Most Underrated Player on Every NBA Team Heading into 2014-15 Season
The dog days of August are nearly upon us, folks. Even MLB, which rules the summer, tends to slow down, with its trade deadline gone and the pennant races still waiting to heat up in September.
What hope is there, then, for the NBA and the legions of hoops heads who hang on its every twist and turn?
Unfortunately, not much—unless the stalemated forays into the restricted free agency of Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe are of any interest. All of the coaching vacancies have been filled, and the vast majority of notable free agents have found homes, be they new or familiar.
That means those of us who don't want to wait until training camps open in October to talk about what lies ahead in 2014-15 can already start doing so. The league's 30 rosters aren't completely set, though most of the spots are now occupied in some capacity.
With that information in hand and so much time to spare until the fall, why not delve into a bit of way-too-early prognostication?
A look at the most underrated player on each squad seems like a good place to start. None of these guys would qualify as the best on his team, but the impact he could have, given the proper opportunity, would far outstrip what regard he's given in the basketball world at large.
Atlanta Hawks: Kyle Korver
Kyle Korver may not be quite so underrated more, what with his NBA-record three-point streak, his tremendous run of success from beyond the arc over the past five seasons, his invitation to Team USA's training camp in Las Vegas and the full-feature treatment he got from Grantland's Zach Lowe.
But the extent to which Korver impacts the way the Atlanta Hawks play remains somewhat underappreciated. Korver's ability to knock down shots in his sleep is clearly his greatest asset, but it's his willingness to run all over the court that makes him such a threat. As Lowe explains:
Korver indeed loves to move. He traveled at least six feet in the second preceding the release of 61 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, the fifth-largest share of "moving" shots among the top 30 players in overall 3-point attempts, per data from SportVU tracking cameras provided exclusively to Grantland. He nailed 44.6 percent of those "moving" 3s, also fifth-best among those 30 guys.
Korver, then, might rightly be considered the rare exception of a role player who doubles as the most crucial cog in his team's offense.
And that's before getting around to what a heady defender Korver, 33, has become over the years.
Boston Celtics: Kelly Olynyk
There aren't many players on the Boston Celtics' current roster who deserve any rating. We know that Rajon Rondo is a top-tier point guard when healthy, that Jeff Green is an enigma, that Avery Bradley can't shoot a lick and that if Gerald Wallace's contract were any more of an albatross, he'd have sprouted wings and a beak by now.
If there's any murky quantity in Beantown who's poised to surprise, it's Kelly Olynyk. The Gonzaga product posted 8.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists in just 20 minutes per game last season, earning All-Rookie second-team honors in the process.
Olynyk isn't particularly quick or athletic, which is a problem for a 7-footer who might otherwise be asked to protect the rim. But what he lacks in physical prowess, he makes up for in skill. Olynyk has proved himself to be a heady passer, a sturdy rebounder and threatening three-point shooter (.351 from three).
And if Olynyk gets the nod to start from Brad Stevens this season, he could become a real factor for the C's going forward. In his last three games of 2013-14 (all starts), Olynyk averaged 25.7 points, 9.3 boards and 3.7 assists in just under 35 minutes per game, with .534/.400/.846 shooting splits to boot.
Granted, those efforts came deep into Boston's tankery, but the fact that the 23-year-old can put up numbers like that in any NBA capacity bodes well for his future.
Brooklyn Nets: Mason Plumlee
The Brooklyn Nets have to be pleased to see Mason Plumlee competing with the senior squad at USA Basketball's training camp in Las Vegas.
Of course, Plumlee's participation therein is more a matter of numbers than anything. With Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge all electing not to partake in this summer's festivities, the Seniors were left a bit short on bigs.
Plumlee, though, could make a more permanent leap from the Select Team and into the FIBA World Cup if he performs well enough. His prior experience playing for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke certainly hasn't hurt him, as he told NBA.com's John Schuhmann:
There's a lot to it. You know you have to be a great screener to play for [Coach K]. You have to be on the boards all the time. There are different things you have to see as a big man. Like, in our half-court sets, you're going to be a playmaker-passer from the elbow. So, there's a lot that goes into it. Just because you aren't putting the ball in the hole, there's a lot more to it.
