The Most Underappreciated Player on Every NBA Team This Season
The stars may be in the commercials and leading the league in points, rebounds and assists, but it's often the underappreciated players who act as the engines for NBA teams.
To find the guys who don't get the credit they deserve from national media and casual fans, looking at numbers that don't show up in traditional box scores is key.
The major statistical outlets that track the NBA have different ways of measuring impact. NBA.com has net rating and player impact estimate. ESPN has player efficiency rating and real plus-minus. And Basketball-Reference has win shares and value over replacement player.
Each of those metrics has merit, but net rating was the primary measure in this piece because of its relative simplicity. It's the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions while an individual player is on the floor.
It wasn't, however, the only stat used to decide the most underappreciated player on each NBA team. Some guys have a significant impact through just one or two well-developed skills. From three-point shooting and rebounding to defense and everywhere in between, there are numbers that can help us gauge it all.
Atlanta Hawks: Kyle Korver
Kyle Korver made his first All-Star team (albeit as an injury replacement), and his quest for a 50-50-90 campaign is getting a decent amount of national attention.
But how many people look at Korver as the single-most impactful player on the Atlanta Hawks?
|Measure||Korver's Rank Among Hawks|
|Value Over Replacement Player||3rd|
Because he's shooting 49.2 percent from three-point range and is so good at moving without the ball, Korver manipulates opposing defenses in a way almost no one else can. His mere presence on the floor takes significant attention away from the other four Hawks, making their jobs easier.
The overall impact presents in the fact that the Hawks average a team-high 110.7 points per 100 possessions when Korver plays and just 96.3 when he sits. The difference of 13.8 points is the largest spread of any Hawk.
Boston Celtics: Tyler Zeller
Thanks to a number of trades, the Boston Celtics have suited up 22 different players this season. Eleven different players have started games.
Some inconsistency was inevitable with that much roster turnover. So finding Boston's most underappreciated player had a lot to do with finding consistency in the midst of it.
Tyler Zeller may not be the kind of rim protector a lot of teams want in the middle, but he's been a steady source of production for Boston in an unsteady season, leading the team with 4.5 win shares.
Some may point to his dip in efficiency following the loss of Rajon Rondo (he shot 63.6 percent before the deal and is shooting 51 percent ever since), but he's still first in field-goal percentage among Celtics who appeared in at least 10 games in both of those time frames.
Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams
Deron Williams is having his worst season since his rookie campaign, averaging just 13.2 points and shooting a career-low 38.2 percent from the field.
Given his lack of production and the size of his contract, Williams has been a scapegoat for the Nets' problems over the last two seasons.
He's even placed the blame on himself. After a December loss to the Toronto Raptors, Williams said, via the New York Post's Tim Bontemps:
I’m down every time we lose, and especially when I’m not making the plays we need to...
I’ve just got to play better. That’s why I’m down. I’m not down because of anything about the team. I’m just down because I need to play better personally for my team to have a chance to win.
Several numbers would suggest he's not Brooklyn's problem, though.
Charlotte Hornets: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
The Charlotte Hornets (then Bobcats) made a surprising run to the playoffs in 2013-14 that was largely credited to Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. But their turnaround was all about an improved defense that is significantly better when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is on the floor.
At the Hive's Chris Barnewall believes Kidd-Gilchrist has been good enough to garner Defensive Player of the Year consideration:
Kidd-Gilchrist might be 21 years old, but he's already the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and the anchor to a top 10 defense. His efforts alone have raised the Hornets from a bottom half defense, to the best defense in the NBA since January. He does just as much, if not more, than any big man, and it's time to recognize this.
Even if Kidd-Gilchrist's box-score numbers of 10.8 points and 7.6 rebounds don't jump off the screen, his defensive impact (which is always less glamorous than the other side of the ball) makes him one of the Hornets' most important players.
Chicago Bulls: Mike Dunleavy
Much like Korver does for the Hawks, Mike Dunleavy has the ability to manipulate a defense with his mere presence on the floor.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Timofey Mozgov
It's no surprise that LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are the Cleveland Cavaliers who get the bulk of the media's attention, but midseason acquisition Timofey Mozgov may be just as responsible for the team's surge from 19-20 to their current record of 40-25.
