We will compare this year’s list to last year’s, and write obituaries for the top 10 guys who’ve finally proven their worth around the league and can no longer be considered “underrated.” Put some respect on their names!
2021 Top 25 Most Underrated
1. DeMar DeRozan
As the league, the media, and the advanced stat community values shooting threes more and more, DeRozan becomes increasingly hated on and underrated. He’s only 32-years-old this year and is hungry for a ring. He finally has a supporting cast that has some bounce in their step (Vucevic, Lonzo, Patrick Williams, Alex Caruso, Koby White) and a partner in crime up to the task in Zach LaVine coming off an Olympic gold medal.
Plus the beauty of DeRozan’s game is his savvy, footwork, and scoring prowess from spots all over the court besides behind the arc mean that he won’t have to rely on his athleticism as he ages. This dude is going to continue to be a 20 point scorer for several more years and has finally become an elite facilitator (7 AST/game last year, 11th overall). I also don’t think his defense is as porous as his detractors would have you believe. He’s my number one underrated player in 2021-22 and this year help lead Chicago to their first playoff appearance since 2017.
2. RJ Barrett
RJ is ready for a breakout year. Barrett has taken a little longer to develop than we all had thought—based on being projected ahead of Zion and Ja Morant going into their freshman season in college. Over two years, he has fit into the Knick’s system as a complementary piece while others like Derrick Rose and Julius Randle have taken more of the load offensively. But after shooting 40% from 3 last year, he’s removed the main ammunition I had for worrying about whether he would make the jump to NBA star. I think this is the year for him.
3. Tyrese Maxey
I love this kid’s upside and think he too has a breakout year in him. I also think this will help to offset losing Ben Simmons’ ball handling when he’s inevitably traded. The Philly PG position is all set with Maxey, especially as his three-point shooting continues to improve (his balance looks way better after an offseason of reps with NBA development staff).
I’m not that high on Philly living up to their potential as a team this year—in fact, I’m predicting implosion for this squad, but Maxey is going to be one of the few bright spots.
4. Victor Oladipo
Injuries and confidence issues have derailed Oladipo’s career. That’s a fact. However, he’s in a situation with the Heat where the pressure is completely off. Anything positive is icing on the cake with other stars next to him like Bam, Butler, and Lowry.
Early in his career, he proved a lot of people wrong. Then the injuries and fit with the Pacers brought him down to earth. But at this point, his injury concerns have made him a non-factor in most teams’ eyes, and that puts him right smack at the top of this list. At age 29, he’s younger than you thought, right?! Dipo is currently completely counted out and that’s a mistake.
5. LaMarcus Aldridge
Most people think Aldridge is washed up at 36-years-old, but I believe he still has something left in the tank. The past three years he’s shot 38% from 3, and I think can still give you 10 and 5 each night. His game (threes and spot post defense) can preserve at least one more year. He won’t add a ton to the Nets, but what he does add is very specific. Plus, nothing motivates former All-Stars like the hunger and hope of a title.
6. Spencer Dinwiddie
Coming off a brutal injury his stock is down. But I see an elite scorer and facilitator who can play the 1 or the 2 and is an integral part of the Wizards with or without Bradley Beal. In the 2019-2020 season, with Kyrie and KD injured, Dinwiddie averaged 21-7-3.5 and closed games for the Nets. Don’t sleep on Dinwiddie.
7. Ja Morant
Trae Young put all the doubters to shame last year, and Ja is right behind him, watching how he led his team to an upset of the Warriors in the play-in game. Ja may not have the talent depth and veteran leadership that the Hawks have surrounded Young with, but I know Ja is not far from being able to stand up to the rest of the West. He’s on this list because his league-wide ranking is still based on upside, yet Memphis fans and I know he’s a multi-year all-star still waiting to come out of his shell.
8. DeAndre Hunter
Hunter was on his way to proving that he was underrated last year, and then he got injured. But in the small sample size last year, he clearly separated himself from Cam Reddish as the starting SF on that playoff team. I’m expecting him to have the breakout season this year that he started to have last year.
9. Dillon Brooks
People started to wake up to Dillon Brooks last year, but they’re still half asleep. It doesn’t hurt that he’s one of the bigger irrational confidence guys in the league. But his competitiveness, defense, and gritty mentality are the heartbeat of the Memphis Grizzlies and have been for three years running. He currently has the title for Mr. Underrated, as he’s probably on this list for the fourth year in a row again next year.
