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Head to Head: Most Underrated NBA Player?

Who is the most underrated player in the NBA? Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton discuss.

Basketball Insiders

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With so many star players currently in the league, we often overlook or underrate certain players. In today’s Head to Head, Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton discuss which players they think are the most underrated in the NBA today.

Alex Kennedy: Damian Lillard

Prior to this season, I would always name Isaiah Thomas as the NBA’s most underrated player. After all, he was the final pick in his draft, the Sacramento Kings tried to replace him with a new starting point guard every year, the Phoenix Suns traded him just months after signing him and he was often relegated to a bench role despite being extremely talented. However, now that Thomas is the star of the Boston Celtics and made his first All-Star appearance this year, I think it’s safe to say he is no longer underrated. It’s about damn time.

Let’s switch gears to Damian Lillard, who wasn’t an All-Star this season for reasons that I still can’t comprehend. That snub is still mind-boggling to me, and it’s obvious proof that Lillard is still extremely underrated.

Whatever the reason for him being constantly overlooked, it’s clear Lillard deserves more national attention. He has been dominant this season while winning games and playing an extremely entertaining brand of basketball.

Not only has Lillard had a career-year statistically, he has carried the Portland Trail Blazers into the Western Conference playoff picture when just about everyone projected they’d be one of the worst teams in the NBA prior to the start of this season.

Portland lost five key veterans over the summer (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo) and more than half of the players on their roster were acquired this past offseason. Players like C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee were asked to step into much bigger roles for the first time ever.

However, despite all of these changes, Portland is 31-28 – tied for the sixth seed in the West.

Head coach Terry Stotts deserves credit for the great job he has done and there’s no question that McCollum’s huge strides have been impressive, but there’s no arguing that Lillard has carried this team.

Lillard, who is still just in his fourth NBA season, is averaging career-highs in points (25.2) and assists (7.1), while also chipping in 4.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals. He is fifth in the league in points per game and seventh in assists per game (the only player to be ranked that high in both categories). He’s also been incredibly efficient (22.93 PER), while ranking sixth in the NBA in Offensive Box Plus-Minus (6.3).

Only one NBA player this season has scored 30+ points in five straight games: Damian Lillard.

Lillard is one of the best point guards in the league and he has put the Blazers on his back this season. Yes, he was a huge All-Star snub, but don’t be surprised if he receives an All-NBA nod as voters try to make up for their big mistake. He’s underrated now, but hopefully he starts to get the credit he deserves very soon.

Moke Hamilton: Kemba Walker

It’s difficult for any good NBA player to remain underrated. One of the more positive results of advanced statistics and analytics is that it allows us to watch the game and recognize individual impact at a level that is much deeper than just watching the game unfold. With NBA League Pass, we have the ability to watch players outside of our local market and get a look at some players we would otherwise see just twice per season.

So yes, generally, I think it’s incredibly difficult for a good player to remain “underrated” in this day and age, but I must say, Kemba Walker has seemed to have found a way.

Since entering the league back in 2011, Walker has dealt with questions and doubts over his ability to be a plus-contributor on the NBA level. There were questions about his size, his vision and his ability to become a dependable floor-general. Now, in his fifth year, those concerns seem to have been squashed, but he still flies under the radar. In a way, that’s probably natural, as most would agree that we are currently living in the golden age of point guards. But the fact that the undersized Walker has not been selected for an All-Star team and the fact that he has spent his entire career in Charlotte has allowed him to remain somewhat anonymous across the far corners of the league.

Despite having missed Al Jefferson for 34 games this season, the Hornets enter play on February 28 at 30-28 – tied for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and John Wall would probably be correctly cited as the top point guards in the Eastern Conference, but Walker is a fine floor general whose heart makes up for his minuscule stature.

As he earns a $12 million salary this season—the first of his four year, $48 million contract—the Hornets have clearly seen that Walker is worth committing to long term. Clearly, they have seen something special in the 25-year-old New York City born product.

With 20.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game, it’s probably time for everyone else to catch up.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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