The NBA is a league of stars. Most of those who garner the attention have a brand behind them. They’re larger than the game they play. We’re taking about the LeBron James and Kevin Durants of the world. A list that has quickly expanded to youngsters such as Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis.
But for some reason, this season has seen an uptick in underrated or unheralded players stepping up and put up tremendous performances. These are the players we don’t talk about too often. Though, they’re catalysts for their team’s success.
From two young Indiana Pacers players acquired in the Paul George trade to a veteran in Los Angeles having a career year, here’s a look at the 15 most underrated NBA players having tremendous seasons.
Domantas Sabonis, forward/center, Indiana Pacers
Sabonis wasn’t even the headliner for Indiana in the deal that sent Paul George to the Thunder. Given how well the former lottery pick has played for the Pacers, that’s a somewhat shocking realization to come to.
The Gonzaga product heads into this weekend’s action averaging 12.4 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting at a ridiculous 53 percent mark from the field. He’s doing all of this at just 21 years old and for a Pacers team that’s currently the sixth seed back east.
David West, forward, Golden State Warriors
An ageless wonder, West is in the midst of his 15th NBA season. He’s also fit in extremely well with the Warriors as a go-to option off the bench. Fresh off earning the first NBA title, West is having one of the most efficient seasons of a career that includes two All-Star appearances from a decade ago.
Here’s a guy that’s averaging 7.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks in just 13 minutes of action per game. He’s also shooting at a tremendous 61 percent from the field. When on the court, West is leading a Warriors team that’s plus-five in scoring in his 13 minutes. Just tremendous stuff from the grizzled 37-year-old veteran.
Tyler Johnson, guard, Miami Heat
An un-drafted free agent out of Cal State Fresno, Johnson has worked his way into the Heat’s rotation after being nothing more than a deep bench option earlier in his career. In fact, his performances over the past couple seasons yielded a four-year, $50 million contract back in July of 2016.
Having played a solid role for Miami in the past two seasons, Johnson’s importance to the team has been ramped-up in 2017-18 due to Dion Waiters’ injury. He’s now averaging 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting at a stellar 49 percent from inside the three-point line. Add in a 36 percent mark from distance, and he’s one of the primary reasons Miami has overcome an early-season swoon to find itself as a top-four seed back east heading into the weekend.
Jrue Holiday, guard, New Orleans Pelicans
Some of the players included in this list were already known to be stellar performers. Though, extenuating circumstances have led to them being underappreciated. That’s most definitely the case for Holiday, behind the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis in New Orleans.
Fresh off signing a max-contract this past summer, Holiday is putting up the best performance of his otherwise solid career. He’s averaging 18.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. The former first-round pick is also shooting at a tremendous 50 percent from the field and is seeing his Pelicans perform at a much higher level offensively with him on the court.
Khris Middleton, guard/forward, Milwaukee Bucks
Fully healthy this season after an injury-plagued 2016-17 campaign, Middleton has morphed into a tremendous second option behind Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. And with Jabari Parker still out due to a torn ACL, the Bucks have desperately needed this production to stay afloat back east.
Middleton enters this weekend’s action averaging a career-best 20.0 points to go with 5.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. He’s also shooting at a stellar 46 percent from the field. With a perimeter-heavy game, that’s no small accomplishment. It’s also important to note that the Bucks boast a .543 effective field goal mark with him on the court compared to 50 percent with Middleton riding the bench. That goes to show us how valuable he is on offense.
Kelly Oubre, forward, Washington Wizards
Let’s look at it from this perspective. Washington matched Brooklyn’s max-contract offer to Otto Porter Jr. during the summer. In return, Porter is averaging 13.7 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from distance. On the other hand, Oubre is posting an 11.9/4.9 split with a 40 percent three-point mark. He’s earning $22-plus million less than Porter in 2017-18.
On one hand, this tells us a story of a Wizards front office that panicked by retaining Porter. On the other hand, it shows us just how good Oubre has been in an under-the-radar manner.
Eric Gordon, guard, Houston Rockets
James Harden and Chris Paul get all the press in Houston. That’s why the inclusion of Gordon in this list makes all the sense in the world. He’s underrated due to the fact that no one really gives him a second thought. Now healthy for seemingly the first time in his 10-year career, this should soon change.
A major component in what might be a record-breaking three-point performance from the Rockets this season, Gordon is shooting nearly 10 treys per game. He’s doing so while shooting 34 percent from distance. Despite this, Gordon is averaging nearly 20 points per game and boasts a true shooting percentage of .565. Sure he’s a one-trick pony and remains a major liability on defense, but that one trick is pretty darn good.
Malcolm Brogdon, guard, Milwaukee Bucks
The second member of an up-and-coming Bucks squad on this list, Brogdon is following up a Rookie of the Year campaign with an even better season as a sophomore. Primarily an outside threat, the former second-round pick is shooting 48 percent from the field. That includes a solid .376 mark from distance. He’s adding in 13.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists to the mix per game.
