Off the Grid: NBA Players Who Are Quietly Doing Big Things
NBA superstars provide no shortage of incredible plays, compelling storylines and absurd statistics to hold the full attention of the casual fan.
But every basketball junkie knows the importance of players outside the spotlight.
Their audience might not be great, but their impact is exactly that. Big enough, in fact, that we're here to peel the curtain back on some of the 2015-16 campaign's quietly emerging ballers.
All seven of these players have lifted themselves to levels never previously reached. They've all experienced growth in both quantity and quality, and each has strengthened his squad to a surprising degree.
These aren't regulars on the nightly highlight reels, and they are not central figures on any fantasy lineups. But rare is the box score that doesn't show their fingerprints all over it.
Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
There's rarely a dull moment during the Will Barton experience.
The springy 6'6" swingman hits the hardwood like he's just been shot out of a cannon. Everything about his game is energetic: the transition sprints, the slippery dribble drives, the acrobatic aerial finishes, the disruptive defense.
"That's my game to get up-and-down and play fast," Barton told BSNDenver.com's Nate Timmons. "I have a talent where I don't really get tired, so I have to use that to the best of my ability."
Barton's attacks are relentless. He's tied for the 19th-most transition possessions in the entire league (67), and he's in the 84th percentile as a fast-break finisher (1.31 points per possession). He can work on or off the ball, making him both an explosive slasher and electric cutter.
Prior to this season, he'd never been able to showcase his intriguing skills in more than flashes. He spent his first two-plus years in a part-time role with the Portland Trail Blazers, unable to crack the rotation of the perennial playoff participants. But he found a new lease on his NBA life at the last trade deadline, moving to the Denver Nuggets in a four-player exchange.
With major minutes finally at his disposal, he's rewriting his scouting report. Beneath the frenetic energy, there's a better-than-advertised source of steady production. He's second on the Nuggets in scoring at 14.4 points per game while posting career shooting marks from all three levels (.461/.400/.853 slash), along with a personal-best 19.3 player efficiency rating.
Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks should be missing DeMarre Carroll. Badly.
He was their best defender last season, and come playoff time, he'd found enough offense to rattle off six consecutive 20-point outings. The Toronto Raptors pounced on the two-way swingman and snagged him with a four-year, $60 million deal. The Hawks bet they had enough internally to replace him, though they did take low-risk, low-reward gambles on Tim Hardaway Jr. and Justin Holiday.
The newcomers have failed to secure rotation spots, but the Hawks aren't hurting on the wings. Turns out, they knew what they had in-house. Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore have tallied a combined 20.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.2 steals per game. (Carroll, for context, contributed 12.6, 5.3, 1.7 and 1.3, respectively, last season.)
Seeing Sefolosha rise to the occasion isn't too surprising, though he did suffer a fractured fibula and ligament damage in April. But the 31-year-old has a track record of providing disruptive defense and timely three-point shooting.
Bazemore barely had an NBA resume coming into this year. This is his fourth big league season, but he only averaged 12.3 minutes over his first three. He had a reputation for providing energy at the defensive end (and on the sideline), but he had struggled to find his offensive niche.
He has it now.
"His energy is No. 1, his defensive presence is No. 1, but as an added bonus, he's making shots at a pretty high level," Hawks assistant coach Kenny Atkinson said, via NESN's Darren Hartwell.
Despite shooting now more than ever, Bazemore has connected on career-best percentages from the field (48.3) and from three (44.8). His 12.3 points per game are more than double his career average (5.2), and his player efficiency rating has catapulted from 9.7 to 16.9 in a single season.
Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
Meet the new Avery Bradley—nothing like the old Avery Bradley.
OK, that's not entirely true. The sixth-year guard is still a defensive menace and a major reason why the Boston Celtics sit fourth overall in defensive efficiency. He'll hound ball-handlers from baseline-to-baseline, and when opponents try to shoot, he's knocking 3.6 percentage points off their field-goal conversion rate.
