The 2014-15 All-Under-Underappreciated Team

by Corey Kollbocker

 probasketballtalk.nbcsports.com

probasketballtalk.nbcsports.com

Last week, the Franchise released our 2014-15 All-Underappreciated Team.  That team highlighted starters who contribute significantly to their teams, but are often overlooked as minor stars in the league.  This team is a little different.  This team consists of players who aren’t just overlooked, they’re forgotten about completely.  These are players who have worked hard to maximize their talents and take advantage of opportunities, even if their ceilings are lower and those opportunities are scarce.  To qualify, players had to meet the following criteria:

1.     They should have played at least 2/3 of their games this season off the bench

2.     They must have played in at least 30 games and averaged 10 mpg in those appearances

3.     They must be over 25 years old. These are players who are playing at their peak and in their prime, not young studs with high upsides.

4.     They must not be a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate.  There are minor stars who would otherwise qualify by these rules (i.e. Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson, Lou Williams, Isaiah Thomas, Nick Young, etc.), but this list is not for them, as they are appreciated. 

This is the All-Under-Underappreciated team.

 espn.com

espn.com

PG – Aaron Brooks, Chicago Bulls

Age: 30

G: 52

GS: 1

MPG: 20.1

Stat Line: 11 ppg, 2.7 ast, .446/.446/.865 shooting, 16.0 PER

If Aaron Brooks hadn’t signed in China during the 2011 NBA lockout, he might not be on this list.  He won Most Improved Player in 2009-10 season with the Houston Rockets, starting all 82 games and averaging 19.6 ppg and 5.3 assists.  However, after a few ankle injuries and a season in China, Brooks lost his place in the league.  Spending the next few seasons buried in depth chart purgatory, Brooks signed on this offseason as Tom Thibodeau’s newest PG reclamation project.

But let me be clear: Brooks is not a project, and never was.  He’s a skilled playmaker who is dynamic in the pick and roll, possesses a dazzling array of hooks and floaters, and drills 44.6% of his threes, mostly taken from his favorite spot, 5 feet beyond the arc.  A skilled backup distributor and microwave scorer, Brooks has had some signature games this season, like when he scored 19 in the 4th quarter against Boston to go with 8 assists, or dropped 21 against the Suns in as many minutes.  Even as the 7th or 8th man in Chicago’s rotation, Brooks will have to be a key contributor if the Bulls hope to make a deep playoff run.

Honorable Mentions:

Beno Udrih, Memphis Grizzlies

Age: 32

G: 49

GS: 4

MPG: 18.6

Stat Line: 7.6 ppg, 3.2 ast, .503 FG%, 16.9 PER

Udrih has struggled from three this season, but he’s been on fire in the midrange, punishing teams with elbow jumpers as he runs a devastatingly effective and underrated pick and roll.  Despite being the only real PG on the Grizzlies behind Mike Conley, Udrih is overlooked as a sixth man (now seventh man after the arrival of Jeff Green).  Beno just might be the most underappreciated player on the most underappreciated team in the league.

J.J. Barea, Dallas Mavericks

Age: 30

G: 52

GS: 6

MPG: 16.9

Stat Line: 7.3 ppg, 3.3 ast, 15.5 PER

An important cog in the Mavericks 2011 championship run, J.J. Barea spent the last three years coming off the bench for the Timberwolves.  Now back with the Mavericks, Barea continues to provide a scoring spark vital to the success of Dallas’s bench unit.  Dallas has started 5 different point guards this season, and according to efficiency statistics, Barea has been the best of all of them, including Rajon Rondo.

