NBA fans don’t usually have enough time to watch a lot of every team in a given season. Because of that, they often are forced to form their opinions on what they hear from other fans or from media outlets.
Certain players gain popularity because of their play style, the market they play in or gaudy statistics in specific categories. Other players fly under the radar for similar reasons, but may actually make more of an impact on the court than their more-heralded contemporaries.
Let’s create a 15-man roster of players who currently seem underrated, in general, by NBA fans and media. The roster isn’t meant to be the best mixture of players, but rather, the six backcourt players and nine frontcourt players who deserve a better reputation around the league.
Eric Bledsoe (Phoenix Suns)
If it weren’t for Bledsoe’s biennial injury woes, he’d probably be viewed much better around the league. In years 1, 3 and 5 of his career, he’s missed a total of just eight games. In years 2, 4 and 6, that number jumps to 116.
But I think people also undersell what Bledsoe can do when he’s healthy (admittedly a major caveat for him). He’s an efficient, relatively high-volume scorer who uses his athletic 6’1″, 190-pound frame to be one of the best defenders at his position. His playmaking could use some work, but he’s not a disaster in that area by any means.
The public doesn’t think of him as a particularly impressive three-point shooter, but his downtown numbers last season (1.5 makes per game on 37.2 percent) were eerily similar to Chris Paul’s (1.6 makes per game on 37.1 percent).
J.J. Redick (Los Angeles Clippers)
There’s spacing the floor, and then there’s what Redick does. He’s almost never standing still, and he’s usually sprinting somewhere with a defender hot on his tail.
When he gets a sliver of space, he’ll release a three-pointer that always has a great chance of going in. According to my three-point shooting metric, he was the No. 3 long-distance marksman in the NBA last season.
Chris Paul is the No. 1 reason the Clippers’ offense has been consistently good, but Redick is also a huge part. His presence keeps the paint open for rim runs by DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin and drive-and-kicks by Paul.
Add in defense that is surprisingly decent considering his small stature and below-average athleticism, and you easily have one of the league’s better starting shooting guards.
Danilo Gallinari (Denver Nuggets)
Health should absolutely count when discussing a player’s worth, and Danilo Gallinari just doesn’t have it consistently enough to be considered a full-fledged star. Like Bledsoe, though, he’s a huge difference-maker when he sees the court.
Last season, Gallo ranked fourth in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game (8.2) and made 86.8 percent of his freebies. For opponents to know how good of a free-throw shooter he is and still foul him that much, you know he’s got a special skill. He’s also a reliable scorer from most areas on the court, a decent playmaker and he consistently makes his team better. For his career, his teams have outscored their opponents by 2.0 points per 100 possessions with him playing. When he’s on the bench, the opponent has an edge by 1.9 points per 100 possession.
Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz)
Derrick Favors is often a forgotten man in power forward rankings, partially because he plays for the low-profile Jazz and partially because his game has little flash. But he’s been a consistent 16 and 8 with solid efficiency and well above-average defense the past two seasons. He also just turned 25 years old. I’m buying that stock.
Ed Davis (Portland Trail Blazers)
Davis is basically Tristan Thompson without the notoriety. I mean, check the numbers. Both are maniacs on the glass, strong finishers at the rim and above-average on defense, with Davis being a more intimidating rim protector and Thompson being more agile on the perimeter.
Davis was the third-most valuable player on the West’s No. 5 seed last year. He deserves more respect.
Troy Daniels (Memphis Grizzlies), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Detroit Pistons), Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks), Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
In a league so fixated on three-point shooting, you’d think the fourth-best long-distance marksman in the NBA would get more than 11.1 minutes per game, even though he’s not a good defender. Daniels was a killer from the outside in limited minutes for the Hornets last season, and he’s already making a mark on his new squad.
"Troy (Daniels) is an elite shooter. He holds all the records in our gym." ~Mike Conley
— 929ESPN (@929espn) September 26, 2016
Hopefully, a Grizzlies squad that has long been without a strong three-point attack will give Daniels some more run this season.
Caldwell-Pope’s offensive game is still raw. However, even with those warts, he averaged 14.5 points per game on not-terrible efficiency (52.1 true-shooting percentage and 1.4 turnovers per 36 minutes).
