Players in the NBA are often misunderstood, underutilized, or unappreciated for a variety of reasons. Many have all the talent in the world yet are confined to a system or a losing situation that doesn’t bode well for their confidence and ability to make plays. Currently, with how the game is played, there are many players that get lost in the shuffle in today’s three-point, run-and-gun, pace-and-space style of play.
It takes immense talent even to make it to the league, much less star or make a career out of it. For a bunch of guys with even All-Star appearances, awards, big numbers, or highlight reels, it’s still possible to get overlooked by even the most devoted fans of the game.
We decided to take some of these players and compile a list some of the most underrated ballers in the NBA.
Obviously, the first thing that pops into fans’ minds about the former Ohio State guard is his lack of maturity due to his run-ins with teammates and the coaching staff in year one. However, because of that, many forget how impactful he can be when he’s feeling right. When Russell was on the floor this season, the team’s assist to turnover ratio was at it’s highest at 1.55 assists per turnover and the team’s three-pointers made and attempted were at the peak (10.2 made and 29.3 attempted). Appearing in only 63 games due to injury, Russell averaged 15.6 points, 4.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals in only 28.7 minutes per game.
The Lakers were 26-56 on the year, so it’s hard to fully digest what a good season could look like for a player like Russell. But, the real positive for Russell was that the Lakers were a -6.9 for the season (plus-minus) and the Lakers most utilized lineup, which included Russell, was a positive 5.2 (Nick Young, Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, and Julius Randle with him). This lineup played more minutes than any other by over 200 minutes.
Russell also possesses incredible vision on-the-court and while he may make mistakes more frequently than you’d like, his ability to find teammates, generate offense out of nothing, and create his own shot with sneaky athleticism is excessively understated. You won’t find many players at his size that have the combination of vision, court awareness and general presence to demand the ball after losing it or having teammates miss easy assists, like he does.
Does Russell have flaws? Of course, he’s not Steph Curry or LeBron. But he’s got an uncanny ability to read defenses and exploit mismatches. He’s also much better on defense than he’s given credit for. He gambles, he bites on shot attempts, but he does read the game very well which helps him in garnishing steals and knowing where to switch.
Russell is a player who gets flack for being put in a bad spot. He was given one of the worst coaches in the league and a losing team with little to no pieces, and everyone expected him to be an MVP-type player. The expectations were abnormally high and because of it, Russell suffered.
It’s still to be determined whether Russell will stay in Los Angeles, especially with the rumors of Lonzo Ball being available with their number two overall pick in next month’s NBA Draft. But Russell still holds value as he’s only 21 with two life-changing seasons under his belt already. He’s matured, improved and grown into an incredible talent already, he just needs more minutes to put together some momentum whether it’s at the two or the one. He’s got the “it” factor you want in a star, he just needs a better supporting cast (which should come) and some more game reps to grow into what many anticipated him to be, a superstar.
Still only 23, Smart is an integral part of the Eastern Conference one-seed and is still vastly underrated. His early knocks on attitude and inconsistency on offense haven’t fully gone away, but there much less of a glaring issue. This season, Smart is shooting about 36 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from downtown, that’s an increase of one and three percent respectively. If that’s not enough, there’s hope he’s also improving in other areas such as free throw percentage, which jumped from 77.7 to 81.2 percent year over year.
Even if the offense isn’t great, his defense is as sure of a thing as LeBron James making the NBA Finals. He suffocates, closes down, and continually bodies up bigger players which helps the Celtics in more way than one. Out of all possible Celtics lineups used this season, Smart was a part of the group with the the lowest defensive rating (91.5) and most minutes played. Along with this, the Celtics two best defensive groups have Smart in it, which lends credibility to how valuable he is on the other end of the floor.
Smart is clearly a player who still needs improvement on the offensive end, but his ability to mix-and-match with opposing offensive players is ultra rare. At his age, he’s still got a few more years to continue the upward trajectory and become that elite level talent on an extremely hopeful Boston team.
New York Moe, as some call him, just turned 24 and has all the tools to become an incredibly valuable asset in the NBA. In the box score, he isn’t going to jump off the page but his incredibly physical, dynamic frame allow him to guard multiple positions and play above average offense. In fact, when Harkless was on the floor, he led the Blazers to the third highest offensive rating at 111.7. Many would say Harkless isn’t polished offensively and that may be true, but his numbers, specifically in efficiency, are quite shocking.
Last season, he shot over 50 percent from the field, 35 percent from behind-the-arc on about eight attempts per game. The usage isn’t enough to say Harkless is an offensive juggernaut, but he certainly isn’t someone you would leave open on a regular basis.
Harkless’s value is understated to this Blazers team as he was involved in the most utilized lineup (with McCollum, Lillard, Plumlee and Aminu) which played 255 minutes and had a positive plus-minus rating of 7.9. He was also in the second most utilized lineup which included Nurkic, Lillard, McCollum, and Vonleh which also created a positive plus-minus rating of 4.8. But above all, the common theme in most of the positive lineups with the Blazers, was the common denominator of Harkless being included.
