The 10 Most Underappreciated Players in the NBA
Even after proving worthy of additional attention, some NBA players are still left pining for overdue appreciation.
This search for validation is not limited to any one kind of talent. It can be a youngster who isn't being adequately celebrated for his development. It can be a veteran making a mid- or late-career leap without much, or any, fanfare.
It can be a star who isn't universally accepted as one.
It can be a patented superstar who, to some extent, continues to fall by the wayside of the national eye.
We're here to find those undervalued talents, whomever they may be.
Past and present performances (statistical splits, value to their team, previous accomplishments, etc.) are used to determine the importance of each player. The candidates are then subjectively chosen based off the recognition they receive relative to their estimated importance. In the spirit of not potentially marginalizing these players any further, they will be brought to you alphabetically.
These are not the only underappreciated players, to be sure. They're just good to great talents who, for the most part, aren't often enough counted as such.
Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Kudos to Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan for handing more minutes to Steve Adams than Enes Kanter. The former is clearly more valuable to the team, even if his contributions seldom jump out of the box score.
Adams isn't the offensive asset Kanter is, but he doesn't noticeably hurt Oklahoma City's attack. He sets good, hard screens—just ask Russell Westbrook—and is shooting better than 53 percent when rolling toward the basket. And because he's usable on offense, it makes his defensive impact all the more valuable.
Oklahoma City is defending with league-best stinginess when he's on the floor, allowing just 92.9 points per 100 possessions. And considering most of Adams' minutes come against rival starters, yes, that's saying something.
Opponents are shooting more than four percentage points below their average inside 10 feet of the hoop when being guarded by him. His block rate is almost identical to that of Serge Ibaka, who is given freedom to roam and provide help defense when playing next to Adams. Ibaka's individual defensive rating actually worsens by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions when Adams isn't jumping center.
Intangible defensive activity—the kind that, by and large, cannot be measured—doesn't receive much public shine. But there's a reason why Adams boasts a higher overall net rating than Kevin Durant (injured): He is the lifeblood of Oklahoma City's defense and, thus, far more valuable to its success than most tend to admit.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland Trail Blazers
Remember when Al-Farouq Aminu was one of the first free agents off the board over the summer? Do you then remember that subsequent moment when you realized he would be the Portland Trail Blazers' highest paid player in 2015-16?
It seemed like a haphazard investment at the time. LaMarcus Aldridge hadn't yet made his decision to leave Portland, and there the Blazers were, essentially replacing Nicolas Batum with a career role player who, with the exception of a five-game playoff series against the Houston Rockets, never developed into a legitimate three-and-D weapon.
Months later, Aminu still isn't perfect. But he's better than good enough.
Meanwhile, Aminu has quietly become a must-guard defensive force. His assist percentage and scoring average have never been higher, and he's putting in a career-best 34.8 percent of three-pointers. He's draining even more of his long balls off the catch, rendering him a much-needed fit for a Portland offense that relies heavily on Damian Lillard's and C.J. McCollum's drive-and-kicks.
The days of hoping that Aminu lives up to his top-eight draft stock in 2010 are long since gone. But the Blazers, contrary to preseason opinion, are holding their own in the Western Conference. And Aminu, the defensive specialist-turned-two-way weapon, is a huge reason why.
Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
At a time when the NBA values and extolls three-point shooters who can hang tough defensively more than it ever has, Avery Bradley's lack of national enthusiasts is truly troubling.
Yes, Bradley's scoring average is down. But that happens when your usage plummets amid the Boston Celtics' commitment to clinching low-level playoff berths through logjams. Besides, Bradley's numbers are quite good.
Head coach Brad Stevens has him passing with career-best frequency and isn't afraid to use him as a point guard when he wants Isaiah Thomas working off the ball. Bradley's 34.5 percent clip from long range is average, if that, and he's not yet drilling 30 percent of his standstill triples. But he's shooting like an uber-efficient mad man when firing away on hand-offs.
Those who think Bradley is an overrated defender are cute. He's not Klay Thompson, that's for sure, but he makes life difficult on some of the league's toughest perimeter covers.
Bradley spends a lot of time alongside Thomas and is constantly playing the part of a safety net. Boston's defense isn't statistically better with him in the game, but it's still good enough to rank in the top 10.
To say the Celtics need more from Bradley is to really say they must feature him more. It's tough to forge any hint of offensive consistency within a jumbled rotation like theirs, but Bradley has proved to be a viable three-and-D asset in four of his last five seasons.
He deserves just as much of the backcourt spotlight as Marcus Smart and Thomas.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is still figuring out how to function as an off-ball scorer in Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy's offense. His usage rate is down from last season, and he's finding nylon on less than 30 percent of his spot-up three-pointers.
Still, he's carving out a niche for himself as a pull-up assassin (38.5 percent on stop-and-pop threes) and Van Gundy's go-to defender.
