The 10 Most Underappreciated Players in the NBA
Breaking news: Every NBA athlete is pretty darn good at playing basketball.
Even the end-of-bench "scrubs" who rarely contribute are elite at their sport. Every NBA player outlasted an infinite number of high school players whose professional dreams eventually end.
Yet all but an elite few get the respect they deserve. And even NBA all-stars can be overrated, typically because they provide glamorous statistics that mask serious holes in their games. Others fall into the opposite category, doing little things on the court that aren't usually recognized.
With one notable exception, these players aren't threats to post gaudy scoring totals. In fact, most of the 10 average fewer than 15 points per game.
Their contributions are shielded from obvious explanations. These players provide non-traditional production: excellent defense, efficiency and intangibles. They toil away without the recognition they deserve.
Let's change that.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.3 blocks
The Portland Trail Blazers have, somewhat shockingly, been better on defense than offense during the 2017-18 campaign.
They currently rank No. 11 in points per 100 possessions and No. 4 in the point-preventing counterpart. Remove the opening-night victory against the then-unmotivated Phoenix Suns from the equation, and those ranks shift to Nos. 17 and 15, respectively. The latter mark is even dragged down by Al-Farouq Aminu's absence in a Thursday night victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 27-year-old forward has been crucial to Portland's schemes throughout this season's opening salvo, consistently filling a number of different roles. Whether he's blocking shots as an interior stopper, helping corral drives along the baseline, sliding out to the perimeter to check an opposing ball-handler or filling space to cut off passing lanes, he's looked like the NBA's equivalent of the Tune Squad's own Tazmanian Devil.
With Aminu on the floor, Rip City's defensive rating is a sterling 93.5—a number so impressive it would outpace the stingy Boston Celtics (94.7) for the Association-wide lead. Remove him from the equation, and the defensive rating skyrockets to a putrid 106.4 that would be tied with the Denver Nuggets at No. 22. That yawning chasm will only become more obvious and pronounced as he takes a few weeks to recover from a crutch-requiring ankle injury.
But Aminu hasn't just been a defensive stud in 2017-18. He's thrived on both the offensive and defensive glass, learned how to limit his turnovers and parlayed smoother shooting form into a career-best 43.3 percent clip from outside the arc.
Everything has worked.
Team: Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Will Barton may not be much of a defender, but he's quietly developed into a such a well-rounded offensive contributor that he could factor into the Sixth Man of the Year race for the Denver Nuggets.
The 26-year-old swingman is comfortable creating his own offense, and he frequently uses his jaw-dropping athleticism to attack the basket in the open court. When he builds up a head of steam in transition, the results are often exemplary. Ditto for his aggressive bursts toward the hoop during the half-court game.
Perhaps even more importantly for a team that relies on unorthodox shot-creation, Barton is also a capable secondary facilitator. It's not his preferred role, but he's fully capable of keeping his eyes up and seeking out open teammates on the perimeter as he probes a defense.
But the true key behind his blossoming into a bona fide bench standout is improved three-point shooting.
Rewind to the 2014-15 season, and Barton suited up for both the Portland Trail Blazers and Nuggets, shooting an anemic 27.1 percent on 1.5 deep attempts per game. Those numbers rose to 34.5 and 4.0, respectively, during his first full campaign in the Mile High City. Then, he hit 37.0 percent of his treys while taking 3.9 per game in 2016-17, creeping ever closer to becoming an above-average sniper.
This season, though the sample remains minuscule, he's launching 4.8 triples per game and converting 41.7 percent of them—numbers only 19 other players have been able to match during the early portion of the NBA calendar. And yet, his development is even more impressive because he's improved while still creating a sizable percentage of his shots off the bounce.
Just 76.5 percent of his successful triples have come off a teammates' feed. And among that aforementioned group of 19, only Blake Griffin, CJ McCollum, Victor Oladipo and Rodney Hood can say the same.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
The world knows Patrick Beverley is a pestilent defender, a hounding presence who frustrates opponents from the moment the ball is inbounded until they've let fly a contested jumper. Scratch that. He frustrates them before the shot clock begins because he so frequently jockeys for position and attempts to create turmoil prior to the referee relinquishing the rock.
Beverley is a nuisance—a statement that's meant in the most complimentary way possible. He's both aggressive and disciplined. He's so good at getting under the skin of foes that his nickname should be Scarlett Johansson.
But perception of this point guard hasn't caught up to reality. He's a defender, but he's not just a defender.
Though the 29-year-old may have been more limited in the past, he grew tremendously throughout his time alongside James Harden, learning how to play off the ball and create plenty of spot-up opportunities. Now, he commands a strong gravitational pull that opens up driving lanes for his teammates—the direct byproduct of finishing in the 83.7 percentile for spot-up points per possession in 2015-16, the 79.8 percentile in 2016-17 and (so far) the 87.1 percentile in 2017-18.
Turnovers have been a bit of an issue for Beverley during the beginning of his Los Angeles Clippers career, and that's fine. He's re-adjusting to functioning as a lead guard rather than one who defers to more talented distributors. As the year progresses, he should become more comfortable doling out dimes without turning over the rock, just as he was while serving as a secondary facilitator with the Houston Rockets.
