Every NBA Team's Most Underrated Player
Not all NBA players receive the right amount of national-pundit hugs.
Fans of specific teams are, for the most part, pretty good at showering non-megastars with the proper love. They understand the value and importance of certain role players, youngsters, past-their-heyday stars and the like better than those who chopper in to check out a couple of games or box-score watch here and there. Good for them. Pinpointing their team's most underrated player also isn't for them.
It's for everyone else.
That will be the guiding light we follow throughout this process: identifying guys who don't get enough spotlight on a national level (let's call this "normal underrated") or receive too much criticism despite being good (let's call this "NBA Twitter underrated").
Contract values will mostly be thrown by the wayside during this exercise, with the exception of shockingly stale free-agent markets. Big-money deals do not preclude players from unfair minimization. Go figure.
Universally recognized stars will generally be ineligible for inclusion. Super-duper names can be underrated, but if you received an All-Star or All-NBA nod in the past couple of seasons, chances are someone else on your team needs this figurative fist bump-into-a-bear-hug more than you do.
Atlanta Hawks: De'Andre Hunter
Incidental underappreciation is a thing. De'Andre Hunter is proof.
Right knee issues—plural—limited him to a combined 28 appearances through the regular season and playoffs, turning his sophomore campaign into a fit of abridged starts and protracted stops. The idea of his skill set is not underrated: a 6'8" wing who can switch across four positions and move the offensive needle with a touch more than just floor spacing. But not everyone outside Atlanta has seen the application of that value in large enough doses to grasp Hunter’s ceiling.
Prior to suffering the first of his right knee injuries, he was in the onset running for Most Improved Player, averaging 16.7 points through his first 13 games on better than 50 percent shooting inside the arc and a 40 percent clip from beyond it, all while showcasing an extra gear of put-it-on-the-deckism.
Wrapping that combination of spacing and functional shooting into a big, strong combo wing who unlocks dangerously shifty small-ball units that won't wilt on defense is terrifying—for the rest of the league. And it's part of why the Atlanta Hawks are working off such a stellar offseason despite not doing much beyond roster maintenance and late-draft dice rolls: They still have a clear path toward demonstrative internal improvement.
Boston Celtics: Payton Pritchard
Future draft picks that were supposed to turn into star trades instead turned into actual prospects the Boston Celtics kept on the roster, and their base of kiddies gets hammered accordingly. Expectations have that effect. Imagine valuing the 2019 Sacramento Kings' first-rounder as a superstar trade chip only for it to become... Romeo Langford.
Tales of "almost" during team president Danny Ainge's reign no doubt contributed to the tepid, if not adverse, perception of the Celtics' prospect pool. But their youngster well isn't actually dry. Robert Williams III is an NBA Twitter darling—and has officially graduated from this discussion—and neither Aaron Nesmith nor Payton Pritchard looked like they should've been playing at the Las Vegas Summer League.
Pritchard juuust ekes out the nod over Nesmith in an attempt to avoid Sin-City hyperbole. His ascent isn't as out nowhere. He earned some All-Rookie love last season after splashing in 41.1 percent of his triples and winning over self-confidence enthusiasts with unpolished aplomb.
If summer league is any indication, Pritchard's belief in himself is now more refined. The off-the-dribble three looked pretty, even from ultra-deep, and he bust out highlight handles and passes that suggested he's more equipped to run an actual offense. He probably isn't a Celtics championship swing piece, but he could end up rendering the arrival of Dennis Schroder somewhat superfluous.
Brooklyn Nets: Nicolas Claxton
Nicolas Claxton may soon get the chance to play himself outside Underrated City.
Sure, the Brooklyn Nets re-signed Blake Griffin and de facto small-ball center Bruce Brown while adding James Johnson and Day'Ron Sharpe (No. 29). But Claxton should enter training camp with a real shot, if not as the outright favorite, to win the starting-center gig unless the team remarries itself to DeAndre Jordan minutes. (Related: Bleck.)
Brooklyn's center arrangement may always lack definitive structure, registering instead as a rotation that changes based on the opponent and game situation. Claxton is the closest this squad gets to an all-weather 5. He doesn't provide the smoothest offensive experience, though he's improving as a screener and unfraid to put the ball on the floor, but he's matchup-proof within a defense that likes to switch.
Centers aren't supposed to be so comfortable sticking with guards. Claxton, on the other hand, is at home away from the basket, regardless of the situation. His combination of lateral speed, size and length is anomalous, and he applies these physical tools with IQ that belies his experience.
Generally speaking, he made the Nets defense much better last season, albeit in smaller, measured doses. This year, they'd be wise to give him more extensive run. He's earned it.
Charlotte Hornets: Terry Rozier
"Maybe it's time I deplane the 'Terry Rozier is wildly underappreciated' bandwagon," he thought to himself, ready to move on to another Charlotte Hornets player, only to then see the overarching reaction to Rozier's four-year, $97 million extension.
