NBA

Breakout Players Who Are Flying Under the Radar

A few unheralded names are making a big impact this season. Here’s a look at how they’re doing it.

Ben Dowsett profile picture
Updated 12 months ago on
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With so many games, players and narratives to keep track of in a given NBA season, it’s easy for even the most observant to find things falling through the cracks. It’s just tough to keep track of everything with so much happening every night.

As a result, a number of pleasant surprises around the league end up remaining mostly under the radar as far as public perception goes. Some have superstar teammates drawing all of the attention, others toil away in more obscure markets, and further still are perhaps excelling in areas that are tougher for the casual eye to readily identify.

But these players deserve love, too! So without further ado, here are four guys well exceeding their expectations this year, through both a statistical and an on-court lens:

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Middleton started 64 games last year and actually averaged exactly 30 minutes per night, but they came for a depressing Bucks team that finished with the league’s worst record. Nevertheless, the signs were there that he could be a valuable contributor on a good team – his three-point shooting took a big jump on a robust number of attempts, and he improved both his passing and rebounding from his rookie year in Detroit. And within a promising new system implemented by incoming coach Jason Kidd, it’s beginning to look as though the Bucks have a bit of a diamond in the rough.

Kidd’s aggressive scheme, detailed beautifully Wednesday by Grantland’s Brett Koremenos, has been a godsend for Middleton and the rest of Milwaukee’s long-armed youth brigade. They can switch absolutely everything on the perimeter with ease and will often do so at up to four or even five positions within a given lineup, making much of the league’s favored pick-and-roll action that much tougher to execute efficiently.

Human highlight machine Giannis Antetokounmpo draws the most rave reviews, but Middleton is truly the lynchpin here. He isn’t a spectacular athlete like his Greek teammate, but at 6’7 and with a 6’10 wingspan plus solid strength and fluid movement, he can match up with just about anyone in a pinch. He’s equally comfortable against a polished post presence like Dwyane Wade as he is hanging with a perimeter maestro like James Harden.

The numbers here paint a staggering picture. By the RPM metric (real plus-minus, which is designed to incorporate not only box score stats, but also team and opponent figures to give a more contextualized idea of how a player is performing independent of his surroundings), Middleton is the top overall defensive shooting guard in the NBA thus far on the year. He’s ninth in the entire league here, in the company of all-world versatile defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. And when one examines total RPM, it gets even better – Middleton ranks sixth in the NBA behind only Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Leonard.

He’s certainly not the only reason for the Bucks’ success defensively, but he’s a huge part of a transformation here that has seen them turn the league’s second-worst per-possession defense from a year ago into its second-best this year despite the loss of Larry Sanders at the rim. His 95.2 per-100-possession defensive rating while on the court is best on the team, as is his plus-10.0 net rating.

Middleton is in his second consecutive year shooting above 40 percent from deep as well, and is quickly turning into the sort of coveted “3 and D” wing teams are always on the hunt for. He hits restricted free agency after the season and is surely due a hefty raise, and Milwaukee should be doing everything in their power to ensure that it comes from them and no one else.

Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors

Williams has had a somewhat up-and-down career, but after landing in Toronto this offseason in a curious trade from Atlanta, the arrow is currently pointing firmly north. He is thriving as the Raptors’ sixth man, the malleable type who adds true value; Toronto gets noticeably better on both ends of the court when he plays, by a large enough gap to remain meaningful despite the fact that he does spend plenty of time playing against bench-heavy units. His usage has skyrocketed as he spearheads secondary lineups while Kyle Lowry rests, but his turnover rate has conversely plummeted by nearly six percent, a huge and rare drop given the uptick in team possessions used.

Dwane Casey is unleashing Williams just as the basketball gods intended, an attack-first dervish also capable of coexisting with Toronto’s other top guards. He’s rediscovered a midrange stroke that seems to take yearlong vacations now and then throughout his career, and this has been more than enough to overwhelm what’s actually the slightest dip in his percentage from deep. He takes too many pull-up jumpers – over double the number per game on last year in Atlanta, per SportVU data – but has augmented this by noticeably upping his percentage on catch-and-shoot opportunities, particularly from deep.

