Most Overhyped NBA Players at the End of 2016-17 Season
Perception does not always equal reality.
In general, the basketball-watching world is in the ballpark when evaluating most NBA players. It knows LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are legitimate superstars. It understands bench contributors are usually on the pine for a reason.
But every once in a while, a player comes around and confounds the general public, building up far more hype than his actual production merits. Perhaps it's because that player has been thrust into a beneficial role. Maybe he's scoring enough to gain popularity but failing to do anything else. There's a chance his name just carries too much recognition.
These players can be terrific at their crafts. But they're still overhyped.
Harrison Barnes, SF/PF, Dallas Mavericks
Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 100
Harrison Barnes is not the savior of the Dallas Mavericks. He shouldn't be considered the central building block of the post-Dirk Nowitzki era. Even after remembering his torrid start to the 2016-17 campaign—his first in a featured role and not serving as a quaternary option for the Golden State Warriors—he should be considered a supplementary piece best suited for a lengthy career as a No. 2 scorer.
But that wasn't the popular take early. Not when he started off his Dallas career on fire, averaging 22.9 points during his first 10 appearances in a new uniform.
Even then, his points were fool's gold.
Not only did the scoring outbursts come while the Mavericks accumulated a 2-8 record, but they were earned while he shot 49.2 percent from the field, 31.3 percent from downtown and 88.6 percent from the stripe—good for a 56.6 true shooting percentage that only beat the league average (55.2) by a meager amount. Throw in his limited contributions elsewhere, his inability to record more assists than turnovers and his defensive porosity, and you had a one-dimensional player thriving because a limited roster had handed him a wealth of opportunities.
It takes legitimate talent to average over 19 points in the NBA. Serving as a volume scorer isn't easy, particularly when faced with an overabundance of defensive attention. But there's still a reason Barnes finished with a below-average score in a number of catch-all metrics, and it's the same explanation for his inability to produce a positive net rating while on the floor.
Barnes was a strong volume scorer. It's just that especially during this age of analytics, it's more clear than ever points alone don't guarantee top-tier value.
Avery Bradley, SG, Boston Celtics
Per-Game Stats: 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 96
Kudos to Avery Bradley for his offensive growth in 2016-17. He averaged a career-high 16.3 points, which stemmed in large part from his improved proficiency from beyond the arc; the 26-year-old guard took five attempts per game and connected at a 39 percent clip.
However, Bradley didn't grow across the board. Despite what his pestilent on-ball work might lead you to believe, his defense regressed substantially, to the point that it was a misnomer to label him a two-way stud.
Boston allowed an additional 3.7 points per 100 possessions with Bradley on the floor, though it's easy to explain that away because he spent so much time alongside Isaiah Thomas. It's a bit more concerning that his score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus stood at minus-1.15, leaving him well outside the league's top 50 2-guards. And it's more concerning still that he finished in the 19.1 percentile for isolation defense, the 64.3 percentile against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and the 47.6 percentile against spot-up shooters.
To his credit, Bradley does take on tough assignments. He's willing to check Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry to help mitigate Thomas' responsibilities, but he can also slide over and attempt to overcome a size disadvantage against LeBron James or Paul George.
That's a valuable piece of the puzzle, but defense isn't played entirely in on-ball scenarios. And that's where Bradley's reputation outshines his production, to the point that it negates some of that aforementioned offensive growth.
DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors
Per-Game Stats: 27.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 29
No one should have gripes with the fact DeMar DeRozan made the All-Star team for the Eastern Conference. Even given his restrained ranking at No. 29 in my top 100, he's trailing only 10 players from his half of the NBA. But the fact he was given the starting nod over a handful of superior guards, including his own backcourt teammate, brings two things to light.
First, DeRozan, great as he was throughout 2016-17, was one of the league's most overhyped players, reaching a level not even some of the men joining him in this article could attain. Second, points per game remains—by far—the most overrated statistic in the sport.
