The National Basketball Association is loaded with talent. Shocking, right?
On a more serious note, the NBA’s rapid rise in popularity over the past decade can be attributed to the immense star power exhibited throughout the league. However, lost in the public’s fascination for big-name stars such as Lebron James or Stephen Curry, is the impressive play of non-household names whose excellence is typically underrated by the NBA community.
In this exercise, we’ll assemble two teams of NBA players who don’t typically receive the credit or acclaim that their play deserves. Similar to the All-NBA teams awarded at the end of the regular season, we’ll create a first and second team consisting of two guards, two forwards and a center.
The players included on these teams may not be at the forefront of the NBA superstar conversation, but their play suggests they may be closer to the top than many fans realize.
NBA All-Underrated First Team
First Team Guard: Terry Rozier – Charlotte Hornets
Nicknamed “Scary Terry” following his impressive performance during the Boston Celtics’ 2019 playoff run, Rozier’s playoff antics weren’t enough to keep NBA fans from raising their eyebrows when the Charlotte Hornets handed him a three-year 57-million-dollar contract in the offseason following his playoff breakout.
Midway through Rozier’s second season with the organization, the Hornets have to feel good about their investment.
After averaging 18 points per game in his initial season with Charlotte, Rozier ranks among the top scorers in the league through the start of the 2020-21 season. His 21.1 PPG makes him one of 35 eligible NBA players currently scoring over 20 points per contest. Furthermore, Rozier’s smooth transition to an off-ball scoring role allows him to fit perfectly next to the Hornets’ new point guard of the future, LaMelo Ball.
Not known as a threat from deep during his time with Boston, Rozier is shooting 46 percent from downtown while hoisting up 7.8 three-point shots per game. Rozier has made almost twice the number of threes as Devin Booker this year, he’s scoring more points per game than Jamaal Murray and his three-point percentage is higher than Stephen Curry.
Though he’s not a household name, the numbers agree that “Scary Terry” is quite deserving of the first guard spot on our NBA All-Underrated First Team.
First Team Guard: Fred VanVleet – Toronto Raptors
When the Toronto Raptors completed their miraculous run to win the 2019 NBA Championship, Fred VanVleet was a quality role player complementing the Raptors’ leading trio of Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam. Now, not only is it fair to wonder if VanVleet has overtaken Lowry as the Raptors’ most valuable guard, the numbers show it may already be a forgone conclusion.
Take a look at the 2020-21 splits for Toronto’s top playmakers:
Lowry: 17.7 PPG, 6.4 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.2 SPG, .601 TS%, 16.4 PER, 2.3 WS, 0.6 VORP, 25 games
VanVleet: 20.1 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.4 RPG, 1.7 SPG, .552 TS%, 17.8 PER, 3.2 WS, 1.4 VORP, 31 games
While traditional statistics don’t show a ton of separation between the pair, the advanced numbers provide a more complete picture of how VanVleet has been Toronto’s most valuable guard thus far through the 2020-21 season. Though the win shares and value over replacement player statistics may be a little skewed due to Lowry’s playing less games, VanVleet’s lead in player efficiency rating and points per game paint him as the Raptors’ best guard.
That VanVleet finds himself unseating the legendary Toronto guard is a testament to the 4-year 85-million-dollar contract the Raptors handed him last November, a deal many fans felt was too hefty for someone who most considered a role player.
Clearly, NBA fans need to acknowledge VanVleet as a legitimate threat, one who should lead Toronto into a new era following its 2019 championship.
First Team Forward: Tobias Harris – Philadelphia 76ers
In the early days of Tobias Harris’ playing career, it almost seemed like he was Will Smith in that Fresh Prince of Bel-Air meme.
It took a long time for an organization to buy into Harris as a key player on a winning team. The former Bucks’ first-round pick found himself on four teams in his first six seasons – being traded by Milwaukee, Orlando and Detroit despite providing consistent production for the Magic and growing as a primary option for the Pistons. After being dealt yet again by his fourth team, the Los Angeles Clippers, to Philadelphia, many doubted Harris’ ability to hold down a long-term role for any franchise – let alone a successful one.
Fast-forward to modern day – Harris is thriving in a key role for the 76ers, who are sitting in first place of the Eastern Conference.
