5 Overshadowed NBA Stars Needing More Spotlight
With All-Star weekend right around the corner, everyone will be sharing their opinions on who deserves to be in the game, especially considering the current system the NBA uses to determine who is an All-Star is somewhat flawed, something Russell Peddle discusses in part one of his most recent NBA Quarterly Report.
As Russell mentions, part of the issue with NBA All-Star teams is that the starting lineups are determined exclusively by fan vote. Every year the fans choose the league’s most popular players rather than those who deserve the distinction of All-Star based on merit. Kobe Bryant is a perfect example. Bryant is second in Western Conference voting (Kevin Durant is first and rightfully so) despite playing in just six games this season and leading the league with 5.7 turnovers per game, which is an absolute travesty.
This system hugely favors players who play for the best teams and/or are in the biggest markets. Although all four have struggled mightily this season (none of them even crack the top 20 of our numberFire power rankings), the Lakers, Knicks, Celtics, and 76ers all get a ton of publicity and are often featured in primetime games because they are storied franchises in huge media markets. As a result, players on less storied franchises in smaller media markets, such as the Kings, Pelicans and Grizzlies (all teams ranked ahead of the Lakers, Knicks, Celtics, and 76ers in the power rankings) are at a distinct disadvantage.
Taking all of this into consideration, I wanted to highlight two guards and three frontcourt players who have been playing at an All-Star level but have done so on bad teams in smaller markets. One or two of these guys may end up in the All-Star game, but most will be overlooked despite their stellar play. Here is the criteria I used in choosing my starting five:
1. These players cannot play for a team in a top-10 media market in the United States
2. The teams represented must rank in the bottom half of our numberFire power rankings
Before I tell you who I chose and why I chose them, I want to mention a few guys who I didn't choose for one reason or another.
Despite the Bulls seemingly tanking for a better pick, Joakim Noah has put the team on his back and has kept them relevant. Sporting a spectacular 8.5 nERD, Noah comes in at 19th in our player power rankings. Chicago has not been great this season, but they are a storied franchise in the third biggest media market in the country. Thus, Noah finds himself on the outside looking in.
Although his defense leaves much to be desired, Nikola Pekovic is having a career year, averaging 18.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Considering he is currently 13th in our player power rankings, Pekovic would have easily made the cut if not for the fact that the Timberwolves have been pretty competitive this season with a 20-21 record and ranking ninth in our power rankings.
The last player who you might be surprised to see missing from this list is New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis. Davis has been nothing short of spectacular this year, ranking in the top 10 in our player power rankings with a massive 10.3 nERD. Frankly, Davis would have been the centerpiece of this team, but I chose not to include him since I dedicated an entire article to him last week (which you can find here).
Without further ado, here is my starting lineup:
F/C, Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
In just his second year in the league, former UConn standout Andre Drummond is starting to emerge as one of the elite players in the NBA. Drummond, who is the youngest player on this list at just 20 years old, has shown tremendous improvement from his rookie season to his sophomore season with huge jumps in both points per game, 7.9 to 12.7, and rebounds per game, 7.6 to 12.6.
Just as the numbers suggest, the former UConn Husky standout has become a double-double machine, recording double-doubles in 9 out of his last 10 games, including each of his last 6. The Pistons star has been absolutely dominant on the boards, specifically on the offensive glass. Drummond is third in the league in rebounds per game, behind only DeAndre Jordan and Kevin Love, and leads the league by nearly a full rebound at a whopping 5.1 offensive rebounds per game. Additionally, Drummond leads the league in both total rebound percentage (21.6%) and offensive rebound percentage (16.4%).
Unlike many young players, Drummond has managed to increase his statistics without sacrificing efficiency. With the vast majority of Drummond’s shots coming in the paint, he's third in the league in field goal percentage at 60.5% and sixth in the league in effective field goal percentage, also at 60.5%. With a massive 117 offensive rating, Drummond has been an absolute beast on the offensive end, but still has room to improve on the defensive side of the ball. Despite ranking seventh in the league with 1.8 blocks per game, he often looks lost on defense and needs to develop his rotations and help defense. That said, Drummond has earned a respectable 102 defensive rating so far this season and continues to show progress.