Just as there will be a lot more to Plumlee's development in Brooklyn than just sheer numbers. He'll still be stuck behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett in the team's pecking order. But given the injury woes that those two bring to the table and new head coach Lionel Hollins' preference for playing big, Plumlee could be in plum position to put into practice the confidence and the lessons he'll be taking away from his time with Team USA.
Charlotte Hornets: Brian Roberts
The Charlotte Hornets don't figure to be much better at shooting threes next season than they were last, when they finished 23rd in three-point percentage and 27th in attempts. Whatever uptick they do end up enjoying, though—if there's any uptick at all—may well wind up credit to Brian Roberts.
The Hornets signed the former New Orleans Pelicans backup point guard to a two-year deal worth a shade under $5.6 million. Roberts, who spent his first four seasons as a pro in Israel and Germany, hit a solid 37.2 percent of his threes and a sizzling 92.9 percent of his free throws during his first two tours around the NBA.
The 28-year-old isn't going to supplant Kemba Walker at the point anytime soon, if ever. Still, it never hurts to have solid depth at the league's most competitive position—especially if said depth also provides a much-needed dose of perimeter marksmanship.
Chicago Bulls: Aaron Brooks
Speaking of backup point guards, no team has done a better job of turning second- and third-string floor generals into meaningful contributors in recent years than Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls. Between C.J. Watson, Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin, Thibs and his staff deserve a ton of credit for reviving the NBA careers of guards who might otherwise be scrapping for playing time in the D-League or overseas.
Which makes the prospect of Aaron Brooks serving as the Bulls' latest reclamation project that much more intriguing. Brooks was a fairly consistent double-digit scorer before he took off to China during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Houston Rockets fans will remember how he averaged 19.6 points and 5.3 assists as an 82-game starter back in 2009-10.
Brooks isn't quite on that level anymore and certainly won't be in the Windy City if Derrick Rose is healthy. But Brooks can still put up numbers when given the opportunity to do so. He averaged 11.9 points and 5.2 assists after joining the Denver Nuggets during the 2013-14 campaign.
His slightness of frame (listed at 6'0", 161 pounds) will leave him susceptible to exploitation on defense—a no-no in Chicago—but if Brooks adheres to Thibs' principles on that end and provides some scoring punch on the other, he may well follow in the footsteps of those junkyard pickups turned competent point guards who came before him with the Bulls.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Anthony Bennett
It's weird to say that a No. 1 pick in the draft could qualify as "underrated" before his sophomore season, but that's just how bad Anthony Bennett was as a rookie. The Toronto native averaged 4.2 points and three rebounds with .356/.245/.638 shooting splits and missed his first 16 attempts from the field as a pro.
In retrospect, Bennett's abysmal debut was probably more the product of poor health and a bad team situation than of him being an outright bust. He missed all of summer league and part of training camp while recovering from shoulder surgery, and he struggled with sleep apnea and his own body weight as a result.
Bennett looked like a completely different player in Las Vegas this July. He looked slimmer and trimmer, having dropped 15 to 20 pounds prior to arriving at summer league. While he clearly could've stood to lose a few more, Bennett performed much more like the kid who drew such intrigue coming out of UNLV.
Simply put, he was a man among boys, using his ferocious combination of size, strength and athleticism to barrel his way to the bucket, with the occasional jump shot sprinkled in.
Whether he'll actually get to strut his new stuff for the Cleveland Cavaliers is another story. According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst, the Cavs are still engaged in trade talks with the Minnesota Timberwolves that would send Bennett, along with Andrew Wiggins and a future first-rounder, to the Land of 10,000 Lakes in exchange for Kevin Love.
Dallas Mavericks: Brandan Wright
The NBA is home to many of its own equivalents of what's known as a "target man" in soccer. In essence, a target man is a big dude who fields passes near the net and puts them through for scores without much need for dribbling.