Where he really makes his mark, though, is on defense with his gnat-like annoyingness. It was the main reason he led Stan Van Gundy’s squad in minutes last season. Contrary to popular belief, he was actually the team’s best defender last season, not Andre Drummond.
Drummond got more first team all-defense votes than KCP, lol.
— PistonPowered (@PistonPowered) May 25, 2016
Giannis Antetokounmpo got a lot of the attention in Milwaukee last season, but Middleton was arguably the team’s best player. Known as a versatile three-and-D player, the swingman has a much more diverse skill set than that. As Today’s Fastbreak’s David Ramil noted, he’s got a deadly fadeaway jumper from the post. He’s also a very capable ball-handler and passer.
Of course, Middleton is now out for at least most of the year with a ruptured left hamstring. Hopefully, it’s not something that derails a career that was on a major upswing.
Lowry put forth a legitimate argument for being a top-10 player in the NBA last season, and for being the best point guard in the NBA not named Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. However, he often gets overlooked in favor of flashier players like Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Damian Lillard. None of them are quite the total package Lowry is, though.
Not only can you usually count on the late-blooming 30-year-old for efficient scoring, strong passing and accurate outside shooting, he doesn’t back down from any defensive challenge.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Charlotte Hornets), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Brooklyn Nets), Tobias Harris (Orlando Magic), James Johnson (Miami Heat), Dewayne Dedmon (San Antonio Spurs), Paul Millsap (Atlanta Hawks)
Kidd-Gilchrist’s return from injury is the biggest reason I think the Hornets avoid too much of a regression and make the playoffs again in 2016-17. His defensive and rebounding chops are well-known, but I’m intrigued by the progress he’s made on his jump shot.
He’ll never be an outside assassin, but what you watched above is a huge improvement from the way he used to shoot. If he can keep the defense somewhat honest with his long jumpers, he can be an above-average starter for a long time in the NBA (he only just turned 23).
Hollis-Jefferson’s scouting report reads very similar to Kidd-Gilchrist’s, right down to their injury-plagued 2015-16 seasons. If it weren’t for injury problems limiting him to just 29 games, we’d be talking about RHJ being one of the top several players in his class. He and Justise Winslow were the best rookie wing defenders last season, but RHJ looked considerably more NBA-ready on offense in his limited burn.
Look for the Nets sophomore to break out in a big way this season.
Harris was underrated pretty strongly by his own (former) team at February’s trade deadline. The Magic thought it prudent to get rid of the 24-year-old small forward in exchange for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. The move paid off for the Pistons, who got 16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 57.7 true shooting down the stretch from Harris.
The defensive end of the floor is definitely not Harris’ specialty, but he’s apparently shown some signs of improving there in training camp. Still, the ability to do many things offensively is not that common among small forwards, so I think the 6’9″ forward gets overlooked in that regard.
There was absolutely no reason Johnson shouldn’t have played more with the Raptors during the past three seasons. He’s an athletic, powerful finisher at the rim who passes pretty well and can defend both forward positions pretty well.
Last three years of Luis Scola vs. last three years of Patrick Patterson & James Johnson. AKA: Why is Scola playing? pic.twitter.com/JvmjHZZWhT
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) May 28, 2016
I suspect the Heat, sans Chris Bosh, will have some frontcourt minutes and a consistent role to offer the 29-year-old Johnson.
Add Dedmon to the list of players who were underrated by their own teams in 2015-16. He fits the bill of the prototypical modern big man, who is athletic, protects the rim, switches out on smaller players, and poses a threat to the rim in the pick-and-roll.
Somehow, that skill set got the 27-year-old fewer minutes than Jason Smith, Channing Frye and Andrew Nicholson for the Magic last season.
Gregg Popovich may just turn this guy into one of the league’s premier bench sparks next season.
Millsap of has been called underrated so often that he’s approaching “properly-rated” territory. Sports Illustrated ranked him the 15th-best player in the league last month, which was refreshingly fair.
But then, I saw this poll on Twitter:
One more for the road: Who is a better player right now: Paul Millsap or Kyrie Irving?
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) September 14, 2016
Kyrie is awesome, but I don’t think he’s quite on Millsap’s level right now. Paul literally does everything you can ask from your power forward, including scoring, rebounding, passing and defending, all at a high level. Hopefully, he continues to become more appreciated in 2016-17.