Underutilized NBA Prospects Who Need a Trade
It takes talent to succeed in the NBA, but opportunity and location have more impact on performance than you might think.
A potentially great player stuck behind a star may never get the chance to flourish. Up-and-comers on high-achieving teams may find themselves glued to the bench because their mistakes, inevitable and born of inexperience, are too costly.
Every player here has plenty of game and at least one obstacle preventing him from showing it on his current team. Not all of them have true star ceilings (some do), but we're arguing that a change of circumstances could help them better tap into the potential they've flashed in suboptimal roles.
There's no strict age cutoff for these prospects; injury and underutilization can keep a lid on success into a player's mid-20s.
These guys' departures would probably weaken their teams, but we're focused on the player perspective, asking which ones would benefit most from a change of scenery.
Pick a Spur, Any Spur
Dejounte Murray (24), Derrick White (26), Lonnie Walker IV (21) and Keldon Johnson (21) give the San Antonio Spurs four young, talented players with limited experience and significant upside.
Murray just finished up his first season as a full-time starter and showed growth in several key areas. In addition to being one of the league's best rebounding guards, the spindly 6'4" Murray addressed one of the main concerns about his skill set by more than tripling his three-point attempt rate from 2017-18 (he lost all of 2018-19 to a torn ACL). At 36.9 percent, Murray's accuracy was more than acceptable; it's the willingness to shoot the deep ball that matters most for a point guard.
White is a two-way combo guard with excellent defensive instincts and a habit of peaking at the right time. He burst on the scene with a stellar playoff effort in 2019 and was even better as the Spurs fought to make the playoffs in the bubble this past season.
San Antonio fell short of the postseason for the first time since the Clinton administration, but it wasn't White's fault. He averaged 18.9 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds while also boosting his three-point attempt rate well above pre-bubble levels, draining 39.3 percent of the 8.0 treys he tried per contest.
Walker and Johnson are younger and more speculative prospects, but both possess obvious physical talent. Walker is a major threat in transition, while Johnson's high energy should at least make him a bench spark, but possibly more as he hones his shot.
San Antonio could ship one of these guys out for future assets (and also relieve the backcourt/wing logjam), but the more effective route would be trading the veterans eating up their possessions: DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, to name four.
The Spurs need to know which of their young players can step into larger roles. It'd be better to clear the decks of vets and get the answer firsthand rather than trading one of them and watching him blossom for some other team.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Michael Porter Jr. is going to rain down buckets wherever he plays, but location may mean the difference between a drizzle and a downpour.
We all saw the 6'10" forward's scoring touch in the bubble, where he slid into Will Barton's vacated minutes and flashed a gorgeous, high-release perimeter stroke while seeming to attract offensive rebounds magnetically. The guy's a bucket, but that was true when head coach Mike Malone confined him to a fringe rotation role prior to the bubble because of defensive miscues.
Nikola Jokic will deservedly have the ball most of the time for the Denver Nuggets, and Jamal Murray looked very much like a superstar during a breakout postseason surge in which he averaged 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds on a gaudy 50.5/45.3/89.7 shooting split. His clutch play was integral to the Nuggets' escape from two 3-1 deficits, and he posted two 50-point games in the same series against the Utah Jazz, putting him in rare company.
Porter profiles as a key piece with the Nuggets, but will he ever reach his full potential with two luminous stars ahead of him in the pecking order? He might ultimately become a better player by paying his dues and being forced to defend on a winner, but Denver doesn't seem like the best place for him to showcase his otherworldly scoring touch.
In addition, MPJ carries himself with the confidence of a top option. That self-assured demeanor could cause some friction down the line in Denver.
Porter s a massive value right now—an easy 20-point scorer if given the minutes on a cheap rookie deal. Denver would be wise to hang onto him. But it also feels like MPJ would have a better opportunity to maximize his numbers and occupy a top-option role elsewhere.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
We've seen more of Caris LeVert than than Porter, but it still seems like the 26-year-old Brooklyn Nets wing is holding out on us.