Bradley has been a suffocating stopper as long as he's been a pro hooper—even longer than that, actually. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman, then writing for NBADraft.net, touted Bradley's draft stock in 2010 on "his ability to be a lockdown defender."
Where he's taken a colossal step this season, though, is extending his impact to both sides of the ball. He's pumping in a career-high 15.9 points per game, which ranks second on the Celtics, and shooting 46.0 percent from the field (well above his career 43.7 percent conversion rate). He already has more than half as many 20-point outbursts (seven) than he did all of last season (12).
More impressively, he has enjoyed simultaneous spikes in his long-range volume and efficiency. He's never taken this many triples (5.8 per game), and he's never buried them at a higher clip (42.6 percent).
"This is shaping up to be yet another season in which Avery Bradley comes back playing better than he did the previous year," wrote CSNNE.com's A. Sherrod Blakely. "We have seen him evolve from a shy, defensive-minded, cut-to-the-basket scorer into a confident, outspoken leader on and off the court who has added what's becoming a lethal big-shot mentality."
The old Bradley was a defensive ace. The new one is knocking on the door of two-way stardom.
Matthew Dellavedova, Cleveland Cavaliers
Matthew Dellavedova put himself on the map with a gritty showing in the 2015 NBA Finals as a surprise spark plug for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Spelling an injured Kyrie Irving, Dellavedova hounded MVP Stephen Curry at the defensive end and erupted for 20 points during Cleveland's Game 3 victory.
It was an enjoyable story for a moment, though it was unclear what (if any) lasting power it had. Well, we're roughly six months removed from Delly's introduction to the casual fan, and he's still turning heads with his play.
His stat sheet is essentially a string of personal bests: 8.6 points, 5.4 assists, 44.4 field-goal percentage, 44.1 three-point percentage, 13.6 PER. But, as Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz explained, fully appreciating Dellavedova means widening the focus to his overall impact:
The ultimate team player, Dellavedova always works to find the open man, either by land or by lob.
After James, no player has made as big of an impact on both the offense and defense. The Cavaliers score 13.0 more points per 100 possessions with Delly in the game, while allowing 7.8 fewer points over the same amount of time. This total improvement of 20.8 points is better than that of the next two closest Cavs, Tristan Thompson (plus-9.3) and Kevin Love (plus-8.6), combined.
Dellavedova's NBA story might have started in earnest this past June, but he continues to add new chapters of dogged defense and floor management. And there's every reason to believe that will still be the case once Irving returns to action.
Tyler Johnson, Miami Heat
On the surface, 2014-15 was a throwaway campaign for the Miami Heat. They fought a losing battle with injuries and ultimately produced their lowest win total since 2007-08 (37).
Of course, the season also included several key developments for this franchise. Like plucking Hassan Whiteside out of basketball obscurity and watching him rapidly develop into an interior anchor. And sacrificing a good chunk of their future (i.e., two draft picks) for the present point guard play of Goran Dragic.
But they made another sneaky-good discovery that's growing more valuable by the day. They gave combo guard Tyler Johnson the chance to parlay his training-camp invite into something more substantial. After a 15-game stint in the NBA D-League, the high-flier earned a pair of 10-day pacts before finally inking a multiyear arrangement.
The Heat have been reaping the rewards ever since. It took three games for Johnson to crack head coach Erik Spoelstra's rotation this season, and Johnson's role has only continued to increase, thanks to timely offense, perimeter shooting and a seemingly limitless supply of energy.
"He made you watch him, he made you keep him even when we sent him to Sioux Falls, he made you acquire him again, he made you develop him and now he's making you have to play him," Spoelstra said, via Heat.com's Couper Moorhead.
Johnson leads all Heat regulars with a 45.7 three-point percentage, and his 52.5 percent field-goal conversion rate paces all of Miami's perimeter rotation players. Johnson has logged the third-most fourth-quarter minutes in South Beach (159), and he's tallied double-digit points eight different times.
Given the Heat's need for spacing—they've shot 35.2 percent from deep in their wins, only 26.3 during their losses—Johnson's impact shouldn't fly under the radar for much longer.
