Today, we’re going to do something a little different. I’ve gathered an assortment of oddballs — guys who are better at something than they should be or have a skill or tendency that the general public doesn’t recognize enough. Before he joined the Celtics, Derrick White and blocked shots would have been a good example — he averaged almost a block per game for three straight seasons for San Antonio despite standing just 6’4!” But playing a key role on a contender tends to shine a spotlight on every quirk of the roster, and White clad in Boston green quickly became celebrated for that same prowess.
That’s the general idea, though. Disclaimer: I’m not saying that these players are the best at any one thing, or even particularly great at it. I’m simply highlighting unexpected skills that aren’t well-known outside their team’s following. With one exception, this list won’t have many big names since those guys are generally well-understood.
Jimmy Butler — Foul avoidance
Let’s go with the starriest player first. Jimmy Butler is one of the best wing defenders in the league, but despite his physicality, he never fouls.
That’s not much of an exaggeration; he had the seventh-lowest foul rate in the entire league last season, and it’s safe to say he had much more difficult defensive assignments than Trae Young or Tyus Jones.
Here’s a wild stat: Butler has accrued more steals than fouls in each of the last seven seasons. That just doesn’t happen, particularly at the more physical forward positions. Last year, only four qualifying players made that list: Butler, Gary Trent Jr., Dejounte Murray, and Jones.
One more stat: Out of 177 players with at least 1,000 career steals, Jimmy is one of nine to have more career steals than fouls. He and Kawhi Leonard (who is about to fall off this list, based on recent trends) are the only ones who aren’t guards.
Butler understands what constitutes a foul and what doesn’t like no other player. It’s how he can get to the free-throw line so often without resorting to gimmickry, and it helps him avoid fouls on the other end, too. He rarely reaches, relying instead upon mongoose-quick hands and greedy anticipation to generate turnovers. In D&D terms, he’s Lawful Evil on the court (although certainly Chaotic Neutral off it!).
Butler’s aversion to fouls isn’t the most important part of his defense, but it’s definitely the most underappreciated.
Buddy Hield, Pacers — Defensive versatility
Let me say upfront: I’m not saying Hield is a great defender, or even a good one. But last year, he proved shockingly versatile, particularly given most people’s conception of Hield as an empty-stats shooter who doesn’t bring much else to the table.
Hield is legitimately one of the greatest three-point shooters in NBA history, with a long track record as being one of the league’s worst defenders. That’s changed. While the defense isn’t eye-popping, he somehow became Indiana’s alpha-stopper for large parts of the year.
The truth is in the numbers. His most common defensive matchups were, in order: RJ Barrett, Kristaps Porzingis, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jerami Grant, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Max Strus, Brandon Ingram, Tyler Herro, and Donovan Mitchell.
That is an incredibly diverse list, from 71-point scorer Mitchell to 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis to all-time great Kevin Durant to ballhandling warlock Kyrie Irving.
And Hield generally held up okay! He was at or above the positional median in all of Bball-Index’s perimeter defensive metrics (pickpocket rating, passing lane defense, isolation defense, ball screen navigation, and off-ball chaser defense), in addition to receiving an “A+” in their defensive versatility metric. The Pacers gave up -2.6 points fewer per 100 possessions with him on the court (although that’s mostly thanks to being tied to Myles Turner’s playing time, to be fair).
Here, he holds up in isolation and puts in a great contest against Kevin Durant, who is at least six inches taller and routinely eats all-time defenders for an afternoon snack:
The defense in Indiana wasn’t good overall, but let’s put it this way: if Hield is one of your best on-ball defensive options, how bad were the other guys?
For a guy who gets a lot of scorn (some of it deserved), I wanted to make sure Hield’s defensive efforts from last season were noticed and appreciated.
Jose Alvarado, Pelicans — Screening
“Grand Theft Alvarado” is primarily known for two things: trash-talking and those delightfully sneaky backcourt steals.
But he brings a lot more to the table, including some of the meanest guard screens around. The Pelicans don’t use him as a screener often, but when they do, he has no problem throwing forearms into defenders and holding his ground. You don’t see him get skinny to minimize contact, as so many small players do. Alvarado is more liable to set a pick on two defenders at once, like a diminutive fullback clearing the way:
For a little guy, he makes himself extremely difficult to get around. It’s particularly handy given the size of the Pelicans’ best players, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Because the smallest opposing player usually guards Alvarado, a successful screen usually ends up with a significant mismatch. Pity the poor guards caught like deer in Zion’s headlights as he rumbles downhill.
We don’t talk about guard screening too much, unless it’s people rightfully fawning over Steph Curry, Kyle Lowry, or the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokic inverted pick-and-roll. Part of that is the lack of publicly available data around screens. But since we’re here, I may as well list a few other guards who are great at leveraging their bodies to get themselves or teammates open: Alex Caruso, Fred VanVleet, Isaiah Joe, Jalen Brunson, Monte Morris, Mike Conley, and Gabe Vincent.
Guard screening is on the rise, and with it, the opportunity for players to showcase a hidden talent.
Zach Collins/Sandro Mamukelashvili, Spurs — Passing
I love bigs who can sling the rock. It’s a personal bias, so whenever I see a big guy consistently making high-quality reads, I file it away.
Sandro Mamukelashvili tantalized in Milwaukee but never found a role in his year and a half there. Luckily, the Spurs saw something in the 6’11” Georgian (whose national team just advanced in the FIBA World Cup!).
Turns out, Mamu has a little bit of magic in his hands. While he struggles to finish on the inside, he’s unlocked offensive value by showcasing a surprising ability to squeeze the ball into tight spaces:
Collins is even better. He had the sixth-best assist rate of all centers (Mamu wasn’t too far behind) and has become a legitimate high-post playmaking hub. He picks out cutters with a deft touch and no hesitation:
The Spurs didn’t have particularly great playmakers on the wing, so these slick-passing centers kept the offense from stalling out like a stick-shift car helmed by a teenager.
Based on Summer League, the Spurs seem adamant about keeping uber-prospect Victor Wembanyama at power forward for now, which opens the door for some alley-oops between teammates measuring a combined 14 feet tall. I can’t wait.
Lu Dort, Thunder — Offensive rebounding
“The Dorture Chamber” is primarily known for his defense, which is legitimately fearsome, but he has another elite positional attribute that doesn’t get widely talked about: Dort is a beast on the offensive glass.
Dort was in the top 50 in offensive rebounds per game despite standing just 6’3!” He was the shortest member of that club by two inches. For context, he was one spot ahead of Joel Embiid and snagged more O-boards than Jaren Jackson Jr., Myles Turner, or P.J. Tucker.
That number was much higher than in previous seasons, thanks to coach Mark Daigneault tweaking Dort’s usual perimeter-oriented positioning. As Dort suffered through a down shooting year, Daigneault started putting him in the dunker spot (on the baseline a few feet from the hoop) more often, empowering him to hunt second chances. (Dort’s bricktastic finishing also gives him ample opportunity to retrieve his own misses.)
In a league where players, particularly shorter ones, are so often ordered to sprint back in transition defense and ignore offensive rebounding, it’s refreshing to see a little guy leaping amongst the trees and coming away with the prize more often than not: