Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Every NBA Team's Most Underrated Player

Zach Buckley

As you may have heard one time or one million, the NBA is a superstars' league.

However, that doesn't mean superstars are the only ones deserving of spotlight time.

They might monopolize mainstream coverage and spawn the most social media debates, but when the opportunity arises, other players should get their shine, too.

That's our aim here as we're highlighting glue guys, role players, hustlers, energizers and specialists while giving some overdue attention to the most underrated player on each roster.

Atlanta Hawks: John Collins

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It feels like John Collins shouldn't qualify for this exercise. After all, he's a regular on highlight reels, his stats sit just a tier or two beneath stardom and his contract is worth a whopping $125 million.

How can a player like that be underrated? Well, for reasons known only to the Hawks, they've decided to buy him a permanent residence on the trade rumor mill. And, for even more confusing reasons, other clubs aren't racing to pry the productive power forward out of Atlanta.

It's bizarre, and that's with the acknowledgment that he isn't the most impactful defender or capable shot-creator. What he is, though, is basically a walking double-double who's also good for a block and a three-ball per game. There aren't a ton of players around bringing all that to the table, let alone pairing the production with a tidy 55.9/37.6/77.9 career shooting slash.

Boston Celtics: Robert Williams III

Elsa/Getty Images

While the playoffs provided a big enough platform for a formal introduction of Robert Williams III to casual fans, he still isn't quite getting his due.

For instance, did you know the Shamrocks actually won his 158 Finals minutes by a healthy 30 points? The problem was they were pounded by 54 points over the 130 minutes he couldn't play. Or how about this one: Did you know Williams trailed only Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert with 0.262 win shares per 48 minutes during the regular season?

So, while you might regard Williams as pretty good or even better than people think, objectively speaking, he sits several stories above that. Even if he doesn't hit all of the traditional markings of a star, he is at least an all-caps STAR in his role. He's a disruptor on defense, a sneakily creative passer on offense and a shot-swatting, lob-crushing, glass-cleaning pogo stick around the basket.

Brooklyn Nets: Nic Claxton

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Nets have spent three seasons with Nic Claxton, and it kind of feels like they still don't really know what they have.

They've seen enough to deem him worthy of a two-year, $17.3 million deal, but the next time he logs 1,000 minutes in a season will be the first. Injuries have done the most damage to his workload, but Brooklyn's kid-gloved handling of him hasn't helped, either.

A breakout feels inevitable, and fans may not appreciate how close that could be. He's already an impact defender both around and away from the basket, and he is a reliable finisher from close-range. If he starts reaching deeper into his bag as a ball-handler and passer, a massive leap might happen sooner than later.

Charlotte Hornets: P.J. Washington

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

P.J. Washinton might be a difference-maker masquerading as a complementary glue guy.

His individual numbers don't jump off the page, and he plays a quieter game built more around functionality than flair. You don't often watch him and feel like you're witnessing a star, though you are rarely (if ever) disappointed.

He may not have a standout skill, but every part of his arsenal is no worse than average. His career per-36-minutes marks speak to his across-the-board abilities—14.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.0 threes, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals—and that versatility combines to form a major impact. His on/off differential ranked in the 83rd percentile or better both this season and last, per Cleaning the Glass.

Chicago Bulls: Ayo Dosunmu

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Ayo Dosunmu's first-year effort didn't fly completely off the radar—he did snag a spot on the All-Rookie second team—but we might have all taken it for granted. What he did was not normal; he was just so smooth in his execution that he made it appear as such.

He essentially didn't have a role his first week. He logged two minutes in his second outing. In the team's fourth game, he never made it off the bench. Things started picking up after that, but his workload and responsibilities skyrocketed once injuries to Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso made him the starting point guard of a club hoping to compete for a conference crown.

The sink-or-swim test could have drowned him, but he managed to just ride the waves like a young Kelly Slater. Dosunmu didn't wow with volume, but his efficiency would've impressed had it come from a five-year veteran, let alone a rookie second-rounder. He shot 52 percent overall and 37.6 percent from range, and he more than doubled his 1.4 turnovers with 3.3 assists.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Ricky Rubio

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Ask someone to list the factors behind Cleveland's breakout 2021-22 season, and it will be a while before you hear a mention of Ricky Rubio, if he's even brought up at all. Unless, of course, that someone is a member of the franchise.

"Ricky Rubio was enormously important to us," president of basketball operations Koby Altman said, per The Athletic's Kelsey Russo. "And I know we didn't have him for the vast majority of the year, but I don't think we're here without his injection of basketball play, but also leadership."