10. Tyler Herro
Sometimes the worst thing a player can do is outperform expectations in their first game or first season. Because now they have to live up to that each and every night. Shooting 39% from 3 and ending his rookie campaign averaging 16-5-5 in the playoffs actually hurt Herro. His fame, and swagger – both on and off the court – drove expectations to a level that he couldn’t maintain. His averages in the playoffs last year were 9-3-3 while shooting just under 32% from 3.
Now I get the impression people think Herro stinks, and the law of averages suggests the truth is somewhere in the middle. That’s still a really good player. I think Herro will show consistency, and predict 13-4-4 with 38% from 3.
11. Marcus Smart
National media personalities have said recently that Smart has lost a step. Voters for defensive player of the year fail annually to have him as one of the three finalists. But he’s arguably the 3rd best player on the Celtics annual playoff roster. Unlike Pat Beverly, Smart is someone most veteran stars would love to play with, and if he ever leaves the Celtics, you can bet he’s going to be scooped up as a key piece for a veteran championship team.
His three-point percentage dropped down to 33% after finally reaching league average two years ago, but the plays he is known for throughout his career that directly win games still make up for the lack of shooting. He’s finally been given the keys to the starting PG position for the Celtics after 7 years of sharing the court with star PGs, jostling between lead guard and the wing, starter, and bench player. After a career-high 5.7 assists per game last year, that number is primed to rise again.
12. Malcolm Brogdon
Brogden is good enough to be considered an all-star snub each year. “That’s ridiculous,” you say? Last year he averaged 21 PTS, 6 REB, and 5 AST on 44/38/88 shooting splits. Just because Jrue Holiday made all of Milwaukee forget that they chose Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon, doesn’t mean I don’t remember how valuable this guy always was and continues to be as he improves.
13. Joe Ingles
Quite simply one of the most efficient shooters and best passers in the league today. He’s not going to earn accolades, and is further under the radar in Utah, but he’s quietly become a rock for that team in the NBA and as a leader for the Australian National team—which is annually a contender for “next best basketball country” in the world after the USA. Averaging 12-5-4 last year with 45% from 3 (41% for his career) demonstrates his efficiency and value on this list.
14. Evan Fournier
In Orlando, I maintain that he was their go-to guy over Vucevic down the stretch of games. In Boston, he shot the lights out (46% from 3) while playing solid defense on the wing (as fans grumbled that the defensive side of the ball was his weakness, which simply wasn’t true). He’s not just a spot-up shooter, but a secondary playmaker, an efficient ball mover, and high-IQ decision maker especially vs. the zone, and knows how to drive, get into the paint, and come to a stop to find open shooters. At 6’7”, he’s another big wing for the Knicks and should win over their fans while pushing RJ Barrett to improve. Plus, if the Kemba Walker experiment fails, Fournier is nice insurance.
15. Saddiq Bey
Even after his coming out party last year—proving to be a top 2 player on his team in his rookie season—I don’t believe Bey has gotten the credit he deserves. Bey is primed to come out this year and further expand his role and his game. This will translate into wins for Detroit.
They still won’t make the playoffs, but like Atlanta two years ago, they will make teams think twice about their future potential and adept roster construction. Bey will have success this year as the other two best opposing wing defenders will be drawn to Cade Cunningham and Jerami Grant, allowing Bey to find success.
16. Rui Hachimura
One of the better score-only players in the league. He simply has instincts you can’t teach on that side of the ball and can score in the midrange or around the rim. After a 4% increase in 3 point percentage from year 1 to year 2, it’s clear his three-point consistency and defensive competency will unlock whether a breakout year is coming this year or next. Will he play with Kuzma or outplay Kuzma, is the question we should be asking?
17. Terrence Davis
Athletic, tough-minded two-way players who can shoot and play with a chip on their shoulder are the cream that always rises to the top of the glass when they are developed in good organizations like Davis was. Think Terry Rozier here. They are the same size, same skill-set as secondary playmakers and shot-makers who will defend, and they have the same dog mentality.