Caldwell-Pope starts out games smothering the most potent assignments. Opponents are shooting just 37.6 percent overall against him and only 31.1 percent from beyond the arc. He makes one of the top 10 defenses even more difficult to probe, and there have been times when he, not Reggie Jackson, is tasked with picking up point guards as they crossover the timeline.
Not surprisingly, Caldwell-Pope is featured in six of the Pistons' seven most-used lineups—four of which are outperforming rival units by a wide margin.
Less surprising still, given what we now know, Detroit's drop-off in performance without him is statistically more severe than the setback it incurs when either Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson ride the pine.
On paper, as a tertiary offensive option who averages 13.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game, Caldwell-Pope doesn't register as the Pistons' best player. But, more so than Jackson or even Drummond, he may rank as their most indispensable cornerstone.
Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Derrick Favors has been—and still is—suffering from a years-long case of unfathomable underappreciation.
Underappreciated. Flies under the radar. Underrated. However you want to phrase it, Favors has never received his just due—mostly because the Utah Jazz aren't, as SB Nation's Jesus Gomez explained, built for him to showcase his full potential:
Games like Thursday's, however, serve as a reminder of the player Favors could be if he had ever had a chance to play as the lone big man with a perimeter-oriented power forward. Before Gobert took over, Enes Kanter was around making life harder for Favors on both ends. The Jazz defense is now thriving with the incredible rim protection the Favors/Gobert pairing provides. However, Favors' individual numbers are affected and mask just how good he really is offensively.
By accepting a move to power forward for the good of the team, Favors is sacrificing individual accolades. He's rarely mentioned among the league's best young big men and is overshadowed by the flashier Gobert. Yet, without his willingness to compromise, the Jazz wouldn't be a potential playoff team with an elite defense.
All valid points. And Favors' base production when Rudy Gobert isn't on the floor speaks for itself. But this is less about a lack of opportunity and more about a dearth of recognition.
So what if the presence of Gobert limits Favors' rebounding and shot-blocking numbers? He still produces enough to be identified as a star.
Just like last year, Favors is once again on pace to clear 18.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Only one other player has done the same in each of the last two seasons.
Until such a time that Favors is unequivocally recognized as a star, he will remain here, pacing a list on that he shouldn't, but does, belong.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
After finishing second in last year's Defensive Player of the Year voting and putting pen to paper on an $85 million deal over the summer, it would seem that Draymond Green is anything but underappreciated.
Gradually, though, he has inched into Derrick Favors territory.
Forget the money. And forget what you think you know about how important he is to the Golden State Warriors defense. He's important to the Warriors' everything.
This season's Warriors, already one of the best teams ever, don't lean on any one player. They are averaging positive double-digit point differentials per 100 possessions no matter who's off the floor.
This doesn't mean that Green is Golden State's best player. But he is, at minimum, just as irreplaceable as Curry.
It's because of him the Warriors can defend the way they do, switching on everything while trotting out lineup combinations that make tall people feel like a minority.
End to end, he is their most versatile player.
Case in point: Only one player in league history has ever averaged at least seven rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block per game: LeBron James.
Green is currently in line to become the second.
George Hill, Indiana Pacers
George Hill's legacy will forever be linked to the San Antonio Spurs' decision to trade him for Kawhi Leonard. But he is so much more than that trade, and so much more than a stand-in who represents the Indiana Pacers' inability to install a truer point guard.
Why is it that the Pacers could afford to play the space-sapping Lance Stephenson in previous years? And why were they willing to invest in the equally shooting challenged Monta Ellis this past summer?
Because, unlike most point guards, Hill doesn't need the ball in his hands.
More than one-third of his total shot attempts have come as spot-up threes this season. He's shooting better than 61.1 percent on those looks. That off-ball touch allows the Pacers to experiment with other ball-dominant wings, most notably Ellis.
Why is it that Indiana remains a top 10 defensive squad, despite deliberately weakening its interior rotation and fully embracing the small-ball movement?
Because Hill is a scrappy defender.
Opposing guards are averaging a combined player efficiency rating of just 11 when going up against him, according to 82games.com, and he has been the starting point guard for one of the league's very best defenses over the last few years. Since 2012-13, in fact, only four guards have racked up more defensive win shares.
Perfectly assimilating into whatever identity your team decides to assume doesn't demand headlines. It barely garners any attention at all. But Hill's ability to adjust and adapt and then thrive cannot be overstated.
The Pacers wouldn't be where they are, still fighting for a playoff spot on heels of a turnover-fraught summer, without him.
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Is there a more underrated superstar—yes, superstar–in the NBA than Al Horford?
Some of Horford's luster has been limited by the Atlanta Hawks taking the Spurs approach. They will never emphasize any one individual more than the other, preferring instead to promote and value the entire team over everything.
Before head coach Mike Budenholzer arrived, Horford was just plain overshadowed by more adversely polarizing talents (Joe Johnson and Josh Smith) and, on a national scale, lost in Atlanta's seemingly unending run of mediocrity.
