Great NBA teams require a leading scorer, a captain and veteran leadership. However, in today’s ultra competitive league, a player who can lift the play of his teammates through effort and passion is an invaluable commodity. Having players like this, who are willing to do whatever it takes to win, can be the difference between mediocre and playoff-bound.
A player who brings a high level of energy while simultaneously positively affecting the game without necessarily needing the ball in his hands is considered an “energy guy.” This type of player generally has a high level of intangible attributes.
Maybe the best energy guy of all-time was Dennis Rodman. Rodman could likely be the benchmark for all other hustle players to be measured against. Despite being an undersized big, Rodman’s relentless approach to the game produced absurd rebounding numbers and fueled championship runs for both the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls. At the height of his career with both teams, Rodman averaged 18.7 rebounds (and 9.8 points) during the 1991-92 season with the Pistons, and 16.1 rebounds (and 5.7 points) during the 1996-97 season with the Bulls.
As the NBA season has opened, there are several players around the league who stand out among the rest as premier energy guys. Let’s take a look at today’s impactful energy players.
Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets – Nasty. That’s the word that comes to mind when describing how Patrick Beverley plays. The point guard finds ways to get under the skin of even the most poised players around the league. Views differ on whether Beverley’s play is considered dirty or just hardnosed. Nevertheless, it’s hard to refute the energy and effort that the 6’1 guard brings to his team. Beverley’s pressure of opposing ball handlers (sometimes in a full-court press) often rubs players the wrong way and leads to confrontations. Just ask Russell Westbrook, who has had several run-ins with Beverley.
Despite his antics, Beverley’s intensity on the defensive end, combined with his steady play on the offensive end, gives his team a boost that is often contagious. Last season, Beverley averaged 9.9 points and boasted nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, while also adding 1.3 steals per contest. Assuming he bounces back from minor knee surgery, expect Beverley to resume his high energy ways this season in Houston.
Bismack Biyombo, Orlando Magic – Biyombo had a breakout postseason in 2016 and brought tremendous grit and enthusiasm to the Raptors during their playoff run. The big man helped the Raptors reach the Eastern Conference Finals. His most notable performance came during Game 3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when Biyombo recorded 26 rebounds, four blocks and seven points and was one of the central reasons for the win. Kyle Lowry explained how valuable Biyombo’s approach to the game and impact on the Raptors was last season. Speaking to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Lowry described Biyombo as “our lion.”
According to NBA.com, during the last year’s regular season, Biyombo averaged 1.8 minutes between passes from teammates, which ranked him in the bottom 16 players in the league for a player playing at least 20 games. He is the quintessential energy guy – doing the dirty work and not needing the ball. He rebounds, sets screens and uses effort to affect the game. Between Serge Ibaka and Biyombo, the Magic now have two junk yard dogs who they are hoping will lift the team into contention for a playoff spot.
Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers– Players around the NBA cite Thompson as one of the top energy guys in the league, because he seems to never get tired and is always focused on rebounding the ball. Recently, a big man told Basketball Insiders that Thompson was his least favorite player to go up against because he’ll make you work for everything. Thompson helped spark the Cavs’ success over the past few seasons. The big man tenaciously attacks the glass and his high-energy play allows him to grab rebounds that, on first glance, seem out of his range. Thompson averaged nine rebounds last season, and he has averaged 8.5 rebounds per game over the course of his career. He is back at it again this season, averaging 9.5 rebounds per game through the first four games of the season.
Thompson embraces this role and enjoys impacting games with his rebounding and hustle plays. “My job is pretty simple, just come out and play hard and be an energy guy,” Thompson told Brian Windhorst of ESPN during the Cavs’ 2014-15 playoff run.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that Thompson looks up to the previously mentioned Dennis Rodman, watching film of him to try to emulate his game. “I try to be the best I can be at what I can do, and that’s playing hard and rebounding; I watch a lot of Dennis Rodman film,” Thompson told Basketball Insiders last year. “[I] see how he impacted the game, see how he impacted his team when he was playing. Especially for this team, I feel like I can do that and bring it to the table. That’s what I try to do every night. I liked his energy and his passion. He didn’t let any possessions off, made it tough, and that’s what changes a game.”
