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NBA Daily: Pistons Rookies Adjusting to the NBA

Detroit has had an up-and-down season, but may have found two second-round steals in the 2018 draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It’s been a bit of an up and down season for the Detroit Pistons thus far. While they currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, their record is 29-31 and only a game and half up on the ninth-seeded Orlando Magic.

At times, the Pistons have struggled to find consistency. But regardless of how this season turns out, they may have managed to find a couple of diamonds in the rough in the draft this past summer.

Most players selected in the second round aren’t expected to amount to much, much less make meaningful contributions on the court. However, each year there are always players who buck the trend and end up outplaying their draft selection. The Pistons are hoping they have that with Bruce Brown Jr. and Khyri Thomas.

Thomas and Brown were selected four picks apart (38th and 42nd, respectively). Brown was initially selected by the Philadelphia 76ers but was traded to the Pistons. In the months leading up to the draft, Brown was sometimes projected as a first-round pick, but a foot injury that caused him to miss the NCAA Tournament could’ve played a role in him dropping.

Brown has since recovered, and not only that, he’s managed to work his way into the Pistons starting lineup as a rookie.

“It feels good, it’s just a credit to my hard work,” Brown told Basketball Insiders. “I worked my ass off all summer to get back and get healthy. I’m going to continue to work.”

To date, Brown has only scored in double figures six times this season. He’s only shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from the three-point line. But it’s not his offense that’s earned him his place in the starting lineup.

Even as a rookie, Brown has emerged as one of the better perimeter defenders on the team. He’s already been tested by having to guard some of the best perimeter scorers the NBA has to offer. In a league where high powered offenses have become the norm, and defense sometimes falls by the wayside, Brown takes pride in his craft.

“I knew coming onto this team that I wasn’t going to score the ball much. We’ve got bigtime scorers,” Brown told Basketball Insiders. “So my role was to play defense hard. I knew I could play at an elite level and try to stop some of the elite players in this league. I go out there and try to stop the best offensive player on the opposite team.”

That’s not to say he can’t score if needed. It’s just not what’s required of him at the moment. When he does find the opportunity to get a bucket here or there, it’s his ability to move without the ball that stands out.

There are a lot of players in the league who need the basketball in their hands to be effective offensively. Brown picks and finds his spots, and knows he’ll be rewarded for it.

“My role is also as an opportunity scorer,” Brown told Basketball Insiders. “I go out there and make cuts, try to make it easy on Blake [Griffin] when they double team and get easy buckets around the rim.”

It’s been a bit of a different transition to the NBA for fellow rookie Thomas. He’s only suited up in 18 games this season, spending most of his time collecting DNP’s or playing for the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons G-League affiliate.

He has shown flashes at times though of being a player that could eventually emerge as a combo guard off the Pistons bench. He’s shooting 34.5 percent from the three-point line, and he was a great outside shooter during his time at Creighton. He’s also a solid ball-handler and defender.

While he also appeared as a first-round pick at times in mock drafts, he knew that entering the league as a second-rounder was going to require a little bit more to prove that he belongs in the league. And although he hasn’t much playing time, he hasn’t let it get to him at all. He keeps himself ready should the time come.

“I don’t want to speak for everyone in the second round, but everyone wants to go high. Whatever position you do go, you’re still going to have to prove yourself. Whether you’re first or sixtieth, you still have to prove yourself,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders. “To me it feels normal, to be out there with your teammates having fun. I really don’t think about it much, just when the opportunity comes, to be ready for it. ”

Thomas had his best game of the season back on Jan. 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks when he came off the bench to score 13 points on 50 percent shooting including a perfect 2-2 from three-point range. He’s been very good in the G League, averaging 19.9 points per game and shooting 50.5 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from distance.

It’s that ability to be a great shooter that can eventually earn him some minutes with the Pistons. When that time should arrive, Thomas is confident that he’ll be able to take advantage of it and make meaningful contributions on the court.

“It’s whatever coach needs me to do,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders. “Whether that’s going out there for a minute and defend, or whether that’s going out there and knocking down shots, run the point guard, whatever I can do to help out the team to win.”

While both players have had different welcomes to the NBA, they’ve both been able to find something meaningful to take away from their rookie seasons.