Incurring sticker stock is perfectly fine. The Hornets are, as of now, into Rozier for nearly $115 million over the next five years. That's a lot of money. But, as The Ringer's Dan Devine pointed out, it's not an unruly sum when viewed against other guards—Buddy Hield is entering the second of a four-year contract that could be worth as much as $94 million—and a 2022 free-agency class that may be none too spicy and encourage overaggressive offers from rival squads for mid-end names like Rozier himself.
Oh, also: Rozier is really good.
Just eight other players cleared 20 points per game last season while matching his efficiency on twos (51.2 percent) and threes (38.9 percent): Jaylen Brown, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic, Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard and Nikola Vucevic. Rozier doesn't boast the same self-creation as most in this group, but he has established himself as an operable off-the-bounce threat. He posted a higher effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers last season than Devin Booker and was among Charlotte's most reliable pick-and-roll scorers for much of the year.
That Rozier can work so seamlessly away from the ball is an even bigger part of his charm. Plug-and-play scorers always hold value, even on mammoth deals, and he buried 43.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples last season.
Chicago Bulls: DeMar DeRozan
Players are too often conflated with their contracts and the opportunity cost of getting them on the roster. DeMar DeRozan discourse is a byproduct of both, not to mention an oversimplification of shot profiles.
Should the Chicago Bulls have ponied up a three-year, $81.9 million contract and Thaddeus Young, a 2025 first-round pick and two seconds, in 2022 and 2025, to land DeRozan? Not in a vacuum. But the NBA doesn't unfold in a vacuum.
More than that, DeRozan is not responsible for how the Bulls go about their business. He only has control over his on-court value, and he remains a highly useful offensive player. Through his final two seasons in San Antonio, he averaged 21.9 points and 6.2 assists on 59.7 true shooting. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard are the only players to hit those same benchmarks during that span.
Living and dying by DeRozan's hand is, indeed, a fragile existence. He is a defensive liability, even when slotted up at the 4, and the absence of three-point range stringently dictates how the roster must be built around him.
Here's the thing: The Bulls aren't trying to live or die by DeRozan. They may have over-leveraged themselves in the aggregate, but they acquired him to be their second-, third- or fourth-best player depending on how things shake out. And regardless, neither Chicago's pecking order nor DeRozan's pay grade nor his lack of range significantly detracts from the utility he brings as pick-and-roll maestro.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton
Larry Nance Jr. is beckoning here. He doesn't receive nearly enough credit for filling all the cracks and crevices.
Standing 6'7", he's neither quite wing nor big—the epitomization of a tweener. And it looks good on him. He can defend almost every position, is shooting 35.5 percent from deep over the past two seasons and can pass the heck out of the ball on the move.
Owed just $20.4 million over the next two seasons, he's also on one of the most sweepingly recognized team-friendly deals in the league. It makes more sense to award this slot to someone who might not be all that valued by his own team, let alone the rest of the league.
Collin Sexton's extension eligibility had the Cleveland Cavaliers contemplating whether he's part of their future ahead of free agency. He was considered "very available," per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd. Talk about trippy.
Critics of Sexton's game tend to zero in on his lack of qualitative point guard play. My advice: Try not viewing him as a point guard. Harping on his spotty off-the-dribble efficiency doesn't nuke his value, either. There is room for growth on his pull-up accuracy, and he has shown more surgicality when attacking the lane.
Maybe he's just a younger, potentially souped-up version of Terry Rozier on offense. Well, Terry Rozier just a got a four-year, $97 million extension. Sexton's pay grade should be higher, which is sort of scary because he's not a certified star. But he just joined Jayson Tatum as only the second player in NBA history to average more than 24 points per game while knocking down over 50 percent of his twos and 37 percent of his threes before his 23rd birthday. This is a really good player, not a long-term liability, the Cavs on their hands.
Dallas Mavericks: Reggie Bullock
People seem to be more in tune with Maxi Kleber's defensive shiftiness these days. And that brings us to Reggie Bullock—who, rather quietly, pieced together an unreal season for the New York Knicks last year.
Other players on the perimeter have more of a floor game. Bullock is not someone the Dallas Mavericks should saddle with attacking even the straightest lines. But his three-point stroke is beyond complementary. From March 1 through the end of last season, he jacked 7.5 triples per game, which he connected on at 42.5 percent clip.
Fully set, standalone treys aren't the only threebies he'll swish, either. He can launch quick-fire, mega-deep, off-balance jumpers. Luka Doncic should immediately fall in love with him.
What Bullock lacks in stylistic variance he makes up for with defensive grit. Elfrid Payton was the only Knick last year who spent more time pestering No. 1 options, by virtue of being a point guard, and no one logged more reps versus No. 2 options, according to Bball Index.
Bagging him for non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, with only a partial guarantee in his final year, profiles as an understated steal for the Mavericks. Three-and-D wings are all the rage, and he, frankly, should've seen a much stronger market.