Rubio never quite lived up to his predraft hype, and his offensive limitations manifest most clearly in his 38.9 career field-goal percentage. That could cause some to mislabel him as a disappointment, when in reality he is an incredibly helpful floor general on both ends. His teams have never fared worse with him than without, and they're typically much better when he plays (plus-4.9 points per 100 possessions for his career).

Dallas Mavericks: Maxi Kleber

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Dallas' run to the Western Conference Finals might have awakened fans to some of its sleeper talent—Dorian Finney-Smith could have been an option here before word got out in the postseason—but Maxi Kleber remains better than you think.

Defensively, he's a unicorn. He can protect the paint and defend on the perimeter. He not only knocked 6.5 points off his opponent's normal shooting percentage within six feet, but he also shaved 4.2 points off their three-point splash rates. He averaged 7.0 defensive rebounds and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes despite primarily playing power forward.

His offense is more of a mixed bag, though it was largely consistent before some major shooting slippage after the All-Star break. Assuming he's back on track as his 50.9/43.6/71.4 playoff shooting slash suggests, he is a far more critical piece of the Mavs' puzzle than people think.

Denver Nuggets: Zeke Nnaji

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

While this is ultimately a leap-of-faith selection with Zeke Nnaji, it's also a reflection of the fact that most prominent Nuggets are properly rated. Nikola Jokic is a two-time MVP, everyone knows the kind of damage Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. do when healthy, Aaron Gordon's value is clearly established, and even Bones Hyland got his due after an impressive rookie run.

Meanwhile, everyone is sleeping on Nnaji, in large part because there hasn't been a great reason not to do it. He has logged fewer than 1,100 minutes across his two NBA campaigns combined. Injuries have held him back, but he hasn't been the most reliable defender, either.

One thing people may not recognize, though, is his shooting has been elite basically every time the Nuggets have called his number. He hit 40.7 percent of his threes as a rookie and then upped it to 46.3 as a sophomore. And remember, this is a 6'9", 240-pound power forward we're talking about. So, even if we aren't quite sure who Nnaji is, we're very intrigued by what he might become.

Detroit Pistons: Saddiq Bey

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

While most seem to recognize Saddiq Bey's place in the Pistons' rebuild, they might sell short how big of a role he could play in this process.

He typically gets broad-brush painted as a three-and-D swingman, and it's possible that could be his ultimate NBA calling. There are subtle signs, though, that he could have a lot more in the tank.

The 2021-22 campaign was basically his personal trial run, as his minutes ticked up and his offensive chances erupted. He took four extra shots per game, made nearly a dozen more passes (32.4, up from 21.4) and had far fewer baskets assisted by others. The Pistons clearly see some shot-creation here, and it's hard to blame them after he went for 16.1 points and 2.8 assists per night.

Golden State Warriors: Kevon Looney

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Perhaps the Warriors' most recent run finally let the cat out of the bag, but Kevon Looney is really stinkin' good. Even those who acknowledge his place in Golden State's dynastic run may not fully appreciate what he brings to the team.

"What more do we need to say about Loon?" Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "He's a championship center, modern-day defender, switch defender, which is what it takes in the playoffs. As the 30th pick in the draft seven years ago, the way he's developed, the way he's worked, the way he has become such a big part of our internal leadership and our fabric, he's a huge component to our success."

When you're relaying the stories of Golden State's greatness to your grandkids one day, don't forget to mention Looney's lunch-pail effort and reliability. Not every NBA player can be a star, and Looney has helped others shine by starring in his mostly-guts, little-glory role.

Houston Rockets: Alperen Sengun

Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It's unfair to Alperen Sengun to position him as the next Nikola Jokic...but the similarities are hard to miss. Both are throwback bigs near the basket, but they have contemporary enhancements, at least on the modern end. Their rookie years also looked like mirror images: 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 20.7 minutes for Sengun; 10.0, 7.0 and 2.4 in 21.7 for Jokic.

Again, the intention isn't to attach Sengun to unrealistic expectations here, but Jokic laid the blueprint for this style of player to succeed and Sengun hopes to follow it.

"I watch Jokic, and I really want to play in the same style that he has," Sengun told former ESPN analyst Mike Schmitz in 2021. "Fadeaway, post moves. Generally, I study him. Some people say it's similar to Jokic's moves."

The odds of Sengun ever approaching Jokic's level are astronomically high. But could Sengun emerge sooner than later as one of the more offensively skilled centers in this league? Without question.

Indiana Pacers: Jalen Smith

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Clearly, the Phoenix Suns severely underrated Jalen Smith when they declined his third-year option, but they weren't the only ones.

