Ranking the NBA's Most Underrated Players

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2022

Ranking the NBA's Most Underrated Players

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The NBA is as talent-rich as it's ever been. There are stars all over the league. Several teams have more than one. And the depth throughout has made it difficult for some good (and in some cases, great) players to get the shine they truly deserve.

    There are underrated players in seemingly every game. And they come from a handful of different groups.

    There are those players who rarely see the floor but probably should be in rotations more consistently. There are rotation players who should be getting a little more time. Some of the game's sixth men are better than many realize. And there are even some stars who deserve more recognition for being stars.

    Each group contains multiple names and can be found below.

End-of-Bench Players Who Should Be on the Floor

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    3. Jabari Parker

    There isn't much of a 2021-22 sample size to analyze from Jabari Parker. He's only appeared in 12 games, and he's logged fewer than 10 minutes in seven of them. With such limited runs, it's impossible for a player to gain any sort of rhythm.

    Still, on the rare occasions that Parker has seen the floor for more than a few straight possessions, he's looked like a capable offensive big who can stretch the floor a bit. He's 8-of-16 from three and fifth among Boston Celtics in box plus/minus (minimum 100 minutes).

    For a team ranked 20th in offense, a little boost in scoring off the bench from Parker (who's averaged 19.5 points per 75 possessions since the start of the 2019-20 season) could help.


    2. Brandon Clarke

    During Brandon Clarke's rookie campaign in 2019-20, it seemed pretty clear that the Memphis Grizzlies' frontcourt of the future would be made up of he and Jaren Jackson Jr. But Clarke's usage percentage, minutes per game and scoring average have all tailed off since that first year. His efficiency, however, has not.

    This season, Clarke is shooting a career-best 68.4 percent from two-point range. And when Clarke, with his ability to put pressure on the rim, plays together with floor-spacer JJJ, Memphis is plus-12.4 points per 100 possessions (96th percentile).

    Of course, the sample size is pretty small on that two-man lineup, but that might just bolster the argument that they need to share more playing time.


    1. Thaddeus Young

    After a legitimate breakout campaign in his age-32 season with the Chicago Bulls, Thaddeus Young has found himself in and out of Gregg Popovich's rotation with the San Antonio Spurs in 2021-22.

    When he does get the chance to play, though, he continues to look like a versatile, playmaking big who can defend multiple positions.

    Since the start of last season, Young has a top-40 assist rate, with averages of 17.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.4 dimes, 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per 75 possessions.

    For a team in the middle of a soft rebuild, the 33-year-old hasn't had an opportunity to show that off (he's averaged just 14.0 minutes in 23 appearances), but that's the kind of well-rounded production plenty of contenders should be after.

Rotation Players in Need of Bigger Roles

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    3. Obi Toppin

    The league's health and safety protocols forced Obi Toppin into a much bigger role of late, and his play throughout the season should ensure that he hangs onto some of those extra minutes after Nerlens Noel, Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle return.

    Among New York Knicks with at least 200 minutes, Toppin's 19.4 points per 75 possessions trail only Randle's 20.5. And Toppin's true shooting percentage is a whopping 9.5 points higher. He doesn't provide the same point forward abilities as Randle, but a focus on what he actually does well (get to and attack the rim) could be what makes Toppin more effective.

    On the season, the Knicks are plus-11.4 points per 100 possessions with Toppin on the floor and minus-5.5 with him off.


    2. Mike Muscala

    There are problems with every basketball catch-all metric, but when Basketball Reference's box plus/minus (BPM), Dunks and Threes' estimated plus-minus (EPM) and FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR all have you in the top 25, you're probably doing something right.

    Such is the case for Oklahoma City Thunder big Mike Muscala, who's averaging 21.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.2 threes per 75 possessions while shooting 42.6 percent from three.

    On a team with plenty of slashing from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, Muscala's ability to pull big defenders away from the paint is valuable (for a tanking team, maybe too valuable). On the season, OKC is plus-10.9 points per 100 possessions when Muscala shares the floor with SGA and plus-2.7 when he's on with Giddey. Overall, the Thunder have a 27th-ranked minus-7.8 net rating.


    1. Isaiah Hartenstein

    Ivica Zubac has been a steady, reliable starting center for the Los Angeles Clippers for going on three seasons now. But his backup in 2021-22, Isaiah Hartenstein, has been one of the most dynamic and productive bigs in the league.

    Hartenstein ranks 12th in the NBA in BPM, with averages of 17.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals per 75 possessions. 