Denver Nuggets: JaMychal Green
JaMychal Green is optionality typified. His entire play style is acclimatizing. He exists, and shape-shifts, to complement the ecosystem around him. It is not a calling card that often dents the box score or invites a ton of praise, but it's one the Denver Nuggets know they needed to retain for next season.
Lineups without Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray that featured Green last year outscored opponents by 12.5 points per 100 and notched a defensive rating that placed inside the 98th percentile among all five-man combinations to log at least 100 possessions. Though Green was not the be-all for any of these units, he did allow the team to futz and fiddle with their frontcourt rotation.
At 6'8", he has the mobility to tussle with contemporary 4s and hold on up switches, but he's strong enough to slide up to the 5 for calculated stretches. That may not seem like much on the surface. But his ability to play up unlocks potential reserve small-ball units, and his capacity to coexist with a traditional big allows the Nuggets to exploit Michael Porter Jr.'s size at the 3.
Green partners his steadying defense with low-usage, team-friendly offense. More than three-quarters of his made shots came off assists, and he knocked down 41.7 percent of his catch-and-fire threes—which, by the way, accounted for more than half of his field-goal attempts. He will never be a central figure on any team, but he's connective tissue for every rotation: that player who lends structure to certain lineups and support to all of them.
Detroit Pistons: Killian Hayes
Search "Killian Hayes on Twitter, scroll past the gather-step three he hit against New York in Las Vegas, and you'll be treated to a slew of unflattering takes, some of which declare the Detroit Pistons have a draft bust on their roster.
Counterpoint: Can Killian Hayes plead 20 years old? Or limited rookie-season sample?
Better yet: Can we get to a point in which we're not writing off a 20-year-old who appeared in just 26 games as a 19-year-old newbie and then didn't win summer league MVP?
Right hip issues cost him most of last season, and what few appearances he made weren't enough to render a profound verdict on his future. That much is true. But Hayes tantalized for stretches.
Throw out the efficiency, and there is visible feel. He can be crafty when getting defenders on his hip, exudes patience in traffic and tossed some artful passes. His perimeter clip will recover. He shot 47.4 percent between 10 and 14 feet after rejoining the rotation. There is hope. He deserves patience.
And he'll remain underrated until gets it.
Golden State Warriors: Juan Toscano-Anderson
Juan Toscano-Anderson is co-captain* of First Team All "Why Doesn't This Dude Play More?" He cleared 1,100 minutes last season, and it didn't feel like enough—not on a Golden State Warriors squad desperate for healthy talent, and not when the NBA did away with a majority of the two-way-contract restrictions.
Golden State just looked better with JTA on the floor. His low usage can be a pain when the offense needs more self-creation and volume around Stephen Curry, but he's a needle-nudger who excels at filling the gaps. He keeps the ball moving and knows how to navigate cramped spaces in the half-court away from the ball. He just averaged 1.38 points per possession on cuts (70th percentile) and drilled 40.2 percent of his threes (37-of-92).
JTA's value is even higher on the defensive end, where he's high-energy mixed with absurd range. He 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 250-plus players who tallied at least 1,000 minutes last season, he ranked 13th in positional versatility.
Functional malleability doesn't equate to effectiveness, but JTA is more than the scope of his matchups. He chases down loose balls, swipes steals as the helper, just generally blows up possessions and unlocks small-ball lineups to boot. Golden State annihilated opponents when he played in units that ran out Draymond Green at the 5.
Adding Jonathan Kuminga, Andre Iguodala, Moses Moody and Otto Porter Jr. has deepened the Warriors' 3-4 carousel. Their wing rotation will extend even further following the return of Klay Thompson. Those extra bodies should not infringe upon JTA's court time. He has, at bottom, earned an every-night role of semi-significance.
(*For those wondering, JTA's compatriot is the currently, inexplicably unsigned Frank Ntilikina.)
Houston Rockets: David Nwaba
Injuries have limited David Nwaba to 50 games over the past two seasons (and dogged him throughout his career). That number seems like it should be higher, mostly because he plays a style you feel.
Nwaba is listed at 6'5" but defends like he's a seven-footer with the frame and mobility of someone who's 6'9". It is not uncommon to see him rumbling with power forwards. It's also not unusual to watch him harass point guards. He has genuine four-position range and will do everything from pick the pockets of loosey-goosey ball-handlers to denying shots at the rim.
Party poopers will obsess over his shaky jumper. He has shown in previous years he can nail wide-open set threes. Last season was not one of those years. He drilled 30.3 percent of his uncontested treys.
Incorporating his outside limitations is easier given how big he plays. He can be used as the screener and has some "F U" to him when attacking the lane. Larger defenders will bounce off him, and he's capable of finishing through contact. He shot more than 50 percent on drives in Houston.
Focus on his injuries if you need to pore over anything. Right wrist surgery ended his 2020-21 campaign, and he has a torn right Achilles, among other physical hangups, in his rear view. But those red flags aren't quite enough for me to pivot Daniel Theis or Eric Gordon. Nwaba needs to start gaining the shine Bruce Brown has earned for the role he champions in Brooklyn.