18. Aaron Holiday
Even the Pacers undervalued Holiday by trading him to Washington for the draft rights to Isaiah Jackson (seemingly in case they trade one of Sabonis or Turner). Maybe Holiday wanted out and kept that private? Either way, he’s been a two-way player and big shotmaker since high school. He’s not going to be as good as his brother Jrue but does bring Jrue’s toughness and IQ. The Wizards got a steal this year.
19. Daniel Theis
I know he finally got a mid-level contract (9M) but he’s just such an overlooked player by common fans and players alike—while always seeming to win over the fans of the team he plays for with his details on the court. Celtics fans appreciated him on a deep level as a low-value complimentary big and plus-teammate while he was in Boston. So he had to make this list somewhere.
20. Daniel Gafford
Gafford showed that his performance as a star in his role (rim protector and lob threat) still somehow wasn’t on GM radars to get him drafted properly. Now he’s proving people wrong. 1.4 BLK in 14 minutes through his first two years is among the league leaders.
21. Chris Boucher
Boucher is the second-best three-point shooter based on percentage, after Kevin Durant, among the top 20 players in the league in blocks per game (of which Boucher ranks 5th overall). Toronto’s track record of developing Siakam—whose role increased gradually each year—provides a foundation for Boucher to be next in line for the same load expansion, albeit in a slightly different role.
22. Harrison Barnes
Have we forgotten how solid a player Harrison Barnes continues to be? Do you think of him as a winner toiling away on a bad team? Probably not, but the minute this guy lands on a playoff roster, he will immediately come to mind as someone who’s been this good for a while now.
23. Richaun Holmes
Averaging 14 and 8 last year in Sacramento should earn Holmes a spot on this list. Holmes has been a cult favorite on underrated player lists for several years now, but his minutes and stats continue to improve year-to-year.
24. Talen Horton-Tucker
Becoming last year’s Summer League darling proved nothing, but getting some meaningful minutes last year and still being on the roster this year—after Kuzma, KCP, Schroder, and Caruso all were shipped out—shows that he’s gotten the stamp of approval from LeBron James. If he’s good enough for King James, he’s good enough for the end of this list.
25. Thad Young
This guy hit the jackpot with how his career has aged as the game has changed. He’s been in the league playing big minutes since 2007 and is still only entering his age-33 season. He’s a classic “all-underrated team” mascot and quietly averaged 12 and 6 last year, along with a career-high 4 assists per game for Chicago.
He still has another couple of years of contributions in him, and it’s a shame that San Antonio’s mediocrity is where he will probably finish out his career. Why championship contenders haven’t sought out his services over the past four years while he toiled away in Indiana and Chicago is beyond me.
2021 NBA Underrated Obituaries – The Jig is Up!
How do you stop being underrated? Three things can get you off this list and put the respect that you deserve on your name.
- A Big Contract can make you need to live up to your newfound value, and your reputation will thus change.
- A Big Performance can tip everyone off to paying more attention to you on the scouting report pre-game, as will National Media recognition.
- Sometimes being under the radar can actually get you a cult following, and that buzz can become big enough that soon the cat is out of the bag.
Here are the obituaries for the top 10 guys who can no longer be considered underrated.
People have been hating on Middleton for 3-4 years now. “He’s not a good enough 2nd banana,” or “He doesn’t have the confidence to lead a team or hit big shots” are common phrases we’ve all heard. Yet all Kris has done for years is consistently bring offensive punch through Giannis’ offensive ups and downs during his development.
This past year he shut everyone up. He proved he can be the 2nd best player on a championship team. We should give Giannis all the credit in the world for taking his game up a level yet again (after winning back-to-back league MVPs), but Middleton was the quiet assassin killing teams throughout each playoff series. During the regular season he was a 20, 6, and 6 at 47/41/90 shooting splits. In the playoffs, the shooting numbers dropped, but the other numbers jumped to 23, 7.5, and 5. He’ll never be perfect, or even a top-tier All-Star, but the league needs to quit sleeping on this one.
2. Jrue Holiday
Everyone in New Orleans should be screaming at the Pelicans owner and GM for trading Jrue Holiday. And everyone who remembers his All-Star season in Philly probably knew this was in him the whole time, but his performance in the playoffs for the Bucks was literally the difference-maker for their championship success.
