The Underrated Players: Southeast Division

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To grasp how one can be underrated, the definition for rated must be first observed, obviously.

Taking a page out of the apathetic/lazy/Jeff Winger best man speech how-to guide and textbook, Webster’s Dictionary states that rate (and its many tenses) is to “assign a standard or value to (something) according to a particular scale.” In which case, such an understanding makes rating a list of basketball players – perhaps the best 330 or so in the entire world, give or take – even harder.

What are the criteria to determine what is or isn’t properly rated? Would it be to find the best value compared to their draft position? To their current contract? To their existing or nonexistent league-wide popularity? To a team’s successes? As examples, look no further than ESPN’s The Last Dance to find how subjective and varied the question of being underrated can really become.

Scottie Pippen, universally hailed as one of the greatest players of all-time, was criminally underpaid compared to his statistical output during the Chicago Bulls’ six championship-winning seasons. In that sense, Pippen was underrated, but as a seven-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, can that label really be applied to him?

Or for Dennis Rodman, who wasn’t drafted until the second round in 1986, a rebounding machine and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, does an underrated tag belong on him too? And, as the second and third ponies alongside Jordan, the greatest of all-time for most, does that make them underrated even more?

In the cases of Pippen and Rodman, two extreme resumes, admittedly, the answer would be a resolute and resounding no.

So if there’s no true, foolproof way to determine eligibility for underratedness, then anything becomes fair game. Too often, the NBA’s biggest and brightest stars are viewed through a single, frustrating lens: Count the rinnnnnnnnnnnnngs, baby! And if you don’t have any championships, too bad, you might be a loser. Or worse, gasp, overrated. Yet, in 2020 and with so many wonderful vantage points, numbers and angles to pitch a story, almost anybody can be underrated if you put your mind to it.

With that in mind, here’s the Northeast Division’s most underrated contributors, all in their own particularly unique way.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

With Anthony, that first rule of thumb comes into play immediately: Forget the statistics.

Forget the numbers, percentages and whatever fancy-pants metrics support the inane task of taking down a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Carmelo Anthony, today, is underrated.

Sure, he probably won’t hoist a trophy before he bids farewell, but so what? Hell, the chances of him even reaching the NBA Finals at this point appear to be a lost dream. But these recent (and strange) seasons have done years of irreversible damage to Anthony’s status in basketball history, for reasons that are often difficult to understand.

Anthony is a 10-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA team member, national champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist and likely would have finished the 2019-20 season as the 14th-highest scorer in NBA history. For 14 seasons in a row, Anthony tallied more than 20 points per game, topping out at a whopping 28.7 in 2012-13. Ultimately, his status as a basketball legend is not up for debate, yet many wonder if he should even make the Hall of Fame at all.

He’s slowed down today, of course, but Anthony remains underrated in the long-time NBA canon and will be lionized correctly years after his career ends, almost undoubtedly. So why wait?

Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and other superstars got emotional farewell tours, so where is Anthony’s? Those who fail to appreciate greatness while they still have it will be the first to unironically post a highlight reel with the smoke-from-nostril emoji on Twitter in 2030 asking for retweets to prove how underrated Anthony truly was.

Don’t be that person: Anthony is ready to be loved right here and now.

Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz

For all of his big-time shotmaking, out-of-nowhere explosions and general cold-bloodedness, where has that gotten Bojan Bogdanovic in terms of popularity? Honestly, outside of Brooklyn, Indiana and Utah, the answer is sadly very little.

Bogdanovic, a winner of championships in both Turkey and Croatia, came over to the NBA in 2014 and fast became a reliable source of buckets for the Nets. Although streaky, watching a red-hot Bogdanovic is an absolute treat, a flamethrower with reckless abandon and supreme confidence.

In 2016, the Croatian dropped 44 on the Philadelphia 76ers, a number that equaled the one on Drazen Petrovic’s jersey – the oft-go-to inspiration for many international basketball players. Three years later, in 2019-20, Bogdanovic was sporting a career-best 20.2 points and 4.1 rebounds, plus a ridiculous 3.0 three-pointers on 41.4 percent.

His defense comes up short in crucial moments, but when has that ever stopped a player from growing wildly in popularity? Perhaps always hidden in smaller markets or behind a bigger star, he has always played second fiddle. And at 31, his chance to ascend has come and gone – but the true ones know: Bojan Bogdanovic is one of the most underrated scorers in the NBA today.

Underappreciated, too, was Bogdanovic’s measure of self-worth and inherent ability to stay off the hellscape called Twitter for three consecutive seasons. On Mar. 27, the sharpshooter sent out a simple message: “I just realized I have Twitter account” and accompanied it with a playful emoji.

Gosh, the world would be a better place if we all had that kind of control.

