Ranking the NBA's 10 Most Underappreciated Players

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2021

Ranking the NBA's 10 Most Underappreciated Players

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    In an ideal world, every NBA player would be celebrated and criticized exactly as much and as often as they should be. No more, no less.

    Unfortunately, the game is the game, and it doesn't work like that. Some players are judged too harshly because of the style they champion. Others are viewed through the lens of their contracts. Certain players are flat-out undervalued. Many just aren't talked about enough. A select few have seen their popularity wane because they've been around forever and the NBA audience at large has never fully grasped their importance.

    This space, right here, is for those players.

    They have not been deemed bad. They're either being overlooked, or the consensus opinion has strayed too far in a negative direction.

    Players will be ranked because rankings are fun, but their placement has nothing to do with their overall value. It's instead a bar for just how far under the radar that value flies or is misperceived.

    Let's show these guys some overdue love.

10. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Perception of DeMar DeRozan is careening too far in the wrong direction. Mid-range-heavy shot selections are generally frowned upon, and his dip down the league's hierarchy is fueled intensely through the lower peaks enjoyed by his teams.

    Most of the overarching criticism is fair, even with DeRozan trading in some long twos for above-the-break threes this season. Living through his brand of offense is a fragile existence. Relative to the type of talent that must be placed around him to optimize that offense, it is also a limiting existence.

    But there is a difference between a restrictive player and a non-useful one. DeRozan remains capable of driving an entire offense. His passing out of the pick-and-roll has improved exponentially over the past half-decade, and he isn't too reliant on reaching the rim to draw fouls. Many defenders continue to get burned by his pump-fakes.

    With or without three-point volume, playing through DeRozan is also doable because he's wired to take and make the shots defenses want to give him. He has not rated below the 73rd percentile in mid-range efficiency since 2015-16. His dependence on the in-between game might be too indicative of how rosters must get fleshed out, but it is still a viable source of regular-season survival.

9. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The lack of appreciation for Kyle Lowry is a recurring issue that feels rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding.

    No one part of his game powers misconception of his stardom. It is the sum of his skill set. He is what the statistics say—19.1 points and 7.3 assists per game, league-average-ish three-point shooting, charge-taker extraordinaire—but his value outstrips any one number.

    So few players his size are as physical on and off the ball. His defense can feel gimmicky from the opponent's eye, but he is an in-your-jersey pest. Point guards aren't supposed to be such effective screeners—especially point guards who are 34 years old and stand 6'0". He is at once someone who can run an offense and operate within it as a co-star or lower-volume complement.

    Not every big name is this malleable. Nor are they so infectious. Lowry gives the Toronto Raptors their identity without confining it. His hustle and versatility set a tone the rest of the team visibly follows.

    The Raptors have housed better players. And they will do so again. Pascal Siakam might become one of them. But Lowry has shaped their past nine years more than anyone.

8. Kyle Anderson, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Fully appreciating Kyle Anderson takes an affinity for the details because normal indicators won't do the trick. He did not start hoisting threes with real volume until this season. He is not someone conditioned to look for his own shot. He is not explosive.

    Absent conventional flash, he has turned deliberateness into an art form. He uses length and space to hang and disrupt on defense. He leads fast breaks with his floor positioning and vision. He uses indirect paths to the basket to get by defenders.

    Even his improvised decisions after picking up his dribble seem calculated. He sees players he's not actually looking at and cuts to the hoop before they happen.

    Anderson's limitations will always take center stage. Extra three-point volume renders him more interesting—he's shooting 41.2 percent from the corners—but he still takes too many mid-range jumpers. Nearly everything about him goes against what people value most in contemporary wings.

    At the same time, that's what makes Anderson so entertaining. He has found alternative methods for filling the box score and impacting games. And in doing so, he's turned into one of the NBA most's useful and uncelebrated players.

7. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Myles Turner exists in a weird space. His defensive value is recognized, but it ultimately winds up paling in comparison to everything he's not doing on offense.

    If we're being brutally honest, this season isn't going to be an agency for change. Turner is taking more threes, but he's downing them at a 28.2 percent clip. His room for growth is minimal. The Indiana Pacers have never veered further away from featuring him, and the need to play Domantas Sabonis at the 5 makes it difficult to ensure him much more than 30 minutes per game—if even that many.

    But Turner cannot be judged solely through the cracks of his arsenal. For starters, he is still a floor-spacing 5. His three-point volume helps open up the half court and allows him to play with another big. More than anything, though, he's a dominant rim protector.

    Nobody is challenging more looks at the basket per game. And among the 73 players who have contested 30 or more total shots at the rim, Turner's 45.3 percent conversion rate allowed ranks first.

    It isn't just the raw numbers. It's also how they come. Turner can defend both sides of the pick-and-roll on the same possession without sacrificing proximity to the basket. Opposing bigs are almost never going to dust him off the dribble, and if he's beat on switches, he remains a threat to bust up shots from behind.

    Basically, no shot near the hoop is safe so long as he's on the floor, and he's an early Defensive Player of the Year candidate because of it.

6. Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Larry Nance Jr.'s versatility deserves a brighter spotlight. The Cleveland Cavaliers deploy him as their Mr. Does Everything, a role for which he's uniquely suited and not yet nationally celebrated.

    Log minutes on the wing? Sure, he can do it. Defend Ben Simmons? OK. How about Myles Turner? Yep. And what about switching onto Jrue Holiday? Why not?

    Shoot threes? Duh. At a 40.5 percent clip? Even that. Poke away possession from ball-handlers? Done. Deny entry passes? Easy. Lead the league in steals? Currently, yes. Slip screens? Child's play.

    Hit a couple of baby jumpers? Attack closeouts? Shake defenders around the basket? Scoot by slower opponents off the dribble? Kick out to shooters? Sling dimes to cutters? Make quick second passes? Checkmarks across the board.