Now the Hawks are contenders, and Horford, while one of their crowning All-Stars, isn't instantly counted as a megastar—even though that's exactly what he is.
Since 2012-13, two players are averaging 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists and one block while shooting 50 percent or better from the field per 36 minutes: Tim Duncan and Horford.
There isn't a big man in the league more versatile than Atlanta's longest-tenured player. And yet, over the years, he has still been forgotten among the stars and often miscast as a power forward, as if someone with his combination of finesse and range couldn't possibly be a center.
Well, Horford is a center. He has only ever been a center. No more than 34 percent of his minutes have ever come at power forward in a single season.
Not that he can't play the 4. That's the beauty of Horford. He doesn't need to be pigeonholed to one position. He doesn't even need to be recognized as the best player on his own team. He just does everything and does it really well.
Horford passes like a guard, faces up like a wing and shoots like a stretch 4. As the game has changed, so too has the man himself. He made and attempted more threes last season than through his first seven go-rounds combined, and he has already made and attempted more outside missiles in 2015-16 than in 2014-15. He is a net-plus on both ends of the floor. He is the heart and soul of an organization that, until recently, pined for both.
Next time you see someone leave him off their list of superstars or top five centers, do them a favor and politely inform them that they're wrong.
Shaun Livingston, Golden State Warriors
Really? Another member of the Warriors?
Shaun Livingston doesn't receive nearly enough dap for helping Golden State make its unique brand of basketball sustainable.
At 6'7", with a point guard's eye off the dribble and the ability to post up, he can spell any one of Curry, Green, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson. That is not an exaggeration. Livingston has already seen measurable time at three different positions this season, and it won't be long until he adds "makeshift power forward" to his professional resume.
Livingston does fall short as a shooter—especially for someone in the Warriors' employ. He has only made 10 threes for his career, and Golden State's offense is set up for him to attack off the dribble and operate from inside the elbows.
But Livingston is a defensive gem. His blend of length and lateral mobility almost isn't fair. Opponents are shooting under 32 percent from downtown when being defended by him, and he headlines a Warriors second unit that ranks seventh in defensive efficiency, according to HoopsStats.com.
Indeed, Livingston's lines will never cause jaws to drop. His per-36-minute splits are modest, and he's posting the second-lowest PER of his career. But when you think about where he was in 2007, after suffering a vast array of injuries as a member of the Clippers, with his career on life support, it's impossible not to be impressed.
It's not that Livingston is actually playing, or that he's carved out a niche on a championship contingent, or that his positional versatility is now a commodity worth well more than $5.5 million Golden State is paying him.
It's that he matters to what the Warriors, a team for the ages, are doing at all.
Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics
Kevin Love is free to disagree. The rest of us have no choice but to bow at the mention of Kelly Olynyk.
The 7-footer, admittedly, hasn't started 2015-16 very well. His shooting percentages are down, and Stevens' equal-opportunity rotation is eating into his playing time. The minutes he does dole out at the 4 and 5 are usually reserved for Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger, with a healthy dose of David Lee sprinkled in between.
Most of us aren't ones for questioning Stevens' logic. But nevertheless, Olynyk needs more playing time.
To be honest, it's puzzling that Stevens hasn't exuded a similar inkling. It's him who has overseen Sullinger's transition into a floor-spacing forward, and Olynyk can be a sweet-shooting center—the stretch 5 most teams don't yet feature but inevitably will.
Neither Johnson nor Lee nor Tyler Zeller offer similar outside upside. They each have decent range for bigs, and Johnson does shoot threes these days, but Olynyk is the lone natural chucker among them. He's shooting 34.7 percent from distance for his career, and while his 32 percent success rate this season is nothing to cheer, he still ranks as an offensive plus.
Olynyk, in fact, owns the Celtics' best individual net rating. The impact he has just by stepping on the floor and being treated as a deep-ball threat is huge—and his improvement on the defensive end might actually be bigger.
"He’s got a good feel for positioning," Stevens said, per ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg. "He’s done a pretty good job of getting out to shooters when he’s guarding shooters. He hasn’t been at the 5 a lot, but when he’s been at the 5 we’ve been pretty active defensively in times where we’ve played a little bit smaller."
Opponents are shooting under 40 percent when being guarded by Olynyk. Relative to the rest of the league, he's stifled offenses inside 10 feet of the hoop. Players are shooting 20 percent against him when posting up, and he's proved to be a real effective pest when guarding roll men.
Olynyk still doesn't block a ton of shots, but he alters them in volume. He's quicker than most 7-footers and likes to muck up floaters in the lane. His liberal use of fouls is now also under control. He's committing a career-best 3.4 infractions per 36 minutes and finally moving his feet rather than idly swiping at the ball.
Even now, as Olynyk finds himself vacillating between Boston's third and fourth frontcourt option, he has the game of a player who will come to define almost everything the league looks for in its centers of tomorrow—without the accompanying recognition.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter,@danfavale.