Ranking the most underrated NBA players

The NBA is a star-studded league, but sometimes the constant focus on the biggest names leaves others with less attention than they deserve. Chances are if you live off defense or in ways that the stats don’t capture as easily as eg. points, you fly under the radar.

Here we will celebrate players who have made significant contributions to their teams over the years – even if too few have noticed.

We have so-called plodding centers, a savvy two-way forward, a defensive threat and even the best three-point sniper that everyone forgets. Neither has ever made an All-Star team, and it will be a shock if that changes anytime soon. But every entry on our top-five list of the league’s most underrated players is a star in his role.

Let’s give each of them some shine.

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Steven Adams has made one three-point shot his entire career, has fewer total blocks over the past five seasons than Robert Covington and Montrezl Harrell, and has virtually none of the new-age skills that get centers recognized.

However, he is an old-school master of the great dark arts.

Adams might be the one most physical player in the league, an ambulatory granite statue that moves only when it wants to. When he’s not using his unmatched strength to carve out a rebound position or set screens that break layups, he’s utilizing his skills as an irritant—grabbing a handful of jerseys here or rubbing his sweaty forehead on an opponent’s shoulder there.

The combination of sheer strength and mindless deception is odd, but it works—especially for the Memphis Grizzlies, who need Adams’ best-in-class contributions on the offensive glass to generate half-court offense. Memphis is 79-39 when Adams plays and 28-18 without him over the past two years, the difference between a 55 pace and a 49 pace over an 82-game season.

Every year since 2015-16, Adams’ teams have had significantly better net ratings with him in the game. Five times during that span, his presence on the floor has increased the club’s point differential by at least 7.0 points per 100 possessions, an elite figure.

Adams is one of the best centers in the league, but no one seems to notice because he does it in such a low-key, recurring way.

Stephen Mature

If you had to name the Minnesota Timberwolves’ best defender, it would take a while to get to Kyle Anderson. But he scored better than four-time DPOY Rudy Gobert in the Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus last season, and he also topped Jaden McDaniels, who could land a $100 million contract extension before the start of the 2023-24 season — largely because of his defensive prowess.

We need to be careful here because a summation metric, especially on D, is too noisy to make a definitive argument. But the fact that there is data to suggest that Anderson is even in the conversation with the two proves that he is underrated.

Further evidence on that front: Only 27 players in NBA history with at least 12,000 minutes have block and steal rates above 2.0 percent. Anderson is one of those taking a spot alongside generational defenders like David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shawn Marion, Ben Wallace, Andre Kirilenko and Draymond Green.

In addition to the length and anticipation that make the 6’9″ Anderson a high-end stopper, we must add elite passing for a forward. The 29-year-old has ranked in 86th percentile or better in assist percentage at his position every year since 2017-18, and he’s rated even higher in assist-to-usage ratio, which captures how effective Anderson is as a facilitator despite relatively little time on the ball.

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Twenty-seven players have hit at least 700 total three-pointers over the past five seasons, a crew of big guns populated by plenty of household names. Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum – basically the usual suspects.

Out of the 27-man group, only four managed to clear the 700 threshold while making at least 40.0 percent of their attempts. You have Curry at 41.4 percent, Bojan Bogdanović at 40.4 percent and Buddy Hield narrowly qualifying at 40.0 percent on the button.

The final member of this quartet of the league’s best shooters is Joe Harris, but he’s basically rounded out the field in accuracy. He’s sitting at a ridiculous 45.2 percent since 2018-19, making him far and away the most accurate high-volume shooter in the game.

Not all shots are created equal, and players like Curry create far more of their own (harder) looks than a spot-up weapon like Harris does. But in an NBA that seems to value reliable shooting more with each passing season, the 31-year-old, who will play for the Detroit Pistons this season after spending the last seven years with the Brooklyn Nets, deserves notice for heading such a remarkable list.

Harris started just 33 games last season and appeared in just 14 while battling ankle problems in 2021-22. But when he’s on the floor, there’s simply no one more dangerous in the room. Even in a “down year” in 2022-2023, Harris canned 42.6 percent of his triples.

Somehow, the guy who has been better at what is quickly becoming the NBA’s defining skill isn’t getting his due. Hope this helps.

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It’s not just that Kevon Looney has more titles, two*, than any other active starting NBA center that makes him underrated. Any fair analysis of his play, ring numbers and impact must include the fact that he has spent his entire career with the Golden State Warriors surrounded by Hall of Fame talent.

Still, there’s something to be said for understanding how to function optimally in support of stars. And Looney is good at that.

Aside from a superstar 5 who leads his team to championships (see: Nikola Jokić), the Warriors’ undersized big man offers everything a team could ask for in a playoff-proven package.

He outplayed bruised Sacramento Kings All-Star center Domantas Sabonis in the first round of the 2023 playoffs, tallying three games with at least 20 rebounds and drawing praise from the same teammates who saw him adeptly handle the switch to Luka Dončić, a completely different kind of threat, after 2022.

While Stephen Curry is the catalyst for everything the Warriors do and should always be the first entry on the list of reasons Golden State can line up, Looney is amassing a playoff track record that puts him close behind. Most teams are happy when their center isn’t being played off the floor against top competition. Conversely, the Warriors would probably prefer to play Looney all 48 minutes if they could.

Whether he’s serving as the locker room conscience of a dynastic core, running the complex handoff game with Curry and Klay Thompson better than anyone other than Draymond Green, or miraculously playing all 82 games for two straight years in the age of load management, Looney never gets the credit he’s due.

*Plus a third from 2016-17, when he was on the Warriors’ roster but did not play in the postseason.

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It’s simply harder for guards to make defensive impacts on the same scale as their big man counterparts. Centers who can defend the rim, hoard boards, and disrupt large portions of the opposing offense’s area of ​​operation just mean more in the grand scheme of defense.

That’s part of the reason Marcus Smart, the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year, was the first guard to win the award since 1996.

Alex Caruso is one of the rare players at his position – like Smart, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White and a handful of others – who can change the course of the game defensively. The problem: He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for it.

Consider the mystery of last year’s Chicago Bulls, who somehow ended up with the No. 5 defense despite starting notables Nikola Vucević, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. The Bulls accomplished that feat largely because they held opponents to 106.5 points per game. 100 possessions when Caruso was on the floor. When he sat, that number jumped to 112.5.

With steal rates in or above 90th percentile five years in a row (and even a 98th percentile block rate last year!) and most deflections per 36 minutes in the league (among players with at least 1,000 minutes played), Caruso causes more problems than most defenders – in any position.

In the end, he finished first in the entire NBA in Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus in 2022-23. And yet, if asked about the league’s best defenders, most fans would name 10 or 15 before getting to the Carusos.

It must be changed.

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball reference and Cleaning the glass. Salary info via Mocking.

Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@gt_hughes), and subscribe to Hardwood knocks podcast where he appears with Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale.

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