 photos.cleveland.com

photos.cleveland.com

SG – Alonzo Gee, Denver Nuggets

Age: 27

G: 39

GS: 0

MPG: 13.1

Stat Line: 5 ppg, .482/.417/.738 shooting, .7 stl, 14.0 PER, 27 Dunks

Alonzo Gee is the most underrated in-game dunker in the NBA.  Playing only 13 minutes a game, Gee has racked up 27 dunks.   That’s more total dunks than James Harden, the league’s best shooting guard and leading scorer, and more dunks per minute than Blake Griffin.  Gee goes more recklessly and aggressively for the hoop than any other backcourt reserve in the league, using his impressive strength and freakish jumping ability to dunk every ball in sight.  He was a fan favorite in Cleveland for his highlight-reel plays, and he started all 82 games for the Cavs during the 2012-13 season, but he never gained much popularity throughout the league.  Gee was traded three times this offseason before being waived by the Kings, and signed with Denver for the league minimum.  The Nuggets are perhaps the deepest team in the league at the wings, and Gee’s opportunities have been limited.  However, in his time on the court, Gee has flashed new shooting efficiency while continuing to play physical and hard-nosed ball.  Gee is one of the most exciting players in the league, it’s time he got some credit for it.

Honorable Mentions:

Anthony Morrow, Oklahoma City Thunder

Age: 29

G: 41

GS: 0

MPG: 24.3

Stat Line: 9.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.5 3-pointers per game, .430/.378/.868 shooting

Morrow came to OKC to be a 3-point specialist, and while his shooting splits have dropped slightly this season, that’s because of the increased role he was given in the absence of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  Now that the Thunder are healthy, expect Morrow’s percentages to rise while his volume of 3-pointers stays the same.  Morrow is an elite shooting specialist, and that should not go overlooked.

Justin Holiday, Golden State Warriors

Age: 25

G: 32

GS: 0

MPG: 11.1

Stat Line: 4.4 ppg, .7 stl, 12.5 PER

He’s not just Jrue’s older, lesser-known brother.  In only his second NBA season at age 25, Justin Holiday has worked his way into a Golden State rotation that really has little need for him.  The Warriors are stacked in the backcourt, but Holiday has still earned his minutes by capitalizing on opportunities.  He started the season scorching the nets from three, and while he’s since slowed down from behind the arc, he’s proven himself a capable 3 and D player off the bench.  

SF – Rasual Butler, Washington Wizards

Age: 35

G: 45

GS: 0

MPG: 21.2

Stat Line: 8.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, .464/.439/.780 shooting, 1.4 3-pointers per game

Two seasons ago, Rasual Butler was out of the league.  Now, he’s averaging over 20 minutes per game for the first time since he was 30 and playing for the Clippers.  A career journeyman, Butler’s 3-point shooting has steadily improved over the last few seasons, and this year’s increase in volume has shown that improvement is no aberration.   He’s ranked 6th among all qualified players from behind the arc.  At 35, Butler also has a surprising amount of lift and athleticism left, and he’s playing an important role for a Wizards team hunting for a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference.  Butler has had a number of big games this season, scoring 23 points in Washington’s shellacking of the Heat, and drilling 6 3-pointers against Boston on December 7th.  Butler is a cool head and a wily veteran, and he and Paul Pierce form the fiercest over-35 wing combo in the league (in fact the only one).  The most amazing part might be that this, Butler’s twelfth year in the league, has been his very best.  That doesn’t happen often.

Honorable Mentions:

Jared Dudley, Milwaukee Bucks

Age: 29

G: 51

GS: 16

MPG: 23.4

Stat Line: 7.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .498/.421/.706 shooting, 1.2 3-pointers per game

Jared Dudley was traded for peanuts last summer, and Clippers fans were glad to be rid of him.  Dudley responded by rounding back into form for the surprisingly effective Milwaukee Bucks.  Dudley is averaging a career high in win shares per 48, and capped it off by becoming the first player in NBA history to shoot a perfect 10 for 10 from the field while taking at least 3 3-pointers.

CJ Miles, Indiana Pacers

Age: 27

G: 41

GS: 12

MPG: 25.0

Stat Line: 12.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .9 stl, 12.3 PER

CJ Miles is a streaky shooter, yes, but by golly he can get results.  His shooting splits have lagged this season due to an uptick in volume in the absence of Paul George, but he scores in bunches and converts 62.1% of his shots at the rim.  He’s been a big game player this season, topping 20 points eight times and 25 four times.  His gems this season include a 30 point, 7 three-pointer outburst against the Clippers, and a 28 point, 6 rebound outing in a win against Minnesota.