Brandan Wright certainly fits that description well. According to NBA.com, nearly 73 percent of Wright's field-goal attempts in 2013-14 came within five feet of the rim. Moreover, 87.5 percent of his makes were assisted.
It's no wonder, then, that Wright shot an astounding 67.7 percent from the floor for the Dallas Mavericks. Had Wright played and shot enough to qualify for statistical titles, he would've just edged out DeAndre Jordan for the field-goal-percentage crown.
That sort of reliability, combined with the impact of his length and athleticism on the defensive end, makes Wright a downright steal for the Mavs at $5 million next season.
Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson
Only in a league as stacked at point guard as today's NBA is could a player of Ty Lawson's caliber somehow be considered underrated. Lawson registered career highs in points (17.6), assists (8.8), free-throw attempts (6.5) and steals (1.6) despite missing 20 games due to injury.
Those health woes may have something to do with Lawson's profile around the NBA. So too might the snapping of the Nuggets' decade-long playoff streak.
The bigger culprits, though, are probably Lawson's peers. After all, it's tough to get a word in edgewise among floor generals when the likes of Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry (to name more than a few) are already fighting for control of the conversation.
Detroit Pistons: Josh Smith
Is it possible that public opinion has swung so far against Josh Smith that he now belongs on this list?
Well, sure...because he's on here.
Since joining the Detroit Pistons, Smith's been blasted for his long-range brick-laying tendencies, lambasted as the odd man out of the team's frontcourt logjam and placed on the trading block time after time only to see his sizable salary ($13.5 million per season over the next three) serve as a snag.
In truth, there's no use blaming a guy for the salary his team was willing to pay him. Nor is Smith entirely at fault for his on-court predicament. With Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe both occupying the middle of the floor, with nary a reliable jumper between them, that relegated Smith to the perimeter, where his abilities as an interior scorer and post defender were predictably mitigated.
All told, the Pistons, with Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer at the helm, miscast Smith as a wing, when his size and skill set are better suited to power forward.
Despite all that, Smith managed to lead the Pistons in points (16.4) and steals (1.4). If new head coach Stan Van Gundy deploys Smith correctly, he'll have himself a borderline All-Star who competes on both ends of the floor and brings scores of postseason experience to boot.
Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green
Everybody loves Draymond. And really, who wouldn't? Draymond Green's game has something for everyone.
Like shooting? Green upped his three-point percentage from 20.9 percent as a rookie to 33.3 percent as a sophomore.
Need a rebounder? Green collected 8.2 caroms per 36 minutes last season and improved to 9.2 during the playoffs.
In search of a spot starter when your front line is banged up, in foul trouble or both? Green started the last four games of the Golden State Warriors' first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers. Of those four, his best came in the deciding contest, wherein he piled up 24 points (including five threes), seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks in the Dubs' five-point defeat.
Pretty good for a second-round pick, albeit one who left Michigan State as the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2012.
Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones
The Houston Rockets went hard after stretch 4s this summer. They put on a full-court press for Carmelo Anthony and seemed close to coaxing Chris Bosh to come their way, only to see both players chase more money with their incumbent clubs.
Not all is lost in that regard for the Rockets, though. They have a pretty good in-house solution to turn to in Terrence Jones. The Kentucky product poked his way into Kevin McHale's starting lineup this past season, averaging 12.1 points and 6.9 assists.
To be sure, Jones wasn't so great as Dwight Howard's frontcourt friend that Houston should've been dissuaded from seeking a replacement at all. But at 22, Jones still has plenty of room for growth and ample time in which to reach his considerable ceiling.
Indiana Pacers: Rodney Stuckey
Rodney Stuckey won't be alone in trying to fill the gaping hole left behind in the Indiana Pacers' lineup by Lance Stephenson; C.J. Miles will bear some responsibility for that as well.
Chances are, though, that Stuckey will get the first crack at it. The former Piston chipped in 13.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 26.7 minutes per game, largely as a sixth man, during his swan song in Detroit.
Stuckey's not quite the streak shooter (28.6 percent from three for his career) that Miles is (35 percent). But what Stuckey lacks in shooting acumen, he makes up for, in part, with his on-ball creativity. His past productivity suggests he's a far better floor general than what he showed last season.
