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The Underrated Players: Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca kicks off our underrated series by identifying the six most underrated players from the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA is back! Well, not exactly. But last night, ravenous basketball fans were treated to a two-hour feast of the highest-quality NBA content. Thanks to The Last Dance, we were all (mostly) able to forget about self-quarantining, social distancing and all of the negativity around the COVID-19 outbreak. We were transported back to the 1990s, when the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan redefined dominance on a yearly basis.

And like ESPN’s The Last Dance, we at Basketball Insiders hope to entertain you through analysis and rankings. This week, we’ll continue our discourse of the best the NBA has to offer by identifying the most underrated players in the league. Due to the sheer number of players who are criminally underrated, we’ll identify players by division – let’s begin with the Atlantic.

Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

It’s always shocking when Smart isn’t mentioned as one of the league’s best defenders. What’s even more shocking is that 2018-19 was the first time in his career he’d been named to an All-Defensive First Team. That means that the league finally acknowledged Smart’s incredible defensive prowess – but it should have taken place long before last season.

Smart is a maniacal defender whose energy and effort always seem to be slightly higher than anyone else on the court. He’ll happily bounce his skull off of the hardwood saving a loose ball. The 6-foot-3 guard also willingly (and successfully) defends power forwards and some centers. He’s a mix of Draymond Green and Patrick Beverly.

The main knock on Smart has been his inability to shoot, but that’s no longer the case. In 2019-20, Smart shot 34.3 percent from three-point range, taking 6.9 attempts per game (a career-high).

And what’s more impressive was his wavy playmaking. All of a sudden, Smart was doubling as Magic Johnson, dishing out no-look passes to cutting teammates. Smart is somehow only 26-years-old. While he’ll probably never be widely appreciated for his work, Smart is a centerpiece in Boston that sets the team’s defensive tempo.

Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

Harris is the 76ers’ version of Toni Kukoc. He’s long and skilled, and he could probably do more than he’s asked to do. Harris was averaging 19.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game for a team that badly needed every ounce of his production. He played in all 65 games for the 76ers, something that cannot be said for the team’s other two stars – Joel Embiid (44) and Ben Simmons (54). None of that is new, though. Harris has always been a reliable scorer, even drawing comparisons to Carmelo Anthony earlier in his career.

So how is he underrated? Well, popularity is an inexact science. For whatever reason, Harris never really achieved stardom. Despite posting five separate seasons of 17-plus points per game, he’s never been voted into the All-Star Game, nor has he been awarded any specific accolades in the NBA. But make no mistake about it, Harris is a walking bucket. He’s an efficient and versatile scorer that probably won’t be remembered for being as good as he is.

Most of the guys on this list are underrated relative to their skillset. Harris is an absolute. He is an underrated star who is flat-out better than most who receive more praise.

Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets

Jarrett Allen is probably the most surprising guy on this list – and that’s saying something! Allen is an anomaly in that he’s probably more underrated within his organization than he is league-wide – or at least that’s how he must feel.

Allen is among the league’s best rim protectors and he moves his feet well enough to stay in front of most guards when necessary. He’s also great at finishing lobs and setting screens.

But the Nets’ locker room is filled with talent, making it harder to appreciate a guy who doesn’t generate “oohs and ahhs.” While Brooklyn should have already penciled him in as their starting center for the next decade, the Nets appear ready to head in a different direction — inserting DeAndre Jordan into their starting lineup immediately after parting ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson.

The 21-year-old is eligible for a rookie extension this offseason – whenever that is. While he won’t be free to pursue a new opportunity, it appears likely that the Nets will explore trading the promising young center in an attempt to add someone better suited to their timeline. Whether it’s in Brooklyn or somewhere else, Allen is destined for NBA stardom and at least an annual shout out for the All-Defense team. If players were stocks, this writer would recommend buying low on Allen.

