Ranking NBA's Most Underrated Players This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2020

Ranking NBA's Most Underrated Players This Season

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Get ready to pour one out for the NBA's unsung, lowest-key, underappreciated players.

    Applications are not being accepted from stars. They can be underrated, but, well, they're stars. They get more love than the average player, even when they're unheralded relative to their talent class.

    Role players are the lifeblood of this exercise. In some cases, that means highlighting some familiar faces. In others, it entails going completely off the reservation. We aren't traveling into obscurity, but we're prepared to go into the weeds. 

    Basically, this one's for the high-impact non-stars who don't receive enough recognition outside their own fanbases, and whose value cannot be derived from merely looking at per-game numbers or by measuring their popularity.

    Pinning down this group of players isn't easy. Ranking their underratedness is even harder. This ladder is not a comment on who's the better or more valuable player right now, or who will have the superior career. It is more like a "Who needs more love the most?" meter.

5. Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Donte DiVincenzo has received some attention this season by virtue of more playing time and the Milwaukee Bucks kicking the pants off the rest of the Eastern Conference. He deserves more.

    Sixth Man of the Year discussions are starting to mention him with more consistency, but he frequently gets lost behind Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder, Lou Williams and even Bucks teammate George Hill. His candidacy should be more serious than peripheral consideration.

    Catch-all metrics love DiVincenzo's impact. He is 13th in ESPN's real plus-minus. Stomaching his offense can be tough; he exudes a little too much confidence in his off-the-dribble three-ball from time to time. But he's more reliable beyond the arc overall. He's shooting 37.6 percent from deep since Jan. 15, on an uptick in volume.

    More than that, DiVincenzo shape-shifts depending on the lineup. He spearheads fast breaks after grabbing defensive rebounds, darts in for passes from the corners and skedaddles around longer defenders when attacking the basket.

    Milwaukee has trusted DiVinenzo to run plenty of point guard. He still exists to play off other ball-handlers in those situations, but he can initiate pick-and-rolls and has thrown some nifty dimes after leaving his feet. The Bucks crack the 50th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions when he takes over at the 1 without Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor.

    This offensive progression pales in comparison to DiVincenzo's defensive imprint. His hands are agents of disorder. He contests routine passes and busts up possessions from behind while shuttling between both guard spots. Ball-handlers are coughing up the rock on 14.3 percent of the pick-and-rolls he defends, the second-highest mark on the Bucks, and he's averaging as many deflections per 36 minutes as Jimmy Butler.

    Some thought the Bucks would feel Malcolm Brogdon's departure. (Raises hand.) They still might. But DiVincenzo gives them another legitimate swing piece beyond their top four players. They're better suited to survive the playoff pressure-cooker because of all the gaps he fills.

    Honorable Mentions: Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks; Monte Morris, Denver Nugets; Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers; Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies; Mo Wagner, Washington Wizards

4. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Not sure who needs to hear this, but it remains absurd that the Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard in 2018 without giving up OG Anunoby.

    Last season was viewed as a step back for the three-and-D specialist. Really, it was more of a pause. He never had the opportunity to expand his role. The roster around him changed, and he missed time at the beginning of the year due to wrist issues and personal reasons. Acute appendicitis then prevented him from taking the floor during Toronto's championship run.

    That all sucks. It's also in the past. Anunoby is a bigger part of the Raptors now. They wouldn't be staging a viable title defense without him.

    The book on Anunoby hasn't totally changed. It just has a juicer plot. His 38.1 percent clip from long range comes on a career-low 4.1 attempts per 36 minutes, but that dip in volume says more about his increased offensive bandwidth.

    Standstill treys and transition opportunities continue to be his bread and butter, but he now pairs that play-trailing with a trace of self-sufficiency. He's more comfortable attacking in open space—he has to be near the top of the league in steals that turn into fast-break jams—and he's averaging a career-high 3.5 drives per game. More of his looks are coming inside three feet than ever, where he's shooting 68.6 percent.

    Anunoby is, predictably, doing more to the help the Raptors on defense. They're allowing more points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but that's a nod to both their depth and the breadth of his assignments.

    Facing him on the ball has always been a nightmare. He is almost impossible to screen, and his blend of length and speed allows him to chase turnovers without compromising his ability to recover. Some players don't even bother trying to test him. They're more inclined to give up the ball when he's set.

    Toronto has needed Anunoby to do more than stymie the point of attack, and he's answered the call. Few others blur the line between wing and big as effectively. Consider the 10 players he has spent the most time covering this season: Ben Simmons, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman, Gordon Hayward, Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins, DeMar DeRozan, Julius Randle, De'Andre Hunter and Donovan Mitchell.

    When Anunoby is on someone who doesn't move without the ball, he's technically everywhere, hunting opportunities in the passing lane and flying around to contest jumpers and looks at the rim. Only three non-bigs are matching his steal and block rates: Robert Covington, Justin Holiday and Matisse Thybulle.

    Certain players have stronger All-Defense credentials. Anuoby's case still stands up to most. If he doesn't make an All-Defense team this season, it will be nothing more than a slight delay in the inevitable.

3. Royce O'Neale, Utah Jazz

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    Royce O'Neale is definitely underappreciated on a national scale. His numbers don't stand out. Nor does his role. The Utah Jazz, though, know exactly what they have in him: their best, most reliable perimeter defender. (Sincere apologies to Joe Ingles.)

    They reinforced as much by signing him to a four-year, $36 million extension ($29 million guaranteed). And they accentuated his importance yet again, eventually deciding they couldn't bring him off the bench once Mike Conley rejoined the starting five.

    O'Neale's offensive marching orders are pretty straightforward: hit spot-up threes. And he does. His efficiency from downtown has cratered since he signed the extension, but he's still shooting 41.1 percent on catch-and-fire triples for the season.

