What does an underrated NBA player look like? Before we answer that question, let’s first define what underrated means. According to the dictionary widget on my laptop, it’s to “underestimate the extent, value, or importance of (someone or something).”
Related to NBA players, it’s watching someone play and not realizing how good he is. It’s rarely bringing their name up in conversation when other, equally/lesser productive players, are dancing on our tongues and endlessly touring NBA Twitter.
How does one even become underrated? What’s the evaluation process look like, and what are some similar characteristics most underrated players share? Here are a few rules:
1) They can’t be too flashy.
Underrated players don’t have people compiling highlight reels of their best plays, publishing them on Youtube, then feverishly e-mailing them to old college friends as a way to stay in touch.
They don’t wow you with athleticism or ever “look” like the best player on the court. They plod instead of gallop, and are overlooked more than noticed.
They don’t nutmeg opponents or throw down vicious alley-oops. They play basketball in a fundamentally productive way, hardly ever take risks, and rarely make noticeable mistakes.
2) They contribute much more away from the ball than with it.
Your typical NBA fan has yet to properly balance the value a basketball player holds on both sides of the court. This isn’t anyone’s fault, as a proper defensive rotation will always be harder to notice than someone shooting a ball into a hoop. But both are of humongous importance.
Offense will always be the more popular half because it’s at the center of everything. Defense is played to get to offense. But offense is not played to get to defense—it’s played for scoring. Both teams desperately want the ball, but only one can hold it at a time.
Players who’re eventually commended with the “underrated” label do things that go unnoticed. They might possess a deadly stroke from 15-feet that prevents defenses from leaving them open during a pick-and-roll. Or maybe they set the best screens, find open space like a slot receiver, or obliterate opponents with one of the most technically sound box out techniques ever seen.
3) They don’t play in a large market or for a playoff team
This one is self-explanatory, even at the superstar level. Carmelo Anthony receives more attention in New York than he did in Denver. Chris Paul receives more attention in Los Angeles than he did in New Orleans. Deron Williams receives more attention in Brooklyn than he did in Utah. Kevin Garnett receives more attention in Boston than he did in Minnesota. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have never received enough attention. Marc Gasol wasn’t an All-Star this season despite the fact he’ll probably end up first-team All-NBA.
It trickles down from the superstar level to everyone else. If Tristan Thompson played for the Lakers or Knicks last year his development would be a real storyline.
4) They don’t make enough money.
Every move Chandler Parsons makes in a positive developmental direction is exponentially more uplifting because of how much money he makes. If he were making $10 million per year, his flaws (ie off-ball defensive breakdowns) would be magnified. Instead, they’re forgiven.
Money and contracts matter, now more so than ever before with the league’s institution of an increasingly harsh luxury tax. Players who take up more cap space than they’re worth will perform under a dark cloud until either they improve enough to balance things out, their contract runs out, or they’re traded.
OK. So, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s look at Omer Asik, one of the NBA’s most underrated players. All he did this year was grab more rebounds than anybody else, play 30 consistent minutes a night without missing a single game all year (he’s yet to miss a game in his career!), and become the second most important player on one of the youngest playoff teams in NBA history. That’s all.
Asik’s resume fits perfectly under three of the four qualifications I’ve listed for being an underrated player. The only one that doesn’t quite fit is the third. (Asik plays in Houston, which isn’t a small market by any means, and he’s yet to miss the postseason since entering the league in 2010.)
His impact on the defensive end has been better than even Daryl Morey could’ve expected, with Asik already establishing himself as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his first season playing starter’s minutes.
Houston allowed 107.0 points per 100 possessions when Asik sat and 101.3 points per 100 possessions when he played this season, a 5.7 point differential that stands as the difference between the league’s 28th ranked defense and its 10th. Decent.
In the first round against Oklahoma City, the Thunder scored a mind-numbing 1.27 points per possession when Asik took a seat, and 1.016 with him on the floor. In other words, Houston’s defense is a consistent force when Asik is on the court (even against an offense possessing the world’s second best player), and a weeping mess when he’s not.
Asik protects the rim, snuffs out ball-handlers looking to turn the corner on pick-and-rolls, and turns into a water buffalo when opposing centers try to post him up.
He has two years left on his deal at roughly $8.3 million per. That contract is awesome for the Rockets, but Asik should be making at least $2 million more per season. It’s undervalued given the market price for NBA tall people, even though most of them signed their deals way before Asik.
Brook Lopez is due $14.7 million next season, Joakim Noah is due $11.1 million, JaVale McGee is making $34 million over the next three seasons, Andrew Bogut is making $14 million next year, DeAndre Jordan is making $22.4 million over the next two years, Tyson Chandler is making $14.1 million next season, and Kendrick Perkins is making roughly $18.5 million over the next two.
To recap, Asik is making less money per game than them all, giving night to night consistency with premium value. He’ll be 27 next season, is still improving offensively—in the post, from the free-throw line, and as a passer after rolling from a windpipe crushing screen—and holds incredible trade value throughout the league thanks to his crucial skill set and below-market contract.
Here’s to an underrated player who won’t be underrated by this time next year.