But even if the cough-ups don't diminish, how many point guards are such terrific defenders, such deadly spot-up shooters, such capable distributors and such excellent rebounders in traffic? The answer is simple: not many.
Team: Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
At what point can we accept that Darren Collison is a terrific offensive player?
Last year, the lowly Sacramento Kings posted a 106.1 offensive rating while he was on the floor, which would have left them at No. 16 in the season-long standings. This year, the Indiana Pacers are scoring a staggering 111 points per 100 possessions when he's leading the charge—good enough to trail only the Golden State Warriors and remain well clear of the remaining pack.
Collison may not be much of a defender, but the speedy 1-guard does everything else you could want from a backcourt leader.
He's able to jet up and down the court in transition, then burst to the hoop in the half-court set. He sets up his teammates while on the move, using the pick-and-roll game and more complicated sets to find open running mates cutting to the basket or spotting up on the perimeter. Even more impressively, he does this while minimizing his turnovers.
Collison was one of only 13 qualified players to average more than four assists and fewer than two turnovers in 2016-17. Now, he and Jerian Grant are the league's lone contributors dishing out at least seven dimes during his typical appearance and still losing possession no more than twice per game. In fact, just 12 players have ever done that, serving as a true testament to the control with which Collison plays while creating so much offense for the surprisingly effective Pacers.
Oh, and we haven't even mentioned his three-point shooting. Though the numbers have dipped slightly in 2017-18, he finished at 41.7 percent on 2.6 attempts per contest last year.
Collison might not have the scoring average that grants him recognition as a point-producing force, but steady and efficient production goes a long way.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks
Robert Covington's improved shooting for the Philadelphia 76ers is not a fluke.
He won't continue to hit 49.2 percent of his looks from beyond the arc while taking 7.2 deep attempts per game. Even Stephen Curry would look at those numbers with admiration and a twinge of jealousy. But he is a vastly improved marksman who's learning how to pick the right spots and thrive as one of the league's deadliest catch-and-shoot players.
Not only is he finding himself working with more space as defenses focus on an improved Sixers core, but, as BBALLBREAKDOWN's George Kondoleon explained, his form looks drastically different:
"The improved shooting stroke has been wondrous. Covington’s hitch has decreased to the point where his jump shot actually looks like one fluid movement. His body is squared, and he has a quicker release on contested catch and shoot opportunities.
"... The biggest change seems to be the point of release, which is much higher and closer to his face in 2017. His elbow is also in tighter, forming an all-around better angle for him as a shooter."
Covington remains a devastating defender with the athleticism and lateral quickness necessary to corral plenty of different opponents. For all the hype Joel Embiid received last year as the anchor of a surprisingly effective Philadelphia stopping unit, this forward's work was every bit as important. His switchability and weak-side help were sorely needed.
Now, he's a legitimate three-and-D presence emerging as more of a stud than a role player.
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
Apparently, even the Minnesota Timberwolves themselves are failing to show Gorgui Dieng the appreciation he deserves. The 27-year-old big man is playing just 15 minutes per game and coming off the bench in support of Taj Gibson, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Tom Thibodeau's penchant for displaying loyalty and sticking with the options he previously trusted.
Gibson has been effective in his minutes, but Dieng's skill set makes him an even better fit alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler.
On offense, the Senegalese standout remains one of the league's deadliest mid-range shooters, coming off a year in which he drilled 43.9 percent of his two-point jumpers from at least 10 feet. In fact, only 13 true big men added more value as jump-shooters last season, using the same methodology employed for an earlier Metrics 101 installment that looked at the best shooting seasons since 2000.
Couple that with a 7'3 ½" wingspan, per DraftExpress, that he can use on defense in a variety of situations, and he's a true two-way asset. Gibson might be the superior defender around the basket, but Dieng's mobility, cerebral acuity and ability to serve as a vocal conductor for the 'Wolves actually makes him the more value stopper. In 2016-17, he even (3.52) outpaced the current starter (2.02) by a significant margin in ESPN.cm's defensive real plus/minus and, unlike Gibson, remains fully in the midst of his athletic prime.
This doesn't have to be a one-to-one comparison. Which player is "better" isn't entirely relevant for our purposes.
But Dieng deserves far more than marginalization within the Minnesota strategies and could help push this up-and-coming squad far closer to the top of the Western Conference hierarchy.
Team: Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks
As Greg Cassoli explained for CelticsBlog, the Boston Celtics have frequently asked Al Horford to fill just about every role under the sun. They've tried to make him bounce between protecting the rim, switching onto smaller opponents and being in multiple places at once.
Now, with an infusion of lanky athletes coming into their own, they have the manpower necessary for him to thrive in this role:
"In 2016-17, the Celtics simply did not have the right personnel to leverage what it is that makes Horford a special defender—switching, helping, and organizing the troops to defend the pick and roll. Boston overburdened him with duties, and attempted to construct a system that leveraged the strengths of its tenacious on-ball defenders.