LeBron James even compared Thompson to Rodman last May saying: “What Dennis did for the Bulls on the floor, Double T does for us – giving us extra possessions, defending guys who are sometimes bigger than him. We know that every night he’s going to give us everything he’s got. Sometimes it doesn’t show up in the box score, but what he does is huge for our team.” As the Cavs try to defend their title, Thompson and his terrific motor will be integral to the team’s success.
Matthew Dellavedova, Milwaukee Bucks – “Delly” is best known for his defensive energy, which helped the Cavs clinch their first championship last season. Dellavedova unleashed fierce ball pressure and a do-anything-it-takes-to-help-the-team-win mentality that endeared him to both his teammates and fans. However, like Beverley, the Aussie’s style of play has sometimes been considered too over the top. In a Los Angeles Times poll of players and coaches in 2016, Dellavedova was voted the NBA’s dirtiest player. That didn’t stop the Milwaukee Bucks from signing Delly to a four-year $38 million deal over the summer.
This season, expect Dellavedova to continue his “take no prisoners” style of play. With his sturdy frame and high basketball IQ, look for Dellavedova to aggressively attack opposing defenses via ball screen action. This should open up opportunities for himself and teammates now that he’s expected to become more of a scoring threat with the Bucks.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs – It may seem strange to see Leonard on this list, given that he has emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and may even be a Most Valuable Player candidate this year. However, he’s one of the few superstars who is also an energy guy since he has an incredible motor and relentless defensive approach. He is one of the best shutdown defenders in the league, as evidenced by his back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. Leonard has built his game from the ground up, adding shooting and efficient offense to his defensive mastery. Before stepping up his scoring output last season, Leonard primarily affected the game with his athleticism, length and energy. During the 2015-16 season, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals, one block and 6.8 rebounds to go with his 21.2 points per game. During the 2014-15 season, Leonard registered 2.3 steals per game, which placed him tied for fifth-best in the league.
In recent years, players on opposing teams have dreaded facing Leonard. L.A. Clippers guard J.J. Redick raved about Leonard’s defensive prowess to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated: “More than his length, his strength, his quickness, that mother‐‐‐‐‐‐ is So. Locked. In. I have no idea what scouting report they give him, but he knows every play, and he takes no breaks.” LeBron James has said that Leonard guards him better than any other player in the league, and there’s a great clip of James looking frustrated when Leonard checked back into the game when the two were facing off in the NBA Finals. During the first two games of this season Leonard has already tallied 10 steals, and looks to be picking up where he left off last season.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics – After being traded from from Phoenix to Boston on February 19, 2015, Thomas seemed to will his Celtics to the playoffs last season. Thomas went for 42 points versus the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the first round, and he averaged 24 points per game during the series. Generously listed at 5’8, Thomas overcomes his smaller frame and maximizes his potential by playing with outstanding energy night in and night out. Like Leonard, he’s an All-Star, but he had to make this list because he can be a pest for opposing guards on both ends of the floor. He uses his jaw-dropping speed in transition and in the halfcourt to get to certain spots so he can create plays for himself and teammates. Although he looks to score the ball often, Thomas does a great job of getting his team involved, as evidenced by his 6.7 assists per game. Thomas can also hound opposing guards with his quickness and tenacious defense. It’s not uncommon to see Thomas diving for loose balls as well.
Through three games, Thomas is averaging 24.7 points, 6.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals (while shooting 53.1 percent from the field). Expect Thomas to continue to fill the stat sheet as he becomes even more comfortable in Boston this season. That sound you just heard is an annoyed groan coming from rival point guards around the league.
Do you have a favorite energy guy? Leave a comment below or reach out to Jake on Twitter (@MindRightPro).
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.