This last nugget is most important when he shares the floor with either Lowry or DeMar DeRozan – or both. Casey has increasingly begun to rely on lineups featuring all three in important situations since DeRozan’s return from injury, and has looked smart in doing so. These units are blitzing opponents, turning the ball over at nearly unthinkably low rates with three excellent ball-handlers sharing the floor and managing top-10 level per-possession defense within Casey’s unorthodox, helter-skelter rotational scheme despite giving up some size.

Williams is only on the books for the one year, but has proven himself well worth a look in this exact role from either Toronto or another contender. He’s putting up his second-best career PER figure after posting his worst PER since his rookie season last year, and is showing that when used correctly and within the right fit, he can hold enormous value.

Donatas Motiejunas, Houston Rockets

D-Mo has been a huge part of keeping Houston’s frontcourt afloat as both Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones have missed significant time, and he has meshed excellently with James Harden when given added opportunity so far this year.

Motiejunas is a strong presence in the post, where his array of herky-jerky moves is advanced for a 24-year-old. His footwork is sublime, and often shocking to the eye after watching him lumber up and down the court. He has deft touch on a little baby floater that he can pull out with either hand, though it’s most lethal with his right due to the fact that he’s left-hand dominant.

He’s comfortable on either side of the block in large part due to this, and has just enough accuracy from the shorter midrange areas to keep defenders from sitting on penetration.

On top of that, a big improvement this year from deep has made him into the rare breed of big who can both get his own buckets down low and function as a secondary spacing option. He’s just short of 33 percent on the year from three, certainly not Nowitzki-an territory but accurate enough to keep things breathable in the lane for Harden and Houston’s other guards. He’s increased his PER by nearly four full points over last season, and this honestly likely underrates the value he’s brought to the Rockets given their circumstances.

Lineups with both Motiejunas and Harden have mostly approximated the per-possession efficiency of Harden-Howard units on the year, a big factor in Houston going 14-6 in Howard’s absence. Their elite defense maintains with D-Mo on the floor and actually gets a hair worse when he sits, and he’s in the top 15 among power forwards for DRPM. He’s a massive bargain at under $2.5 million annually this year and next, and should continue to see plenty of time even when Houston’s frontcourt returns to full strength.

Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons

Freed finally from the shackles of an offense containing Josh Smith, Monroe has been quietly tearing folks apart in Detroit. He’s played a team-high minute total since Smith’s dismissal, averaging a double-double with 16.1 points and 12 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field. He’s always been a bull in the post, but with a bit more space to operate as the Pistons no longer have to find ways to overcome Smith’s miserable spacing (often at the three), Monroe has had the freedom to operate more incisively.

The numbers offensively are easy enough to identify, but the impact on the other end has been noticeable as well, both since Smith’s release and on the season as a whole. Monroe has nearly doubled his DRPM figure over last year, and actually sits in the league’s top 20 among power forwards here despite a bit of a reputation as a defensive minus. And since Smith left town, Detroit’s per-possession defense with Monroe on the floor has nudged its way into top-10 territory after sitting right around average before the switch.

Most encouragingly, the pairing of Monroe and Andre Drummond has flourished without Smith around to muck things up. They’ve rebounded at a ridiculous rate during this time, particularly on the offensive glass, and spacing mostly hasn’t been the issue many worried it would. Drummond functions as the pick-and-roll dive man, eating up lobs and offensive rebounds for breakfast and steadily overwhelming teams at the rim while Monroe posts up and fires away from midrange. Monroe is posting a career-best figure from the longer midrange areas, a big part of why the duo has been so successful – to the tune of a plus-6.8 net rating since Smith’s December 22 dismissal that would rank behind only Golden State and Atlanta on the year.

Because he accepted Detroit’s qualifying offer over the offseason, he’ll be the rare sixth-year first-round pick who hits unrestricted free agency following this year. It’s possible his performance does trace back in part to his knowledge that this is truly a contract year, though this is always tricky ground to cover assumption-wise. And while it’s tough to know the organization’s thinking, one has to wonder if they’re maybe kicking themselves just a tad – the realization that Drummond and Monroe could coexist so effectively, and a subsequent attempt to rid themselves of Smith at an earlier point, might have changed the summer arithmetic to some degree. Instead, the entire league gets a look at Monroe this summer, and if he keeps this up he may indeed cash in on the hefty payday he’s looking for.

Which breakout players have surprised you? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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