Ranking the NBA's Most Underrated Players
Dear Undersung, Lower-Key, Underappreciated NBA Player(s)-to-be-Named Shortly,
This one's for you.
Last year's criteria for the league's most underrated contributors will remain in effect—only this time, we're going seven rather than five candidates deep because I am drunk with power. Non-stars will exclusively populate this exercise. Most are familiar names, but the occasional case will steer us into seldom-charted waters.
Just to get out in front of complaints from last season: These selections are not meant to imply fanbases don't recognize the value of more understated players on their favorite teams. This collection instead seeks to identify those who don't receive enough fist bumps and gaga eyes on a national scale.
Anyone who made the cut last year is automatically deemed ineligible. They may still be underrated in the grand scheme—shoutout Mikal Bridges and Royce O'Neale—but variety is taking precedence. Congratulations to all five selections from 2019-20 on their graduation. (Overlap from a similar lookaround earlier this season is allowed. The criteria here is more specific, and you can view this as an updated ladder, minus stars, if you'd like.)
Narrowing the scope of this search isn't easy. Ranking the underrated-ness-itude of the final group is even tougher. Just know this order does not intend to show who's the better or more valuable player right now or who will have the best career.
These rankings are purely a "Who needs more love the most?" meter.
7. Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings
Richaun Holmes topped the earlier edition of this exercise. His fall from No. 1 to No. 7 speaks to his rise in status. He was more widely discussed as a coveted trade target around last Thursday's deadline and is more likely to be identified as the best center in the upcoming free-agency class.
Still, Holmes' utility isn't quite universal knowledge. It is commonplace among diehard (and Sacramento Kings) fans. Others seem less likely to call him Sacramento's second-best player.
And by the way: That's exactly what Holmes has come to be. Harrison Barnes isn't quite it. Tyrese Haliburton is coming but not there yet. It definitely isn't Buddy Hield.
Holmes is more of a constant than them all. He's averaging 14.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists while downing 65.3 percent of his twos—all career highs. His offensive game is both scalable and incredibly hard to neutralize. He sprints in transition and glides in the half court. His 1.37 points per possession as the roll man rank in the 87th percentile, and he's shooting 23-of-29 on the break (79.3 percent).
Cutting off Holmes' path to the basket isn't enough. He has honed one of the league's most dangerous push shots; he's converting 64.6 percent of his floaters. You are going to feel him on the glass too. He is one of 10 players who has cleared 1,000 minutes and an offensive rebounding rate of 9 percent in each of the past three seasons.
Playing Holmes in the middle is admittedly not a cure-all at the other end. He is not tilting the tenor of a defense on his own. He's also not a scarecrow when pulled out of the paint. He can stay in front of downhill attackers and break up shots while backpedaling.
Only four players are contesting more looks at the rim this season, and the 52.3 percent clip he allows on those attempts is right in line with that surrendered by Joel Embiid (52.1 percent) on similar volume.
On a related note: Sacramento will need to get creative with its bookkeeping over the summer. Holmes' Early Bird rights alone shouldn't be enough to re-sign him. He''ll command more than the approximately $10.5 million starting salary they can offer before needing cap space. Because he's worth it.
6. Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks
Nerlens Noel would have an airtight argument to climb a few rungs up this ladder if he offered more bankable offense. He's hitting a tidy 62.5 percent of twos, but he's too much of a wild card for someone averaging under four shots per game.
Every Noel offensive possession is an adventure. On the one hand, he's unafraid to launch baby jumpers. On the other hand, defenses let him fire away for a reason. He's 9-of-30 on jumpers this season (30 percent). His finishing at the rim is a coin toss; he's putting down less than 50 percent of his layups. And his hands might be coated in baby oil. Among everyone who has finished at least 50 possessions as the roll man, he owns the eighth-highest turnover rate.
This is not to say that Noel is without offensive value. He is a viable lob threat and specializes in creating second-chance opportunities, even if he doesn't always make the most of them. His offensive rebounding percentage ranks 17th among players who have logged at least 900 minutes. He would also leave much more of a dent if the New York Knicks weren't dead last in the transition frequency.
Most of Noel's value lies on the defensive side. Good thing too. The Knicks need shot disruptors around the rim, and Mitchell Robinson has missed much of the year with injuries. (He just had surgery on a fracture in his right foot.)
Opponents are hitting 51.3 percent of their looks at the hoop when being challenged by Noel—the fifth-stingiest mark among everyone contesting five or more point-blank attempts per game. What he lacks in pure strength he makes up for tenfold with portability.
He covers a lot of ground when defending pick-and-rolls; he can hold his own on switches and recover from the ball-handler to the basket in a flash. He has blocked as many short-mid-range attempts as Bam Adebayo in noticeably less playing time, according to PBP Stats.
Though Noel has developed into an NBA journeyman—and can be foul-happy—his catalogue of employers doesn't accurately reflect his serviceability. He is, bar none, one of the most effective backup 5s.