That's what the Pacers will need from him. Stephenson was Indiana's most reliable and most effective creative force. Without him, the Pacers would be hard-pressed to run much of an offense—not that the one Stephenson ran was anything to write home about.
Stuckey clearly isn't on Lance's level as far as long-term potential is concerned. But in the short term, Stuckey could be a steal for the Pacers, especially for the minimum salary that he'll be earning in Indy.
Los Angeles Clippers: Spencer Hawes
Typically, when a player ups his field-goal attempts, be it overall or from a given spot, his percentage will dip to some extent.
Spencer Hawes, then, is anything but typical. He more than doubled his previous career high in three-point attempts last season (3.9) and still managed to nail a personal-best 41.6 percent of them, including 44.8 percent once he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There's a chance that last year's success was more fluke than fact for Hawes. After all, he was in a contract year and basically received clearance to launch whenever he wanted while playing for two bad teams.
The Los Angeles Clippers, though, were more than willing to bet that Hawes' uptick wasn't an anomaly. They signed him to a four-year, $23 million deal this summer with the hope that he'll kill two of the Clippers' birds (i.e. size and shooting) with one stone.
Hawes, for one, is excited about the possibilities in L.A. "The creativity that Doc allows his guys on the offensive end, how he installs things to take advantage of skill sets and the right pairings is really enticing," Hawes told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. "We will be able to do a lot of different things and create a lot of different matchups."
Los Angeles Lakers: Jordan Hill
The Los Angeles Lakers have drawn some ire from their fans for signing Jordan Hill to a two-year, $18 million contract.
To some extent, that distaste is justified. Hill's intense, all-out style of play lends itself to effectiveness in short spurts rather than in the sorts of long starting stints that he's bound to draw as part of L.A.'s thin front line. Push Hill too far, and he's bound to get hurt.
On the other hand, few players compete harder or produce more on the boards than does Hill. According to NBA.com, 43.7 percent of Hill's caroms were contested—the 13th-highest mark among those who averaged at least 20 minutes across 40 games in 2013-14.
That sort of tenacity and toughness will be invaluable on a team that finished dead last in all three rebounding-percentage categories under Mike D'Antoni. Hill was too often a victim of D'Antoni's yo-yo rotation up front and should find his talents and attitude in much higher regard now that Byron Scott is in charge.
Memphis Grizzlies: Courtney Lee
Courtney Lee wasn't quite a revelation with the Memphis Grizzlies last season, though his January arrival in a trade with the Boston Celtics was cause for some celebration. Lee averaged 11 points per game in the River City and played well enough on both ends of the floor to permanently displace Tony Allen.
That's no easy feat, given Allen's reputation as "The Grindfather" and his centrality to the team's well-established identity.
Lee's skills as a combo guard and perimeter shooter proved particularly helpful in the playoffs, with three double-digit-scoring games against the Oklahoma City Thunder. A full season with Lee in tow should afford Memphis even more opportunity to figure out how best to use him as a floor-spacer beside the titanic tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Miami Heat: Josh McRoberts
Josh McRoberts won't come close to replacing what the Miami Heat lost when LeBron James went back to Cleveland, but that was never the expectation to begin with. The Heat brought him in not to star, but to be the top-notch glue guy he was with the Charlotte Bobcats and that Shane Battier had been in Miami prior to his pre-retirement slide.
To that end, McRoberts, who signed with Miami for the mid-level exception, should be a superb pickup. Last season, he stuffed the stat sheet with 8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and a personal-best 4.3 assists while knocking down 36.1 percent of the career-high 3.7 three-pointers he launched per game.
In essence, McRoberts is a bigger, better and younger version of his fellow Duke Blue Devil, Battier. For the Heat, that, along with the arrival of Luol Deng and the returns of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, could be enough to keep them in the conversation atop the Eastern Conference in 2014-15.
Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Sanders
Larry Sanders' 2013-14 season was nothing short of disastrous. He clashed with then-head coach Larry Drew, busted up his hand in a bar fight, suffered a fractured orbital bone shortly after his return and finished the campaign serving a five-game suspension for violating the NBA's substance-abuse policy.