Chris Fedor of the Northeast Ohio Media Group wrote about Mozgov's defensive presence following a March 7 victory over the Phoenix Suns:
He was also one of the main reasons the Cavs held Phoenix to 28 percent shooting through the first three quarters. Without a talented post presence, Mozgov was able to freelance on defense and camp near the rim. Each time Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe got near the basket they were forced to pass or attempt a difficult floater.
It's his size and willingness to crowd the paint that have turned around Cleveland's defense, and by extension, its season.
Dallas Mavericks: Al-Farouq Aminu
Every Dallas Maverick's pre-Rajon Rondo trade net rating is higher than their post-Rondo trade rating. The one player who seems to be making hay in a difficult situation is Al-Farouq Aminu.
Aminu has survived the transition because the things he does best don't require the ball, which Rondo has dominated at times.
I mean defensively, he’s almost like (Shawn Marion). He can guard one through five, really. He’s probably guarded every position so far. He’s long, he’s quick enough, he’s got unbelievable timing on his shot blocking, he’s a great rebounder for his size with his long arms. Just his activity is there.
As Dallas continues to implement Rondo into its system, Aminu's one-size-fits-all game will help bridge the gap.
Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson
Ty Lawson is unquestionably the Denver Nuggets' best player, but he still may not be getting the credit he deserves as one of the league's best point guards.
For starters, only two other players in the NBA average as many points and assists as Lawson:
Among those three players, Lawson's win shares constitute the highest percentage of his team's wins, at 28.1 percent.
For him to have such a productive season, while everything around him has been crumbling for the better part of two months, is pretty impressive.
Detroit Pistons: Anthony Tolliver
Stan Van Gundy's system with the Orlando Magic was predicated on surrounding Dwight Howard with four shooters, including both forwards. So it's little wonder the Detroit Pistons' forward rotation that included Josh Smith and Greg Monroe struggled for efficiency.
Tolliver's three-point percentage of 36.8 doesn't scream Magic-era Rashard Lewis, but it's still a significant improvement over the floor-spacing abilities of Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Pairing him with either of those big men allows them better opportunities to face defenders one-on-one in the post.
Golden State Warriors: Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is about as solid a fourth or fifth option as any in the league, shooting a ridiculous 42.9 percent from three-point range, good for fifth in the NBA.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr's decision to deploy Barnes as a three-point specialist on offense has paid off, as Golden State scores 2.4 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
"This is exactly what I hoped for, and I can't say that with everybody," Kerr told reporters toward the end of February, per Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group.
Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones
He's only appeared in 19 games, but Terrence Jones has the best net rating on the Houston Rockets. And it's really not close.
|Net Rating||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
Weak-side shot blocking is one of the reasons Houston's defense is so solid when Jones is on the floor. His athletic ability allows him pick up guards who blow by James Harden or Patrick Beverley, or helps come out of nowhere to block a big man bogged down in the post with Donatas Motiejunas.
Indiana Pacers: Lavoy Allen
Thanks in part to the loss of starting wings Lance Stephenson and Paul George, the Indiana Pacers' offensive rating of 99.7 is tied for 25th in the NBA. But when Lavoy Allen plays, it's 102.7, a number that would rank in the top half of the league.
The only Pacers with higher individual offensive ratings than Allen are Shayne Whittington and George Hill, who've played 19 and 23 games, respectively.
Allen's ferocity on the offensive boards accounts for the increased efficiency, as Indiana is able to get two or three extra possessions each game due to that alone.
Los Angeles Clippers: Matt Barnes
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin may be the guys in all the national ad campaigns. DeAndre Jordan is who Doc Rivers wants to win Defensive Player of the Year. But the real hero of the Los Angeles Clippers might just be Matt Barnes.
Among Clippers who have played at least 100 minutes, Barnes ranks first in net rating at plus-10.9. That's right, he's ahead of Paul, Griffin and Jordan.
Now, a lot of that has to do with Barnes playing significant minutes with the starting five, but his combination of outside shooting and defense deserves praise.
