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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.

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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.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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