In short, Sanders was a case study in Murphy's Law and wound up hitting rock bottom right along with the Milwaukee Bucks, who compiled a league-worst 15-67 record with Sanders playing just 23 games.
The good news is that means Sanders and the Bucks have nowhere to go but up—and just in time for Sanders' four-year, $44 million extension to kick in.
When healthy, Sanders is a shot-blocking force on the defensive end. His long arms, quick hops, sound footwork and strong instincts in space make him a tremendous rim protector. He was certainly that back in 2012-13, when he averaged 2.8 swats per game and posted the best block percentage (7.6 percent) in the NBA.
On a squad with the lanky likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson and Brandon Knight, Sanders still stands out as a back-line bully, one who could help turn the Bucks into a dynamic defensive team with legitimate postseason aspirations in relatively short order.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng
Had Gorgui Dieng gotten a greater opportunity to play earlier on in 2013-14, he may well have challenged for Rookie of the Year honors. As it stands, his second-team All-Rookie selection wasn't too shabby.
Neither was the ball he played to earn that distinction. Dieng averaged 12.2 points and 12 rebounds in his 15 starts, all of which came in support of the injured Nikola Pekovic from mid-March on.
Dieng may well get the chance he needs to establish himself in the NBA, assuming the Minnesota Timberwolves trade Kevin Love soon. Even if they don't, Dieng can expect to get his fair share of spot starts up front. Pekovic has missed at least 17 games during each of his four seasons in the Association, and there's little reason to believe that won't be the case this time around.
Then again, Dieng's gifts as a rebounder and rim protector may be enough to earn him a starting spot alongside Pekovic, if not (eventually) one ahead of the ground-bound Montenegrin.
New Orleans Pelicans: Tyreke Evans
Tyreke Evans' NBA career thus far has been nothing if not a roller-coaster ride. He seemed to peak as the league's Rookie of the Year in 2009-10, only to see injuries, off-court troubles and the Sacramento Kings' internal issues submarine his talent over the next three seasons.
His flight to the New Orleans Pelicans didn't appear to improve things much. Evans flopped as a sixth man, in which role he shot just 40 percent from the floor (14.5 percent from three) to cobble together 12.1 points per game.
Evans, though, rediscovered his stride once Pelicans coach Monty Williams slotted him into the starting lineup more regularly. In that capacity, Evans averaged 19.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists—numbers to which only LeBron James and Russell Westbrook could lay claim last season, per Basketball-Reference.
Granted, Evans didn't become a starter again until after Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon got hurt, at which point the Pelicans' season was already lost. There's some concern, then, that Evans might just be the sort of player who puts up good numbers on bad teams, much like Corey Maggette before him.
That being said, it'd seem silly for Williams not to start Evans in the fall, given both Tyreke's productivity and his $11.3 million salary for 2014-15.
New York Knicks: Jose Calderon
Jose Calderon fits the bill of what a point guard should look like in the triangle offense. That is, he's a tallish guard who's a good passer (6.8 assists per game for his career) but an even better shooter (41.1 percent from three for his career). As Grantland's Zach Lowe put it:
The triangle needs caretaker point guards who can keep the offense moving, cut to the corner, and make 3s. Calderon checks every box, though he doesn't bring the long-armed defense [Phil] Jackson adores from his perimeter guys.
The threat of Calderon's feathery jumper should open up the floor for Carmelo Anthony to operate as the fulcrum of the New York Knicks' new offense under Derek Fisher.
Really, so long as Calderon fares better than Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni—which is a pretty low bar to set and one Calderon should clear with ease—his addition, by way of Tyson Chandler going back to Dallas, will have been well worth it for the Knicks.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams
Steven Adams won't blow you away with big numbers, but that's all the more reason he fits so well with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They don't need another guy to make plays with the ball in his hands or score a ton of points. That's what Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and (to a much lesser extent) Serge Ibaka are supposed to do.
But for that trio to operate at peak efficiency, there must be other players around them who are willing to do the dirty work.