His defensive rating of 102.4 is tops among Clippers starters, and his three-point percentage of 36.9 is enough to make his defenders cautious of cheating off him to help with Paul drives or pick-and-rolls.
Los Angeles Lakers: Ed Davis
Wrap your head around this if you can: Ed Davis leads the Los Angeles Lakers in player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, rebounding percentage, block percentage and win shares, yet he is seventh in minutes per game.
Sure, playing against reserves and having a low usage rate lends itself to increased efficiency, but there's too much noise there to ignore.
His effort and energy on the floor are, at times, a stark contrast to the rest of his Lakers teammates. That should earn him some extra appreciation and a decent payday in free agency this summer, as he has a player option for the 2015-16 season.
Memphis Grizzlies: Tony Allen
Mike Conley is the one who shows up on lists of the league's most underrated players, Marc Gasol will be one of the hottest free agents on the market in the summer, and Zach Randolph is one of just 10 players in NBA history to average 16 points and 11 rebounds at age 33 or older.
But the Memphis Grizzlies wouldn't have "Grit-n-Grind" without the Grindfather himself, Tony Allen, whose defense and overall energy is the engine of this team.
With the exception of JaMychal Green, who's played a total of 21 minutes all season, Allen's net rating of plus-9.6 leads the Grizzlies. And the defense gives up 8.8 more points per 100 possessions when he sits on the bench.
The reason for the disparity is Allen's tenacious on-ball defense, which can be sent at any team's top wing or guard. On the season, he's holding opponents to 36.6 percent shooting, or 7.8 percent below their average.
Miami Heat: Luol Deng
Much like the Celtics, the Miami Heat have had a load of players see the floor this season—21, to be exact. One of the only constants has been small forward Luol Deng.
Among Heat players who've been on the floor for at least 300 minutes, Deng's net rating of plus-1.8 trails only Hassan Whiteside, who would be a candidate for this distinction as well, if not for the "Hassanity" that has accompanied his play.
Deng may not have a hashtag dedicated to him, but that hasn't impacted his dedication to the team. He's played in 54 games (only Mario Chalmers has suited up for more) and his defense has helped Miami stay in the playoff hunt.
He's currently holding his opponents to 42.7 percent shooting, which is 2.3 percent below their average.
Milwaukee Bucks: John Henson
After being picked in the lottery of the 2012 draft, John Henson's career has stalled a bit thanks to the dreaded "tweener" tag.
Bucksketball's Nick Whalen wrote about the dilemma:
Henson has been an enigma, of sorts, over his first two-and-a-half NBA seasons, with four different coaches attempting to answer the riddle of whether he’s a power forward or a center (and whether he’s left, right, both or neither-handed). As of late-February, we’re still without a definitive answer to the former, but the pendulum is beginning to swing heavily toward center.
As positionless basketball continues to become vogue in the NBA, the designation of a tweener will be less important. What a player actually does should count for more.
And with Henson, his elite ability to protect the rim deserves more credit and should be a vehicle to more consistent playing time.
Among players who qualified for Basketball-Reference's blocks leaderboard, Henson's block percentage of 8.7 leads the NBA.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Martin
Much like Randolph, Kevin Martin is providing a level of production that's quite rare for a player of his age.
Just 14 players in NBA history have been able to manage Martin's numbers—at least 20 points on 44 percent shooting and 38 percent from three—at age 31.
|World B. Free||1986||1986||CLE||1|
Martin may not be a part of the Minnesota Timberwolves' future that includes Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng, but he's been one of the league's quietest but steadiest volume scorers for nearly a decade. His experience, in combination with Kevin Garnett's, could go a long way toward molding the younger players.
New Orleans Pelicans: Jimmer Fredette
Ever since New Orleans Pelicans floor general Jrue Holiday went down with a stress reaction, the front office has scoured free agency and the waiver wire looking for someone to back up Holiday's replacement at the point, Tyreke Evans.
They signed and released both Nate Wolters and Toney Douglas, and at the trade deadline, they acquired Norris Cole from the Miami Heat. All three instantly leap-frogged Jimmer Fredette on the depth chart the day they arrived in town.