The 28-year-old is posting per game averages of 20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 40.3 percent from three – good for an 19.4 player efficiency rating and 3.1 win shares. More importantly, however, is the impact of his skill set between Philly’s two stars – Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Harris and Simmons are essentially polar opposites. While Harris doesn’t possess the freakish athleticism, ability off the drive or passing instinct of Simmons, his smooth shooting, floor spacing and playmaking from the wing helps relieve Simmons’ shortcomings in those areas. With Joel Embiid enjoying a career year as an early MVP front runner, the Philadelphia trio is well positioned to make their run at the East this year.
Harris won’t get the MVP votes that Embiid will see this year and he doesn’t possess the number one draft pick pedigree of his teammate Simmons, but make no mistake, he is the glue that holds together the East-leading 76ers.
First Team Forward: Domantas Sabonis – Indiana Pacers
If you asked a casual NBA fan to list the participants of the 2020 NBA All-Star Game off the top of their head, you’d probably hear the names of many players who didn’t make the cut before hearing the name Domantas Sabonis (that is, if they mention him at all).
Sabonis was, in fact, recognized as an All-Star during the 2019-20 NBA campaign. So why doesn’t he receive the same love from the NBA community as, say, Kristaps Porzingis?
Looking through the numbers, it’s clear Sabonis’ production is easily as impressive as the 7’3” Latvian big man, if not more:
Porzingis: 20.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.6 BPG, 0.4 SPG, .473 FG%, .352 3PT%, 21.2 PER
Sabonis: 21.5 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 5.7 APG, 0.7 BPG, 1.0 SPG, .528 FG%, .358 3PT%, 20.7 PER
The point of this post isn’t to knock Porzingis, rather, it is to compliment Sabonis for quietly matching the production of the former fourth overall pick – and even surpassing it in some areas.
While Sabonis’s smaller-market Pacers don’t receive the same buzz as Porzingis’s Dallas Mavericks, the Lithuanian is making it apparent that he is one of the premier big men in the game.
First Team Center: Nikola Vučević – Orlando Magic
Time for a blind comparison of 2020-21 statistics for three players:
Player A: 25.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 7.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG, .502 FG%, .362 3PT%, 23.9 PER, 4.3 WS, 2.4 VORP, 31 games
Player B: 22.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.8 BPG, .533 FG%, .293 3PT%, 24.8 PER, 3.3 WS, 1.6 VORP, 23 games
Player C: 24.1 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.6 BPG, .481 FG%, .405 3PT%, 24.2 PER, 3.7 WS, 2.1 VORP, 31 games
* mic drop *
Vučević has consistently remained one of the NBA’s most underrated players for most of his career. This season, it seems, the 30-year-old is on a mission to change that narrative. Yet, when Bleacher Report released its 2021 All-Star Game picks, Vucevic missed the cut, receiving just two of a possible 18 voter points.
Granted, the record of Vučević’s Magic (13-18) is not nearly as impressive last year’s champion Lakers (22-9). Still, when a player’s production is on par with legendary talents like James and Davis, one would imagine that player should receive greater consideration to make his second All-Star appearance.
Regrettably, the NBA community seems to agree that Vučević won’t be named an All-Star this year. But that won’t stop “Vooch” from continuing to dominate as one of the NBA’s most underrated talents. If the NBA All-Underrated First Team had a captain, Vučević would be a fine choice.
All-NBA Underrated Second Team
Second Team Guard: Jordan Clarkson – Utah Jazz
Jordan Clarkson is enjoying a fine start to the 2020-21 campaign coming off the bench for the Western Conference leading Utah Jazz. The 28-year-old guard ranks first in points per game and three-pointers made among players with zero starts this season and is an early front-runner for sixth man of the year.
Williams: 22.4 MPG, 12.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.8 APG, 16.3 PER, 1.3 WS
Harrell: 24.3 MPG, 13.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 21.7 PER, 3.6 WS
Clarkson: 26.2 MPG, 18.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 19.1 PER, 2.3 WS
There’s more to the story than these numbers tell, but the gist of it is this: Clarkson has effectively knocked Williams out of the contest, and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award will be a two-headed race between the Lakers’ big man and the crafty Jazz guard.
Regardless of how that race eventually turns out (provided things keep their pace), let’s take a moment to appreciate Clarkson’s role in Utah’s early season run.
That the Jazz sit atop the West at 24-6 is of no small thanks to Clarkson carrying the scoring load for the second unit. The former second round draft pick – who’s never averaged under 11 points per game in any season of his nine-year career – is setting career highs in points per game and threes made per game.
