Basketball may be a team game, but in the NBA, individual performances can be transcendent.
A quick look at guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant (or more recently, LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard) will make that obviously apparent, but oftentimes, it's underrated players who prove crucial in helping teams advance through the playoffs.
Let's take a look at some overlooked candidates who will need to step up in order to help their squads survive the postseason.
Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
OK, so maybe he's not under the radar anymore after Game 1. Although it came in the loss, Jonas Valanciunas was unstoppable against the Brooklyn Nets Saturday, piling up 17 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks.
As ESPN Stats & Info noted, the performance entrenched him next to some prestigious company:
Still, with a burgeoning star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan playing next to him, the 21-year-old Lithuanian doesn't always get the praise he deserves.
The seven-foot center averaged just 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds during an up-and-down sophomore campaign, but he began to come into his own down the stretch, upping those numbers to 13.8 points on 59.3 percent shooting and 9.3 rebounds over the last two months.
Head coach Dwane Casey talked about Valanciunas' marked improvement, via the National Post's Eric Koreen:
Him growing over the last month or so has really been a positive for our season. He’s our future. He’s our starting center for a while to come so it’s great to see.
He was not intimidated, he wasn’t fazed by the physicality or guarding a legend like KG.
The bruising, old-school style of Valanciunas, who ranked 12th in the NBA in rebounding percentage, via Basketball-Reference.com, makes him an important piece against the physical frontcourt of Brooklyn.
If Game 1 was any indication, though, he's more than capable of handling himself against the Nets' big men.
Trevor Ariza, Washington Wizards
Trevor Ariza received a second- and third-place vote for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but really, he has been making the same kind of impact on that side of the ball for a couple of years now.
Here's a look at how his steal percentage and defensive rating (amount of points per 100 possessions his team gives up when he's on the court) have progressed since he began starting consistently with the Houston Rockets in 2009-10, via Basketball-Reference.com:
|Trevor Ariza Defensive Impact Over the Years|
|Season||Team||Steals Per Game||Steal Percentage||Defensive Rating|
Not much difference. He has been an impactful defender—he ranked 21st in the NBA in steal percentage— for a while, but a few things have changed this year.
First, he has stayed healthy, playing in the most games (77) since the 2008-09 season. Second, he has taken his offensive game to a completely new level in terms of efficiency.
Take a look:
|Trevor Ariza Offensive Impact Over the Years|
|Season||Team||Points Per Game||TS %||eFG %||Offensive Rating|
Those are enormous strides forward, especially for a 28-year-old veteran in his 10th season in the NBA.
Consistency, scoring, deadly three-point shooting and stingy defense—Ariza is providing it all.
John Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat are undoubtedly important to this team's success, but it's not a coincidence the franchise's first postseason appearance in six years has coincided with Ariza's breakout campaign.
Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets
Once upon a time, the Rockets' plan was to trade backup center Omer Asik for a stretch power forward, because at the beginning of the season, that was seen as the missing piece to their starting-lineup puzzle.
Well, Terrence Jones quickly changed those plans.
In 76 games, the second-year power forward averaged a solid 12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per contest, but he constantly showed the capability to explode for 30 points or provide big-time double-doubles on any given night.
While his energy on both ends and ability to spread the court with his jump-shot has proven crucial for Houston's success, though, a first-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers is going to prove tricky.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann passed along this incredible stat from the regular season:
Jones was able to compile 12 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in Game 1, but whenever Dwight Howard was forced to the bench, the former Kentucky standout struggled immensely against LaMarcus Aldridge, who exploded for 46 points and 18 boards.
How he continues to fare in this difficult matchup will go a long way in determining if Houston can climb out of an early hole in the tightly contested No. 4 vs. No. 5 series.