On the surface, that makes sense. Fredette is averaging just 3.7 points and is mired in an almost inexplicable shooting slump. The career 38.1-percent three-point shooter has made just 8-of-45 attempts this season (17.8 percent).
But when you dig a little deeper, the decision to turn the backup point guard's spot into a revolving door of 10-day contracts and trade-deadline salary dumps is curious, at best.
The only player who's taken time from Fredette this season and was more efficient was Toney Douglas. And his numbers are subject to sample-size criticism, given that he only played 66 minutes in New Orleans.
Further, you can argue that Fredette's slump may not be as pronounced as it is had he been given a consistent role and a chance to find a rhythm. In the five games in which he played over 20 minutes, he averaged 11.2 points and shot 54.1 percent from the field.
And what about the old argument that playing Fredette instantly craters a defense? Well, that's not true either. His net rating of plus-3.9 is second on the team among players with at least 400 minutes. Only Anthony Davis is better. And his defensive rating of 103.3 is better than the team rating of 105.1.
New York Knicks: Lou Amundson
If you have a better idea for this one, I'm all ears. In the meantime, here's Lou Amundson, who's somehow survived the complete roster teardown of the New York Knicks.
How, you ask?
Well, let Derek Fisher explain, per Fred Kerber of the New York Post:
I appreciate and respect it very much having played against Lou for a long time and now having an opportunity to coach him. There’s a level of humility and integrity that makes everybody want to pull for Lou and want him to succeed, to be on as many teams as he’s been on and to continue not to accept no for an answer.
Every time he gets a chance to put on a jersey, just goes all-in and he’s willing to go through a brick wall for himself and for his team. Things changed a lot since he’s been here. It’s great to have guys like that.
That attitude toward the game has helped Amundson average 7.2 points and 6.0 rebounds for the Knicks in just 23.0 minutes per game.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Mitch McGary
Enes Kanter has gotten a lot of the attention since the trade deadline, but he may not be the Oklahoma City Thunder's best option at the 5.
Of the three centers currently on the roster—Kanter, McGary and Steven Adams—Kanter's defensive rating of of 104.4 ranks third.
McGary's defensive rating of 101.5 is just two-tenths of a point worse than Adams', and the rookie big man from Michigan has the edge over everyone in terms of available rebounds snagged while on the floor. His rebounding percentage of 18.0 leads OKC.
Orlando Magic: Tobias Harris
With the dynamic backcourt of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo and a budding star in Nikola Vucevic, the Orlando Magic have a lot of young, developing talent.
But it may be the unsung "veteran" of the group who deserves a little more love. Twenty-two-year-old Tobias Harris is second on the Magic in rebounding at 6.4 per game and third in scoring at 16.8 points.
He possesses the ability to stretch the floor as well, as he's shooting 36.9 percent from three-point range.
At such a young age, Harris still has plenty of time to develop, making him an intriguing piece of the core Orlando has in place.
Philadelphia 76ers: Jerami Grant
Thanks to his steadily improving play leading up to the trade deadline, Philadelphia 76ers rookie Jerami Grant may have inadvertently paved K.J. McDaniels' way out of town.
After shooting just 21.4 percent from three-point range in December, Grant rebounded to connect on 44.3 percent of his attempts in January and February.
The increase in efficiency, his athleticism on defense and the fact that he's locked into an extremely cap-friendly rookie contract (McDaniels wasn't), made Grant the more attractive option.
He also had a higher net rating than McDaniels. In fact, among 76ers who've appeared in at least 10 games, Grant's net rating of minus-6.3 ranks second behind the much-appreciated Robert Covington.
Phoenix Suns: Markieff Morris
Considering all the publicity Phoenix's three-guard lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas received this season, it's a little surprising to discover Markieff Morris leads the team in net rating at plus-4.9. His defensive rating of 100.7 is also first among Suns who've played at least 100 minutes.
Of course, these numbers are ultimately team stats that are largely dependent on who Morris shares the court with. But with nearly 2,000 minutes played, there's enough overlap to know that Morris's defense against opposing 4s is making an impact.