5. Juan Toscano-Anderson, Golden State Warriors
Juan Toscano-Anderson's sub-600-minute sample this season works both for and against him.
Small bursts can be misleading, and it doesn't make a ton of sense to stash him in front of more heavily used players. But his inconsistent court time also does service to his case: Why, pray tell, don't the Golden State Warriors give him more run? Particularly when the league tweaked the rules for players on two-way contracts amid the COVID-19 pandemic? (Note: He is expected to be converted at some point, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater.)
Golden State just looks better when Toscano-Anderson is on the floor. His ultra-low usage can be a pain for a team that needs more assured and efficient volume beyond Stephen Curry, but he keeps the rock moving, knocks down 43.8 percent of his threes (21-of-48) and knows how to navigate the half court away from the ball
Damion Lee and Jordan Poole are the only Warriors players shooting a higher clip off cuts, and his marks come on 10- and 11-possession samples, respectively. (Toscano-Anderson has finished 27 such possessions.)
Grappling with JTA's balanced but minimal offensive role is worth it just to get his defense in the lineup. He is high-energy mixed with absurd range. A locked-in Draymond Green is the Warriors'—and perhaps the league's—most versatile defender. Toscano-Anderson is next up.
His defensive-assignment distribution is bonkers. He has spent the most time pestering 4s but matched up with every position more than 15 percent of the time, according to BBall Index. Among nearly 300 players who have tallied at least 500 minutes this season, only seven own a better positional versatility rating: OG Anunoby, James Harden, Jeff Green, Dorian Finney-Smith, Derrick Jones Jr., Jae'Sean Tate and Jerami Grant.
Versatility doesn't equate to effectiveness, but Toscano-Anderson is more than the scope of his matchups. He chases down loose balls at full bore, picks pockets as the helper and can just generally blow up possessions.
The Warriors have an obligation to pursue a playoff bid while Curry remains a top-seven player. They also need to juggle that with player development. Tilting toward one or the other is less than ideal but shouldn't impact Toscano-Anderson. He deserves to be a bigger part of the fold either way.
4. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors
Circumstances only somewhat within Chris Boucher's control seem to be eclipsing a season that should have him vying for a top-three spot on the Most Improved Player ballot.
Injuries and COVID-19 have ripped through the Toronto Raptors roster, and the team has spent the season playing in Tampa, Florida. Every game is on the road. The uncertainty surrounding Kyle Lowry's future leading into the trade deadline only complicated matters—as does Toronto's need for a true 5.
It has all amounted to the fifth-worst record in the Eastern Conference and a fuzzier-than-expected big-picture outlook.
To what extent Boucher deserves blame is in the eye of the beholder. The Raptors pining for another big is most glaring. He should be part of the solution, yet lineups featuring him and Pascal Siakam up front cannot grab a defensive rebound and are fouling in droves. Toronto is more inclined to let OG Anunoby take a crack guarding centers.
But Boucher isn't a pure 5. He's more like a 4 or tweener big—a 4.5 if you will. This isn't news to the Raptors. Aron Baynes' uneven performance and the at-large roster construction are bigger contributors to Toronto's front-line issues.
Viewed through the lens of what Boucher actually is (a reserve big), his season goes down as a big-time victory. He's averaging 13.6 points and 1.9 blocks per game while canning 41.4 percent of his threes. And aren't floor-spacing shot-swatters the front-line dream?
Variance in Boucher's performances strips away some of his sheen. The slightest gust of wind can cause him to leave his feet, and his moderate three-point volume has him traveling a feast-or-famine arc.
Enduring these swings is part of the Chris Boucher experience. They're largely worth it. He is mission-critical to the Raptors' floor-spacing; their three-point clip drops by a now-team-high 4.2 points without him on the floor. And his blocks aren't empty. He leads the team in shots contested at the rim, and the 59.7 percent success rate he allows ranks second only to Yuta Watanabe.
It would be nice if Boucher showed more restraint at times on defense. Then again, full-tilt closeouts are part of his charm. He has blocked more three-pointers than anyone else in the league, according to PBP Stats. Just like his three-point shooting and improving rim runs, his hyper-aggression serves a purpose.
3. Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets
Terry Rozier became an oft-used punchline after getting a three-year, $56.7 million contract from the Charlotte Hornets as part of the sign-and-trade deal that landed Kemba Walker with the Boston Celtics. Nearly two seasons later, he is tightroping an awfully impressive line, at once living up to his pay grade while not receiving nearly enough acclaim for his body of work.
Just three other players are clearing 20 points per game and matching Rozier's efficiency on twos (54.2 percent) and threes (41.6 percent): Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nikola Jokic and Zach LaVine. That is starry-eyed company to go along with mind-melting splits.
