One of the most entertaining parts about watching an NBA game is listening to local announcers’ attempts to discuss an opposing player they obviously don’t know much about. Lots of times, these announcers either talk very vaguely about the player’s skill set or career, try to change the subject or outright get things wrong about the guy.
Announcers, this piece is especially for you.
Several unheralded individuals have impressed their coaches enough so far this season to earn consistent rotation minutes for the first time in their careers. We, as NBA fans and bloggers, also need to be educated about them, even if the announcers who call the games we watch aren’t.
Let’s focus on seven under-the-radar guys whose notoriety is still lagging behind their playing time.
SG Lamar Patterson, Atlanta Hawks
2015-16 per-game statistics: 16.8 minutes, 3.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 7.3 PER, 0.057 win shares per 48 minutes
Patterson got the Hawks’ 15th and final roster spot during training camp. He’s a rookie, although he did play professionally in Turkey last season. Atlanta brought in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Justin Holiday to take the open minutes on the perimeter left by DeMarre Carroll, plus Thabo Sefolosha was returning from injury.
All these things made it look like a long shot for the Pittsburgh product to play in many games, much less make the Hawks’ regular rotation.
The 6’5″ Patterson’s skill set definitely falls in the “glue-guy” category, as he’s just a smart player on both sides of the ball who doesn’t have one area in which he stands out:
This limited (but maximized) skill set has resulted in a plus-10.2 net rating for Patterson, much better than the Hawks’ plus-0.9 rating with him off the court.
PF/C Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks
2015-16 per-game statistics: 20.9 minutes, 9.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 19.8 PER, 0.192 win shares per 48 minutes
A real candidate for Most Improved Player, Powell has looked so much more confident this season for the 9-7 Mavericks.
Powell plays both post positions, but he moves and jumps like a small forward, can stroke it from mid-range and has an innate sense of where to go defensively and offensively:
He’s almost reminiscent of a young Blake Griffin, although Powell’s not as strong or skilled. Still, especially considering he was basically just thrown in the Rajon Rondo trade, the Mavericks have a nice prospect in this 24-year-old.
C Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2015-16 per-game statistics: 16.8 minutes, 7.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 20.7 PER, 0.162 win shares per 48 minutes
Is it a stretch to say Jokic has been the Nuggets’ best rookie so far this season? No, it’s not.
Emmanuel Mudiay is getting more minutes and is putting up gaudier stats than the Serbian big, but it could be awhile before he becomes anything close to efficient (he’s scoring 12.3 points on 13.9 shots along with 4.1 turnovers per game in 2015-16). For now, any good he provides comes in flashes and he’s terribly inconsistent.
Meanwhile, all Jokic is doing is putting up 16.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, plus 54.5 percent from the field and 74.3 percent from the free throw line. Although he’s 250 pounds and just 20 years old, he’s done a relatively good job avoiding fouls (4.1 per 36 minutes).
The 6’10” draft pick from 2014 is buoying Denver in a variety of ways with his outside and inside touch, rebounding and solid rim protection (opponents are shooting 43.5 percent at the rim against Jokic).
SF/PF JaMychal Green, Memphis Grizzlies
2015-16 per-game statistics: 18.4 minutes, 6.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 12.2 PER, 0.068 win shares per 48 minutes
Green’s story is a lesson in perseverance. After going undrafted in 2012, he played in the D-League for a season, went to France to play for a year and then returned to the D-League in 2014. He got some burn after signing a 10-day contract with the San Antonio Spurs last season, but was mainly just injury insurance. After a couple of those deals with San Antonio and then with Memphis, Green inked a three-year contract with the Grizzlies.
Now, he’s their designated energizer bunny off the bench:
At 6’9″ and 227 pounds, the Alabama product is versatile on defense and physical on offense, finding shots at the rim frequently and getting to line somewhat often. He’s 6-of-11 from three-point range, which is great, but he could impact games even more if that became a bigger part of his game.
PF Nemanja Bjelica, Minnesota Timberwolves
2015-16 per-game statistics: 26.2 minutes, 7.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 11.8 PER, 0.127 win shares per 48 minutes
At 27 years old, Bjelica is an old rookie, and it shows. His shooting touch is refined, he has excellent court vision and uses his 6’10”, 240-pound physique well to grab available caroms at an above-average rate for a forward.
The Serbian forward probably won’t ever be a high-usage star on offense, but that’s not what the Timberwolves need him to be with Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine on the roster.
Unfortunately, Bjelica is currently nursing a knee injury. Although Minnesota is on a three-game winning streak, the team is no doubt pining for its versatile rookie to return as soon as possible.
SG/SF Allen Crabbe, Portland Trail Blazers
2015-16 per-game statistics: 23.0 minutes, 8.3 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, 11.0 PER, 0.086 win shares per 48 minutes
You didn’t realize Crabbe was playing more than 23 minutes per game this season, did you? Well, he is.
The 23-year-old swingman is a rising 3-and-D prospect in the NBA, and a gutted Portland roster provides him with the opportunity to show off that skill set. The “D” aspect of his game is still getting up to speed and he needs to take more than 2.4 threes per game, but the tools are definitely there.
Crabbe, a second-round pick in 2013, is somewhat of an under-the-radar player, as was undrafted former Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews. It’s a bit of a long shot (no pun intended), but Crabbe could develop into a Matthews-like contributor one day.
PG Raul Neto, Utah Jazz
2015-16 per-game statistics: 18.0 minutes, 4.5 points, 1.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 9.7 PER, 0.055 win shares per 48 minutes
Neto, like Utah’s rookie starting point guard from last season (Dante Exum), is making an impact for the Jazz that transcends the box score.
Both are pesky defenders, using plenty of ball pressure to bother opposing floor generals. Exum was better, thanks to his lanky 6’6″ frame, but Neto is no slouch even at 6’1″. The 23-year-old Brazilian lead guard is also passing the ball well, sporting a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio and getting the ball in the hands of Utah’s more talented scorers:
Neto’s shooting stroke from downtown has been better than advertised (10-of-29 this season), and maintaining that will be key to maintaining a place on this up-and-coming Jazz roster once Exum returns from his ACL injury.