Indiana Pacers: T.J. Warren
Wouldn't it be great if the Indiana Pacers had a true-sized wing who can create his own shot, space the floor away from the ball and defend? It would.
They already have one.
His name is T.J. Warren.
The hasn't-played-in-a-while factor might be doing some heavy lifting here. Warren missed all but four games last season while tending to a stress fracture in his right foot. And no one was underrating him during his stay in the Disney Bubble, when he torched defenses from just about every level as Indiana's primary scorer.
This is a plea to remember that version of Warren. But it's also an attempt to remind whoever needs to hear it about the defensive strides he made during his first year with the Pacers. It was baptism by fire. They needed him to fight like hell through screens and regularly cover the opposition's toughest wing. So he did.
Indiana is facing an onrush of questions under new head coach Rick Carlisle. Its roster construction is chief among them. But if this team gets the T.J. Warren who showed up in 2019-20 even before the bubble, it'll have a puncher's chance of upending the Eastern Conference's expected chain of command.
Los Angeles Clippers: Nicolas Batum
Rolling with Nicolas Batum for the Los Angeles Clippers carries inherent risk. It takes last season's renaissance as a matter of fact rather than a potential blip, and that's not the safest assumption for an age-32 wing who schlepped through yearslong regression with the Charlotte Hornets before finding his way to Hollywood.
To hell with being overly cautious, though.
Batum's 2020-21 campaign was far too meaningful to play it safe. He led the Clippers, a championship contender, in total regular-season minutes played. Seriously. And he didn't benefit from walk-in-the-park deployment. Los Angeles had him guarding four different positions, and the average usage rate of the players he defended was the third-largest on the team, trailing only Patrick Beverley and Terance Mann, according to BBall Index.
That latter point is partial evidence of opponents' willingness to attack him, but still: holy me-oh-my. There is immense value in defenders who can scale their workload across different positions and player archetypes. Batum is not someone rival offenses can target to repeated success.
He is just as adaptable at the offensive end. The Clippers don't have to assure him a certain amount of on-ball volume. He shot better than 40 percent on threes last season while binging on catch-and-fire looks, and his table-setting comes via split-second touch passes and pump-and-drives rather than clock-killing isolation.
Somehow, someway, the Clippers re-signed Batum using only his non-Bird rights. They should count themselves lucky. He deserves a lot more than $3.1 million he's slated to make.
Los Angeles Lakers: Malik Monk
Settling on a player from the Los Angeles Lakers is tough business. Russell Westbrook stans will make a case for Russell Westbrook, but that's not the answer. LeBron James' Instagram captions will make the case for LeBron James. That's not the answer, either.
Marc Gasol came close. The Lakers never should've considered Andre Drummond a more viable frontcourt partner for Anthony Davis. Gasol's passive offensive volume can induce hair-pulling, but he's a legitimate floor-spacer with the vision to pass others open. And though his defensive impact isn't what it used to be—note the end of Los Angeles' first-round series with Phoenix—he still knows how to best position himself in the half-court.
Malik Monk edged out Gasol with a more poignant "WTF?!?" factor. The Lakers nabbing him on a minimum deal was genuinely shocking. Yes, he has his baggage. His defense is nonexistent unless he's stashed on bigger, slower opponents, and he doesn't get to the rim or foul line with the frequency to warrant more on-ball activity.
And yet, for all he doesn't do, Monk gets buckets—with a capital "B." He's coming off a year in which he buried a career-best 40.4 percent of his threes, including a highly encouraging 37.2 percent of his off-the-bounce treys.
Last season's efficiency ranks as an anomaly against the rest of his pro sample, and it doesn't extend to his shot-making out of the pick-and-roll. But at only 23, and as someone who's always had a certain slipperiness when going downhill, Monk's stock has plummeted a tad too low for my tastes.
Memphis Grizzlies: Kyle Anderson
Kyle Anderson topped my "Most Underrated Player in the League" ladder from the end of March. His spot in the pecking order of fellow underappreciateds may have shifted since, but no one on the Memphis Grizzlies comes remotely close to displacing him at the moment.
Here's what I wrote then, slightly updated, because it remains true now:
"He 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 downed a career-high 52 percent of his mid-range jumpers and 49.2 percent of his floaters last season.
Adding a three to his arsenal has made him a tougher cover. He more than tripled his volume from beyond the arc compared to 2019-20 and hit them at a 36 percent clip. 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."
Anderson is comparably useful on defense. He can cover quicker wings despite his own lack of explosion because he knows how to use space to his advantage but has the girth to guard up and the instincts to pitch in as the helper. His remains a style often confused as limited when, really, it's just all-around impact in atypical form.
Miami Heat: Kyle Lowry
Potential options on the Miami Heat both abound and fail to impress within the context of this exercise. They just aren't teeming with players who desperately need more attention.