    Filling the box score with hustle stats isn't necessarily surprising, but the passing may be. When you have a big man who can be trusted to do more than simply catch and dunk, it can open up a number of possibilities for guards and wings around him. And Hartenstein's consistent ability to make the right read and pass when his own shot isn't there has worked wonders for L.A.'s second unit.

    The Clippers are plus-13.1 points per 100 possessions with Hartenstein on the floor and minus-3.3 with him off.

Underappreciated Sixth Men

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    3. JaVale McGee

    JaVale McGee's 16.3 minutes may have him straddling the line between sixth man and rotation player. Cameron Johnson, Landry Shamet and Cameron Payne are all averaging more minutes off the bench for the Phoenix Suns. But we're going to give him the nod in the face of semantics, because he's tied with Chris Paul for the team lead in EPM and trails only three Suns starters in estimated wins (the cumulative version of EPM).

    Like some of the other bigs listed here, McGee's production looks truly ridiculous when adjusted for pace and playing time. Per 75 possessions, he's putting up 23.1 points, 16.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per 75 possessions. His 67.5 true shooting percentage is 11.9 points clear of the league average.

    And when McGee shares the floor with Devin Booker, the Suns are a stout plus-9.6 points per 100 possessions. Context matters (that pairing has spent less time against starters), but that's a better two-man net rating than Booker and Deandre Ayton.


    2. Kevin Love

    Jarrett Allen is having a bona fide All-Star campaign. Darius Garland may have an argument to play in the game too. And Evan Mobley is a Rookie of the Year candidate with future superstar potential. So Kevin Love's re-breakout has sort of gone under the radar. But he should very much be in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year.

    Love's 8.9 BPM ranks third in the NBA. Yes, third, behind only Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It's his highest mark since he put up an 8.9 in 2013-14, his last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. And his impact is more than just theoretical.

    Love is averaging 25.2 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.6 threes and 3.7 assists per 75 possessions while shooting 43.3 percent from three. And he's driving up the No. 5 net rating in the NBA by 3.7 points when he's on the floor, which is not an easy task for a reserve.


    1. Gary Payton II

    As is the case with Toppin, health and safety protocols thrust Gary Payton II into a different role recently, but he was one of the game's most dynamic finishers and defenders long before he went into the starting lineup.

    On the year, Payton is averaging 17.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 1.7 threes per 75 possessions. His true shooting percentage is an astronomical 70.9. And his willingness and ability to slash and rim-run off the ball has made him an almost ideal pairing with Stephen Curry.

    The Warriors are an absurd plus-24.4 points per 100 possessions (100th percentile) when Payton and Curry are both on the floor. They're a good (but mortal) plus-11.8 (95th percentile) when Curry plays without Payton.

Stars Who Still Don't Get Their Shine

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    3. Fred VanVleet

    Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby all deserve a little credit, but Fred VanVleet playing like a full-fledged star is almost singlehandedly keeping the Toronto Raptors' playoff hopes alive.

    The 16-17 Raptors are plus-5.5 points per 100 possessions with VanVleet on the floor and minus-15.9 with him off. For context's sake, among players with at least 500 minutes, that 21.4-point swing trails only Nikola Jokic's 24.1.

    With VanVleet's steady hand and 20.8 points, 6.7 assists and 3.5 threes per 75 possessions at the wheel, Toronto looks very much like a playoff team. When he leaves the floor, the team almost immediately falls apart.


    2. Dejounte Murray

    There is plenty of nitpicking to be done over Dejounte Murray's scoring efficiency (his true shooting percentage is 6.0 points shy of the league average), but every other box he checks more than makes up for that.

    He may miss plenty of his own shots, but the open looks Murray creates for others has made the Spurs' offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and effective field-goal percentage much better when he's on the floor. And few, if any, players can stack up in terms of raw production.

    Murray is averaging 18.7 points, 9.2 assists, 8.8 rebounds and 2.1 steals per 75 possessions.


    1. Jarrett Allen

    Jarrett Allen looks like the NBA's next great rim-runner as the dive man for the upstart Cavs. He's averaging 19.2 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals per 75 possessions, with a 71.7 true shooting percentage that ranks fifth in the league among players who've attempted at least 100 shots.

    Where Allen's impact has really been felt this season, though, is on the defensive end. As the anchor for a jumbo lineup that includes Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen, Allen's presence on the back line has been enormous.

    The Cavs have allowed 103.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, compared to 107.4 when he's off. And among the 20 players who have appeared in at least 10 games and defended against 15-plus field-goal attempts per game, the 7.0 percent difference between what Allen gives up and what players would be expected to shoot on those shots is the best.