"Now, in 2017-18, that system has been rebuilt around collective length, allowing for more switching, increasing the value of a rangy, versatile big like Horford, and decreasing the number of split second decisions he’s forced into making. The result has been, and will continue to be, a more cohesive and effective defensive unit."
According to NBA Math's defensive points saved, only three players have added more value on the preventing end at this early stage of the latest campaign. And behind Horford's all-around excellence, the Celtics have become the Association's most stifling unit. Trust me. He is the impetus behind that point-stopping dominance.
Without Horford, the Celtics' defensive rating declines by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. Among the six Boston players who have logged at least 200 minutes, Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier are the next-most impactful presences by this measure, checking in with dips of 2.7 and 1.3 points over the same average span, respectively.
Horford remains an efficient scorer with three-point range and the ability to function as a distributing hub from the elbows. He just also happens to be an early contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.9 steals
While far too many people remained insistent on calling him a draft bust for his failures with the New Orleans Pelicans, Austin Rivers stealthily developed into one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He'll never live up to the hype that helped him become the No. 10 pick of 2012's prospect pageant, and he can't erase his putrid shooting numbers as he got his feet wet at the professional level.
He can, however, make the most of his opportunities with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Most numbers won't show this, but context explains away any negativity surrounding his defense. Rivers has been forced to play within plenty of offense-first units, and his willingness to switch onto tough assignments depresses his individual metrics. Watching him tells a different story.
Rivers plays as if he understands that defense has become his unexpected calling card. He has the lateral quickness necessary to stick with opposing guards, but he's also capable of using his 6'4" frame and accompanying strength against far bigger players. The Clippers frequently call upon him to guard wings and forwards, and he's typically up to the task.
That type of versatility is valuable, especially when Rivers no longer functions as a liability on offense.
This 2017-18 campaign is looking like it could be his best year yet, and that remains true even if he continues shooting 39.5 percent from the field. The 25-year-old is no longer attempting nearly as many forced looks, instead lofting up a career-high 41.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and finding twine 42.9 percent of the time. He's also continuing to keep his turnovers in check, despite occasionally serving as a facilitator or attacking in isolation.
Rivers will always get flak for his previous draft status and playing while his father serves as Los Angeles' head coach. But as he told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times in late September: "I've put everything in my rearview mirror and I've continued to silence people. That's how I'm going to ... continue to be happy living my life. And in the process, I silence haters. ... I don't play for those people. I play for myself and this team."
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 4.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.1 steals, 0.6 blocks
Andre Roberson is shooting 43.2 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from downtown for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Averaging just 4.8 points per game, he's seen as so much of a shooting liability that his troops are sometimes forced to play four-on-five while he stands in the corner and wishes the opposition would pay him even the slightest amount of attention.
The 25-year-old swingman is also a liability at the end of games, since foes will hack him and send him to the free-throw line. He's been more effective there in 2017-18 than he was last year, but his conversion rate has only creeped up from 42.3 percent to an even 50 percent. Already, he's air-balled a pair of supposed freebies, drawing derision from those in attendance.
And yet, we're still perfectly comfortable listing Roberson as one of the NBA's most underappreciated talents.
With long arms, plenty of athleticism and the perfect mentality, he's asserted himself as a legitimate perimeter stopper. In fact, he was so good against opposing stars in 2016-17 that you could make a convincing case he was the best perimeter defender in the entire league, supplanting Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and any other wing you can name.
Roberson lives in the film room, studying the smallest tendencies of each and every opponent. Then, he applies the takeaways. That sounds like a simple process, but so many defenders fail to exhibit what they've learned in their studies during live action, forgetting to keep their hands raised against James Harden's drives or neglecting to force Lonzo Ball to the right.
This sponge has all the knowledge, as well as the fundamental and physical abilities necessary to maximize his learnings.
Team: Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
What more does Kemba Walker have to do before he's recognized as a legitimate superstar?
The 27-year-old floor general should be widely hailed as one of the uber-elite point guards in today's NBA, not a lower-level All-Star who only graces the midseason classic because he plays in the league's weaker half. Just consider that he ranked ninth in fan voting last year while finishing seventh in the player poll and tied for sixth with Dwyane Wade among media members. This year will probably yield a similar result, because Walker typically toils away in relative obscurity, viewed as good but not quite great.
Throughout his career, he's still consistently shored up every weakness that emerges.
He couldn't shoot from distance when he first left Connecticut. Now he's knocking down 38.8 percent of his triples while taking 5.4 per game (numbers that are down from last year), and ducking under a screen is a guaranteed death sentence carried out with a pull-up bomb. He's struggled to finish around the basket, but now he's making more touch shots than ever and keeping rim-protectors off balance with a deadly floater.
Even on defense, Walker has asserted himself as a consistent presence who rarely gambles for steals but instead makes a point of staying between his man and the basket. Against all odds, the 6'1" floor general has become a two-way player who's indispensable to the Charlotte Hornets, as their net rating plummets from 11.2 to minus-22.9 when he leaves the floor.
Walker only has last year's All-Star appearance on his resume. He's never made an All-NBA team. He rarely gets mentioned in conversations about the league's five best point guards.
And that needs to change.