Reactions to Jimmy Butler's four-year, $184 million contract extension were a little heavy on "He doesn't even shoot threes anymore and is kind of old!" He continues to defend his butt off and has emerged as a fully operational and devastatingly effective point forward. If he's not best-player-on-a-title-team-material, then he's the next best thing.
Selecting him still rings hollow. He's coming off All-NBA (third team) and All-Defense (second team) bids. Perceptions of Tyler Herro have probably veered too far into overrated territory, but not to the extreme that he's now a slept-on giant. P.J. Tucker's corner threes didn't fall at a high enough clip during the playoffs for him to sneak in here. Max Strus is the way to go only if you believe he'll get the requisite floor time, touches and agency to showcase his summer-league step-back three.
Failing any painfully obvious or spectacularly subtle candidates, defaulting to Kyle Lowry seems right, in large part because he's never quite received the credit he deserves without strings attached.
What he does on defense can look gimmicky (and dangerous), but so few players his size are as physical both on and off the ball. He will throw his body into the path of a runaway freight train. He will screen like a roll man. His pull-up jumper dropped off last season, but you still have to guard against his dribble threes or risk paying the physical toll he'll exact attacking north-south. And he will effortlessly toggle between featured creator and complementary scorer, a delicate balancing act not every alpha can replicate.
In essence, Lowry retrofits his stardom to meet the demands of the larger environ. He can pave your direction, follow one already mapped out and adjust course as needed. Never mind how much the Heat are paying him, or that he's entering his age-35 season. The next three years of his career are a risk worth bankrolling.
Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo
Donte DiVincenzo's absence from the Milwaukee Bucks title run flew too far under the radar. It didn't amount to the same loss as the Brooklyn Nets without Kyrie Irving or 0.75 of James Harden's hamstrings, but the right foot injury he suffered in the first round bilked the reigning champs of a meaningful rotation staple.
Jrue Holiday's arrival limited the amount of time the Bucks needed DiVincenzo to act as a methodical playmaker. It suited him. He hit a career high 37.9 percent of his threes, including 38.1 percent of his spot-up triples, and was able to make quicker decisions.
There was more room for him to work when turning corners, and he flung automatic passes to screeners and cutters. For his part, he looked more at home dancing with the ball when given the opportunity.
Little changed about his defense—in a good way. He remains disruptive. His hands are ubiquitous, and he's still an expert at busting up plays from behind. Milwaukee has a default first-option stopper in Holiday, but DiVincenzo is the guy it often leans on to chase around a rival's No. 2, even if that sometimes means guarding up from the backcourt.
Non-stars who can wear this many hats are rare. DiVincenzo is never going to be the difference between a title and leaving the playoffs empty-handed, but he's a multitude of depth rolled into one player.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Jaden McDaniels
Perhaps this search says more about the team's intent to groom him as a power wing. It used him like one during summer league. He pushed the ball in transition, dribbled into jumpers, drained some difficult pull-ups and went first-option mindset in traffic. His handle held beyond straightaway opportunities, and he unveiled the footwork necessary to change course and scoot by defenders, plural, after picking up his dribble.
Whether the Timerwolves need McDaniels to be that player on a lion's share of their possessions is debatable. They have Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns to engineer buckets.
But McDaniels having more layers to his offense is a big friggin' deal, especially when he's already shown how effective he can be without them. He spent the entirety of his rookie year filling gaps—hitting spot-up threes, running the floor, slipping through cracks in the defense, etc. He is going to leave a mark no matter how Minneosta uses him.
And that's before factoring in his defense. He has twitchy hands when guarding on the wing and can make himself look monstrous as both the helper and primary rim protector on the back line. Draft results takes years to bear out, but as someone who fell all the way to No. 28, he seems fated to go down as one of the biggest steals from the 2020 class.
New Orleans Pelicans: Devonte' Graham
Alternatives choices are available in heavy supply across the New Orleans Pelicans' roster.
Jonas Valanciunas is forever underappreciated, but he finally seemed to get his due last year as the Memphis Grizzlies' second-best regular-season player. Get to know Naji Marshall if you haven't already; he should be a rotation wing for a long time. But he needs more reps before qualifying here.
Josh Hart straddles the line between overrated and underrated. On the one hand, he's a worse outside shooter than you think, and his defensive rebounding isn't that astounding given how many uncontested boards he grabs. On the other hand, he's a defensive worker bee, hits enough of his treys to retain the three-and-D label and, somehow, couldn't get more than than fully guaranteed year in his new contract.
Devonte' Graham ekes out the victory thanks to a down year in which too many forgot what he did during 2019-20, and because his value is too intertwined with the rest of the Pelicans offense—which remains, for now, not great.
Lonzo Ball is the better player overall, but Graham has more floor general in his DNA. He can create and drain jumpers off the bounce, and his dribble penetration matters despite a significant lack of feel and touch around the basket.
