The modern NBA is a player-driven league. Big names like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, or Luka Doncic create the league’s popularity. Prime matchups on ESPN being billed as “Zion Vs. Giannis” rather than “Pelicans Vs. Bucks” is an example of this. Matchups between big stars are eclipsing the great team rivalries of old. I will be discussing the three most underappreciated NBA players. Unfortunately, even in this player-first era, some are left extremely underappreciated.
When thinking about some of the underappreciated players in the league, I had to come to a definition of underappreciated that I would use. Everybody may know how good an underappreciated player is, so they aren’t necessarily “underrated.” But nobody talks about them enough, considering their body of work. With that definition in mind, here are three of the most underappreciated NBA players.
One of the 3 most underappreciated NBA players in the league is DeMar DeRozan. It feels like DeMar has been underappreciated his whole career. He was a great player on the Raptors but took unfair levels of criticism due to their failures in the playoffs. In their best three years, they met Cleveland in the postseason and lost all three years. But can we blame anybody for losing to the Lebron Cavs?
Then he was sent to the Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, and the Raptors won a title the first year without him. It wasn’t his absence that changed fortunes for the Raptors; it was the presence of new head coach Nick Nurse and one of the league’s great players in Kawhi.
Add on top of all that the fact that he doesn’t shoot three-pointers, and you have a player who will more than likely be criminally underappreciated the rest of his career.
Nobody is talking about it, but DeRozan is having arguably the best season of his career this year while leading the Spurs to a 20-16 record. On December 17th, 538’s RAPTOR prediction tool gave the spurs a 32% chance at the playoffs.
Currently, they have a 48% (keep in mind the tool updates frequently, so by the time you read this, the number may be slightly different), showing just how much they’ve exceeded expectations so far. It’s DeRozan’s great season that is pushing the Spur’s to this surprising level. He’s been the best player on the team and performed in many big games.
What’s been most impressive about DeRozan’s play this year is his playmaking. He’s averaging a career-high 7.3 assists a game this year, which is 13th in the league. He’s one of 10 players this year averaging 20+ points per game and 7+ assists. Positions don’t really exist in the NBA nowadays, but DeRozan is usually considered a shooting guard, which would make his assist numbers even more impressive.
Except, if you watch the Spurs this year, you’ll see that he plays de facto point guard for them, bringing the ball up and initiating many of their sets. Despite playing alongside a more traditional “point guard” in Dejounte Murray, DeRozan is the best playmaker this Spurs team has.
He hasn’t always been a playmaker, though. In his 9 seasons with the Raptors, he averaged only 3.1 assists per game, and when he first came into the league, it was one of the weaker aspects of his game. Before this season, DeRozan had only 13 games of 10 or more assists; this year, he already has 8.
His playmaking is most apparent at the end of close games. When it comes down to it, the Spurs put the ball in his hands and have him run the offense on most possessions. His usage this season is 23.9%, the lowest since his sophomore year in the league. But in clutch situations, that number jumps to 36.6%, by far the highest on his team.
For an example check out the highlights from this game against the Timberwolves back in January (the fourth quarter highlights start at the 2-minute mark):
This game is vintage DeRozan; he goes to work hitting tough shots and drawing fouls. Late in the game, he starts to get the ball with much more room to operate. In this particular game, his playmaking for others isn’t on display as much because he’s shooting the lights out (13-23 FG, 12-13 FT), but in other games, he’s in the same positions doing a lot more passing to others. In one of the final plays of this game, you can see that as well. He draws a double team, and as he goes for the jumper, he sees Patty Mills open in the corner. He finds Patty, who hit’s a dagger jumper.
DeMar DeRozan is on a new level this year, but unfortunately, he’s not getting the respect he deserves. Surprisingly (at least to me), he did not make the all-star team. Coupling his and the Spurs performance this year and he seemed like a good candidate. Out of the 10 players averaging over 20 and 7 I mentioned earlier, only DeRozan, Westbrook, and Fox missed out on the all-star game. With the Spur’s record being much better than the Kings or Wizards (neither are in playoff seeding), he seems like an outlier on that list.
For now, DeRozan remains one of the most underappreciated NBA players. He’s having a great year and has always been such a fun player to watch. Hopefully, if he keeps this play up, and the Spurs make the playoffs, people will begin to notice.
It is time to look at another player who is one of the three most underappreciated NBA players in the league who’s having a career year. Tobias Harris is having the best season of his career, on the best team in the east, and still, it feels like nobody is noticing.
Tobias Harris had a quick rise to stardom in the 2018-19 season with the Clippers. At the trade deadline, they sent him to Philadelphia, and he joined Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons. The Raptors beat them in the 2nd round that year.
Then in 2020, the Celtics swept them in round 1. Tobias was never able to reach the expectations people had for him in Philadelphia and took a fair share of the blame for their playoff failures. These teams fell victim to poor roster construction, which led to many players’ struggles, including Tobias Harris.
This year feels like a new beginning for Philadelphia. Tweaking the roster over the offseason has created a much better team. It’s fully unlocking this team’s potential, and they’re finally meeting expectations. Embiid has garnered the most attention, with many citing him as the MVP favorite so far.
This attention is all deserved. Of course, he’s having a masterful season playing up to the potential that many thought he would never reach. But Tobias Harris is also having an amazing season and deserves some attention as well.
