on it, in spite of not being primarily a scorer. Second, he’s far and away the best passer and shot creator on the list.

    One of the best numbers to look at when you’re looking for impact a point guard has on creating shots for his teammates is on/off field-goal percentage for the team. If a player’s teammates shoot better when he’s on the court, it means he’s likely setting them up for open shots.

    When Paul is on the court, the Los Angeles Clippers shoot .488 from the field compared to just .459 when he’s on the bench. That means he’s doing a tremendous job of making his teammates more efficient.

    The combination of his scoring and passing ability makes him the best point guard in the business.

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