Looking at Graham's numbers last season won't get you to that conclusion. But it could just be a blip. He battled a couple of injuries and had to rejigger his role around the additions of LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward. Flash back to the 2019-20 campaign, when he was tasked with spearheading Charlotte's offense, and he converted a respectable 34.4 percent of his pull-up threes and ranked sixth in assists generated at the rim, according to PBP Stats. And if all else fails, he can still light it up from ultra-deep off the catch.
New York Knicks: Nerlens Noel
Nerlens Noel's three-year deal with the New York Knicks wasn't received particularly well, and public inklings shifted only slightly upon finding out the third season was a team option. Investing mid-level-exception-type money in backup bigs has become taboo among cap geeks, and Mitchell Robinson still ranks as the most important center in The Big Apple.
As someone who wasn't as "rah-rah" about the Knicks offseason, I'm totally cool with Noel's contract.
Robinson is uber-cheap next season ($1.8 million), so New York doesn't yet have an astronomical amount allocated to the 5 spot and is facing likely one year of steeper overhead if it keeps both bigs. Noel's return is most limiting as a roadblock to Julius Randle-Obi Toppin frontcourt lineups that score one trillion points per 100 possessions. That is completely fair.
This otherwise shouldn't be a discussion. Noel has his limitations on offense—he grips the ball like it's basted in butter—but he's a defensive game-changer. 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.
Opponents shot 51.7 percent on their looks at the hoop last season when getting challenged by Noel—the sixth-stingiest mark among everyone contesting five or more point-blank attempts per game. If he tops out as a second-string center, he'd be perhaps the best one in the league.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Darius Bazley
Darius Bazley's game is overwhelmingly incomplete, particularly on offense, but it includes flashes of everything.
Sticklers for efficiency won't care. Bazely has turned in a true shooting percentage below 50 through each of his first two seasons. Even the scoring onslaught he went on to close the year didn't include the cleanest splits. His lows remain low.
Much like the Oklahoma City Thunder as a franchise, though, he's traveling down the path of discovery. And there's a lot of depth to plumb. His handle can be high and loose, but he's testing out spins and gutsy changes in direction. His shooting percentages are all over the place and mostly disappointing, but he finds ways to at least reach the basket and sinks the occasional off-the-bounce jumper. The passes he throws don't hit guys many rotations away or who weren't open in the first place, but he's willing to keep the ball in motion.
No one, including in Oklahoma City, should know what to make of Bazley's offense. That's part of the appeal. He toes the line of wing and big, and the on-ball experimentation should pay off even more when the Thunder give him more runway with which to work.
Amid all those offensive trials, Bazley has seen harrowing defensive matchups. They aren't on the same level as Luguentz Dort's assignments, not even close. But the Thunder are taxing his 6'8" frame, and he has a certain omnipresence off the ball as well as on the glass. Maybe everything, on both sides of the floor, will eventually come together. Maybe it won't. The extent to which Bazley keeps exploring his limits is worth appreciating either way.
Orlando Magic: Jalen Suggs
Yours truly, just before Las Vegas Summer League: I will not read too much into what happens in Summer League. I will not read too much into what happens at Summer League. I will not read too much into what happens at Summer League.
Me, right after Las Vegas Summer League: Jalen Suggs is underrated before playing in an official NBA game.
Including Suggs implies a little bit of everything. It remains wild, to me, that Toronto took Scottie Barnes instead of him. This is also a nod to how well he played in Vegas, where he showed absurd shot-making, some extra-gear passing, a little off-ball wizardry and gnarly crunch-time defense. And finally, this is the result of few other options on the Orlando Magic roster.
Some will invariably misconstrue this as shade. It's not meant to be. The Magic are light on established players, have two building blocks coming off torn ACLs (Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac) and employ veterans who don't fit the motif of this exercise.
If you feel the need to make a case for Terrence Ross, Gary Harris or Robin Lopez's hook shot, please have at it. Otherwise, Suggs is beating out mostly a collection of players still on their rookie deals. That's not egregious—not after he tumbled a "whole" spot in the draft, and most certainly not after the show he put on in Sin City.
Honorable Mention: James Ennis, who should be signed, immediately, by Orlando or another team.
Philadelphia 76ers: Danny Green
Go with Ben Simmons if you must. But to do so means acknowledging disingenuous extremes. Simmons is an imperfect star and a transcendent defender with real offensive limitations whose value is at an all-time low—and who also doesn't suck. All of those things can be true.
Danny Green's tenure in the gray area is more long-standing, with the glaring lack of appreciation to which he's subjected more recurring.
There is a reason—plenty of them, actually—why he's been on three separate championship teams. He's good. He plays defense. He's shooting 40.1 percent from deep for his career in the regular season and 37.8 percent from long range in the playoffs.
Recent postseason cold spells are fair game to criticize. He converted just 33 percent of his triples in the four postseasons prior to 2021. He still defended. And then he shot 37.8 percent during the Philadelphia 76ers' 2021 playoff push. He defended then too.