He’s finally hit his stride here in Philadelphia a year and a half later and is a huge part of their play this year. He’s averaging career-highs in points (20.2) and assists (3.5) on nearly 50-40-90 shooting (52%, 40%, 89%). That shooting is a big improvement over last year when he shot 47% from the field and 37% from 3.
His efficiency is much better this year, allowing him to contribute more to the team on similar usage (23.3% this year, 23.9% last year). He looks much more comfortable on the court this year because he has a better-suited role. There are two big reasons for his improvement this season: being reunited with coach Doc Rivers and Al Horford’s departure.
Tobias Harris’ breakout year into stardom occurred on the Clippers, underneath coach Doc Rivers. Doc put him in the right position, allowing him to succeed. When he got to Philadelphia, Doc knew he wanted Tobias to get downhill and make quicker decisions. During the 76ers media week preseason, he talked about Tobias’ role in this season.
“First thing: We’ve gotta get him back to being a quick-decision player. I told him that I saw him dribbling way too much [last year]. Tobias is so darn skilled going downhill left and right, and we need to get back to taking advantage of that.”
Tobias has done just that this year, and it’s led to his jump inefficiency. He’s able to make the simple play this year more times than not. This is much different than the situation last year where he was often forced to create a shot off the dribble, which isn’t his strongest skillset.
The increased floor spacing in Philadelphia has also helped greatly. Adding shooters like Danny Green and Seth Curry opened a lot more room. That room allows Tobias to get downhill more often and with more ease. He also mentioned this during the 76ers media week.
“Having conversations with Doc, it’s about floor spacing and being able to have those driving lanes, and being able to use my quickness and speed to get around and pass 4s out there with space on the court. So that’s just a big thing for our team and our offense this year.”
Doc coming into coach was important. He knew how Tobias had succeeded in the past and has been able to put him in those positions again this year. With more spacing on the floor, Tobias can get to his game, getting downhill and making quick decisions. This also ties into the departure of Al Horford.
Last year, the 76ers usually started a lineup of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid. This surrounds Harris with guys who can kind of shoot threes and a guy who doesn’t. Not the best situation for a guy whose strength is getting towards the basket to create his shots. The presence of Horford also pushed Tobias to the small forward at times.
Basketball-Reference estimated that he spent 23% of his minutes at small forward last year, compared to 0 this year. Playing at a small forward is also detrimental to his offensive game. He draws smaller, more agile players on defense and struggles to create shots. But as he alluded to in the quote above from media week, playing at the 4, he’s able to use his quickness to get by relatively slower defenders and create shots.
For the first time in a while, Tobias is back in the proper role. As a result, he’s having the best season of his career so far. He’s a huge reason for the 76ers being atop the east right now, and they’ll be relying on this play from him to have a chance at the finals. This year he’s been in Embiid’s shadow, and as a result, he’s been one of the most underappreciated NBA players. But come playoff time, when all eyes start to focus on the great teams, people will take notice.
The last player on the list of the three most underappreciated NBA players is Terry Rozier. Watching the Hornets kind of feels like a rollercoaster. Maybe it’s because they have some younger guys, which can lead to inconsistency. Maybe it’s caused by their reliance on three-pointers. Heck, maybe it’s because they have one of the most enthusiastic announcers in the league. No matter what it is, it feels like Terry Rozier is just sitting in the front car of that rollercoaster smiling, yelling, and enjoying the ride.
The Hornets are probably my favorite team to watch this year. Every season there’s that one team when you see them on TV you just flip to that channel. That’s the Hornets this year. Terry just embodies that feeling. It feels like he’s both inconsistent and consistent this year, I know that sounds weird but bear with me.
He’s averaging 20.4 points a game this year, shooting 48% from the field and 43% from the field. Now the Hornets can rely on him as a consistent scorer. His shooting percentages have taken a real jump, making him a legitimate offensive threat. In the 2018-19 season, he shot 37.1% on catch and shoot threes, this year that’s up to 48.4%!
This is indicative of a bigger evolution as a player. He’s transforming from a streaky scorer -one of those guys that seem like a great 3-point shooter until you look at the percentages- into a legit scorer, a guy who can knock down 3-point shots with consistency as well as create his own.
So, there’s the consistency, but what about the inconsistency? It’s not an inconsistency in a bad way. It’s the fact that he’s kept that streaky scorer ability to go off, but he’s added that consistent baseline. He has that baseline of 15-20 points a night. So now when he has those crazy games where he’s feeling it, it’s even crazier.
To open the season, he dropped 42 shooting 15-23 FG and 10-16 on 3P in a loss against Cleveland. In a perfect display of the consistency he developed, he followed that up with games of 18, 18, and 19 points. A few weeks later he had 35 against Philly with 7 3’s.
The biggest such “streaky” moment came in the middle of February. In a 4-game stretch, he shot 60% from the field, 59% from 3, and averaged 38.3 points per game. The final game of that stretch was a close win over the Warriors. In that game Terry scored 20 points in the fourth, including this game-winner:
Terry is having a great season, the best of his career in fact, and he’s going off for huge games along the way. He’s still not getting the attention he deserves.
LaMelo Ball is getting a lot of the hype on that Hornets team (and deservedly so), leaving Rozier as one of the most underappreciated NBA players. Hopefully, if he keeps this up, he’ll garner more attention. Like the other players on this list, if he steps up in playoff games, no doubt people will start talking.