For Brown, he’s grateful that a team was willing to take a chance on him despite the injury he had suffered that season.

“It feels good, it’s just a credit to my hard work,” Brown told Basketball Insiders. “I worked my ass off all summer to get back and get healthy. I’m going to continue to work.”

And for Thomas, he’s paying attention as best he can while being on the bench. He’s listening to the guys around him and hoping that one day, he too can impart a little knowledge on a fresh-faced rookie.

“That’s probably one thing I always do, I just listen a lot. Listen to what the vets say whether they’re talking to me or not,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just a lot of knowledge and trying to put that all in my head. Hopefully, when I’m a vet, I can say the same thing to another rookie.”

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NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference

Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.

Matt John

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Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.

Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.

Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”

Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:

– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season

Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.

But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?

Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.

The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.

“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”

Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets

D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.

Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.

With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?

D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.

A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.

If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.

“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”

Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves

First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.

For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.

Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.

It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.

Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.

The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.

If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.

This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.

The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.

Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?

Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.

Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?

Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.

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NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference

David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.

David Yapkowitz

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NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.

We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.

There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.

Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder

With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.

In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.

Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets

Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.

His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.

Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets

There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.

He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.

De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies

Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.

Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.

Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers

Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.

His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.

Georges Niang – Utah Jazz

Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.

He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.

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NBA Daily: Under the Radar – Eastern Conference

Flying under the radar is rarely seen as a good thing amongst athletes, but to be identified as somebody under the radar is categorically different. Drew Maresca identifies the five best “under the radar” players in the Eastern Conference.

Drew Maresca

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Flying under the radar is a double-edged sword for professional basketball players. On the one hand, it grants anonymity, allowing them to get where they want to go on and off the court with relative ease. But on the other hand, it’s a slap in face when someone’s body of work warrants more recognition than it’s received. Very few people grow up wanting to be underground stars. They might admire said stars. But professionally, most people want to prefer to be successful and mainstream.

But fans already know the successful and familiar basketball players. So instead, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best of the rest. We’ll pick five players who, despite their strong play throughout the 2019-20 season, managed to go relatively unnoticed. That’s not to say we’re selecting scrubs. It means we’re picking five players with whom the average sports fan should be more familiar than they are.

Because there are so many candidates, we thought it was best to divide the talent pool by conference. David Yapowitz will cover the Western Conference’s top under the radar candidates; but first, let’s identify the five best Eastern Conference players who flew under the radar in 2019-20.

Caris LeVert

Locally, LeVert is seen as a rising star who can score and create for others. Still, injuries and superstar teammates have hampered his coming out party.

Granted, LeVert missed 24-consecutive games from November 12, 2019 – January 2, 2020, but he averaged 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31.5 minutes per game prior to the All-Star break. And he was still on the mend from a 2018-19 injury.

And yet, LeVert only garnered 21,394 total All-Star votes and only 3 player votes. Comparatively, teammate Spencer Dinwiddie received 459,419 and 30 total player votes. And for the sake of context, Giannis Antetokounmpo led all Eastern Conference players in All-Star voting with 5,902,286 total votes and 258 total player votes.

And LeVert performed even better in the 11 games after the All-Star break. He averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game following the break including a 51-point performance in a win at Boston on March 3.

His silky-smooth game is tailor-made to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. And as much as the rhetoric around the Nets is that they plan to search for a third start to complement Irving and Durant, they will be hard-pressed to do better than LeVert — who is signed to a more-than-affordable contract that will pay him $16.2 million in 2020-21, $17.5 million in 2020-21 and $18.79 million in 2022-23.

LeVert is still only 25-years-old and in his fourth season in the NBA. He might be under the radar for now, but he won’t be for long.

Cam Reddish

The versatile 6-foot-8 Reddish was a blue-chip recruit when he entered Duke approximately 18 months ago. But his passive style of play led to him taking a backseat to his two superstar teammates, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson. But Reddish’s positives still shined through, leading to him being selected 10th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks were an interesting fit for Reddish considering they also drafted De’Andre Hunter, another three-and-D wing. But playing alongside a gifted player like Trae Young creates more than enough space to learn how one fits into the NBA game without receiving too much attention from the defense or criticism from the media.

