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The Underrated Players: Central Division

Spencer Davies continues The Underrated series on Basketball Insiders with the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

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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!

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Get Familiar With the Phoenix Suns

Drew Maresca discusses the Suns’ roster, why they’ve flown under the radar for much of the season and why fans should expect even more from Phoenix.

Drew Maresca

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What in the world is going on in Phoenix?

Unless you’ve deliberately followed the Suns this season, it’s understandable if you’ve missed their incredibly hot start. They’re not mentioned by the national media (e.g., ESPN) nearly as often the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers — but they should be.

And it’s not as is you can easily do your own research, either. Unless you’re an NBA League Pass subscriber, you’ve had limited opportunities to watch what’s going on in Phoenix. The Suns were scheduled to appear in only the tenth-most nationally televised games through the first half of the season, behind the Lakers, Nets, Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami HEAT (and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers).

But at a certain point, numbers are just too powerful to continue to overlook – and that point was months ago for the Suns. And while they still haven’t even really received the credit they deserve, it’s coming.

After a loss against the Clippers on Thursday night, Phoenix is 36-15, good for the second-best record in the entire league. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games and boast the fifth-best defensive rating (109.4) and seventh-best offensive rating (116.3) – which works out to the third-best net rating in the NBA (+6.6).

The Suns – and pretty much every NBA team – have a long way to go before cementing their playoff seeding. According to Tankathon, the Suns have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule, with games against the Jazz, Nets, 76ers, Clippers, Lakers and Bucks – but that’s less alarming when you look closely at the Suns’ results thus far.

The Suns are 18-7 against teams with .500 records or better. They’re also 7-5 against teams with .600 records or better and 3-2 against the ultra-elite (Jazz, Nets, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers).

Ultimately, the NBA is about winning – not expectations – so the Suns still have every opportunity to accomplish what they’d hoped to prior to the season. They play smart and are well-stocked with star power. Opponents probably won’t overlook them, but fans may. And it’s the fans who could miss out.

But how did Phoenix turn the corner so quickly? They went from a 19-63 team in 2018-19 to the league’s second-best team just two seasons later.

Adding Chris Paul helps. But it’s also understandable that adding Paul means being overlooked – he’s been overlooked for most of the recent past, written off as great but not great enough.

Upon closer inspection, Paul’s resume is jaw-dropping. Most recently, he led the seriously under-manned 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder team to the fifth-seed in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. He was also responsible for catapulting the Houston Rockets into serious contention mode; at their pinnacle in 2017-18, the Rockets were up 3-2 against the champion-to-be Golden State Warriors before Paul strained his hamstring and missed games six and seven, both of which Houston dropped.

Paul, who will turn 36 this May, is still a magician on the court. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He’s also played in all but one of the Suns’ games. But what’s most impressive about Paul is that his net effect is far greater than any stats can communicate.

Ironically, in giving Paul his flowers, we inherently overlook Booker, the team’s leader in points (26.0) and minutes played (34.2). Objectively, Booker should be in the MVP discussion, but he plays in Phoenix and alongside Paul – so individual accolades will have to wait.

But the Suns’ success is about more than just the backcourt. There’s also the first-overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton, who’s averaging a double-double, again, while shooting career-bests from the field (62.8%) and the free-throw line (76.7%). There’s also Mikal Bridges – who is quietly outperforming guys taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, scoring 13.3 points per game on 41.5% shooting from deep – and Jae Crowder.

And then there’s the other guys, who were recently overlooked or disregarded by other teams – Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric and Cameron Payne.

Johnson was the 11th overall pick in 2019. But because of his advanced age relative to other lottery picks – Johnson was 23 on draft night – and the fact that he wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, the Suns and Johnson were ridiculed.

But Johnson hit the ground running, averaging 8.8 points while shooting 39% on three-point attempts in his rookie season. And he’s gained momentum in his Sophomore campaign, scoring 9.8 points per game while maintaining his shooting from deep (38.7%) and increasing his two-point shooting percentage from 52.6% to 56.6%.

Saric is a versatile big who’s been aided by the game’s move to pace-and-space. Drafted in 2014, Saric remained in Europe until the 2016-17 season. He’s been effective at every stop he’s made, but (surprisingly) didn’t latch on in Philadelphia or Minnesota. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 35% on three-point attempts. And given the league’s move to mobile bigs, Saric is a valuable role player and complements the more physical play of Ayton beautifully.

And then there’s Payne, who was best known as a former Russell Westbrook hype man. But the book is being re-written on Payne given what he’s done in Phoenix so far.

Payne cemented a spot on the Suns with his performance last season, averaging 10.9 points on better-than-50% shooting from deep in eight games in the bubble. And while the addition of Chris Paul has translated to fewer minutes for Payne, he’s still producing. He’s scoring 6.8 points in 16.8 minutes per game on 40.2% shooting on three-point attempts, but the more he plays, the greater the effect; Payne is averaging 13.4 points per game when he plays at least 20 minutes – which includes games against Dallas, Portland and Miami.

The Suns get a whole lot out of their roster, including younger guys like Bridges and Ayton. That’s a testament to the second-year head coach, Monty Williams. So while the path here could be misinterpreted as involving shortcuts, it’s actually followed a deliberate plan that’s been executed to perfection by the team’s front office.

Phoenix may have arrived sooner than expected, but Paul doesn’t lose much – which is probably rubbing off on Booker and others – so betting against him (and the Suns) was always a fool’s errand. And regardless of outcomes, one thing’s for sure – people will learn about the Suns this season. And they won’t be written off anytime soon.

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G-League

NBA PM: Jeremy Lin, Activist and Basketball Player

Racism in the United States continues to rise as the fight for equality continues. In the NBA, Jeremy Lin has stepped up and used his voice in support of the movement to end Asian hate.

Dylan Thayer

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a strong movement for social justice and human rights in America. Recently, the headlines have involved racist remarks and attacks on people of Asian ethnicities across the United States.

In the NBA, various teams and players have come out to voice their support for the movement to stop Asian hate such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and an Asian-American himself, Jeremy Lin. The basketball world has done an excellent job with social justice reform and human rights issues by highlighting them on the players’ uniforms, banners and signs throughout their arenas, while also letting the players express their thoughts on racism without backing down.

“As a part of our ongoing commitment to promote racial equality and social justice,” the NBA’s recent statement read, “We stand with the Asian community against any acts of hate and racism.”

Within the past few weeks, there was a mass shooting in Atlanta at a massage parlor that left six Asian women dead. The shooting occurred on Mar. 16 and has been highly publicized as a hate crime. This act of racism put the Asian hate movement in the spotlight once again, but, sadly, hate crimes towards Asians related to the coronavirus pandemic are not new.

Lin – always willing to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost – used his platform as to speak out and highlight the hate seen against Asian-Americans.

“We have to keep standing up, speaking out, rallying together and fighting for change. We cannot lose hope!” 

Lin, who has now played for the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, has a large platform as an Asian American basketball player. Today, the point guard for the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors has been a vocal leader of the movement to end Asian hate. But as one of three Asian basketball players in the NBA system, he serves as a role model for young Asians everywhere. For every three-pointer he hit this year in the G League, he donated to organizations for youth empowerment or human rights work, per CBS News

Of course, during a G League game, Lin was called ‘coronavirus’ by another player – which led to him speaking out against Asian hate but did not name anybody as he did not want to contribute to more hate.

“What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down?” Lin said in a lengthy Twitter note posted in late February.

Listen to the voices that are teaching us how to be anti-racist towards ALL people.”

Experiencing recent hate while enduring numerous other instances of racism towards him, Lin is a powerful voice and a leader in the Asian American community. 

As a player, Lin has had an up-and-down career while playing overseas in China – all following an NBA Finals win in which he played just one minute for the Toronto Raptors. Back in America and the G League where he famously got his start, Lin has tried to prove that he’s ready and able to contribute to an NBA team once more.

Appearing in nine games for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin posted averages of 19 points and 6.4 assists per game, plus a field goal percentage of 50.5 percent, a 42.6 percent three-point percentage and 87.9 from the free throw line.

Without a doubt, Lin still has a lot of good basketball left in the tank, but why hasn’t he been called up to the NBA? The Golden State Warriors are already in the luxury tax and the team’s other guards have performed particularly well. An unfortunate circumstance for him to be in, but Lin is one injury away from a call-up and a contract if the situation arises. 

This season may not be the one where Lin makes his return to the NBA, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying. It was clear following his short G League stint that he can still play in the NBA and deserves to still be on a roster. Even if he is not in a large role, he can be an instant threat off the bench at any moment with his offensive IQ creating shots for himself and opening up the floor for others. 

But as Lin works to re-fulfilling his dreams, it hasn’t stopped him from using his platform for good. Throughout his long, bumpy career – full of meteoric rises, brutal injuries and false starts – the veteran point guard has always been a source of kindness and thoughtfulness. And in this day and age, Lin stands to be a powerful voice for progress not only in the NBA, but in the country at large.

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NBA Daily: Pelicans-Thomas Partnership a Low-Risk, High-Upside Bet for Both

Bobby Krivitsky examines the partnership formed between the New Orleans Pelicans and Isaiah Thomas, a low-risk wager that could pay dividends for both sides.

Bobby Krivitsky

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On Apr. 6, Isaiah Thomas played in his first NBA game in over a year.

Between then and now, Thomas had a hip resurfacing procedure to address the bone-on-bone issue in his hip. The pain was so excruciating that Thomas favored his right side, compromising his balance and overall effectiveness. As a result, he bounced around the league and spent brief stints with four teams in three years before being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers after they acquired him in a deal with the Washington Wizards. Back on the court, the one-time Mr. Irrelevant, who rose to near-MVP status with the Boston Celtics, said as much about his journey.

“It’s like night and day for me,” Thomas told ESPN back in October. “There’s no more pain. I’ve got my full range of motion. For three years, I was trying to play the best players in the world on one leg. I needed help from my kids to put my socks on in the morning.”

Now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Thomas played 25 minutes in his return to the hardwood, scoring 10 points on 13 shots to go along with two assists and two rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. Though it was far from a gaudy stat line, it was great to see Thomas moving well and looking comfortable attacking off the dribble.

 

“I felt good out there. I was moving; I got to my spots; I just didn’t knock down my shots,” Thomas said after the game. “I’m still going to be a little rusty from not playing for so long, but coach Stan (Van Gundy) was like, ‘be you, go out there and be aggressive, make plays, score the ball, we want you to be you.'”

“That’s all I can do — and I’ll be better tomorrow.”

The next night, in Thomas’ second game with the Pelicans, he registered a stat line of 11 points on 12 shots to go along with three assists and a steal in a 139-111 loss on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. The fact he was able to play on both ends of a back-to-back is an encouraging sign in and of itself. As a one-way guard who the Pelicans brought in on a 10-day contract hoping to get more scoring from their second unit, Thomas reaching double figures in his first two contests of the 2020-21 campaign bodes well for his chances of sticking with New Orleans for the rest of the season.

Before joining the Pelicans, Thomas most recently played for the USA Men’s Basketball AmeriCup Qualifying Team. He started in both of their qualifying games in February, leading the USMB team to wins over the Bahamas and Mexico. In those two contests, the nine-year NBA veteran averaged a team-high 14 points, two rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and logging 21 minutes per contest.

That performance undoubtedly gave David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, the confidence to sign Thomas to a 10-day contract. 

And Thomas just might be the spark they need down the stretch. The Pelicans currently sit 11th in the Western Conference, just two games out of the play-in tournament, a concept first introduced when last season resumed in Orlando. The team’s bench is contributing an average of 32.2 points per game, which ranks 25th league-wide. Perhaps, Thomas, who’s healthier than he’s been in years, provides the scoring boost necessary to help vault them into the postseason.

Of course, Thomas would have to acclimate very quickly for that to happen. New Orleans has just 21 games left this season. Furthermore, teams are working with condensed schedules, making practices a rarity.

The former will challenge Thomas and the Pelicans’ training staff in their ability to keep Thomas’ hip fresh, to maintain his health and the energy he can provide off the bench. The latter is going to make it difficult for Thomas to develop on-court chemistry with his new teammates. Most of that feeling-out process will be happening in high-stakes games with a spot in the postseason on the line.

Another challenge Thomas is facing is that he’s signed to a 10-day contract, meaning he has to immediately prove to the Pelicans that he’s worth keeping for the rest of the regular season. It’s a low-risk gamble for New Orleans and an opportunity Thomas wasn’t going to pass up — it may not work out with the Pelicans, but another team might take a chance on Thomas if he can prove he’s rediscovered the burst that made him so lethal in Boston.

Time will tell how effective this partnership works out for both parties. But, either way, it’s great to see Thomas back in the NBA. And to this point, he’s moving well and once again scoring the ball effectively, which bodes well for his chances of sticking around beyond his current contract.

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