Will Barton, Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic this. Jamal Murray that. (Sometimes) Gary Harris in between. But Will? Poor Barton is an afterthought in most conversations about the Nuggets’ team-wide and team-first spectacle. But with 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting, Barton is playing better than ever before.

And at $12.7 million in 2019-20, he’s also a steal too.

He averages more points than Harrison Barnes ($24 million), Aaron Gordon ($19.8) and Al Horford ($28), while coming in just under Terry Rozier ($19.9), Goran Dragic ($19.2) and Tim Hardaway Jr. ($18.1). That’s value. Moreover, Barton leads Denver in minutes at 33 and brings down the second-most rebounds per game at just 6-foot-5. When Barton knocked down three or more attempts from deep this year, the Nuggets went 11-4.

With the added bonus of underrated nicknames aside – of note, the rhyming nickname scheme rules and collective sports society got worse when we moved onto ‘cooler’ processes like the uber-unique first initial + last initial + number method – Will ‘The Thrill’ fits most of our aforementioned criteria.

D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves

Thus far, we’ve tackled the sentiment of being underrated via overall career resume (Anthony), popularity (Bogdanovic) or even on his own roster (Barton) – so, next, how about underrated in the category of underappreciation?

All those years ago, Russell was a can’t-miss prospect. But after an improved sophomore season, he was pawned off so the Lakers could draft Lonzo Ball. Then, following his first-ever All-Star-worthy berth that pushed Brooklyn back into the playoffs for the first time in four years, he was jettisoned for Kyrie Irving. And when the Warriors acquired Russell in a sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant last July, the young sharpshooter lasted just half a season – one without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for most of it – before Golden State shuffled him off for an Andrew Wiggins-sized lotto ticket.

So, for the love of all that is holy in our sport, the question is this: What must D’Angelo Russell do to earn your respect?

At 23, Russell has seen the world around and then some, bouncing between franchise cornerstone and trade chip so fast it would give onlookers second-hand whiplash. Through 12 games with Minnesota, his potential forever home, Russell was averaging 21.7 points and 6.6 assists on 41.2 percent from the floor. Adjusting to Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves’ No. 1 asset and Russell’s No. 1 BFFL, shouldn’t be difficult – but with his ceiling, it’s insane that such a talented player is on his fourth team already.

When the NBA flashes its cruel, business-sided approach to feelings, it’s hard not to ache for the player caught in the crosshairs. And through five years, Russell has been on the losing end of that deal three times already. Healthy and confident, the talented up-and-comer won’t be shopped again soon – hopefully, then, being properly rated is just around the corner for Russell as well.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

Rounding out the bunch is our annual Mr. Underrated In His Own Draft Class, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

In 2018, Gilgeous-Alexander was taken with the No. 11 overall pick and promptly swapped for Miles Bridges. Coming out of an illustrious Kentucky program wasn’t enough as he fell behind the well-deserved hype for Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Deandre Ayton and Trae Young. Most of the draft class chatter remains loudest about a couple of those previously named – but sooner rather than later, Gilgeous-Alexander will own as big of a star.

After a promising rookie season, the guard was reluctantly included in the trade that landed Paul George (and, subsequently, Kawhi Leonard) and he’s since flourished with the Thunder. As a 21-year-old, Gilgeous-Alexander has doubled his points (19.3) and rebounds (6.1) while starting 63 games next to Chris Paul, the absolute perfect veteran to study. The once-All-Rookie First Team member finished 5,798,243 tallies behind Doncic in All-Star voting in 2019-20 – but was the gap really that large between the two second-year cornerstones?

Gilgeous-Alexander has caught the eye of writers everywhere and everybody is fawning over his electric potential, both as a scorer and a playmaker. In the end, he appears to be a more than formidable choice to take over as the franchise crown jewel from Russell Westbrook, which might say more about Gilgeous-Alexander than anything else in these paragraphs.

When the fearless court general scored 25 or more this year, Oklahoma City was a ridiculous 9-1, a record that includes wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz. For the Thunder, the budding star ranked first in minutes (35.1), first in points, fourth in field goal percentage (47.3 percent), second in rebounds, third in assists (3.3) and second in steals (1.1).

And if that weren’t enough, Gilgeous-Alexander had his new squad in fifth place in the Western Conference, a game out of fourth and in a dogfight with James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and the aforementioned Doncic for homecourt advantage in the first round. Not bad for a former No. 11 overall pick, and one that is leading a team that was supposed to tank out and rebuild six months ago.

Today, class, we’ve learned that the notion of being underrated is not a definitive, singular point of view – as it can often refer to one’s popularity amongst peers, legends, fellow draftees and even teammates. In Russell’s case, the classic bridesmaid-but-never-the-bride adage kicks in and it’s easy to imagine how the All-Star point guard might still be considered underrated as well.

While Basketball Insiders’ series continues on, keep putting these players through different frames of reference – you never know, it may just change everything.

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