O.G. Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

Anunoby was already pegged as someone to watch entering last season. He didn’t receive nearly the necessary playing time to facilitate a faster jump given the presence of Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard. But with Leonard leaving for Los Angeles, Anunoby earned an additional 10 minutes per game in 2019-20. And that made all the difference.

Anunoby is a 6-foot-7, 232-pound wing. He’s fast and explosive, as well as long and athletic. In his third season, Anunoby posted 10.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals over 30.1 minutes per game.

But those numbers don’t do his skillset justice. He’s an improving shooter whose three-point percentage climbed to 38.1 percent in 2019-20, up from 33.2 percent the year prior. And it’s not just his accuracy that’s improved. He also attempted more threes this season (3.4) than ever before. And even more importantly, he’s an ultra-versatile defender able to guard 1-4.

Anunoby and Siakam should give opposing wings nightmares for years to come. Siakam’s presence overshadowed Anunoby’s breakout year. But the 22-years-old probably has more room to grow, ensuring he’ll eventually get the attention he deserves.

Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks

The Ntilikina-hive is real and it is glorious. But beyond that niche group of fanatics, there are few people who believe in Ntilikina.

Ntilikina is another young player whose net effect isn’t measured well by his statistics. The 21-year-old averaged only 6.3 points and 3.0 assists per game. But his opportunities were limited to only 20.8 minutes per game in 2019-20 due to coaching decisions.

It’s important to focus on Ntilikina’s positives: He’s a 6-foot-5 point guard with a freakish wingspan and sports his team’s second-best defensive plus-minus (.4). Better, his confidence is growing at an exponential rate. While he appeared frustrated or disheartened in 2018-19, he demonstrated a new swagger this season,  wrestling away a loose ball from Luka Doncic in November, bottling up former-MVP Russell Westbrook on a game-winning shot attempt in March and even posting his first 20-10 game against Washington.

Importantly, too, Ntilikina seems to be getting lost less often on offense. And he’s an improved shooter that has mastered a one-handed scoop layup in traffic. While critics are busy questioning Ntilikina’s ability to live up to his potential, his net effect is already significantly better than that for which he’s given credit.

R.J. Barrett, New York Knicks

Barrett was the third-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and he was the consensus No. 1 prospect coming out of high school a year earlier. It’s wild to think that Barrett could already be underrated. And yet here we are.

The Barrett-hate came early and often. He was deemed one-dimensional and was criticized for poor shooting before playing a single, professional game. But Barrett was a victim of circumstance. He was drafted by a Knicks team that wasn’t well-suited to add a rookie to the starting lineup. There was positional redundancy and limited offensive spacing. There is also no clear lead guard, their leading scorer was traded at the deadline (Marcus Morris) and they changed head coaches in December.

But Barrett’s uncanny abilities are still obvious if you remove the blinders. Sure, he underperformed the phenom-level expectations he’d shouldered, averaging only 14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists but he turned a corner in March. He began aggressively looking for his own shot and his averages followed suit with bumps in scoring (18.7 points) and assists (3.3).

Barrett might have underperformed the sky-high expectations that were set for him, but he can’t do anything about that now. He put forth a promising rookie campaign and represents the Knicks’ only offensive building block. He’s probably underrated because of where he plays, but he’ll receive more than his share of praise if he leads the Knicks back to the playoffs.

Being underrated means that the totality of your output isn’t fully appreciated, while you’re probably underpaid, too. Still, there’s always time to secure more money and if these stalwart additions keep playing like this, it’ll only be a matter of time.

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NBA

NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26

Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.

Tristan Tucker

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This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.

Jerami Grant

When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.

That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.

Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.

The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.

Zach LaVine

Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.

Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.

Jaylen Brown

Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.

This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.

The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.

Julius Randle

Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.

Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.

Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.

While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.

Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner

So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.

Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.

Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.

Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.

Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward

It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.

However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.

Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.

With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!

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NBA

What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4

What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.

But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.

The New Look Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.

But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?

You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.

Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.

Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.

Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT

In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.

The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.

But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.

Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.

If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.

The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes 

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is  8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.

That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.

Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.

No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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NBA

Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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