Any uproar around that decision on Smith wasn't about potentially letting him go but rather just on the rarity of the act. He showed next to nothing as a rookie, though the Suns never extended the opportunity for him to pass or fail. When they swapped him and a second-round pick out for defensive specialist Torrey Craig, they (and others) surely wondered if that was the last they would hear from Smith.

Not so fast. Turns out, you actually shouldn't abandon hope for a seldom-used, 21-year-old recent lottery pick. Once Smith landed in the Circle City, he finally found some floor time and quickly sent reminders of why he was the No. 10 selection in 2020. The sample size remains small, but he sure looks like a long-term keeper for the Pacers after averaging 19.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.1 threes and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes over 22 games.

Los Angeles Clippers: Terance Mann

Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

If the Clippers realize their championship potential next season, Terance Mann feels like he could catch plenty of people by surprise with his significance in the process.

He does a little of everything and, despite being a 25-year-old with three seasons under his belt, sort of operates like a veteran glue guy. He has already lined up at four different positions (everywhere but center), and he can defend all five in a pinch. He can shape-shift to whatever role L.A. needs him to fill, whether that's primary playmaker, slasher, spot-up shooter or defensive disruptor.

Mann was second on the team in total minutes this past season, and while the roster should be healthier and deeper next season, don't be surprised when he once again ranks among its floor-time leaders.

Los Angeles Lakers: Thomas Bryant

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

If you haven't spent a ton of time thinking about Thomas Bryant lately, you're forgiven. Frankly, there hasn't been much to think about, as an ACL tear cost him most of the past two seasons.

But you don't have to time-travel too far into the past to see some unique tools in his arsenal. He has a sweet stroke for a 6'10", near-250-pound center, plus he has good bounce and great energy for someone his size.

If he can find consistency with his health and game, he could be pretty special. Through five seasons, his career per-36-minutes averages include 18.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 threes on 59.0/35.0/76.4 shooting.

Memphis Grizzlies: Brandon Clarke

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

You could perhaps argue for any Grizzly not named Ja Morant here, but Brandon Clarke is the clearest choice.

He comes right out of central casting for an underrated talent. His offensive game is limited, and for someone with kangaroo hops, he's often more subtle than jaw-droppingly spectacular.

Still, his value is immense, his energy is elite and his defensive versatility is top-notch. He can ping between assignments from the paint to the perimeter, and he can control the interior action as a rebounder and shot-blocker.

Miami Heat: Max Strus

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Last summer, the Heat thought highly enough of Duncan Robinson to give him a $90 million contract. This year, they didn't always bother getting him off the bench during playoff games.

What changed? Two things. One, Robinson's outside shooting regressed, and since his greatest strength wasn't the same, it was harder to overlook his weaknesses. Two, Max Strus simply offered more—as a third-year player (first as a rotation regular) making minimum money.

Strus' success is a testament to Miami's now-legendary player development program, but it also speaks to his quietly high talent level. He was one of five players with at least 175 triples and a 40-plus three-point percentage, and he avoided the specialist tag by holding his own defensively and flashing some ability to straight-line attack off the dribble and finish at the rim.

Milwaukee Bucks: Jevon Carter

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

If casual fans have heard the name Jevon Carter, then the one thing they likely know about him is his reputation as a defensive bulldog.

But what if he's more than that? What if he's a hyperactive defender who also makes things happen on offense?

That's what happened in Milwaukee this past season, when he posted a ridiculous 50.6/55.8/100 shooting slash and tossed 50 assists against just eight turnovers. Now, no one should expect any of those numbers to sustain, but if he simply provides adequate shooting and ball control to go along with his relentless defense, he'll be a name worth remembering and a potential two-way asset.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Jaden McDaniels

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Considering the cost, it probably seems like the Timberwolves acquiesced to every one of the Jazz's requests in the Rudy Gobert blockbuster trade. However, there was reportedly one line Minnesota wasn't willing to cross: losing Jaden McDaniels.

"[Jazz CEO] Danny Ainge pushed hard to include McDaniels," The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski and Tony Jones reported. "... The Timberwolves held firm in refusing to include McDaniels, a versatile defender who blossomed under the glare of the playoff spotlight against Memphis and is entering his third season in the league."

That might surprise some, but it won't shock Timberwolves fans who have tracked McDaniels' growth and gauged where it could head from here. He needs more polish, but there are already flashes of him becoming a high-level support player, if not more. He's already a tools-y, five-position stopper, and the Gopher State gets downright giddy when he starts knocking down corner threes and dabbling in shot-creation.