We’re not sure if Brogdon will ever morph into an All-Star caliber guard at this level. The Bucks may also look to trade him for an upgrade in the front court. But what he has done in less than two full seasons in the NBA is quite exceptional.
Steven Adams, center, Oklahoma City Thunder
We figured Oklahoma City’s depth would be impacted when the team moved big man Enes Kanter to New York as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade. Paying out nearly $46 million to two small forwards in Anthony and Paul George will do that. What we didn’t expect was Adams to step up in the manner that he has.
With more minutes freed up now that Kanter is in the Big Apple, Adams is turning in the best season of his still young career. He’s averaging career-bests in points (13.6) and rebounds (8.8). The New Zealand native also ranks third in the NBA with a .635 field goal percentage and is sixth in the league with a .643 effective field goal mark. Yes, he’s now becoming an offensive force.
Lou Williams, guard, Los Angeles Clippers
We have to give Williams credit. He was nothing more than a salary throw-in to help the Chris Paul trade to the Rockets go through. Despite this, the veteran has been nothing less than a professional since joining Los Angeles. On the court, he’s simply been dazzling.
Here’s a dude that heads into the weekend averaging 23.2 points while shooting at what would be a nine-year high 45 percent from the field. He also boasts a .412 three-point mark and a career best .540 effective field goal percentage. If that weren’t enough, the Clippers have an offensive rating of 112.1 with him on the court. To put this into perspective, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offensive rating on the season stands at 112.4. Whew.
Kris Dunn, guard, Chicago Bulls
Dunn never really had an opportunity to grow as a player behind Ricky Rubio in Minnesota. He averaged 3.6 points and shot 38 percent from the field as a rookie after being selected No. 5 overall back in 2016. That has changed big time since Dunn was moved to Chicago as part of the Jimmy Butler trade this past summer.
Despite a recent head injury, Dunn’s performance for an otherwise struggling Bulls squad has been stellar this season. The 23-year-old is averaging 13.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He might be struggling from the field at 43 percent, but that’s 56 points higher than he shot as a rookie. Chicago may have very well found its point guard of the future here.
Taj Gibson, forward, Minnesota Timberwolves
Whether it was in Chicago or Oklahoma City, Gibson always seemed to be under appreciated. Now, in his first season with the Wolves, that hasn’t changed. He’s still below Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in the pecking order. But make no mistake about it, Gibson is a primary reason Minnesota finds itself as a top-four seed out west.
The veteran is averaging what would be a five-year high 12.1 points per game. He’s also adding 7.7 rebounds while shooting at a solid 57 percent clip from the field. In a sign that Minnesota is simply a better team with him, opponents are shooting 27 points lower with him on the court. Gibson has been a tremendous under-the-radar free agent acquisition for the upstart Wolves.
Jamal Murray, guard, Denver Nuggets
There has been some talk of the Nuggets potentially moving Murray for a higher-profile player. Though, that’s only talk at this point. It’s hard to imagine the team ridding itself of a 20-year-old guard that’s in the midst of a breakout performance.
The Kentucky product is averaging 15.4 points while shooting at a respectable 35 percent from distance on the season. These might not seem like great numbers, but it’s important to remember just how much he’s improved as a sophomore. We’re talking about a guy that averaged less than 10 points per game in under 22 minutes of action as a rookie. He’s now taking on a larger role for a Nuggets squad that should be playing postseason basketball come spring. That’s no small feat for a youngster that can’t drink legally in Colorado.
Tobias Harris, forward, Detroit Pistons
Harris fell off the map a bit the past few seasons after a breakout 2014-15 campaign with the Orlando Magic that saw him average north of 17 points per game. Some concluded he just didn’t fit into Stan Van Gundy’s system after the head coach and GM traded for him a couple years back. That has been far from the case for Harris and a surprising Pistons team in 2017-18.
Harris leads the team in scoring at 18.1 points per game. He’s also shooting at a 46 percent mark from the field, including what would be a career-best .424 from distance. Andre Drummond may get most of the play in Detroit. The addition of Avery Bradley also made headlines. With that said, Harris has been a central figure on a team that heads into the weekend in playoff positioning.
Klay Thompson, guard, Golden State Warriors
How in the world can a three-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ be underrated? Well, try living in the shadow of former MVPs Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant as well as a divisive Draymond Green. Klay simply doesn’t get the star treatment. But it’s his on-court performance that places Thompson on this list. Right now, he’s a top-five two-way player in the game.
We can focus on him averaging north of 20 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 45 percent from three. But we know Thompson is an elite offensive player. What makes him so special is his defense. Whether it’s James Harden or Russell Westbrook in the backcourt or someone like LeBron James out on the wing, Thompson is continually tasked with going up against the other team’s best offensive player. And it shows. Opponents are shooting 27 points lower when he’s on the court than when he’s taking a rest. That’s a better number than reigning DPOY Draymond Green.