    Calling Nance a jack of all trades doesn't begin to describe the depths of his game. He doesn't wear many hats so much as he wears all the hats. His is a skill set that warrants much more mainstream attention.

5. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Navigating the Marcus Smart experience can sometimes take an iron stomach. I want to do anything in life as confidently as he launches heat checks independent of a hot streak. Through it all, though, he remains an overwhelmingly positive player.

    Smart's offensive lows will never compare to his defensive highs. He is only 6'3" yet is somehow virtually positionless. The majority of his assignments include the toughest backcourt cover, but the Boston Celtics don't hesitate to occasionally throw him at larger wings and fringe bigs.

    No other guard wields Smart's combination of strength, physicality and craft. He defends like Russell Westbrook plays offense—as a force of nature—but he's more methodical than blunt. His hands are quick and subtle. The turnovers he creates are their own form of playmaking.

    Invariably, however, Smart is a defensive system unto himself in a league that lauds scoring and bigger stoppers. Perception of his shooting also has yet to catch up with his actual shooting. His trips inside the arc have too many twist endings, but he's drilling 35.5 percent of his threes since 2017-18 and has even turned into more of a threat off the dribble.

    Maybe the attention Smart receives will eventually align in scale and tenor with his on-court impact. For now, he is easily one of the league's most underappreciated players even though he's one of its best, period.

4. Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Terry Rozier continues to be penalized for the circumstances under which he joined the Charlotte Hornets. Not only was he coming off a down year with the Boston Celtics, but he was signed-and-traded for franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker—and overpaid in the process.

    Follow-up question: Was he actually overpaid?

    Three years and $56.7 million is a lot for 2018-19 Terry Rozier. The Hornets don't have that player. Their version is averaging 18.3 points and 3.9 assists while swishing 41.2 percent of his triples through his first season-plus.

    Charlotte has optimized him in a way Boston never really did. Rozier is starting, but he's not the guy. He's the guy next to the guy.

    Spot-up threes are the crux of his diet, and he moonlights in pull-up jumpers rather than the other way around. This year, he has leveraged defensive overreactions incited by the threat of his shooting into roomier drives and more frequent trips to the foul line. He deserves more attention for his on-ball defense, too.

    Everything Rozier is doing should have forced a relitigation of his place in the league. It hasn't. Make no mistake, though: He's not overpaid. He's just good.

3. Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Cameron Johnson is the living embodiment of the "how it started vs. how it's going" meme.

    How it started: The Phoenix Suns selected him at No. 11 in 2019, much to the surprise of everyone, including his UNC teammate Coby White. It was a reach. It was a mistake.

    How it's going: Johnson is a steady rotation player on a really good Western Conference team and currently one of the best, most impactful players from his draft class.

    And mind you, it isn't just his standstill shooting. He's burying 38.7 percent of his spot-up triples, but he's dabbled outside specialist duty. He is comfortable pumping into drive-and-kicks and dribbling around screens and has hit the occasional pull-up. Defense is never going to be his strong suit, but he's quicker than credited when moving laterally and capable of making physical contests around the rim.

    Phoenix is more than 25 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, and he's become a net positive on both defense and offense. Spending time beating up on second units helps. This is not a swing that will hold. But the general principle should.

    Johnson is, officially, a draft-day steal.

2. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Collin Sexton would have belonged on this list last season.

    Only five other players cleared 20 points per game and matched or exceeded his efficiency on twos (50.1 percent) and threes (38.0 percent) while attempting as many treys (255): Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Karl-Anthony Towns. Discussions instead focused on his playmaking deficit or presupposed his numbers were empty calories.

    News flash: Sexton is really good. And he's picking up where he left off last year.

    He's not going to average over 25 points per game while draining 50 percent of his twos and his threes forever, but the essence of his offense is sustainable. He's a devastating shooter who's starting to find his groove off the dribble.

    Harping on Sexton's assist numbers is officially disingenuous. He's not a point guard. The Cleveland Cavaliers aren't using him as a full-on point guard. Ergo, he should not be measured against the bar of a point guard. He's a combo guard who tilts toward off-guard, and his decision-making is improving regardless. He's passing on more of his drives—44.0 percent, up from 32.4—and making smarter reads overall.

    Whether the Cavs have an All-Star cornerstone on their hands remains a matter of course. But their building-block pool isn't nearly as barren as it was thought to be last season. Sexton is among the primary reasons why.

1. Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

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    Hector Amezcua/Associated Press

    Richaun Holmes doesn't even seem like he's totally appreciated by his own team. (Let him shoot threes, Sacramento!) That his minutes have dropped ever so slightly is a product of the Kings' crowded front line, his own foul trouble and probably a smidgen more Hassan Whiteside than needed.

    Still, Holmes is critical to the best versions of Sacramento. If floor-spacing 5s are the most valuable offensive bigs, he's the next best thing. He has great pick-and-roll chemistry with the guards and a nifty floater he uses liberally. Few players work as hard or efficiently on the offensive glass.

    Remaining so efficient within this role is no small feat. Holmes' floaters bake some variance into his offensive outcomes, but he is shooting 76.9 percent (20-of-26) on jumpers and 70.4 percent on two-pointers, the second-highest mark among all players with at least 50 attempts inside the arc. That's untenably high but not entirely misleading. He dropped in a rock-solid 52.9 percent of his jumpers last season.

    Anchoring a top-shelf defense would elevate Holmes' profile, but he's not that guy. He's at least a pretty stout rim protector, which is useful in and of itself when he's so dominant at the other end.

    Anyway, there is value in playing within the confines of your wheelhouse, and Holmes owns his.

        

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders 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 Adam Fromal.

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