Just so we're clear: "Danny Green couldn't guard Trae Young" is not an adequate barometer for his stopping power. Scant few can authentically disrupt Young. Green may be older, at 34, and slower than he used to be. He still defends. And hits threes. And is the exact type of player really good teams should get and then keep rather than, say, use as a throw-in to send Kawhi Leonard to Toronto or to acquire Dennis Schroder from Oklahoma City.
Phoenix Suns: Cameron Johnson
So about that whole "Cameron Johnson was a reach at No. 11" thing... He's dispelled it.
Actually, never mind. He's actually taken it, soaked it in gasoline, set it ablaze, coated his shoes in flame-retardant and punted it outside of Earth's atmosphere, past the boundaries of our solar system and into interstellar space.
Johnson has done the same to "He's a fantastic shooter" sentiments. He is, in fact, a really good shooter, someone who scares defenses far more than last year's 34.9 percent clip from deep implies. But he's more than an outside threat.
Opposing teams now have to plan around his pumping into drive-and-kicks and dribbling around screens, and he has even hit the occasional pull-up. Defense is never going to be his strongest suit, but he's quicker than advertised when moving laterally and capable of making physical contests around the rim.
On the most fundamental level, Johnson is straight-up useful, the kind of player who elevates his team by working entirely within its flow—and without readily exploitable weaknesses.
Portland Trail Blazers: Robert Covington
Robert Covington went from a no-brainer, home run acquisition for the Portland Trail Blazers last offseason to someone who was just sort of there when 2020-21 wrapped up. His greatest flaw: not fixing one of the league's worst defenses.
The nerve of him, right? Who cares that he clearly gave a damn on defense—an aberration, frankly, in Portland? Or that his knack for busting up possessions in the passing lane and as the weak-side help was alive and well? Or that he continued to salvage broken defensive sets from behind?
Or that he continued to do all this while fending for himself against No. 1 options more often than anyone save for Derrick Jones Jr., per BBall Index? Or that sticking him at the 4 next to Jusuf Nurkic actually proved to be quite stingy?
RoCo is billed as a sub-excellent one-on-one defender, someone who can't be called upon to shut down the opposition's starriest scorer, as if that's something anyone in the league can do on a regular basis. That "void" in his game, the inability to single-handedly prevent Portland from placing 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions, is all that matters. Obviously.
Why yes, this is an overcorrection. No one who matters thought RoCo sucked last year. But he also wasn't properly spotlighted for his body of work, which included canning 37.9 percent of his threes on 5.1 attempts per game. And that matters.
Sacramento Kings: Richaun Holmes
Richaun Holmes was supposed to price himself beyond this selection. Money, as already noted, isn't always a gauge for value, but the bag he would undoubtedly command as a unrestricted free agent would be validation—telltale of his ludicrously high offensive skill.
Then the offseason happened. Holmes stayed with the Sacramento Kings, on a straight-up Early Bird Rights deal that will pay him $46.5 million over the next four years, an average annual value of under $12 million.
Literally, actually, what?!?
Miss me with "The final season is a player option!" and "He got a 15 percent trade-kicker!" rebukes. This is, flat-out, one of the five biggest steals from free agency. Holmes is making like 60 percent of what Jarrett Allen received, per year, from Cleveland. Robert Williams III just got a four-year, $54 million extension from Boston for crying out loud.
Both Allen (23) and Williams (23) are younger than Holmes (27). I don't care. Holmes is better. He is as tough to guard on offense as you can be without launching threes. (For the record: Sacramento should give him the green light from deep.) He just put down 61.1 percent of his floaters and averaged 1.3 points per possession as the roll man (84rd percentile).
Holmes is not on the same level defensively as Allen (stalwart at the rim) or Williams (potential one-on-one terror), but he also wasn't at fault for the Kings' craptastic defense last season. He can make plays around the rim and isn't Bambi on ice when pulled away from the basket.
That he didn't get a fatter deal from another team—the Kings couldn't offer one without cap space—might be a harbinger of his love for Sacramento. I'm not buying it. Not entirely. It has to at least somewhat be a symbol of the enduring disconnect between the perception of what he does and his actual value.
San Antonio Spurs: Doug McDermott
Too many bristled at the three-year, $42 million deal Doug McDermott received from the San Antonio Spurs this month. Perhaps the price is a tad steep for a franchise tottering between rebuilding and chasing a playoff berth, but paying for efficient scoring is never an irresponsible investment.
McDermott is nothing if not an efficient scorer. He drilled 64.1 percent of his twos and 38.8 percent of his threes last season. His shot diet was nearly devoid of self-creation—almost 85 percent of his made buckets came off assists—but that level of accuracy and volume bordered on unparalleled. Mikal Bridges and Michael Porter Jr. were the only other players to attempt more than 200 twos and 250 threes on similar efficiency.
Attempting to disqualify McDermott's career-best offensive performance using his age misses the mark. He turns 30 in January. Big whoop. Nothing he does, or has started to do, is unsustainable. Outside shooting tends to age well, he will remain an opportunistic cutter when given enough room, and his relatively new penchant for attacking in open space isn't contingent upon operating at warp speed.