Yes, basketball is about getting buckets, and the team with the highest score wins the game. But scoring is also the easiest skill to replace with lower-level players who can contribute in other areas, and points per game overlooks a number of factors—playing time and efficiency chief among them.
DeRozan is an incredible volume scorer. Only CJ McCollum can challenge his proficiency as a mid-range assassin. But the Toronto Raptors 2-guard's inability to connect from downtown limits what he can do on a per-possession basis, to the point that he produces fewer points per shot than most of the NBA's other leading scorers.
Among the league's top 100 in points per game, DeRozan's 1.3 points per shot leave him behind 43 others. Out of the top 50, he sits at No. 29. He's simply using too many possessions, thereby making his 27.3 points per game a misleading figure.
Couple that with his defensive lapses, and it's far easier to see how the Raptors' net rating dips by five points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons
Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 59
Let's allow Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy to take it away, per Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press:
I think that he [Andre Drummon] needs to have a sense of urgency to elevate his game. I feel like as a coaching staff and front-office staff we feel that sense of urgency. He’s been in the league five years now—he’s still young he hasn’t turned 24—he’s got time. He’s a very talented guy. He’s been one of the elite rebounders in the league. He’s got some great things to work with. There’s more there, the sky’s the limit for him and we think he’s got a chance to be really, really good to great but he needs to do some work to get there. He needs to improve, he needs to have a greater sense of urgency this summer to get where he wants to go.
Nothing Van Gundy said is technically incorrect, but at what point does the world stop viewing Andre Drummond as a potentially elite center? Despite his gaudy rebounding figures, he's quite far away from earning that status.
In fact, Drummond was so ineffective on offense in 2016-17 that Van Gundy had to veer away from his pet system. The four-out, one-in offense simply doesn't work when the man in the middle can't draw much defensive attention; defenders preferred for Drummond to get post touches, because he kept forcing up jump-hook attempts even as they all clanged off the iron.
His defense wasn't even that much better, though his ability to prevent second-chance opportunities was valuable to the Detroit cause. Drummond finished the year in the 33.6 percentile when guarding roll men, and he was only in the 36.9 percentile as a post defender.
At this point, his development has stagnated for long enough on both ends that the hype should begin to diminish. He's no longer Detroit's best player (shoutout Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), nor should he be considered a potential franchise centerpiece until he actually shows legitimate growth.
Eric Gordon, SG, Houston Rockets
Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 83
"Operating largely as a reserve after coming into the season with just 19 non-starts in his career, [Eric] Gordon has managed to hang with the likes of Harden and Stephen Curry all season in terms of three-point makes, emerging as the first player in league history to hit 200-plus triples as a sub and cementing his place as an integral part of the most prolific three-point shooting team this league has ever witnessed," ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote while selecting Eric Gordon as his Sixth Man of the Year.
It's a fairly common sentiment these days, but it doesn't accurately reflect the level at which he finished the season. And that's what this is about, regardless of how you think Gordon stacks up against Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson and any other sixth-man candidates.
Gordon began the season in blazing fashion, and his early level is now assumed to be the standard by which he should be evaluated. Few seem willing to treat that as the small sample that it is, even after the second half of the season featured the 2-guard's crashing back to earth in Icarian fashion.
After the All-Star break, he averaged just 14.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists while shooting 37.6 percent from the field, 33.6 percent from downtown and 84.5 percent at the stripe. He actually finished the year with twice as many games featuring a field-goal percentage below 40 percent (34) than contests in which he made as many shots as he missed (17). Efficiency has to matter, and it eluded him after his torrid opening salvo.
Is Gordon a valuable piece of the Houston Rockets puzzle? Of course. But that doesn't mean he's a true difference-maker on the verge of regaining the stardom he was once expected to enjoy; he hasn't been close for quite some time now.
Serge Ibaka, PF, Toronto Raptors
Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.6 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 72
If Serge Ibaka keeps performing like he has during the first two games of the Toronto Raptors' postseason venture, he'll make his inclusion here look silly. But between his disengaged tenure with the Orlando Magic and his lackluster play after the midseason trade, the veteran power forward hasn't lived up to his reputation throughout 2016-17.