Rozier isn't merely capitalizing on accessory status either. Over 60 percent of his made buckets are coming off assists, but he's established himself as an operable off-the-dribble threat. His 53.0 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers ranks 10th out of 60 players attempting at least five such shots per game, and he's second on the Hornets in points scored per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Lineups featuring Rozier without LaMelo Ball or Gordon Hayward are faring quite nicely. That's a nod to Malik Monk's performance this season but remains a testament to Rozier's growth as a shot-maker. And his dependability has so far carried over to when it matters most.
Nobody on the Hornets has made more crunch-time buckets (17), and he's drilled 52.2 percent of his threes (12-of-23) down the stretch of tight games. Only two other players who have made at least 10 clutch appearances and have a usage rate above 27 and true shooting percentage north of 70: Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. The level of difficulty on Rozier's looks drastically differ from his company but still: Holy friggin' crap.
Non-stars on pricey deals often need to have their functional value detached from their pay stub. Rozier used to fall under the umbrella. Now, he's just really, ridiculously good regardless of the context.
2. Dario Saric, Phoenix Suns
Limited availability has driven Dario Saric beneath radar. He spent time in the league's health and safety protocols and then sprained each of his ankles.
As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor and fine folks over at The Timeline podcast have noted, Saric would be jockeying with Jordan Clarkson (and Thaddeus Young) for Sixth Man of the Year consideration if not for early-season bad luck. But he is not here strictly because there hasn't been enough time to appreciate the role he's playing. It's more that people don't seem to adequately recognize the role he's assuming in the first place.
Aside from the stray stints he's seen alongside Deandre Ayton, Saric is now exclusively a center. And it looks good on him. The Phoenix Suns are a plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions during the time he sponges up as the official center. (Note: That lineup data has some noise, like Torrey Craig being listed as the 5 over Saric.)
Pummeling opposing second units is not an end-all, and Saric has done a lot of that. He's also closed some games for the Suns when the matchup dictates it or Ayton is riding a particularly intense roller coaster.
The manner in which Saric—currently in the throes of a cold streak—has endeared himself to the front line is not eminently predictable either. He's not just a perimeter mismatch, though he is certainly that. There is an F-you to his game. He will back down bigger opponents and barrel his way through traffic. He is not the most powerful finisher, but he's more decisive than Ayton on the move.
Centers don't usually have Saric's ball skills—or vision. He will put himself to work away from the ball. He's shooting 20-of-26 on cuts (76.9 percent). Phoenix has yet to get his best outside stuff this season.
Here's the kicker: Saric has matched, if not exceeded, his offensive value on defense. Ayton has received credit for his own switchability, but the execution comes and goes. The Suns can switch pretty much everything with Saric at the 5. He is not some premier back-line protector. He's Mr. Right Place, Right Time. And his body control doesn't wane on lateral pursuits. Phoenix is allowing just 102.1 points per 100 possessions with him manning the middle.
Whether Saric-at-the-5 can sustain in larger samples across all matchups remains to be seen. The Suns will have to go through some pretty terrifying frontcourts to get out of the West. Peak Ayton probably makes more sense against the Los Angeles Lakers (Anthony Davis) and Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic) and perhaps the Utah Jazz (Rudy Gobert).
That this is even a discussion boggles the mind. It is harrowing given the equity (a No. 1 pick) Phoenix has invested in Ayton. Mostly, though, it's a harbinger of Saric's evolution into a Sixth Man of the Year-caliber big.
1. Kyle Anderson, Memphis Grizzlies
Kyle Anderson plays at a cadence all his own. And while his game unfurls in slow motion, he doesn't give defenders much time to think. He pump-fakes and barrels, disarms and dishes.
Defenses aren't always equipped to handle his dexterity. He can handle and pass the ball with either hand. His on-ball body mechanics don't make sense. He looks like he's jerking in eight different directions when probing downhill, like an inflatable tube man billowing in the wind outside a car dealership.
This quirkiness works. Anderson draws shooting fouls more often than someone who doesn't put immense pressure on the rim typically would. His in-between game remains money. He's downing a career-high 51 percent of his mid-range jumpers and a good-not-great 47.1 percent of his floaters.
Adding a three to his arsenal has made him a tougher cover. He has nearly tripled his volume from beyond the arc compared to last season and is swishing 36.8 percent of his treys. He still isn't going to find nylon on off-the-dribble bombs, but he's more likely to make defenses pay for leaving him unattended.
Someone with his physical toolbox isn't supposed to be a quality wing defender. He shirks the stereotype. The Memphis Grizzlies have him covering 2s and 3s, and his mistakes are few and far between. He uses space to his advantage and is among the league's most reliable helpers.
Anderson's numbers still won't wow—12.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.7 blocks—but they do uniquely fill up the box score. Since 2012-13, only four other players have maintained his current true shooting, defensive rebounding, assist, steal and block percentages for an entire season: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and are accurate entering games on March 28. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.