Injuries are largely to blame, as LeVert has missed 105 games in his four seasons. He's also never averaged more than 30 minutes per game or started more than 31 contests in a given year. Throw all that together, and it's enough to warrant both the "underutilized" and "prospect" tags for a player his age.
LeVert ended the 2019-20 season in good shape, which hopefully suggests he's past the health issues that have restrained his growth. But even if he can stay on the floor going forward, he's in line to face an even greater hindrance.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving figure to be back for the 2020-21 season, and those two superstars are best utilized on the ball. LeVert, who posted a usage rate in the 93rd percentile among combo guards last year, won't get to play his game in Brooklyn alongside that star duo.
That isn't to say he'll be ineffective. His ball-handling savvy, foul-drawing craft and passing acumen will make him a terrific tertiary playmaker. There's also the possibility that Durant, coming off an Achilles tear, and Irving, always good for several weeks on the shelf, won't be simultaneously healthy all that often. That'd put LeVert in position for a few more touches, but he's never going to get the chance to be a focal point.
Maybe LeVert isn't cut out to be a first option, but he, like Irving and Durant, is most valuable with the ball in his hands. He just won't have it often enough in Brooklyn.
Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers
Ivica Zubac is only 23 years old, and he averaged a meager 18.4 minutes per game last year for the Los Angeles Clippers despite posting eye-catching per-36-minute averages of 16.2 points and 14.7 rebounds. He was essentially a ceremonial starter, the latest in a long line of conventional bigs who teams trot out for the opening tip but rarely play big minutes and almost never leave on the floor in crunch time.
However, Zubac is not Meyers Leonard or JaVale McGee or, to take it way back, Zaza Pachulia with the Golden State Warriors. He's nimble for his size and isn't a lost cause when he's left in open space to guard perimeter players. He can survive when the game speeds up and teams tend to favor smaller units.
Zubac is at some level of disadvantage in those situations, sure, but all the positives he brings—rim protection, rebounding and efficient finishing inside—more than offset his negatives.
Lineup numbers come with noise, but the Clippers produced a plus-7.8 net rating with Zubac on the floor at center this season, better than the plus-6.4 they posted with Montrezl Harrell at the 5. When you factor in that Zubac's minutes generally aligned with those of the opposing starting five, while Harrell saw a lot of time against backups, the superior value of the young center's play stands out even more starkly.
The Clippers shouldn't trade Zubac. He's on one of the most team-friendly deals in the league and seems assured of improving if given the opportunity to play more. But if new head coach Tyronn Lue marginalizes him in the same way Doc Rivers did, the Clips might as well move him for another wing or stretchier center so he can get the big-minute role his play merits.
Chris Clemons, Houston Rockets
We're digging deep on this one and trusting the numbers to validate a case for easily the least-known player here.
Chris Clemons, the 5'9" Houston Rockets guard, was the only player in the league last year to get up at least 100 threes in under 500 minutes of court time. In fact, Clemons, the guy with the third-most points in Division I history, attempted 107 triples in only 291 minutes, hitting them at a 34.6 percent clip.
Some portion of Clemons' ridiculously high attempt rate owed to the Rockets' singular style. No team fired off more treys than Houston last season. But Clemons' collegiate record suggests he's hardwired to let it fly regardless of the situation. For instance, he averaged 20.2 points and drilled 42.1 percent of his three-pointers during the 2019 Las Vegas Summer League.
Would Clemons be the target of relentless attacks on defense if given more playing time on a new team? Almost certainly. But there's also a non-zero chance he could give us a glimpse of the kind of undersized dynamism we haven't had since peak Isaiah Thomas. And who wouldn't love to see that?
Clemons is all but assured a small role with James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon soaking up touches in Houston (barring a post-Daryl Morey teardown). The Rockets have a bloated payroll and aren't in a position to cut loose an intriguing talent they only owe $1.5 million in nonguaranteed salary next year, so a trade seems highly unlikely.
Still, Clemons has the track record and small-sample performance to suggest the only thing preventing him from a scoring explosion is a lack of opportunity.