Sporting a 7.8 nERD and a very respectable 2.4 numberFire efficiency rating, Drummond currently sits at 17th in our player power rankings. Although he has been the best player on a struggling 17-24 Pistons team, Drummond has not received the recognition he deserves. Considering this is only his sophomore season and he is so young, as well as the fact that he is representing the largest media market out of any player on this list, Detroit, I have a feeling it won’t be long before he gets that attention he rightfully deserves.
F/C, DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
In his first three years in the league, DeMarcus Cousins was an anomaly. He has incredible athleticism, unreal talent and is built like a tank, but struggled to put it all together on the court and was a complete headache off the court. So far this season, Cousins seems to have matured on and off the court, and is yet to have any real off-the-court issues while playing out of his mind.
Boogie has steadily evolved over the course of his career, annually increasing his stats in nearly every major offensive category for each of his first three years in the league. But he has truly announced his presence this year as an elite scorer and offensive juggernaut. Now, almost halfway through the season, Cousins is posting career highs in points per game, field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, rebounds per game, total rebound percentage, usage percentage, and offensive rating. Most impressively, Boogie has already posted a career high in win shares with 12 games remaining before the All-Star break.
|Points Per Game||Field Goal %||True Shooting %||Rebounds Per Game||Total Rebound %||Usage %||Win Shares|
While Cousins is undoubtedly having the best season of his career, he still has a lot to improve on before he can be in the conversation with the league’s best players. Before he can be considered truly elite, Cousins needs to do a better job taking care of the ball. Boogie is averaging 3.5 turnovers per game, which is good for fourth in the league among active players and by far the most among front court players.
Additionally, similarly to Drummond, Cousins has significant room for growth on the defensive side of the ball. Although he is averaging 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, Cousins has often times struggled to slow down opposing big men, despite his supreme size and athleticism, though he is improving. Averaging a career high in minutes per game, Boogie has played to a career best 101 defensive rating this season.
All things considered, Boogie is having an unbelievable season. With a 6.5 nERD and a 2.1 numberFire efficiency rating, Cousins finds himself at 22nd in our player power rankings. In a small market that has had little to root for since Tim Donaghy helped steal a Western Conference championship away from them, the Sacramento Kings are starting to develop some very good young talent. But, much like Cousins, they need to play better defense. The Kings’ 15-25 record can be much attributed to their 28th ranked defense. In spite of the Kings’ struggles, diehard fans already recognize how good Boogie really is, but many casual fans still overlook him and that needs to change.
F/C, Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers
So far this season, the news cycle for the Cleveland Cavaliers has been dominated by the success of third-year superstar Kyrie Irving and the failure of number one overall pick Anthony Bennett, leaving the guy who is probably the Cavaliers’ most important player, Anderson Varejao, out of the spotlight.
Unlike Drummond and Cousins, Varejao is a seasoned veteran, which makes the fact that he is so overlooked and under-appreciated even more surprising. Contrary to his teammate Irving, Varejao doesn’t have big endorsement deals and is rarely in front of the camera, partially due to the fact that he is a foreign-born player with a strong accent, but also because he is simply humble. However, much of the reason casual fans don't realize Varejao’s full value is because other than his hair, nothing about his game is flashy.
What Varejao lacks in flash he makes up for with smarts, hard work and hustle. With this playing style, Varejao has become an extremely efficient, consistent, and complete player. Despite only averaging 8.7 points per game, Varejao has been a relatively effective offensive player. With a true shooting percentage of 53.1%, his 8.7 points per game come on just 7.3 field goal attempts per game and with only a 13.8% usage percentage.
Furthermore, despite his low usage percentage, Varejao is averaging 2.5 assists per game. But where Varejao has his biggest impact is on the defensive glass. He currently ranks ninth in the league with 10.5 rebounds per game, seventh in the league in defensive rebound percentage at 28.3% and eighth in the league in total rebound percentage at 19.4%. Additionally, Varejao fills up the stat sheet, adding 1.1 steals per game and 0.9 blocks per game.
In his ninth year in the league, it’s hard to anticipate Varejao earning much more notoriety than he already has, especially considering he plays in Cleveland for the struggling 15-26 Cavaliers. With that said, Varejao’s 5.5 nERD and 1.8 numberFire efficiency rating is good enough for 30th in our player power rankings. Hopefully, as the Cavalier’s young talent continues to develop, more fans will realize just how valuable Varejao is to that team.
