Underrated players in the NBA can often be mistaken for small market players that do not get the recognition proportional to their talent. John Wall and Kemba Walker are a couple of names that come to mind in that light. Those guys headline the borderline stars who can’t quite make it over the hump because a) they are not on very good teams and/or b) their market is not conducive to media coverage. Those aren’t the guys I want to talk about here as underrated…we’re going down to five of the guys who grind it out as niche players that very few people outside of their teams’ respective fan bases give the accolades that they deserve.
Miles Plumlee – Phoenix Suns
Plumlee is one of the top rim defenders in the league…period. Only household names like Roy Hibbert (first in opponent’s FG percentage at the rim), Andrew Bogut (second), Serge Ibaka (third), Robin Lopez (fourth, and okay maybe he's not a household name), and Dwight Howard (fifth), are ahead of the Suns center who posts a stellar FG percentage for opponents at the rim (47 percent).
In a franchise with a history of not-so-great interior defenders (think Amar’e Stoudemire), Plumlee has been a force to help a Suns team with some of the best guards in the league. Plumlee’s great defense gives Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic the opportunity to run the fastbreaks that they do incredibly effectively. The Suns have caught everybody by surprise this year and their seven-footer has pleasantly contributed to that success. And this guy is only earning $1.1 million this year…
Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
On a team headlined by two of the league’s best shooters, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors really needed a guy who could lock down an opponent’s perimeter threats. With the addition of Andre Iguodala as an elite perimeter defender, Green’s work as a defensive stopper has been ever increasingly glossed over.
Green is just a couple spots outside of the top-10 in defensive rating (per NBA.com, at least 25 games played and 15 minutes per game) at 93.9 points per game. Of note, five players with better defensive ratings are part of the stingiest defense in the league in Indiana (Hibbert, PG24, West, Hill, and CJ Watson).
Although Green’s free throw percentage has taken a steep nose-dive from 82 to 53 in just the past year, his value off the bench is as a guy who comes in when the Warriors need a three or a stop. This, in combination with his energy, is something that has kept his team in games…and occasionally moments like this happen.
His versatility and energy off the bench provide the spark that the Warriors need when opposing defenders lock onto Steph. The game-winner vs. Miami last year shows two things: 1) Draymond can step up when called upon in the biggest moments (as he also showed in the playoffs while knocking down huge threes), and 2) his coach has enough faith in him to give him the opportunity to have the ball in those moments. Curry couldn’t free himself off screen in that final play so a backdoor cut caught Shane Battier off-guard. Jarrett Jack knew that the play was designed for a move like that and was able to hit him. Ironically enough, the guy that Green beat to the basket (Battier) is exactly the type of player that Green is striving to be.
Arron Afflalo – Orlando Magic
At a scorching 22 points per game, 44 percent from three, and 86 percent from the line, Arron Afflalo is one of the best players at a not-so-deep shooting guard position. I realize that this is drawing a fine line from the Wall-Walker line of stardom but Afflalo is criminally underrated so I'm putting him in this conversation especially considering he is a clear front-runner to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award in 2014. So even though Afflalo's role on his team is far greater than the other four, by being in that conversation for most improved player, he deserves mentioning in this list.
Afflalo is one of only six players with at least 200 total points off catch and shoot opportunities (per NBA.com), trailing only Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver, and Dirk Nowitzki in a category where great shooters shine. A lot of teams would love a guy like Afflalo who is on a 5-year/$37 million contract. His recent career-high of 43 points vs. the Sixers showed that this guy is capable of scoring from everywhere on the court.
The one thing that is worthy of note is that Afflalo is best in the mid-range game…an area that is quickly losing relevancy in the NBA "where efficiency matters." If this part of the game continues to go by the wayside, some players may suffer. Whether Afflalo is one of them remains to be seen, but with his all-around offensive game and the fact that he plays a position whose only big names are Harden, Kobe, and Wade, Afflalo has value to any NBA team in the playoff hunt.
Nicolas Batum – Portland Trailblazers
Portland’s success is worthy of notice in a Western conference that is extremely deep. (In stark contrast to the NBA’s E-league) and the duo of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are the faces of that huge surprise. While I did predict the Blazers to earn a playoff spot, I certainly did not see them sitting atop the West, as they are currently.
If it's not Afflalo, Batum has to be the most wildly underrated player in the league with an 18 percent usage rate and the best offensive rating in the league (per NBA.com/stats, played at least 25 games). While offensive rating is not the best measure of a player’s individual contribution to a team, it is a piece in the puzzle that explains just how valuable Batum is. The Blazers' forward's value on offense is both as a shooter (39 percent from three and 81 percent from the line) but also as a finisher where he hits 75 percent of his shots in the restricted area. By comparison, LeBron James is at 78 percent—on, of course, a significant larger sample size. His 14 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game are no small contribution.
Reggie Jackson – Oklahoma City Thunder
Jackson earned some additional playing time when Westbrook went down for the first time in his career during the 2013 playoffs. It would be remiss to say that Jackson took over successfully as the Thunder lost games 2 through 5 to the Grizzlies but he did contribute a respectable amount for a then-22-year-old second year player who had never started an NBA game before. 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, 92 percent from the line and 50 percent from the field?? And yet because the Thunder had such lofty expectations with the second-best player in the league on their squad, Jackson’s contribution went unnoticed. And it has been unnoticed by the media until this happened yesterday:
Scott Brooks noticed, though. Jackson’s minutes nearly doubled from last season to this season and it has had a tremendously positive impact on the team. Brooks’ stubbornness to stick with the five man-unit of Westbrook-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka-Perkins is questionable, but to see he has given the Jackson-Westbrook tandem in the backcourt some minutes is the right move. Per 82games.com, the most successful lineups that the Thunder have put out are with Jackson on the floor either running point or at the 2. He is the perfect man for a three-man rotation of guards in OKC. Just imagine if the first two were Westbrook and Harden...