Omri Casspi, Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings' summer was littered with uncomfortable twists and puzzling turns. At some point, the roller-coaster ride stopped just long enough for the seemingly mundane re-signing of journeyman forward Omri Casspi.
As the old adage goes, it's the quiet moves you've got to watch. (Or something like that.)
Sacramento's roster is overflowing with head-turners: DeMarcus Cousins all the time, Rudy Gay on his good nights, Rajon Rondo doing old Rajon Rondo things. Casspi is more of an attention-deflector—in a good way.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney explains:
He is a ball-mover in an offense that needs facilitation; a small forward in a Kings rotation that often calls for him to be a power forward instead; a willing and capable three-point shooter; a smart, instinctive contributor to a team defense; a cutter whose effort doesn't depend on whether he gets the ball; and a player who seems completely comfortable with who he is and the role he’s asked to fill.
Casspi lives outside the spotlight, and yet, he's someone you always notice.
His motor runs a few gears higher than most of his peers. Occasionally that leads to trying to do a little too much, but he doesn't stray outside his lane often.
He greases Sacramento's offensive gears. He's posting a career-best 56.9 effective field-goal percentage—a feat that's hard to overlook since he's launching more field goals and threes than ever. The difference between having him on the floor and not is this attack performing like a top-three unit (105.8 points per 100 possessions, would be third) or a bottom-third one (97.4, 27th).
C.J. Miles, Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers' offense is at its best with a certain player on the floor (107.2 points per 100 possessions), and it's worst when he isn't (99.2).
He also posted a 34.9 three-point percentage over his first 10 NBA seasons—a number several stories below the benchmark needed to wear the "sniper" tag. But it's hard to call him anything but a dead-eye shooter when he ranks among the top 20 in both three-point makes (55, tied for eighth) and accuracy (43.7 percent, 16th).
Miles, who stands 6'6" and weighs 231 pounds, entered the campaign having spent nearly all of his time at either shooting guard or small forward. This season, he's logging major minutes at the 4, keying the Pacers' adjustment to a smaller, faster style.
"He's been one of the guys that has really helped us transform our style of play," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, via Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune. "He was one of the guys that, early on when some of the returning players were still trying to run the old offense, that sort of adapted the quickest."
Most guys might scoff at the idea of a late-career position change. Miles has embraced it instead and emerged from it as a more productive player than ever. Just like his three-point shooting, both his scoring (16.1 points per game) and PER (17.5) have climbed to previously unseen heights.
Zaza Pachulia, Dallas Mavericks
Zaza Pachulia was a Dallas Mavericks' consolation prize. There's no softer way to put it.
The Mavs thought they had their center of the present and future when DeAndre Jordan verbally agreed to a four-year, $80 million contract. But the big man, of course, flipped the script and bolted back to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Dallas had no choice but to scramble to fill the void created by Tyson Chandler's departure and Jordan's about-face. So the Mavs brokered a deal for the solid-but-unspectacular Pachulia.
It was like agreeing to purchase a Ferrari and winding up with a used Toyota.
But there's something to be said for the old reliable ride—especially when it drives smoother than ever.
Pachulia isn't Jordan. The former plays a ground-bound style that couldn't be more aesthetically different from the latter's aerial acrobatics. But Pachulia isn't a typical consolation prize, either.
The 31-year-old is one of nine players averaging a points-rebounds double-double. Both the boards (10.3) and the PER (18.0) are new personal bests. The points (10.7) are the third-most he's ever tallied and well north of his career average (7.1). Dallas outscores opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and gets outscored by 1.2 points per 100 possessions without.
"Pachulia shows there's still value in the dirty work, provided a player actually has the intelligence and craftsmanship to pull it off," wrote SB Nation's Mike Prada. "In Dallas, a collection of one-dimensional scorers suddenly looks whole."
It'd be a stretch to say the Mavs are better off without Jordan, but they are more than content with "Plan Z."