G, Isaiah Thomas, Sacramento Kings
Isaiah Thomas may be the second Sacramento King to make this list, but he also may be the better player out of the two.
Although he isn't related to his Piston’s bad boy namesake, in just his third season out of the University of Washington, Thomas is beginning to play like him. As the Kings fell further and further out of playoff contention last season, Thomas began to pick up more and more minutes. He made the most out of his opportunity and, in turn, the Kings let Tyreke Evans leave in free agency this offseason, effectively opening the door for Thomas to step into a more substantial role.
Although he has been playing significant minutes all season, Thomas was coming off the bench behind Greivis Vasquez (now on the Raptors), Marcus Thornton and Ben McLemore for the first quarter of the season. Thomas was inserted into the starting lineup on December 9th against the Mavericks and has not looked back since. So far this season, he's on pace to shatter his career highs in points and assists, while also setting career highs in field goal percentage, three point percentage, true shooting percentage, rebounds per game, steals per game, usage percentage and offensive rating.
|Points Per Game||Assists Per Game||Field Goal %||Three Point %||True Shooting %||Rebounds Per Game||Steals Per Game||Usage %||Offensive Rating|
Like many first-year starting point guards, Thomas could do a better job holding onto the ball. His 2.8 turnovers per game is a full turnover more per game than last season. That, of course, is exaggerated due to his increase in minutes, but his 3.0 turnovers per 36 minutes is still a career high. Additionally, while Thomas is starting to play like his namesake on the offensive side of the ball, he has been absolutely abysmal on defense. Despite averaging 1.5 steals per game, Thomas ranks among the league’s worst with a 111 defensive rating, albeit his career best. Much of why the Kings let Evans walk in the off-season was due to his horrid defense and even he has a better defensive rating than Thomas.
Thomas is a very young player with outrageous upside. If he can continue to progress as a defender, he can evolve into a special player. Thomas leads the 15-25 Kings with a 6.3 nERD, adding a 1.9 numberFire efficiency rating. If you aren’t already, it’s time to start keeping an eye on Thomas, who now ranks 23rd in our player power rankings. Soon enough he's going to be an elite point guard in the NBA.
G, Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
When the Grizzlies signed Mike Conley to a five-year, $45-million contract extension in 2010, many fans and experts alike thought they were making a huge mistake. At that time, Conley had massive upside but had yet to play at a $9 million per year level. After seeing just how good Conley has become since signing that extension, in hindsight it is easy to see what the Grizzlies were thinking.
The former Ohio State Buckeye came into the league as a talented ball handler and passer but was a limited scorer. Today, Conley is still an impressive floor general, averaging 6.3 assists per game with a better than three-to-one assist to turnover ratio. But what has changed for Conley is his ability to score. Currently demolishing his career high in points per game at 18.1, Conley still doesn’t shoot a high percentage from three-point range, but has done an outstanding job creating better shots for himself by getting into the lane, scoring in the paint and getting to the free throw line, which is reflected in his 54.8% true shooting percentage as well as career bests in effective field goal percentage at 50.4% and free throw attempts at 3.7 per game.
Additionally, although his defensive rating is a bit down this season at 108, Conley has long been considered an effective defender, posting 100 and 102 defensive ratings in the past two seasons. He also adds 1.6 steals and 2.6 rebounds per game to fill out his stat sheet.
Although the Grizzlies have been very good the past few seasons, and are undeniably the best team represented on this list, they have not been great this season. Whereas their 20-20 record would have them as a six seed in the Eastern conference, if the playoffs started today the Grizzlies would be on the outside looking in, currently sitting three games out of the eighth spot in the western conference, leaving them ranked 16th in our numberFire power rankings. That said, Mike Conley has been far from the reason for the Grizzlies' regression this season. He leads the Grizzlies with a 5.8 nERD and currently ranks 27th in our player power rankings. At only 26 years old, Conley is finally starting to come into his own as a premier player in this league, and is a star in the making. If the Grizzlies can somehow right the ship and make the playoffs, Conley’s rise to stardom could come sooner than most realize.