    Though the Jazz don't saddle O'Neale with a ton of ball-handling responsibility, he keeps possessions moving. He'll pump-fake into drives off the three-point line and kick out to open shooters or dump the rock off to slashers. His second passes are quick when he doesn't put the ball on the floor. He'll whip it to the next shooter before defenders finish rotating.

    Utah's defense has shown cracks at points this season, punctuated by a lack of energy and awareness in transition. These struggles come in spite of O'Neale, as Forbes' Ben Dowsett noted shortly after he inked his extension.

    "He's been the primary ball-handler's defender on over 500 finished pick-and-roll plays this year, per advanced tracking data provided by a source, one of the 10 highest figures in the NBA. The Jazz allow just 0.84 points per chance on these plays, one of the five lowest figures in the league among volume defenders and easily the lowest on Utah's roster."

    Opponents aren't getting out on the break nearly as often with O'Neale in the game, and his range of individual assignments lightens the load for every one of the Jazz's non-bigs, spanning from wings of all sizes to smaller guards with supersonic speed. Utah has bigger names that supersede him at both ends, but its title-contention stock is tethered tightly to his defensive stewardship.

2. Derrick Favors, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Derrick Favors is a familiar face around these parts. He was never fully appreciated in Utah, even when paid at or above market level. Rudy Gobert's ascension, coupled with the league's emphasis on single-big arrangements, created an urgency for the Jazz to downsize.

    That push was not unfounded. Favors' three-point volume and efficiency never took off, and building a league-average offense with two non-shooters on the frontline is a challenge few squads are equipped to handle.

    Favors is a cleaner fit with the New Orleans Pelicans. They can easily stagger his minutes from Jaxson Hayes' court time, and sticking him alongside Zion Williamson hasn't been an issue. The rookie phenom isn't shooting a ton of threes (6-of-13), but he can duck in from the perimeter and put the ball on the floor from face-up positions, which Gobert couldn't do.

    New Orleans is fortunate the Zion-Favors minutes have proved so productive (plus-16.9 points per 100 possessions). The latter is too important to the defense.

    Back problems and personal issues limited Favors to nine appearances in the Pelicans' first 25 games. Two of those tilts included sub-10-minute totals. New Orleans ranked 26th in defensive efficiency during that opening stretch. The team is eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions since.

    This isn't a coincidence. The Pelicans don't have established depth behind Favors, and more importantly, he's a steadying presence around the basket—someone who deters shots and limits second-chance scoring opportunities.

    Opponents are both getting to the rim much less and converting point-blank looks at a lower clip when Favors is on the floor. He doesn't have the quick feet of, say, Bam Adebayo, but ball-handlers still have a difficult time cooking him on switches. He does a nice job staying in front of them, won't bite on head fakes and has the lateral gait to remain attached at their hip when they do put their heads down.

    Not surprisingly, the Pelicans' defense improves by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, the second-highest swing among all their rotation players and one of the largest differentials in the league, period. So while Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram all shoulder harder assignments on a game-to-game basis, Favors is the glue guy who helps hold everything and everyone together.

1. MIkal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

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    Apathetic offense has consigned Mikal Bridges to the land of indifference.

    Except for Phoenix Suns fans, almost no one has a strong opinion about him. How could they? Defensive intensity is inherently undercelebrated for those who play on lottery teams, and his offensive activity has seldom taken off for long stretches.

    Bridges teased us by averaging three assists per game after last year's All-Star break. Mostly, though, he has infuriated with a lack of three-point volume, topsy-turvy efficiency and a general aggression level that ranges from shy to inert.

    Something needs to give for Bridges to earn more recognition. It's starting to.

    Since entering Phoenix's starting lineup for good on Jan. 28, he's averaging 11.2 points and 2.7 assists while splashing in 40 percent of his three-pointers. His drives haven't climbed relative to his minutes, but his assist rate in these situations has more than doubled. Among everyone who has churned through at least 50 drives over this span, he's one of four players with an assist percentage of at least 17 and turnover percentage of 7.5 or lower.

    This isn't output or volume that will vault Bridges into fringe-star territory. It is the type of the utility that demands he stay on the floor—especially when combined with the damage he inflicts off cuts. And while his playing time hasn't been as much of a harping point recently, that's a departure from the norm.

    Sharp increases have often given way to stark decreases, not necessarily because he deserved them, but because he didn't do enough on offense to prevent them. The Bridges of late isn't just a defensive lifeline whom the Suns can survive at the other end. He's a two-way asset.

    Factor in a potential offensive drop-off, and Bridges will still be in this same discussion. His defense gets overlooked because Phoenix has spent most of his first two seasons guarding at a low level. He alone isn't enough to change that, but he's part of the solution.

    No one gets easy shots with Bridges on their case. He fights like hell to get over screens, and ball-handlers struggle to get around his infinity wingspan. His close-outs are basically teleportation, and the energy with which he plays, that emotional investment he seemingly has in every possession, translates to the aggregate.

    Bridges is the common denominator for many of the Suns' best defensive lineups. They're 2.8 points per 100 possessions stingier when he's on the court. Only Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio have larger defensive-rating swings among Phoenix's rotation players.

    Some combinations work almost solely because of Bridges. Cameron Johnson-Kelly Oubre Jr. minutes are far more tantalizing when he's involved. Lineups with him can show more on-ball pressure. He is overextended against stronger wings, but he can get most primary playmakers to give up possession, forcing opposing offenses to lean on secondary options.

    Everything Bridges brings to the table is scalable. He isn't the player around whom you build an entire team, but he's the guy who stands to optimize the best version of it.

    Put another way: The better Phoenix gets, the more valuable he becomes.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersEarly Bird Rights and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.