The NBA is a star-driven league, and it’s easy to get caught up with the superstars who fans constantly rave about. But as captivating as most current stars are, there have been plenty of lesser-known players who deserve the same love but don’t always receive it. With that said, these are five NBA players who have flown under the radar in 2021 and deserve far more respect from the fans and media alike.
In a newly expanded role, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging career-highs across the board. His 62.3 true shooting percentage ranks 10th among 20-PPG scorers, and he’s continued his development into a strong playmaker, averaging 5.9 assists per game. These aren’t just good numbers; they’re borderline elite and likely should’ve warranted the 3rd-year guard an all-star appearance.
The secret to SGA’s success stems from his craftiness as a scorer. He’s not as athletic as Ja Morant or as quick as De’Aaron Fox, but his combination of length, body control, and change of pace in the halfcourt set him apart from the rest of the pack. He’s also supplemented this with much-improved outside shooting (7.1 3P% increase from last year), solidifying his status as one of the league’s most versatile scorers.
What’s most impressive about this breakout performance is that Gilgeous-Alexander is doing it in one of the worst situations in the entire NBA. With the Thunder going full rebuild mode to accumulate draft picks, SGA is without a competent supporting cast. He plays with some of the worst spacing in the league and doesn’t have reliable shot makers to alleviate much of the defensive pressure.
But somehow, Gilgeous-Alexander’s breakout season hasn’t received the same appreciation as other top guards, as evident by his absence from the all-star game. Perhaps it’s the fact that he plays in small-market Oklahoma City. Or that the Thunder aren’t winning many games (although Gilgeous-Alexander deserves very little criticism for that). Either way, the rising star won’t be slept on much longer. The sky’s the limit from here on out.
Joe Ingles doesn’t look like a person you’d expect to see in the NBA. But surprisingly, he’s having a historic season and peaking as a 33-year-old.
At 72.8% true shooting, Ingles is statistically having the most efficient season in NBA history.
This unrivaled efficiency has contributed to Utah’s top record in the league and their third-ranked offense. Ingles’ shooting opens up countless driving lanes for teammates and makes defenses pay if they choose to double Donovan Mitchell or help on Rudy Gobert’s rolls to the rim. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be impactful and has an off-ball skill set as a catch-and-shoot sniper that meshes with any group of teammates.
Additionally, Ingles is still a capable on-ball creator when he needs to be. Despite a small offensive load, he averages 4.3 assists per game. That number seems low but is rather impressive given that Ingles spends so much time without the ball. He also ranks in the 84th percentile of pick-and-roll efficiency as a ball-handler, primarily alongside Rudy Gobert. This enhanced synergy with Gobert in the pick-and-roll has paid dividends, as the duo outscores opponents by a whopping 17.5 points per 100 possessions when the two are on the court at the same time.
The impact metrics also agree that Ingles has been extremely productive in 2021. A sixth man of the year award isn’t out of the question for him.
While Chris Paul and Devin Booker gain a bulk of the attention for the Suns’ success, role players have played an integral role too. Among them is Mikal Bridges, the 24-year-old 3-and-D wing who has blossomed in 2021.
Bridges is the perfect support piece for any team. He shoots the deep ball well at a career-high 41% clip and serves as a tertiary playmaker & ball-handler behind Paul and Booker. Overall, he’s 11th in efficiency this year at 65.1% true shooting. This improved shooting accuracy and vision have helped catapult him into a consistent starting role on a contender.
Defensively, Bridges is similarly impactful. He’s one of the better on-ball wing defenders in the league and has the versatility to switch onto multiple positions. Not so coincidentally, the Suns post the league’s best defense with Bridges on the court.
Come playoff time, this defensive versatility will become even more critical from Bridges as he matches up with the top guards and wings of the west.
Richaun Holmes is quietly making a name for himself as one of the better big men in the league. He fits the mold of the modern NBA center and is putting up a solid stat line of 14.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game, all career highs. His mark of 67.7% true shooting is fourth in the entire NBA.
Holmes has been particularly effective in the pick-and-roll, and it’s helped engine the Kings to their first top-10 offense since 2005. He’s one of the most efficient roll men in the league (86th percentile) and has evolved into a solid passer as well, unlocking plenty of offensive fluidity and cohesion. As a result, the Kings’ offense improves by over 7 points per 100 possessions with Holmes on the floor.
On defense, Holmes is a lone bright spot on an otherwise atrocious Kings defense. He contests the sixth most shots inside six feet and holds shooters an impressive 10.1% below their average efficiency in that area.
While the Kings’ personnel dooms them for defensive mediocrity, Holmes has the skill set to be a key cog on a high-end defensive team one day. Only time will tell whether or not he gets that chance in Sacramento.
When the Celtics dealt center Daniel Theis at the trade deadline, the move didn’t make much sense on paper. Theis had been a serviceable center for the Celtics over the past few years, and Boston didn’t receive much in return.
However, with context, the trade made plenty of sense. With Theis out of the rotation, there’s an open starting center role for the budding Robert Williams to shine in. Williams fell to the 27th pick in the 2018 draft, but he always had talent. He showed flashes of this talent in the past, but until recently, he rarely earned sustainable playing time.
Now, Williams is finally getting treated like a legitimate rotation player. And he’s showcasing his ability.
Williams is far from a great scorer but still respectable on offense. He’s a capable roll man alongside Boston’s playmakers (84th percentile) and a quality offensive rebounder (5th in offensive rebounds per 100 possessions). Williams’ passing is also steadily improving as he can hit cutters out of the high post or kick it out to shooters as a roller.
But despite his improved offense, the defensive end is where Williams makes his impact felt. With a 7’6″ wingspan, Williams is regularly active in passing lanes and swats away numerous shots as an interior protector. He also moves well for his size as a pick-and-roll defender, a trait that becomes increasingly important in the playoffs.
Williams displayed this impressive defense in a recent matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. He recorded two steals and five blocks and constantly made life difficult for the Greek Freak.
Expect Williams to be a household name in the future as long as he continues receiving minutes.
It’s only a matter of time until he, and every other player mentioned above, gets their rightful recognition.