Ibaka was supposed to be a game-changing addition for the Raptors, especially on the defensive end. The franchise has long sought an upgrade at the 4, and the Congolese big man was acquired for his floor-spacing tendencies and ability to protect the basket.
The first half worked, as Ibaka averaged 14.2 points in a Toronto uniform while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from downtown. But he struggled to mesh defensively, to the point that he posted a negative defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) for the first time in his NBA career. He even allowed opponents to shoot 51.3 percent at the hoop while defending 6.8 attempts per contest—a far cry from the 43.6 percent to which he held foes during his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"The most important part of Ibaka's job description will be protecting the rim, containing pick-and-rolls and defensive communication," James Herbert wrote for CBS Sports after the trade was announced. "The Raptors will ask him to switch onto smaller players and recover to shooters the way he did last May for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals."
But that always required an assumption that his first half with the Magic was fluky. And unfortunately, there may be more going on than the lack of motivation that came with playing in a crowded frontcourt on a bottom-feeding team.
Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 14.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.1 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 45
Hassan Whiteside is the NBA's best rebounder, capable of skying into the air against anyone and coming down with the board. He's also a terrific defender, especially now that he's no longer trying to block everything in his vicinity—a change that began midway through the 2015-16 campaign and has continued paying off.
But Whiteside is not an offensive centerpiece, even though three pieces of evidence point toward the opposite conclusion: 1) his reputation among fans (and not just supporters of the Miami Heat), 2) his 17 points per game, which leave him behind only five other centers (Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis) and 3) the role in the Miami offense with which he started the 2016-17 season.
However, those arguments omit a few important pieces of information.
Miami moved away from using Whiteside as an offensive fulcrum when the losses began piling up, and he started to enjoy a much better year while operating in the drive-and-kick offense employed during the season's second half. He's far better as a supporting offensive piece who can drain the occasional mid-range jumper or post-up attempt while thriving as a roll man. Plus, taking the ball out of his hands negates the atrocity that is his passing—even improved distributing chops resulted in nearly three times as many turnovers as assists.
In Whiteside's defense, the Heat didn't originally intend to use him in such featured capacity. The plan was never to see Chris Bosh go down with repeated blood clots or Dwyane Wade flee to his hometown Chicago Bulls. But with no feasible contingency plans in place, they had to thrust the big man into an uncomfortable position, unnecessarily feeding the hype machine in the process.
Andrew Wiggins, SF, Minnesota Timberwolves
Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Rank in Top 100 Article: No. 71
"Empty points" don't exist.
Inefficiency is a different story, but all points do ultimately count the same toward the final score. So while Andrew Wiggins' scoring contributions might be inefficient—his true shooting percentage (53.4) was lower than the one he posted as a sophomore (54.3) and still falls well shy of the league average (55.2)—they aren't empty. The 22-year-old should still get credit for being able to fill such a high-volume role so early in his career, and his point-producing acumen lends legitimacy to the pervasive belief he could one day become a superstar.
It's the rest of his box score that's often empty.
This is by no means a scientific calculation, but let's just see how involved typical high-scoring NBA players are by adding together their rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game. Among the top 100 qualified scorers, Wiggins sits at No. 82. He rarely crashes the boards, seldom serves as a distributor and is wholly uninvolved on defense.
That's why, despite the high-scoring efforts, he ranks so poorly in most advanced metrics. His horrifyingly poor off-ball defense and lack of involvement in non-scoring areas leads to his No. 267 finish in ESPN.com's real plus/minus (among 468 players) and No. 483 standing in NBA Math's total points added (among 486 players), which takes both volume and efficiency into the equation.
Wiggins could still turn into a superstar one day. But he's not even close right now based on advanced numbers and needs a lot more development in myriad areas before he should start entering the fringes of the All-Star conversation.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.