As a rookie, Adams wasn't just willing to do that; he seemed to relish every opportunity to get physical within the confines of the NBA. The New Zealand native set solid screens, competed on the boards and often goaded his opponents into retaliation. In fact, Adams' subtle provocation of Zach Randolph led Z-Bo to slap the rookie—a move that drew a league-mandated suspension from Game 7 of this spring's OKC-Memphis series for the latter.
The Thunder went on to win the series and should claim many more in the future with Adams' help, especially once Kendrick Perkins' expiring contract opens up a starting spot at center.
Orlando Magic: Maurice Harkless
The Orlando Magic seem to be stockpiling shot-starved wing forwards for a long, cold, brick-filled winter. Between Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and incoming rookie Aaron Gordon, the Magic can only hope to find one who will not only stick but (perhaps) emerge as a star.
At this point, Harkless is more likely to wind up the former than the latter. He's not quite as long and athletic as Harris and Gordon are, nor can he boast the sort of size and skill that Nicholson brings to the table.
But Harkless is no slouch in any of those departments and might be the most well-rounded of the bunch. Better yet, the St. John's product bumped his three-point percentage up to 38.3 percent from 27.4 percent as a rookie.
Harkless, 21, is still exceedingly young with the room for improvement you'd expect from a gifted player his age. The question is, will he get the opportunity in Orlando that he needs to actualize his full potential?
Philadelphia 76ers: Tony Wroten
Tony Wroten gets the nod here partly by default. The Philadelphia 76ers roster is littered with players who are either veritable unknowns or somewhat established quantities (i.e. Thaddeus Young and Michael Carter-Williams) whose numbers were inflated by Philly's fast-paced futility last season.
Wroten certainly benefited from those circumstances too. He went from a scarcely used reserve as a rookie with the Memphis Grizzlies to a 13-point-per-game scorer with the Sixers. Heck, Wroten's stats as a starter in Carter-Williams' stead (17.8 points, 5.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds) were nothing short of eye-opening.
To be sure, Wroten is replete with limitations. He's too turnover-prone at this point to play the 1 and doesn't shoot the ball well enough to be a full-time 2-guard. His destiny, then, may well be as a combo guard coming off the bench.
Which is fine, especially for the late first-rounder that he was and is. Wroten is the sort of big, athletic talent who can always find ways to impact the game, just as he did in tallying his early-season triple-double against the Houston Rockets. At 21, Wroten still has a ways to go before he's maxed out his potential, and if the Sixers are smart, they'll let him try his darndest to do so.
Phoenix Suns: Anthony Tolliver
Channing Frye's departure could strike a devastating blow to the Phoenix Suns' hopes of building off last season's surprising success. Frye's size, three-point stroke and ability to operate in the pick-and-pop with Goran Dragic were all enormously valuable to the Suns, if not instrumental in their turnaround.
Phoenix won't be without potential replacements, though. The Suns will turn to Anthony Tolliver, another big guy who can shoot, to fill in for Frye at a fraction of the cost. Tolliver shot a career-high 41.3 percent from three with the Charlotte Bobcats last season, including a sizzling 48 percent from long range in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports.
Granted, Tolliver only took 25 such shots in Charlotte. He'll have plenty more opportunities to prove his worth in that regard once the campaign starts in earnest in Phoenix.
Portland Trail Blazers: Robin Lopez
Robin Lopez has been and so often is overshadowed by others in his basketball life that he hardly (if ever) needs to wear sunscreen when he goes outside. He's long been considered the lesser of the two Lopez twins, with brother Brook snagging All-Star accolades and max-contract dollars.
Robin, though, has missed just two games in the last three seasons, during which Brook has played in 96 of a possible 230 contests for the Brooklyn Nets. As superior in skill as Brook may be, his abilities are no good if they're not actionable on the court.
