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The Underrated Players: Southeast Division

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ newest series by looking at who has flown under the radar in the Southeast Division.

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This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at the league’s most underrated players division-by-division. Drew Maresca took a look at the Atlantic Division. Then, Benny Nadeau kept up the momentum with the Northwest Division. Today we’re taking a look at the Southeast Division.

In recent years, the Southeast Division has been often critiqued for being one of, if not, the weakest division in the entire league. Last year, it really wasn’t pretty. Only one team made it to the playoffs that season – the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic – and they ousted pretty easily by Toronto. The year before that, there were two – Miami and Washington – but they were two of the three lower seeds who had a similar fate in the postseason.

When you stop to think about it, it’s been a downward trajectory for the whole division since the HEAT disbanded in 2014.

Things have been better, but not by leaps and bounds. Miami’s having its best season since LeBron James left, although they look like a team that’s a piece or two away from being a contender. Orlando was more-likely-than-not making the playoffs. Still, they have more-or-less remained the same as where they were last year: League average – and that might be giving them too much credit.

As for the rest of the division, it’s not pretty. Washington and Charlotte are pegged right at below-average currently. They’re definitely not the worst teams in the league, but pending any late-season miracles, they’re not making the playoffs. Oddly enough, the worst team in the division, Atlanta, happens to be the one team everyone’s most excited about long-term.

When you put all of that into consideration, it may seem hard to find underrated players in a division when the majority of it isn’t really that good. However, good individual performances can get overshadowed because not much team success has come from it.

Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT

When analysts discuss Miami’s major steps forward this season, they talk about Jimmy Butler’s acclamation as the team’s top dog. Bam Adebayo’s evolution into one of the league’s best young centers. Their suddenly-exciting rookie class spearheaded by Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. The one plot thread that doesn’t get enough credit is Goran Dragic’s seamless transition from starting point guard to sixth man.

Being mere weeks from turning 34, it’s clear Dragic doesn’t have the same footwork he did when he bent defenses to his will in his heyday. With him on the downside of his career, some adjustments had to be made on his part. Unlike his role in past years, he had to learn to lead the second unit.

It’s true that Dragic had that role back in his early days in Phoenix, but a lot has changed for him since then. Having to relearn a modified role such as this is much easier said than done. But in doing so, Dragic has actually had quite a resilient year compared to his injury-plagued 2018-19 season. In fewer minutes than he’s used to, Dragic has averaged 16 points and five assists on 44/38/77 splits, and it’s led to Miami owning one of the more offensively potent benches in the league.

When the Sixth Man of the Year discussion comes up, the first names that come to mind are Lou Williams, Montrezl Harell, or Dennis Schroder. Dragic’s case is simple: He thrived when confronted with the task of going from lead dog to bench spark on a team that won’t be messing around in the playoffs. For that, he deserves consideration and to be on this list.

Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards

Over the past several years, we’ve come to see JJ Redick and Kyle Korver prove how potent they can be in an offense if they are used to the fullest of their capabilities. If you have somebody so consistently money from three that the other team must gameplan to ensure that he won’t have a sliver of daylight, you’ve got a weapon at your behest.

Not that we didn’t know he could stroke it from deep before, but now, we have our newest iteration of the sharpshooter – Davis Bertans. There hasn’t been much to cheer about in regards to the basketball team that resides in the nation’s capital, but Bertans’ ascent into a three-point flamethrower has certainly been a sight to behold.

Bertans’ floor-stretching abilities have breathed new life into the Wizards’ offense. When he’s on the court, their offensive rating is 113.6, which matches the Los Angeles Clippers’ third-rated offensive rating. 77 percent of his shots have been from distance this season, which has led to him having his best season yet as a professional. His scoring numbers have nearly doubled, and he has the second-highest net rating among Wizards who have played at least 1,000 minutes.

Another reason why Bertans gets a mention here: Most of the sharpshooters in the league are either guards, wings, or a hybrid of both. Bertans is a big. He’s mainly a power forward, but Washington played him at center for 16 percent of his minutes. There are other stretch bigs in the league who share around the same three-point percentage as Bertans – Kelly Olynyk at 43.2 and Nemanja Bjelica at 42.4. The difference is, they’ve attempted eight more threes than Bertans combined. That’s how you know how dangerous Bertans is compared to them at the three-point line.

There was a reason why the price for Bertans at the trade deadline – even on an expiring contract – was two first-round picks. If Washington really is committed to getting back to what they were three years ago or even better, having Bertans stick around should absolutely be a priority.

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

12.1 points. 5.2 assists. 3.3 rebounds. 47/25/72 splits. 28.3 minutes a game. For any starting point guard in the NBA, those should be seen as pedestrian numbers. For Markelle Fultz, these numbers should be seen as a step in the right direction.