It wasn’t always pretty, but his resiliency is a low-key attribute we didn’t respect about him. Everyone knew his defense and two-way play were elite, but the ball-handling and game management deserve to be recognized as well.
3. Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown still doesn’t get the respect he deserves league-wide, but that’s more because I think he’s better than most. The fact that he finally got the All-Star nod last year means he’s off my list. Sorry Jaylen, it’s been fun. Now you need to go from being the most consistent Celtic night in and night out, to being able to make your teammates better.
He didn’t make my list for underrated, but boy was he ever before last year! I’m more impressed with his advancement as a player than anyone in the last 5 years. Period.
5. Bobby Portis
Last year in the preseason I called Bobby Portis a key signing for the Bucks, showing that they were looking for shooting and toughness as attributes to add to their squad. I also felt like after he punched teammate Nikola Mirotić from the practice gym, out of the league, and all the way back to Europe, his reputation overshadowed his talent.
I knew after bouncing around (from Chicago to Toronto, to Washington, to New York, and then to Milwaukee – 5 teams in 3 years) there was a good chance that he’d have learned some lessons and could have something to prove. Furthermore, he plays the most underrated position in today’s game: the tough perimeter 4-man who can switch on defense, hit 3s, and play some small-ball 5. The fact that he took a team-friendly deal this offseason to stay in Milwaukee proves to me that he’s humbled himself and sees what’s most important: being where you’re wanted and having a chance to win it all.
6. Jarrett Allen
Everyone’s favorite up-and-coming rim running shot-blocker who seemed like he was going to be a part of the Net’s future as DeAndre Jordan aged, is now the 20 million per year overpay for the Cleveland Cavaliers. At that salary, he should be a primary scorer. While his value is still high, Allen can no longer be considered underrated.
7. Alex Caruso
This dude is the definition of a self-made man, going from a training camp success story who showed nice passing vision to a go-to defender and all-around competitor who earned the respect of King James himself. But now that he’s earned his bag, he’s no longer the unassuming balding white guy in the NBA who no one took seriously. Regardless, I’m betting his energy, hustle, defense, lunch pail mentality and passing vision will help the Bulls make the playoffs this year.
8. Tyrese Haliburton
Haliburton proved in his rookie season that he was as smart, and as good a shooter despite his quirky form, as advertised. His game has certainly carried over to the NBA.
9. Domantas Sabonis
Sabonis finally got his respect as an All-Star, similar to Jaylen Brown. He’d been playing like a beast, improving consistently year after year after year, to the point where his spin move is almost as unstoppable as Giannis’ and Siakam’s and it demands help-side defensive attention because of it.
As a rookie, I certainly didn’t think Sabonis would become this good. Out of college he was a bit robotic and had mechanical fundamental moves, and he seemed like he’d never approach his father’s greatness. Then we had the Myles Turner vs. Sabonis debate. Who was better? Were they redundant? Who would you keep? As Indiana realized that Sabonis was clearly the better player, the rest of the league was slower to catch up. This one was all about gradual improvement that has never stopped.
10. Bradley Beal
Maybe this one’s not fair, because Beal has been wanted by most contenders for over two seasons. Why would he ever be considered underrated? “Didn’t he average 30 PPG the past two years in a row” you ask? Yes. But that first year he didn’t even make the all-star team.
I’m sure his girlfriend (who made headlines at the time) would agree that this was one of the most egregious All-Star snubs we’ve had on record. So before last year, he was certainly underrated and wasn’t getting the respect he deserves. Now, the consensus seems like it’s balanced out, and the court of public opinion considers Beal a top-flight All-Star.
2020 – Last Year’s List
- Ja Morant
- Bradley Beal
- DeMar DeRozan
- Jaylen Brown
- Jrue Holiday
- Malcolm Brogdon
- Domantas Sabonis
- DeAndre Hunter
- Tyrese Haliburton
- Chris Middleton
- Dillon Brooks
- Jerami Granit
- Joe Ingles
- Evan Fournier
- Bobby Portis
- Rui Hachimura
- Daniel Theis
- Chris Boucher
- Jarett Allen
- Marcus Smart
- Aaron Holiday
- Richaun Holmes
- Talen Horton-Tucker
- Alex Caruso
- Thad Young
For more of Josh’s NBA Crystal Ball Series: