Superstars are attention-grabbers. The natural eye just gravitates toward their outstanding talent and jaw-dropping big plays, or appearances on the front page of magazines and programs at arenas. At the sheer mention of a city or team, people can visualize this individual immediately, like a focal point of a painting.
We can’t forget about the rest of the canvas, though. After all, without the background we wouldn’t be able to pinpoint that focal point as easily, right? In fact, it’s incomplete and non-existent if the rest of the picture isn’t there. Couldn’t the same be said for some of the NBA stars that we appreciate?
I’m not a genius at making analogies, but let’s give this a try. This week, Basketball Insiders has begun a division-by-division Underrated series looking at the players who don’t quite receive praise that deserve their due. Thus far, we’ve covered the Atlantic, Northwest and Southwest Division. Today, we’ll dive into the Central Division.
T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers
Considering that Warren is the Indiana Pacers’ scoring leader, you might feel this is a misplacement. It certainly should be, however, the 26-year-old forward doesn’t seem to garner much attention — maybe because the skeptics that questioned his ability to contribute to a playoff team coming from a losing environment in Phoenix don’t want to admit their short-sighted assumptions have been disproven. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense.
Warren’s transition to his new team has been seamless, and they’ve been more than willing to help him be comfortable within the system. If the Pacers need a bucket, they can trust him. He’s a deadeye mid-ranger, isn’t afraid to mix it up on the defensive end and naturally runs the floor well and finishes in transition. He’s one of the most efficient, consistent scorers in the league, and he’s still improving. So much for that “only good on a bad team” narrative. Warren has maintained his usual game and only gotten better.
Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers
No, not “just a dunker” — the Cleveland Cavaliers have a jack-of-all-trades on their hands. Pick a skill and it’s likely that Nance possesses it. You used to be able to say three-point shooting was a weakness, but that has gradually progressed over the last two seasons, this one specifically by cited by both increased success and attempt rate. Fouling was troublesome for the 6-foot-7 forward, however he’s gotten much smarter about being aggressive on the defensive end while avoiding unnecessary contact or frustration.
As cliche as it sounds, what makes Nance so important to the Cavaliers is his constant effort. He fights for the 50-50 balls and creates those extra possessions. He’s a play-saver and a playmaker. Despite being undersized, he’ll hang in there with the bigs in the paint just like he does with the guards out on the perimeter. Backed by the evidence of J.B. Bickerstaff’s use of him at the small forward spot post-All Star break, he just adapts to whoever he plays with. Cleveland relies on Nance’s leadership by example and vocally, an area he’s strived to work on since arriving in town two-and-a-half years ago. It’s safe to say they’ve found their glue guy.
George Hill, Milwaukee Bucks
Normally, an “underrated players” list wouldn’t include a savvy veteran with over a decade of experience. That’s not the case here, as Hill’s play only confirms the fact that NBA players can age like a fine wine. In his first full season with the Bucks, the 33-year-old guard is assuming the perfect role for him at this point of his career — guide the bench, make threes, defend — in 21 minutes per game.
He’s the ideal locker room mentor and teammate, as we’ve seen in the past in not-so-great situations with the Sacramento Kings and grooming De’Aaron Fox, in addition to the Cavaliers and advising Collin Sexton in back-to-back years. On the floor, he’s a load to handle as an individual defender. He’s literally the NBA’s top perimeter shooter by percentage, crucial to drawing guys outside and helping open things up for Giannis Antetokounmpo. That analogy in the introduction doesn’t sound all that bad in this perspective, huh?
Shaquille Harrison, Chicago Bulls
Harrison is a name that sticks out on this list most…probably because he’s relatively unknown, like under the under-the-radar group, despite having played in the NBA sporadically for the past three seasons. That’ll happen when you’re not getting every-game minutes for the Chicago Bulls, one of the most disappointing teams in the league this year. He’s flipped that perception with an opportunity post-All Star break.
As mentioned a few weeks ago, Harrison has been on a tear with a confident game despite a relatively-low usage. He’s been finding the open man, making the right next play and thriving in the open floor. While he’s not a go-to guy by any means, he has undoubtedly been a star in his role. There’s just a positive energy he brings when he steps onto the hardwood. With the changes on the way under Arturas Karnisovas, who knows what his future holds as far as Chicago is concerned — but keep Harrison in the back of your mind. All it takes is a chance.
Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks
Winning breeds winners. Novel concept, isn’t it? DiVincenzo worked his tail off two years ago to soar up the draft boards and into Milwaukee’s grasp. He’s been rewarded for that with the organization’s trust with a huge role on an elite-level team in just his second season. The Villanova alum isn’t afraid of the moment and it shows.
With his quick lateral movements, ball denial and command of the passing lanes, DiVincenzo is extremely impressive as a defender. It’s perhaps his most redeeming quality — unless you feel the athleticism is too hard to ignore in that debate. He’s stepped up in multiple roles, including being a starter on a championship-driven team. Maybe, just maybe, that experience in college will help him at this level.
John Henson & Brandon Knight, Detroit Pistons
These two are placed in the in-between area of their careers — in their late 20’s, journeymen with an injury history, expiring deals that are considered hefty. That may be so, but they still have a ton to offer. It’s so difficult to find your game when you don’t have a chance to show it. Henson and Knight started their season in Cleveland with undefined roles. Both were talked up in training camp as ready-to-go and healthy heading into a contract year.
After missing the first month-and-a-half of the season with an injury, Henson put his paint protection and defensive prowess, not to mention a beautiful over-the-top passing game, on display. He was receiving sporadic playing time. Knight’s case was worse, as he ended up getting a bunch of DNP-CD’s despite being ready. Luckily for them, the Cavaliers traded the two to the Detroit Pistons, where — despite the team’s record and current direction — they’ve had a chance to boost their value going into the offseason.
Sure, there’s not that much tangible evidence to the contrary, but they’re NOT at the end of their road. Knight is still money from deep and knows how to run an offense better than most. Henson’s got a soft hook and length to pester opponents. It’s unfair that they haven’t gotten a fair shake in a couple of years. Teams that take a chance on either one of these guys won’t regret it.
So that wraps up a handful of my most overlooked players in the Central Division. Make sure to stay tuned for the remaining pieces in this Underrated series on Basketball Insiders.
And most importantly, stay safe!
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