Fultz’s hurdles, both mental and physical, have been well-documented since he entered the league. Now that he seemingly has gotten past them, he’s making leaps toward reaching his potential as a prospect. He’s still got a long, long way to go, but at least he’s consistently on the court.

At 21 years old, Fultz is at least shown both aggression and vision when taking the court. He has good touch around the basket – shooting 65 percent from inside zero to three feet – and he played well enough to usurp DJ Augustin as the team’s starting point guard. That’s… something! Sadly, he hasn’t been getting a whole lot of attention because Orlando is a mid-tier team that may have peaked with the squad they have. Still, they should be encouraged by Fultz’s progress in his first full year with the team.

There’s still plenty of time for Fultz to improve his mechanics. In Orlando, he’s had some breathing room and, so far, he hasn’t taken the league by storm, but he has shown that he still breeds intrigue.

At the end of the day, Fultz’s numbers won’t blow you away when you factor in him getting picked number one in his draft, but we can still look at it and wonder if the best is yet to come.

Michael Carter-Williams, Orlando Magic

Speaking of players whose careers could have been in jeopardy, it’s so nice to see that Michael Carter-Williams may have found a home in Orlando. The guy was a late-season pickup last year after Houston barely used him. Now, he’s a rotation player on a playoff team.

There’s a lot about Williams that would turn teams off. That pretty much starts and ends with his jumper. It’s not ugly by any means, it’s just not very reliable. His percentages throughout his career from pretty much everywhere have been bad. Before this season, you could look anywhere he’s shot from the court outside of zero to three feet and would not come to any conclusion beyond saying uh-oh.

Yet there’s so much to like about him. He’s a 6-foot-5 point guard with long limbs, decent passing vision and the ability to be a menace defensively. Carter-Williams has picked up his efficiency from around the floor – 43/29/83 splits is a definite win for him – and has, for the most part, stuck to what he’s good at.

The only problem is, again, Orlando’s not really making much headway. No matter what direction they decide to go in, at least Carter-Williams can rest easy knowing he proves that he belongs in the NBA. Even if his stats aren’t nearly as good as they were early on in his career, Carter-Williams has found his niche.

Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets

OK, fair, we know what you might be thinking, but wait: Rozier’s performance for the Hornets is underrated for several reasons.

1. Charlotte hasn’t been good this season, that was something we all were anticipating. The difference between this year and last is that there seems to be some semblance of promise in this team. Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington and even Malik Monk seems to have made some nice progress.

Their record doesn’t necessarily reflect an improvement from last season, but their ability to stay at the same production after losing Kemba Walker is impressive. Rozier has had a lot to do with both the youth movement and Charlotte’s perseverance.

2. He’s been outshined by Graham. Graham has come back to earth after an electrifying start, but his unexpected jump overshadowed that this has been Rozier’s best season as a professional.

3. He’s given Charlotte their money’s worth, unlike somebody like Nicolas Batum, Rozier has at least given the Hornets good production for the contract they gave him. 18 points and 4.1 assists on 42/41/87 splits is strong at $19 million a year is, ultimately, not a deal-breaker. Especially when you compare him to some of their other poor contracts.

Rozier hasn’t necessarily surpassed expectations, but he hasn’t been a disappointment when many thought that he would do just that. Many have dismissed Charlotte for their front office’s mishandlings over the last several years. Perhaps the fact that Rozier has turned out better than most of their recent additions could signal a turning point.

Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks

We had to include Carter on this list, we just had to. A player with his reputation and his impact on the game of basketball deserves a shoutout as he rides off into the sunset.

We don’t have to dive into his stats because they don’t accurately reflect on what he’s done. In case it’s not clear, Carter didn’t have to choose this path to end his career. He could have ridden on James or Curry’s coattails to a ring and nobody would have blamed him. Is there a feeling more rewarding than winning a championship to finish your career? To end it all on a high note?

As it turns out, yes. Carter didn’t want his legacy at the end of his time to be defined by if he won or not. He wanted it to be defined by how he influenced the NBA of tomorrow. We know his impact on the Sacramento Kings. Not too long from now, we’ll see the kind of effect it’ll have on the Atlanta Hawks. They may not be good now, but we know the sort of ceiling they have on their hands with Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and the aforementioned Collins.

If they reach it, don’t be shocked if they give credit to Carter for how they did.

Many NBA legends have talked about the veterans who influenced them when they were young – Vince Carter believed that was what was most important. In short, making sure that these young players are on the right path from the start and not take anything for granted. Carter made a lasting impact on the NBA, and that impact should last for generations.

This list goes to show that there’s no correct way to be underrated. You can be underrated because you embraced a new lesser role. You can be underrated because you thrived in a bigger role and didn’t get noticed. You can be underrated because you made progress that no one saw coming. You can be underrated because your impact in the locker room greatly exceeds that on the court. And so on and so forth. . .

We’re still some ways from seeing this NBA season resolve, if at all, but, when it does, we’ll see these underrated players continue to shine.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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