And it’s worked out pretty well for Reddish – especially of late. Reddish was already seen as one of Hawks best defenders, according to former teammate Chandler Parsons. But Reddish’s offensive output has also surged of late. After averaging just 9.3 points prior to the All-Star break, Reddish surged to 16.3 points per game in the 11 games since. Further, he’s shooting 50% from the field – compared to only 35.3% before the All-Star break – and his three-point percentage is also up to 38.9% from 31.6%.

Reddish might not have the star power of his college teammates, and he may never be the Hawks first or second option offensively; but he’s proven to be a resounding net positive. And at only 20-years-old, he’ll almost certainly get even better and garner the type of attention we expected him to before his lone college season began.

Derrick Rose

It’s hard to slot Rose into a group of “under the radar” players considering he’s a former NBA MVP. But post-injury Rose has been a significantly different guy than the MVP-version we saw before.

Rose has proven that he can still score the ball, even if teams have been unwilling to give him a chance. After a difficult season in New York and a tumultuous 2017-18, in which he played only 25 games with the Cavaliers and Timberwolves, Rose bounced back in 2018-19 with Minnesota.

But there are some significant differences between Rose’s serviceable numbers last season and his output this year. First of all, his PER is back above 20 for the first time since 2011-12 – that’s an accomplishment in itself. Technically, it’s up from 19.5 to 21.1, but an increase of 1.6 is noteworthy pertaining to this statistic.

That’s not all — Rose also averaged more assists per game (5.6) in 2019-20 – than he has since 2011-12. And he received more minutes this season than he has in any of the previous five seasons.

And while Rose was almost as effective in 2018-19 as he was this season, he’s played far more in 2019-20. Rose played in only 62% of the Timberwolves’ games in 2018-19, starting in 15 of them. But this season, Rose played in 75% of the Pistons’ games, starting almost as many (13) despite the shortened season.

Rose will be 32 by the time the 2020-21 season begins, whenever that may be. No one knows how many more years he has left in him. But at least for now, he’s looked over far too often by the media. But maybe that might give him the motivation he needs.

Duncan Robinson

Tyler Herro is the probably the surprise story for the HEAT this season. And if not him, it’s Kendrick Nunn. But they both received significant recognition for outperforming expectations. Duncan Robinson has outperformed expectations, too – only he’s flown under the radar more than his fellow up-and-comers. But don’t let that fool you – Robinson has been every bit as surprising.

Robinson was an undrafted rookie last season spending the majority of the year with the team’s G League affiliate (Sioux Falls Skyforce). He did appear in 15 games with the HEAT in 2018-19, but his minutes and overall effect were limited. That has not been the case this season. Robinson’s marksmanship has been on full display in 2019-20, as has his durability. He’s played in all 65 of the HEAT’s games, scoring 13.3 points per game on 44.8% shooting from three-point range – good for fourth-best in the entire league.

The HEAT have an interesting team dynamic in which lots of people contribute. But within that, it’s hard for all major to contributor to get their due: Jimmy Butler obviously gets the credit – albeit probably less than he deserves; Bam Adebayo entered this season as someone NBA-folks had an eye on; Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala are established; and Herro and Nunn have been showered with praise for their respective performances. But Robinson’s personality is softer and more laid back.

Robinson might not be under the radar for long, but he’s there for the time being.

Devonte’ Graham

We were on the fence about Graham’s inclusion. If it were a “breakout players” piece, he would be a shoo-in. After all, he only averaged 4.7 points per game in 46 games in 2018-19. But this piece is about a player receiving too little credit for their accomplishments in 2019-20 and not about surprising performances.

Still, Graham makes the cut. If Graham were on a higher-profile team, he would have received more than his share of notoriety. He led the Hornets in points (18.2 per game) and assists (7.5 per game) as a second-year player, meaning that he was the main focal point for opposing defenses for the majority of the season.

Playing for the 23-42 Hornets – and doing so in a smaller market – did Graham no favors. Still, he established himself as a fearless scorer who finishes at the rim with both hands and gets his shot off incredibly quickly. Graham will be an All-Star sooner than later. But for now, he’s still unknown to casual sports fans – and even some not-so-casual ones.

Being an under-the-radar guy can be seen as a badge of honor or a backhanded compliment. Either way, all five of the players identified in this article are significantly better than the sports world believe they are. But don’t count on that being the case for long.

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