As NBA fans, we’re often quick to bash a player if we think they are underachieving or if they just irk our souls. When you see these guys that are multi-millionaires playing with less than stellar effort, making questionable decisions on and off the court or just having an off-night; its easy to criticize and we are entitled to that as fans who love the game. I have no problem “going in” on a favorite player or team of mine if I don’t like how they are playing. Having said that, this article is going in the opposite direction. I want to give props and due respect to 5 particular players whom are either unheralded or underappreciated in the grand scheme of things. Some of it may be lack of exposure to their games as a couple of these guys are up and coming players, some of it is players who we are quite familiar with but take for granted. We complain about their shortcomings while not acknowledging their contributions to their squads as their respective teams would be much worse if they were not playing.
All Underappreciated Team
Point Guard – Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook is the most critiqued player in the NBA west of South Beach. His supporters recognize that he needs to be an aggressive scorer in order for Oklahoma City to be at their best. On the other hand, his naysayers believe he needs to defer more to superstar teammate Kevin Durant. What his detractors don’t seem to understand is that Durant himself wants Russ to be an aggressor and look for his shot. They also don’t grasp the fact that Oklahoma City is at their worst when Kevin Durant has a higher usage rate in games than Russell Westbrook. According to advanced stats gurus Alok Pattani and Dean Oliver from ESPN, the Thunder are 38-11 with an average of 108.8 points per 100 posessions when Russell Westbrook has a higher usage rate. When Kevin Durant has a higher usage rate however, Oklahoma City is 22-12 and their average points per 100 possessions dips to 106.3, still a very efficient offense but proof enough that the Thunder are at their best when Westbrook is taking the majority of the shots.
As far as how he plays the point guard position, Russ will never be John Stockton or Magic Johnson who were perennial assists leaders in their heyday and that much has been established. Then again, Westbrook did not play point until his rookie year and it is not his natural position. As far as his positives are concerned, his freakish athleticism, yearly improvement and his youth (he will be 24 in November) are on his side. He is a 2-time All-NBA second team member and the sky is the limit for the guy, people just need to get off his back and let him play his game.
Honorable Mention – Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Shooting Guard – Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
For Golden State’s blatant tank job they committed after the All-Star break, one positive did occur in regards to the Warriors future and that is the emergence of Klay Thompson. It shouldn’t be surprising that he can play considering he has NBA lineage in his family, he is the son of former #1 overall draft pick Mychal Thompson who had a productive 13 year career playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers. Thompson falls more in the unheralded category as he is only about to enter his second year as a pro but he has immediately made his presence known. In 29 games as a starter for the Warriors, Klay averaged 18.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3 assists in 33 minutes per game. In addition, he is a threat from long distance as he shot 41.4 percent from 3. Truth be told it defies logic how he was not a participant in the 2012 All-Star Weekend 3-Point Contest (he was shooting an insane 50% from 3 point range prior to the All-Star Break). Either way, with a revamped squad including a hopefully healthy Andrew Bogut and rookie Harrison Barnes the future is looking good in Golden State and I suggest you watch this video to get familiar with Mr. Thompson as he should be a name we will be accustomed to hearing for a long time
Honorable Mention – Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
Small Forward – Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers
Maybe its because I’ve been around a bunch of Philadelphians but the overwhelming majority of the ones I have come across cannot stand Andre Iguodala. Furthermore his name is always circulating in trade rumors. I never understood why either, he isn’t a great scorer but is an elite lockdown defender who is consistently matched up against the other team’s best player on a nightly basis, creates plays for others as he has averaged close to 5 assists a game throughout his career and plays a well-rounded game, only Lebron James had more triple-doubles in the 2010-2011 season. Andre Iguodala is a big time player as evidenced by his selection to the Eastern Conference All-Star and 2012 US Olympic teams. You can argue that a guy who has never averaged 20 points a game throughout his career making 80 million in his contract may be ridiculous but even that is short-sighted. If he is the best player on your team, you may have problems but as a complementary player Andre Iguodala is a guy you can absolutely win with if he is on your side. Short of getting a bonafide superstar, the Sixers would be making a huge mistake if they trade Iguodala.
Honorable Mention – Shawn Marion, Dallas Mavericks
Power Forward – Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
I’m not going to lie, I do get incredibly frustrated with Pau at times because he does get in his own head. The rumors surrounding his relationship with his fiancee during the 2011 NBA Playoffs were a huge distraction and his game suffered tremendously as a result. Although Gasol had a solid season in 2012, averaging 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game, Pau was clearly distracted by trade rumors surrounding him in Lakerland. In his defense however, Mike Brown frequently had Pau in the high post in an attempt to give Andrew Bynum an expanded role in the offense and it was a difficult transition being relegated to the 3rd option offensively.
The positives far outweigh the negatives with Pau Gasol however, to put things into perspective as to how great Gasol has been as a Laker it took them two full seasons since Gasol got to Los Angeles in February 2008 for the Lakers to have a three-game losing streak. Gasol’s basketball IQ is out of this world and he is the perfect complementary player to play alongside Kobe Bryant, a guy talented to take over games if needed but knows his role in the general scheme of the Lakers offense. When a season like 2012 is considered to be average or subpar, you know you are an incredible basketball player. Gasol was the piece to put the Lakers over the top in 2009 where he outplayed Dwight Howard in the NBA Finals and again in 2010 where his Game 7 performance against the Boston Celtics (19 points, 18 rebounds, 2 blocks) led to the Lakers winning 2 championships. It still amazes me how fans take Pau Gasol for granted, he is amazingly skilled in the post, a tremendous passer, a solid defensive player and has had plenty of big game moments. With the addition of one of our generations best point guards in Steve Nash to make the game easier on all of the players in Purple and Gold, expect Gasol to have a great 2012-2013 season and be an important cog in the Los Angeles Lakers championship aspirations.
Honorable Mention – Kris Humphries, Brooklyn Nets
Center – Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons
Monroe comes from a pedigree of great Georgetown big men, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Roy Hibbert and has not disappointed in his 2 seasons in the NBA as the 7th overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. For his 2011-2012 season, Monroe averaged 15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists while only playing a little over 31 minutes a game for the Detroit Pistons. Expect these numbers to improve in 2012-2013 as he should assume a bigger role in the Pistons offense. Monroe also proved to be an efficient scorer as he shot 52.1 percent from the field and unlike most big men is a decent free throw shooter, shooting almost 74 percent from the stripe. Monroe’s skill set at the age of 22 is already impressive, he has an array of moves down on the block and is capable of hitting mid-range jumpers from 15-18 feet in addition to being a very good passer. If controversial draft pick Andre Drummond pans out, a nucleus of Drummond, Monroe, Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey has the potential to make serious noise in the Motor City.
Honorable Mention – Marcin Gortat, Phoenix Suns