On the other end, he is second among current Suns in scoring, averaging 15.2 points and playing something of a pseudo stretch-4 role. He may only be shooting 32.2 percent from three, but his shooting from the high post and short corners has been solid.
|FG% by Distance|
With a point guard as explosive as Bledsoe, dragging a big man 15 feet from the rim may be all that's really needed.
Portland Trail Blazers: Robin Lopez
The glamour of offense makes players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and even Wesley Matthews a little more exciting, but Robin Lopez holds the best net rating of any Portland Trail Blazers starter at plus-7.3.
Lopez is the anchor of a defense that is tied for in the league and gives up just 99.7 points per 100 possessions. He leads the Blazers in block percentage at 4.0 and is more than willing to hold his boxouts against opposing bigs, freeing up Aldridge to grab rebounds that are often uncontested.
Lopez is no slouch on offense either, as he shoots 61.5 percent within three feet of the rim and 52.0 percent overall.
Sacramento Kings: Darren Collison
The Sacramento Kings were tied to various trade rumors involving Deron Williams for much of the season, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, potentially looking for an "upgrade" over starter Darren Collison.
As it turns out, he might not have been much of an upgrade.
Collison is likely to miss the remainder of this season due to a hip flexor injury that required surgery, according to Yahoo's Marc J. Spears, but he was a pleasant surprise before going under the knife.
If he can fully recover, Collison could see an even bigger uptick in production when he returns. George Karl, the Kings' new head coach, is deploying a fast-paced, point guard-friendly offense.
San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili
With Tony Parker having something of a down season, Manu Ginobili has quietly asserted himself as the San Antonio Spurs' primary playmaker.
For a player who's been known as a scoring slasher for most of his career, Ginobili has made a pretty seamless transition to distributor.
So while Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard are rightfully getting a lot of the credit for San Antonio's success this season, Ginobili's passing deserves some praise, too.
Toronto Raptors: James Johnson
James Johnson may get a decent amount of attention and appreciation from Toronto Raptors fans, but he's doing things that anyone who follows the NBA should know about.
For one, Johnson has been the most effective driver in the NBA this season. Utah Jazz play-by-play announcer David Locke tweeted, "#1 team pts per drive guy in the NBA - @Raptors James Johnson at 1.40 team pts per drive. Harden 2nd at 1.34 then Curry 1.33"
For someone who's known mostly as a defensive specialist, that's quite a list to be leading.
Johnson is athletic for his size, giving him the ability to blow by defenders on the perimeter and finish over size inside. Trusting that ability and being more selective with jump shots have led to a career-high field-goal percentage of 60.9.
And to top it all off, his net rating of plus-7.6 is first among the nine Raptors who've played at least 1,000 minutes.
Utah Jazz: Dante Exum
Offensively, Dante Exum is having a nightmarish rookie season. He's averaging just 4.5 points and 2.3 assists while shooting 34.5 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from three-point range.
His teammate, Gordon Hayward, thinks Exum's struggles have to do with his aggressiveness, per The Associated Press' Kareem Copeland (via NBA.com):
He seems a little passive. That's pretty normal as a rookie. You're just out there playing not to mess up.
So when he stops thinking and really starts attacking the basket, he's athletic, explosive, he's long and can really make plays around the rim for himself and others. When he does that, he'll be really good.
Until Exum finds the confidence to do those things, he'll have to continue to rely on his defense to make an impact for the Jazz.
Because his length and athleticism make him such a nuisance for opposing point guards, ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote, "...the early returns are positive enough that any bust talk is silly."
Washington Wizards: Nene
With several solid big men on the roster, it's been difficult for coach Randy Wittman to find enough minutes for everyone. The biggest playing time casualty might be Nene.
He has the best net rating on the Wizards at plus-8.4, more than two points better than the second-place ratings of Marcin Gortat and Bradley Beal.
His varied offensive game makes him a reliable target for John Wall, whether he's inside or spotting up in the mid-range.
|FG% by Distance|
Gortat and Kris Humphries have been similarly efficient on offense, but neither can match Nene's defensive rating of 97.0.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him @AndrewDBailey.