 news.hiphopearly.com

news.hiphopearly.com

PF – Marreese Speights, Golden State Warriors

Age: 27

G: 43

GS: 9

MPG: 18.4 mpg

Stat Line: 12.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .6 blk, .505 FG%, .813 FT%, 20.2 PER

Averaging over 12 points in only 18 minutes per game is no small feat.  In fact, besides Mo Speights, nobody else in the league is averaging even 10 points while playing less than 20 minutes per contest.  In scoring per 36 minutes, Speights ranks 10th in the league among qualified players, above Dwayne Wade, Lamarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and a myriad of other league stars.  Unafraid to take shots, and the foundation of the Warriors’ bench scoring, Speights also boasts the 16th highest usage percentage in the league, taking 26 shots for every 100 possessions he’s on the floor.  But despite this high volume, Speights has been making those field goals at the highest rate of his career, including shooting 63.9% at the rim and 46.5% on his mid-range jumpers.  With injuries in Golden State’s frontcourt to Andrew Bogut and David Lee, Speights’s low-post scoring has been absolutely essential to the Warrior’s success this season.  Speights has put up some dominant games this season: 28 points in a five-point win against OKC; 26 points and 8 rebounds in a win over the Raptors; and most impressively, 27 points in just 23 minutes against the Hornets, including 16 points in the 4th quarter, overcoming a 6 point deficit to end the Hornets’ upset bid.  Right now, there is no better pick and pop/pick and roll reserve in the league.  Speights has garnered some attention for Sixth Man of the Year due to his ultra-efficient contributions, but the truth is Speights isn’t even a sixth man; when the Warriors are healthy, he’s the 7th or 8th man in the rotation, and that will inevitably prevent Speights from getting his due.

Honorable Mentions:

Patrick Patterson, Toronto Raptors

Age: 25

G: 52

GS: 3

MPG: 26.5

Stat Line: 8.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.8 ast, .476/.413/.789 shooting, 16.0 PER, 1.4 3-pointers per game

A few seasons ago, Patterson started taking threes.  This was smart.  While Patterson has soft hands and a strong body, his ceiling was limited, that is until he started shooting more jump shots.  Patterson’s volume of threes has skyrocketed this season (he’d never taken half as many threes as twos; this year he’s taking more threes than twos), and yet he’s posting the best percentage from behind the arc in his career.  Patterson has turned into one of the most dangerous stretch-4’s in the league, and nobody is noticing outside of Canada.  At only 25, and still improving, Patterson is the one player on this list with a strong chance of escaping it.

Carl Landry, Sacramento Kings

Age: 31

G: 45

GS: 0

MPG: 18.0

Stat Line: 7.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, .522 FG%, .832 FT%, 15.9 PER

This, Landry’s 8th season in the league, marks the 8th time he’s shot over 50% from the field.  That’s impressive.  Landry is a wily veteran who is a bully in the post with a soft mid-range jumper.  He has always been an extremely useful and productive player, but he’s never been a truly featured scorer, despite the fact that he has that ability.  He’s a fantastic bench big, likely the coolest head on the Kings, and a veteran leader in the locker room.

 youtube.com

youtube.com

C – Alexis Ajinca, New Orleans Pelicans

Age: 26

G: 38

GS: 5

MPG: 12.2

Stat Line: 5.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, .7 blk, .583 FG%, .771 FT%, 19.7 PER

Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Jusuf Nurkic.  These young bigs have set the league on fire, gaining national exposure for their breakout performances.  All the while, Alexis Ajinca keeps churning out 12 minute gems, and no one is noticing.  The 7’1” Frenchman hasn’t had as many opportunities as those other three, but he’s capitalized on each and every one, shooting 100% from the field 8 times so far this season.

Stronger than his spindly frame would suggest, Ajinca has a fantastically soft touch around the rim.  He can shoot jump hooks and fade away leaners, using his height and massive 7’9” wingspan to get his shot off over just about anyone.  He’s also a career 77.8% free throw shooter, a rare skill for a raw 7-footer.  He promises to become a solid mid-range, pick and pop shooter as well, making 62% of his looks between 10-16 feet, with signs of life from beyond that distance as well.