Leave the acquisition of Nurkic out, and Harkless led the Blazers in net rating at a positive 3.4.
Harkless isn’t built like someone who’s going to post 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists consistently, but the value he brings to this Trail Blazers team will always be understated because of the lack of statistics. In fact, according to the numbers, Harkless’s individual performance is a gauge to whether the Trail Blazers win or lose. In wins, Harkless possessed a plus-minus of positive nine, averaging 10.3 points on more than 53 percent shooting, and in losses, Harkless is a negative 7.5 while averaging below 10 points on under 50 percent shooting. The difference in plus-minus rating is the highest of any Blazer aside from Lillard and really gives an indication to his overall value to their team success.
Think of him as the Blazers’ baby Draymond Green, a crucial cog to the wheel who gets the job done on both ends of the floor.
The definition of a workhorse, Beverley is one of hardest players to play against as he gets in your head, gives you no room for error and rarely makes mistakes. Some may claim Beverley’s pest-like play is over the top, but it allows him to be the player he’s become. For the season, Beverley actually ranked higher than MVP-candidate James Harden in plus-minus rating on the floor and shot the ball incredibly efficient – 43.7 percent from the field and 41 percent from downtown.
As if leading the team in plus-minus rating wasn’t enough, how about boasting a positive net rating of 7.3 (3rd highest on the Rockets), over three assists to one turnover and over 6 rebounds per game standing at only 6’1. At age 28, Beverley is in the prime of his career but it certainly doesn’t feel like it based on the lack of attention he’s given nationally. People recognize Beverley as a serviceable player but it doesn’t seem like he’s regarded as one of the two or three most valuable players on this Rockets team.
Out of all the lineups the Rockets used, Beverley was apart of the most used and most successful (of at least 200 minutes). The core of Harden, Beverley, Capela, Ariza, and Anderson played 505 minutes and had a positive net rating of 18.5 (yes, 18.5!).
Even though Beverley was injured and missed about 15 games, the Rockets were only 9-6 during that time demonstrating the value of the former Arkansas product.
Redick is as lethal as it gets as a shooter. But, what makes him special is his ability to come off screens, consistently knock down shots, and be a viable option on offense at all times. Redick has one of the finest, if not the finest stroke among active players, and he’s rarely handled on defense. The national narrative is that the Clippers have the big three in Jordan, Griffin, and Paul, and while that’s true, you can’t discount Redick in this grouping. He’s top-ten in the league in plus-minus rating while shooting almost 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from behind-the-arc.
Considering the fact that Redick is catching and shooting on most of these, the numbers are impressive to say the least.
Redick can hide in games and spurts because his teammates are ball dominant and he’s having to rely on teammates to set screens and create space for him to get open looks. But, beyond that, Redick is almost automatic in a league that’s grown into a catch-and-shoot, screen setting, team oriented game.
Averaging 15 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists this past season, Redick is an unrestricted free-agent this summer and is due to make some serious cash because of his plethora of off-ball movements, shooting ability, and seamless fit on 95 percent of NBA teams.
Just under two seasons ago, people were questioning why Kevin Love was on this Cavaliers team and if he could make it work. Now, he looks to be finally fitting in and meshing well with this LeBron James led team, however, many seem to think the Cavs could replace him with just about anyone and it would work this well. News flash: it wouldn’t.
Love is one of the most valuable pieces to this Cavs team because of his ability to rebound and stretch the floor. The 28-year old Love has averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 37 percent from the three-point line. His positive plus-minus of 5.7, ranks him within the top-25 and while that may be because of playing with LeBron James, it also may be his ability to space the floor and get open looks with James as the primary ball-handler.
Overall, Love’s value to this Cavs team is vastly understated. Remember, it was Love’s closeout on Curry which potentially saved the Cavs from losing last year. And from last year to today, he’s only gotten better on defense as he progresses with Coach Lue’s system and structure. His value and fit with this team went from almost non-existent to sky-high as the past two seasons have progressed. If the Cavaliers make it to the Finals, as expected, he could be the difference maker as to whether they win or lose the series.
While Millsap is an All-Star, he still gets overlooked by many. His lack of being a top-ten scorer and producing highlight reel plays is probably a big reason for why he goes under the radar. But, the elite forward not only consistently produces on offense, he also creates extreme problems on defense for opposing teams. His size, length, athleticism, versatility, and gifted footwork allow him to contain and frustrate virtually any NBA player.
Being the only player above 2,000 minutes and having a positive plus-minus rating on the floor for the Hawks, Millsap was by far and away the most valuable asset to this team. This season, he averaged over 25 points on 44.2 percent shooting while also adding almost 11 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. His three-point and free throw shooting were both slightly below what you’d expect, but his overall impact on the game doesn’t waver.
He’s not flashy, he doesn’t make outrageous comments and he may not be a top-ten caliber player, but Millsap’s game is certainly understated in almost every facet of his game.
A soon-to-be free-agent, Millsap will fit into almost any scenario, but even with his age and the dollars he commands teams won’t be deterred away from one of the most consistent and automatic plug-and-play players we’ve ever seen.