“Underrated” is a subjective term. When I peer through the keyhole of the universe’s door, I can only see a certain slice of people’s opinions about any given player, and if I see a guy not getting enough love, I label him “underrated.” That doesn’t mean it’s true! But these are my favorite kind of articles to write, so either way, I wanted to shine a light on several role players who don’t get the plaudits they deserve (I think).
Dillon Brooks, snarling switchblade
Memphis fans have a love-hate relationship with Brooks that typically leans heavier on the latter, but it’s impossible to not acknowledge his impact. Brooks is the trash-talking, headbutting, flagrant-fouling brass knuckle at the heart of the Grizzlies’ swagger, but sometimes his divisive personality overshadows his value.
On/off numbers are tricky. They are heavily context-dependent and should only be relied upon over long stretches and large samples, and sometimes not even then. But Brooks has had one of the best on/off point differentials in the league every year of his six-year career. His worst on/off point differential was a mere +2.5 points per 100 possessions, better than two-thirds of NBA players. The offense has even scored more points with him in each of the last three seasons, so his impact appears to hit both sides of the court.
But Brooks’ accolades have never arrived. He’s never sniffed an All-Star or All-Defensive team despite averaging in the mid-high teens each year with metrics painting him as one of basketball’s best defenders.
Perimeter defense is possibly the area of basketball that has the least statistical rigor. Unlike interior defense (where you can find any number of useful figures, like blocks, FG% allowed at the rim, shots deterred, etc.), there are few statistical markers that actually correlate to solid defense.
That leaves us with the eye test, and holy hell, does Brooks ace that.
Here’s Brooks inking himself into Jordan Clarkson’s skin like Clarkson’s newest tattoo:
Here’s Brooks taking a mean Pascal Siakam shoulder to the chest; somehow, Siakam is the one thrown to the ground:
Here’s Brooks stymying De’Aaron Fox, arguably the fastest player in the NBA, in transition:
Brooks isn’t as versatile as some other defenders. He’s not a genius help defender like Draymond Green or a switching master like Marcus Smart. But there are few guys as successfully physical at the point of attack as Brooks, and he can get under an opponent’s skin like no one this side of Patrick Beverley.
So yes, his shot selection can be wonky, and he gets himself into trouble with overdribbling. The team would be better off if he distributed two or three of his shots to Desmond Bane or Ja Morant. But maybe we shouldn’t mind, when the team is so consistently better when he’s on the court. Something good is happening, even if we can’t quite put a finger on why.
“I don’t really care about what the analysts think,” Brooks said in late December. “I guard my (expletive) off every single night. I give my heart out every single night. My guys can live with some of the shots I take.”
Kelly Olynyk, versatility king
Arguably the most celebrated player on this list, and yet I still don’t think people understand how good KO is.
Many people view him as a dirty, flopping goon — and I can’t say that’s entirely wrong. But focusing on the negative outweighs the tremendous positives he brings to a court.
Olynyk is 7’0” with handles, shooting, uncanny passing ability, and a willingness to mix it up. He is two seasons removed from averaging nearly 19 points, eight rebounds, and four assists (on superb shooting splits!) during a short stint for a Houston team that wanted to showcase his value to potential trade partners. He packs offensive-fulcrum-worthy bonafides into a complementary piece’s role.
And that skill:role ratio shows up in the numbers: teams have scored more points with Kelly on the floor than off for each of the last six seasons. He’s not incredible at any one thing, but he’s good at nearly everything, so the Utah Jazz use him in every action imaginable.
Olynyk is a shockingly effective secondary ballhandler who can initiate the offense on his own or spray passes to Utah’s plethora of shooters and smart cutters. He makes quick decisions with the ball:
Shooting 41% on threes this year for the surprising Jazz, KO is more than capable of providing spacing for others. But he also has no problem putting the ball on the floor and attacking a sloppy closeout. Watch as he “ghosts” this screen (essentially, fakes setting it) to get Zion leaning the wrong way, and then blows by the lurching Zanos for an easy layup:
Kelly is more than just a finesse playmaker; he hustles, too. He creates more points from screen assists than Joel Embiid and draws more charges than Alex Caruso or Draymond Green. Olynyk averages more deflections per game than Pascal Siakam or Marcus Smart, and he even leads the Jazz in steals per game.
KO is capable of doing anything, and there’s an argument to be made that he, not Jordan Clarkson, has been Utah’s second-best player after Lauri Markkanen. If Utah does decide to burn it all down at the deadline, it wouldn’t shock me to see Olynyk be a highly sought-after piece.
Aaron Nesmith, bringing heat
After two years of tenth-man purgatory in Boston, former Vanderbilt sharpshooter Aaron Nesmith has finally found a home in Indiana.
The legitimately good Pacers have a strange roster that lacks forward-sized forwards and features an abundance of small-ball centers and oversized guards. Nesmith, a 6’5” shooting guard by nature, falls into the latter category, but he has frequently defended up a position — and sometimes two.
His top defensive matchups this season are Anthony Edwards (4-11 with Nesmith as his defender), Franz Wagner (3-11), and Julius Randle (4-9). Other big names include Bradley Beal, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, and James Harden — basically, Nesmith guards the other team’s best non-center, and he does so credibly. Watch as he first sticks with a Damian Lillard stepback, then stonewalls LeBron James into a tough fadeaway:
Nesmith’s defense has become his calling card, but his offensive skillset is nothing to sneeze at, either. Nesmith’s three-point shot has been inconsistent (36% on the year, but only 32% in the 24 games he’s started), but he’s getting to the rim on a third of his shot attempts, a high mark. He’s more athletic than people realize; others may jump higher, but few can get in the air as quickly. Just ask Jarrett Allen:
That, my friends, is a serious Dunk of the Year contender.
“Aaron Nesmith is the prototypical Indiana Pacer,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has said. “He’s what I envision all of our guys being, a guy who unconditionally will do anything asked of him.”
Nesmith currently projects to be a 3-and-D-and-a-little-more kind of player, the sort that every winning team needs. He’s reminiscent of a more-athletic Royce O’Neale, and I’d love to see Nesmith develop a bit more playmaking as he ages, as Royce has.
Right now, though, as a young guy trying to establish himself in the league, he’s focused more on finishing plays than initiating them, and that’s fine! At 23 years old, and without much NBA playing time to this point, he still has loads of potential. Liberated by Indiana’s weird roster, Nesmith now has the runway to grow into it.
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