As for Robin, he's become a key cog for the Portland Trail Blazers, albeit one who doesn't draw as much attention as his ballyhooed teammates. While LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum were busy firing away, Lopez spent his first season in Rip City ripping down rebounds and doing the dirty work down low to the tune of 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
The fact that the Blazers' fortunes turned upon his replacement of J.J. Hickson in the middle is more than mere coincidence. Lopez is an impact player who just so happens to change the game in ways that aren't always apparent or particularly glamorous.
Sacramento Kings: Jason Thompson
The Sacramento Kings have a fatal attraction to power forwards who can't/won't/don't shoot. They signed Carl Landry last summer and traded for Reggie Evans at the February deadline all while Jason Thompson was still on the roster.
Thompson's never been the type to wow with his stats or his style. He doesn't shoot threes—in fact, he didn't attempt a single one last season—but regularly hits more than half of his field goals and can be a double-double machine when given the proper playing time. Unlike Landry and Evans, Thompson's not afraid to put the ball on the deck from time to time.
It's tough to say whether Thompson's worth the $6-plus million per year he'll make over the next three, with DeMarcus Cousins already entrenched in the frontcourt. But that isn't Thompson's problem so much as that of the Kings for signing him to such a lucrative deal and subsequently siphoning off his minutes.
San Antonio Spurs: Marco Belinelli
It's difficult to pick out one member of the San Antonio Spurs who qualifies as underrated nowadays. So many of them got so much love during the team's stomping of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals that all of Gregg Popovich's minions are now properly recognized.
The only one who fits the description now would be Marco Belinelli. He played in all 23 of the Spurs' postseason contests without a single start, though that didn't deter him from hitting 42.1 percent of his threes.
This, after shooting 43 percent from three while averaging 11.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists during the regular season. It speaks volumes of the Spurs' tremendous depth that Belinelli, this year's All-Star Three-Point Contest champion, had to scrap for minutes during San Antonio's impressive run to the title.
Toronto Raptors: Patrick Patterson
Patrick Patterson is the definition of a solid rotation player in today's NBA. He can shoot threes, defend multiple positions and serve as a steadying influence in the locker room.
Patterson did all of those things well enough after joining the Toronto Raptors via the Rudy Gay trade to earn himself a three-year deal worth upward of $18 million this summer. As a Raptor, Patterson poured in 9.1 points and 5.1 rebounds while nailing 41.1 percent of his threes.
Toronto benefited handsomely from Patterson's contributions as well. According to NBA.com, the Raptors were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better when Patterson played than they were when he sat. That's a massive differential, one that's indicative of just how big an impact Patterson can have and, at 25, likely will have for the duration of his new deal.
Utah Jazz: Alec Burks
Alec Burks seems to get the short end of the stick every time the Utah Jazz make a move.
When the team took on various flotsam from the Golden State Warriors last summer, Burks was relegated back to the bench while then-head coach Ty Corbin salted away start after start to Richard Jefferson—even though Jefferson had no place in Utah's long-term future.
His starts last season came largely in Gordon Hayward's stead and may only come that way going forward now that Hayward is a maxed-out man.
The Jazz's selection of Dante Exum at No. 5 in the 2014 NBA draft figures to leave Burks with even less leeway in Salt Lake City. Then again, Exum is still a teenager with the raw body and game one would expect of a player his age. Surely, Exum, as talented as he may be, isn't quite ready to contribute 14 points per game in the NBA, as Burks did last season.
Burks may never get the opportunity his talent deserves, but if he does, the 23-year-old should set himself up nicely for restricted free agency next summer.
Washington Wizards: Kris Humphries
Hopefully, the hatred directed toward Kris Humphries on account of his abbreviated marriage to Mrs. Kanye West has subsided enough to allow the world to recognize what a productive basketball player he truly is.
Humphries averaged 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds in just under 20 minutes per game for the Celtics last season. He's been a guaranteed double-double when afforded more playing time than that, as his per-36-minute career averages of 13.4 points and 11 boards would suggest.
He won't be a starter with the Washington Wizards, who signed him to a three-year deal worth north of $13 million this summer. Humphries will serve as a backup to Marcin Gortat and Nene, though Nene's perennial injury problems point to Humphries getting big minutes in fits and spurts—and him making the most of them.
Just as he did with Kim.
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