Ajinca isn’t a great defender, but with his natural assets he’s still above average.  He blocks 2 shots per 36 minutes, and is fouling less than he did last year.  He’s also a strong rebounder, corralling 12.5 boards per 36 minutes, good for 13th in the league.

Ajinca is stuck in a deep frontcourt rotation behind Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, and Ryan Anderson, but he shouldn’t be overlooked.  When Davis was out against the Clippers, Ajinca played 24 minutes and went off for 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks; the Pelicans won.  When Davis was out against the Raptors, Ajinca shot 10 of 13 from the field, scoring 22 points to go with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and a block; the Pelicans won.  Is there a pattern here? Maybe.  Is there a lesson to be learned? Absolutely.  Give Ajinca more touches. 

Honorable Mentions:

Cole Aldrich, New York Knicks

Age: 26

G: 35

GS: 12

MPG: 15.7

Stat Line: 5.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, .8 blk, .485 FG%, 15.7 PER

A seemingly forgettable piece on a please-let-us-be-forgotten Knicks team, nobody notices Cole Aldrich much.  But Aldrich is one of only three Knicks with an above average PER (along with Melo and Amar’e).  Aldrich didn’t play much at the start of the season, and he’s not playing much now, but from mid-December to early January, Aldrich posted several double-doubles, including an 18 point, 7 rebound, 2 block effort against Sacramento and a 12 point, 19 rebound effort against Portland on back-to-back nights.

Aron Baynes, San Antonio Spurs

Age: 28

G: 42

GS: 6

MPG: 15.1

Stat Line: 6.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, .556 FG%, .836 FT%, 14.6 PER

Aron Baynes worked his way into the league at age 26, and is in only his third NBA season.  He’s already played more minutes this season than in his first two seasons combined.  And despite this uptick in volume, Baynes’s efficiency has increased.  Baynes shoots well from the midrange, but mostly sticks around the restricted area, playing his role in Popovich’s schemes as well as any player on the Spurs.  With Tiago Splitter’s injuries this season, Baynes' productivity has been key in getting rest for Tim Duncan.

6th Man – James Johnson, Toronto Raptors

Age: 27

G: 43

GS: 8

MPG: 20.3

Stat Line: 8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1 blk, .7 stl, .610 FG%, 18.3 PER, 36 Dunks

James Johnson is a beast. He dunks on people regularly—people who aren’t used to being dunked on.  But James Johnson is more than just a highlight reel finisher, he’s a beast on the less glamorous end of the court as well.  Johnson has 12 games with at least two blocks, impressive for a combo forward who only plays 20 minutes a game.  The Raptors match him up on opponent's toughest forward, whether that’s on the wing or in the paint, and Johnson is more than up to the task.  He’s immensely strong and plays physical defense, but moves well laterally and has lightning quick hands.  Without him, the Raptors would have had a much harder time dealing with the loss of DeMar DeRozan, but instead they held their place at second in the Eastern Conference.  His high points this season include 19 points and 7 rebounds against the Kings, and a 16 point, 5 rebound, 4 block, 4 steal outing against the Bulls.  In his most recent game, Johnson scored a game high 20 points with 4 rebounds in a narrow win over the Spurs, including scoring the clinching buckets (oh, and helped hold Kawhi Leonard to 11 points on 5 of 17 shooting).

Honorable Mention:

Brandon Bass, Boston Celtics

Age: 29

G: 50

GS: 11

MPG: 20.8

Stat Line: 9.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.1 ast, .476 FG%, 15.7 PER

Looking at Brandon Bass’ per 36 numbers over his ten-year career, one sees a model of consistency.  He’s a deadly shooter from midrange, finishes strong at the rim, and rebounds in a respectable volume.  Bass has been on some very good teams, and some very bad teams, but has continuously posted above-average efficiency marks no matter the state of his team.  Though his minutes were sparse at the start of the season, Bass’s efficiency and the trade of Jeff Green have pushed him further up in the rotation.  With the bump in playing time, Bass has scored in double figures in 12 of Boston’s last 15 games.  This could also be Danny Ainge trying to make Bass an attractive trade target, which he absolutely should be.