San Antonio has other viable options if you can't get around McDermott's defensive limitations. But Thaddeus Young earned a truckload of love for his passing and defense as a small-ball 5 in Chicago last year, Jakob Poeltl's rim protection is a well-established dream, and the Spurs themselves have placed adequate faith in the offensive feel of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White by moving on from DeMar DeRozan.
To be clear: McDermott isn't the only possible answer. He just feels like the most correct one.
Toronto Raptors: Chris Boucher
Chris Boucher admirers like myself took it personally last season when the Toronto Raptors' search for more big men took on a certain desperation. Getting more help up front was a necessary priority, but did it need to be portrayed as the priority?
Yes, there are uneven, verging on unhinged elements, to Boucher's game. He will bite on pump-fakes from just about anyone, including you and me, and his overall performances are subject to wild swings. At 6'9", he also isn't quintessentially sized to man the 5 full-time. His trampoline vertical and pterodactyl wingspan (7'4") allow him to play taller, but he is slight enough to get tossed around when life down low gets physical.
Still, this is someone who hovered around the Sixth Man of the Year (despite his eventual starts) and Most Improved discussions prior to the sprained left MCL that ended his season. He averaged 13.6 points and 1.9 blocks per game while converting 38.9 percent of his three-balls, embodying the floor-spacing, shot-swatting archetype teams are supposed to covet on the front line.
Enduring the variance in Boucher's outings is unequivocally worth it. His presence makes a difference. He improved his floor navigation when moving without the ball, and his outside shooting in particular is paramount to a team not yet armed with enough experienced creators. Toronto's above-the-break three-point percentage jumped by 2.8 points last season with him on the court—the third-highest swing among players who finished 2020-21 on the roster.
Though Boucher's defense is oft-interpreted as more flash than substance, it's actually both. Full-tilt closeouts are part of his mystique, and he's exceptional at them. Nobody in the league blocked more three-point shots, according to PBP Stats. He also led the Raptors in looks contested at the rim, and the 60.7 percent clip he allowed, while not elite, is rock-solid for someone who is not always camping out around the basket. He deserves to be recognized for what he is: a starting-caliber 5, or 4 or 4.5.
Utah Jazz: Royce O'Neale
Among 400-plus players who logged at least 300 minutes last season, here's the list of everyone who spent a larger share of their defensive possessions guarding the No. 1 option than Royce O'Neale, according to BBall Index's Matchup Difficulty metric:
Excuse me while I go faint out of pure exhaustion on his behalf.
When you read and hear about how the Utah Jazz need another wing defender, don't take it as a slight at O'Neale. He's doing the damn thing. Utah throws him on everyone from point guards to 4s, and he puts relentless pressure on the ball both from the front and behind. His defensive motor in transition is boundless. No one is safe when he turns on the jets.
Calls for the Jazz to land another wing defender have more to do with size and scope. O'Neale is 6'4". It'd be nice if he didn't have to be among the primary options to throw out at Kawhi Leonard-, Draymond Green- and Ben Simmons-types, in addition getting the no-contest nod against Devin Booker, Damian Lillard, Ja Morant, etc.
O'Neale endears himself to hoops junkie even further with his plug-and-play offense. Over 74 percent of his shots last season came without taking a dribble, on which he posted an effective field-goal percentage north of 60. He inflicts damage as both a catch-and-fire marksman and floor-running enthusiast, and the Jazz as we've come to know them wouldn't nearly the same or close to as good without him.
Washington Wizards: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Exaggerated lows create the illusion that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a maddeningly inconsistent offensive player. People remember the nights in which he's 1-of-7 or 1-of-9 from the floor, and those performances get turned into his semi-normal, some sort of trend or proof of his streakiness.
That impression is overblown.
KCP is not, by any means, the most bankable scorer. His teams need to live with more-than-occasional overzealous decision-making, which can manifest in unruly shot attempts that stall out a fast break. But the macro returns outweigh those moments of frustration and self-destruction. He has, in many ways, turned himself into an idealistic complement.
The LeBron James-era Los Angeles Lakers largely took the ball out of his hands. KCP adapted to that more limited license. Last season, almost 90 percent of his made buckets came off assists. That also happened to be the year he found nylon on a career-high 41 percent of his threes. And for all of his perceived seesawing, he's shot 37.8 percent from behind the rainbow over the last four seasons.
Lack of appreciation doesn't just permeate his offensive contributions either. KCP's defensive workload too often goes unnoticed. He spent more combined time guarding first and second options last year than anyone else on the Lakers and was near the top of that department during 2019-20, per BBall Index.
Lest we forget, it was KCP who was Los Angeles' most reliable non-star in the team's 2020 championship run. It takes a special one-two punch at the top—like that of James and Anthony Davis—for KCP to be the third-best player on a title team, but that doesn't change the fact that this is still someone who was recently the third-best player on a title team.
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.