While Clarkson may never be perceived as anything more than a role player, it seems he’s found his role just in time for the Jazz’s run as a legitimate Western Conference threat.
Second Team Guard: Malik Beasley – Minnesota Timberwolves
After showing flashes of potential in a quick 14-game stint for Minnesota last season, Malik Beasley has arrived as one of the few bright spots for a 7-24 Timberwolves team.
Seeking anyone to put the ball in the hoop during the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns, Beasley has emerged as a serious scoring threat for the T-Wolves, averaging 20.2 points per game thus far through his first full season with the team. Not unlike another scoring threat soon to be mentioned on this list, Beasley is finally finding his groove in the 2020-21 season after being unable to fully showcase his full potential coming off the Denver Nuggets bench.
Now freed from the shackles of the Nuggets’ incredible depth, Beasley *would* be a prime candidate for the Most Improved Player award. Who knows what the T-Wolves record would look like without his scoring presence?
Second Team Forward: Jerami Grant – Detroit Pistons
The other former Nugget breaking out during the 2020-21 campaign is the reason we used the word “would” regarding Beasley’s most improved player candidacy.
If things keep their pace, Grant is a near lock to be recognized as the league’s most improved. While Beasley boasts an impressive case for the award, the new Pistons’ alpha dog is having an equally impressive (and more surprising) breakout than last year’s most improved player recipient, Brandon Ingram.
Here’s a comparison of jumps with a new team between the two scoring forwards:
Ingram 2018-19: 33.8 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 13.4 PER
Ingram 2019-20: 33.9 MPG, 23.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 4.2 APG, 18.8 PER
Grant 2019-20: 26.6 MPG, 12.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 14.4 PER
Grant 2020-21: 36.4 MPG, 23.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 18.1 PER
While Grant’s 2018-19 campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder was actually a tad more impressive than his lone season with Denver, it’s safe to say nobody expected this kind of production for the 26-year-old forward when he signed a hefty contract with Detroit in the offseason.
The former second-round draft pick had only averaged double-digit scoring numbers in two of his six seasons prior to this year. His breakout as the Pistons’ primary scoring option is unexpected, but definitely appreciated by his new franchise.
Grant has played key roles in upset wins against the Celtics, Nets, 76ers and Suns, and while Detroit’s 8-22 record leaves much to be desired, it’s clear the Pistons have a new scoring threat to lead their rebuild.
Second Team Forward: Julius Randle – New York Knicks
There are four players averaging over 21 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game this far into the 2020-21 NBA season. The first two are Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The third is Domantas Sabonis, who we mentioned earlier. The fourth is Julius Randle.
When Randle underachieved with the Lakers after being selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, most were ready to write him off as somebody who could potentially be a big-time player for a franchise. In his second go-around for the New York Knicks after his lone season in New Orleans, Randle is out to silence his doubters.
In fact, take a glance at his numbers compared to the Pelicans shiny new power forward, Zion Williamson:
Williamson: 32.8 MPG, 25.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, .616 FG%, .353 3PT%, 26.6 PER, 4.1 WS
Randle: 36.7 MPG, 23.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, .481 FG%, .410 3PT%, 20.7 PER, 3.8 WS
Zion is playing with remarkable efficiency and should be credited for his terrific sophomore campaign. However, Randle is having a career year and making his impact in other areas as well as in the scoring game.
Though the Pelicans were fortunate to select a talent like Williamson with the number one overall pick in 2019, the Knicks were equally fortunate to land Randle when Zion’s arrival made him available. If things keep up, we could see Randle suit up for his first playoff action come the postseason.
Second Team Center: Christian Wood – Houston Rockets
Similar to Jerami Grant, Wood made the most of his opportunities last season for an abysmal Detroit team in need of playmakers. Unfortunately for Pistons’ fans, the team was unwilling to meet Wood’s asking price in the following offseason.
Detroit’s loss is Houston’s gain.
After missing the start of the season, the former undrafted center has come alive for the Rockets in his first 17 games of the season, averaging 22 points, 10.2 rebounds and posting a 24.2 PER. He’s already established himself as an integral part of the Rockets’ post-Harden plans.
After signing a modest three-year 41-million-dollar deal in the offseason, many didn’t know what to expect from Wood after his mini-breakout with the Pistons. That breakout has seemingly extended into the 2020-21 season, and the Rockets couldn’t be happier about it.
*Stats up to date through Feb. 22, 2021*
Aspiring sports writer for Upside Hoops