New Orleans Pelicans: Herbert Jones

Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

You could probably make a case for anyone on this roster. Zion Williamson has missed enough time for people to forget how absurdly dominant he is. CJ McCollum's perception was changed by the fact that he's probably overpaid, but he's a walking bucket. Brandon Ingram might still be on the Kevin Durant 2.0 path, or something in that neighborhood.

All of that said, it seems like Herbert Jones has the widest gap between the attention he's due and what he actually receives. And that's saying something since the league caught on enough to get him a spot on the All-Rookie second team, which is always a notable achievement for a second-round pick.

Still, people may not notice that Jones ranks as an elite defender right now, tying for 19th in FiveThirtyEight's Defensive RAPTOR and landing in the 80th percentile for on/off defensive differential, per Cleaning the Glass. Pair that with an offensive arsenal that's already as serviceable as needed, and the 23-year-old is clearly a vital piece for the Pelicans.

New York Knicks: Obi Toppin

Elsa/Getty Images

Obi Toppin really shouldn't have a chance to be on this list, since he's a recent top-10 pick who resides in the Empire State and plays his home games at Madison Square Garden. Blame the 'Bockers for letting this happen.

Since selecting Toppin eighth overall in 2020, they have slow-played the bouncy swingman to the point of effectively forcing him off the radar. Even his biggest believers might be running out of patience after watching him log fewer than 18 minutes a night for the second consecutive season.

This isn't on Toppin, though. He's blocked by the presence of Julius Randle, and he may not have the full trust of coach Tom Thibodeau. Either way, Toppin has more to give than the Knicks are asking him to provide. His per-minute production suggests he could make nightly runs at 20 points and 10 rebounds while adding not insignificant amounts of assists and threes if given the opportunity.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Kenrich Williams

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

At this stage of their rebuild, the Thunder have little use for veterans. The fact that they nevertheless decided to give 27-year-old Kenrich Williams a four-year, $27.2 million extension should speak volumes about his game and impact.

Now, his skills are perfectly positioned to prop up a good team, so it isn't always the easiest to notice what he's doing in the Sooner State, where draft lottery odds take precedent over actual victories. Still, he has made the most of his situation by blossoming as an all-purpose defender, on-court energizer and, on occasion, knockdown shooter.

All winning teams either have a player like him on the roster or desperately need one. His three-pointer could be more consistent (33.9 percent this past season, 44.4 the season prior), but his heart, hustle and versatility make him an easy choice.

Orlando Magic: Wendell Carter Jr.

Jason Miller/NBAE via Getty Images

Why aren't we talking more about the season Wendell Carter Jr. just had? Oh right, because he plays in Orlando, and we'd all sort of reached a collective agreement not to discuss the Magic at this point of their rebuilding project.

Let's break that seal, though, and gab for a bit about perhaps the best big man no one talks about. That's high praise (sort of), but the stat sheet says it's deserved. In 2021-22, Carter was one of six players—Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo were among the others—to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and one three-pointer.

While it's hard to say whether stardom awaits Carter, it's no easier identifying obvious obstacles that would prevent him from reaching it. His across-the-board strengths are establishing a jack-of-all-trades floor, and his skills could be sharpened to the point of mastering several.

Philadelphia 76ers: De'Anthony Melton

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Is it too early to cast votes for Daryl Morey as Executive of the Year? It is, but it's not too soon to marvel at the work he has done this offseason from getting James Harden to take a pay cut and using the added flexibility to sign both P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr.

Morey's summer was off to a quietly impressive start before that, though, as he brokered a draft-night deal for the perpetually underappreciated De'Anthony Melton. He's a favorite of the analytics crowd and with good reason, as he brings substantial value to both ends of the floor.

On offense, he can create shots for himself and teammates, splash open ones from distance and, if the runway is clear, finish at the basket. On defense, the 6'2" guard uses his near-6'9" wingspan, instincts and motor to play bigger than his size and cause all kinds of havoc. His teams have always played better with him than without at an average of 4.4 points per 100 possessions for his career.

Phoenix Suns: Cameron Johnson

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Cameron Johnson landed in the desert three years back with a reliable three-ball and very little else going for him. Over the three seasons since, he has emerged as a major two-way contributor and key cog for a Suns team that won the West in 2020-21 and followed up with an Association-best 64 victories this past season.

If you still think of Johnson as a fiery shooter, it's time to update the scouting report. While his three-ball is hotter than ever (his 2.5 makes per game and 42.5 percent splash rate were both personal bests), his game has grown more layered at both ends.

His handles are getting tighter. His defense is becoming more versatile and more consistent. His scoring is growing not by extending out, but rather by featuring more in-between buckets and off-the-dribble scores. He could be a good distance shy of his final ceiling, but he's further on the growth chart than people might realize.

Portland Trail Blazers: Josh Hart

Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

If you don't want to put too much stock in Josh Hart's post-trade production (19.9 points and 4.3 assists), that's fine. He only played 13 games for the Blazers, and they had thrown in the towel before his arrival.

The thing is, Hart was nearly as good in New Orleans before the trade, when he averaged 13.4 points on 50.5 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists over 41 contests. And in the previous season, he had already made noise as a well-rounded player with a nonstop motor.

He clearly leveled up this past season, and his game could support further elevation. He has no glaring weakness, and he could get even more interesting if he fully harnesses his three-point shot, which fell at a 39.6 percent clip as a rookie and at a 37.3 percent rate after his trade to Portland.

Sacramento Kings: Harrison Barnes

Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Harrison Barnes isn't an unknown. Far from it. However, he might be too known to fans for the wrong reasons, as his hype machine once elicited the loftiest possible comparisons, which he never lived up to. He has also had the overpaid label thrown his way a time or a thousand.

As a result, there's this strange perception that Barnes ought to be more when really he's become one of the more rock-solid players in basketball.

He may not be a franchise focal point or a go-to shot-creator, but he is exactly the kind of third or fourth option who can perk up a championship roster while donning a bunch of different hats. Granted, those skills aren't always easy to spot given the sorry state of affairs in Sacramento, but the Kings' historic struggles can't be blamed on Barnes.

San Antonio Spurs: Jakob Poeltl

Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

When Sporting News' Stephen Noh wanted to spotlight under-the-radar players in a series called "Hidden Gems," Jakob Poeltl was the first player profiled.

It makes sense. Poeltl is a dynamic defensive talent, but most casual fans aren't talking up top stoppers—especially those with single-digit career scoring averages who suit up for lottery squads in places like San Antonio.

Still, any attention paid to Poeltl is more than deserved. He cracks the short list of the league's top paint protectors, has enough mobility to hang with perimeter switches, converts close-range scoring chances and keeps improving as a passer. He has landed in the 87th percentile of net differential or better in each of the past three seasons, per Cleaning the Glass.

Toronto Raptors: Chris Boucher

Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Chris Boucher had long tantalized with his length, shooting stroke and occasional flashes of something in the ballpark of stardom. The problem was he put too much emphasis on those flashes and chased a future that would never be in his reach.

It nearly cost him his career—he was struggling to retain his rotation spot early in the season—but Raptors coaches finally reached him in time and helped reprogram him as a suddenly reliable reserve.

"They did a really good job of showing me film, showing me what I was capable of doing," Boucher told reporters. "Making me watch other people just to see that there was so many other ways to be impactful and have a great career in the NBA."

This version of Boucher values function over flash, substance over style. He has simplified his approach, maxed out his energy level and focused on supporting stars instead of trying to become one himself. The changes may not be super apparent yet (nearly all of his numbers declined this past season), but if he finally has Toronto's full trust, it won't be long before everyone sees them.

Utah Jazz: Patrick Beverley

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The book on Patrick Beverley has been out for a while, but it might be one of those works that is never properly appreciated in its time.

Bring up Beverley, and a few things come to mind: end-to-end defense, insatiable energy, a steady dose of catch-and-shoot threes. What might not immediately surface, though, is a sizable impact on winning, even though the stat sheet can attest that's precisely what he provides.

Beverley has played 10 NBA seasons; his teams have played better with him than without in nine of them. In five different campaigns, his net differential sits north of plus-five points per 100 possessions. He may not have the deepest bag of tricks, but he makes the most of what he has.

Washington Wizards: Daniel Gafford

Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Rim-runners are seldom given their due in the modern NBA. While it's a role almost every team hopes to fill, it's also one often treated as though it's a dime a dozen.

Daniel Gafford has spent the past season-plus providing Wizards fans with near-nightly examples of the archetype's importance. He'd be a double-double machine if granted enough floor time (he was at 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes), he finishes nearly 70 percent of his scoring chances and he locks down the lane with length and athleticism.

He could do himself a lot of favors by expanding his impact range at both ends—his free-throw percentage landed just shy of 70, so keep an eye on that—but his interior play alone lets him make his presence felt more often than not.

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com. Salary information via Spotrac.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

   

Read 105 Comments

Download the app for comments Get the B/R app to join the conversation

Install the App
×
Bleacher Report
(120K+)