With the NBA now in full swing and the All-Star Game creeping in on us, it’s time to take a look at some of the players around the league that are flying under the radar. There are guys like Kobe Bryant, who is having a career-worst season on an awful Lakers team, yet will still most likely be voted in as a starter in the popularity contest we call the All-Star Game. Then there are these guys who have been quietly putting up great numbers that have led to wins, but simply get no love.
*We will be doing this All-Star style, 2 guards, 3 frontcourt.
Mike Conley Jr. – Guard – Memphis Grizzlies
Conley has been great for years now, yet still doesn’t get enough love. His Grizzlies currently have the third-best record in the Western Conference and are going to be a major threat to win the whole thing due to their stubborn defensive play. He is averaging 18.3 points, 6.0 assists, 3.1 rebounds, and has a PER of 20.93. Most impressively, Conley turns the ball over just 2.2 times per game and his shooting percentages are up across the board. This could be the last season that we see Conley on this list, as he is slowly but surely finally getting his due respect – but still not quite enough for my liking.
Kyle Lowry – Guard – Toronto Raptors
I’ll go on the record right now and say that most people don’t know just how good Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors really are. Actually, neither do I. Not because I don’t watch them, but because I don’t trust them. Regardless, Kyle Lowry is having a phenomenal season and should be a starter in the All-Star Game…but he won’t be. 20.7 points, 7.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds, a miniscule 2.3 turnovers per game (Toronto has the second least amount of turnovers in the league), a 24.50 PER, and his team has the best record in the East. He has simply dominated his opponents thus far and is coming off of 34, 25, 30, and 25-point performances against Derek Rose, Chris Paul, Ty Lawson, and Damian Lillard, respectively. He’s running with the elites now.
Trevor Ariza – Forward – Houston Rockets
Heading into the offseason, the Houston Rockets were coming off of a disappointing first-round exit in the playoffs and looking to make a big splash in free agency. LeBron James was a long shot, they went hard and swung and missed at Carmelo Anthony, and they nearly landed Chris Bosh, only to have their feelings hurt. But what was even worse is that they lost Chandler Parsons to their rival Dallas Mavericks. Houston went from almost having a top tier team in the league to being worse off than before. Enter the free-agent signing of Trevor Ariza. His 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds do not do him the justice that he deserves. His perimeter defense and unselfish play are a perfect compliment to James Harden, Patrick Beverley, and Dwight Howard. As well as a reminder of the kind of player he was alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol during his stint with the Lakers. When the Rockets signed Ariza a second time around, I thought it was a desperately bad signing of a “contract year” kind of player who already had fooled Houston once before. But what do I know? The Rockets are currently fourth in the Western Conference.
Draymond Green – Forward – Golden State Warriors
I have written so much about Draymond Green over the course of his young career, but I had no idea he would blossom so quickly into (dare I say) the Warriors second most important player. Green has turned into an extremely valuable Swiss Army Knife that you can depend on for the survival of you and your loved ones. He does everything necessary to win at all costs. Literally, everything. The third-year Spartan turned Warrior is averaging 12 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 blocks, and has raised his field goal percentage from .327% to .442% since his rookie season. If it wasn’t for the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, he would be winning Most Improved Player Award this season. But how about Defensive Player of the Year instead? I don’t see many 6’7″ “power forwards” successfully defending Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph for significant amounts of time. Speaking of defense, still looking for that Kevin Love trade, Warriors fans? I have my doubts.
Paul Millsap – Forward – Atlanta Hawks
The big man combo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford have propelled the Atlanta Hawks to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Lead by former Spurs assistant (1996-2013) Mike Budenholzer, their steady, unselfish play has people calling them the Spurs of the East. I don’t know if I would go that far, but it is a nice compliment. Millsap had a big season last year and was rewarded with his first All-Star nod. While his numbers sky rocketed due to the absence of Al Horford, he is still having a major impact on a winning team this season and deserves the recognition. He is averaging 16.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.2 steals as the Hawks are starting to open people’s eyes.
Jeff Teague – Guard – Atlanta Hawks
Speaking of the Hawks, Jeff Teague’s game has evolved into yet another stellar point guard in the league. He’s averaging 16.9 points, 7.0 assists, 2.7 rebounds, and has a PER of 21.57. Teague is shooting an efficient 48% from the field, well above his career average. The Hawks have become a much more well rounded team than those of the past – and with a far lower salary. GM Danny Ferry has done a tremendous job dumping bad contracts and signing the right role players. No surprise, Ferry won a title with the Spurs as a player and is their former VP of Operations. Like I was saying, the Hawks are becoming the Spurs of the East – allegedly.
Graduating From Underrated to All-Star:
Jimmy Butler – Swingman – Chicago Bulls
Jimmy Butler is quite possibly the best player out of the above list and should be starting in the NBA All-Star Game, and it appears that he is turning into everyone’s favorite new player. He is skipping the “underrated” level and jumping right to All-Star. In a way, he has kind of filled the void that Paul George‘s gross leg injury left over at the small forward position in the Eastern Conference. He’s an incredible athlete, a stingy perimeter defender, and is quietly leading his team to a great regular season. Not to mention becoming a human highlight reel process. His per game averages of 21.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, .481% shooting, and a 22.17 PER will make him an All-Star this season. Move over Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler is the Eastern Conference’s new starting shooting guard. Crazy, I always thought it would be Bradley Beal.
Klay Thompson – Guard – Golden State Warriors
Speaking of emerging shooting guards, Klay Thompson is arguably the best at his position in the West now that Kobe is washed up. Beyond his averages of 21.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.2 assists, it’s his all-around defense and deadly shooting that have propelled Thompson’s game. This year it has been apparent that Thompson has learned from Steph Curry, and Curry has in return learned from Thompson. Klay is much more aggressive than he was in the past, but also in more control. As for Curry, his defense has stepped up and he currently leads the league in steals with 2.1 per game. Playing for Team USA under Coach Krzyzewski has really helped both of them, as well as many other players around the league. The emergence of both Thompson and Draymond Green along with the Superstardom of Curry have the Warriors out to the best record in the league. Because of that, the Warriors deserve two All-Stars to represent them.
Graduating from All-Star to Superstar:
John Wall – Guard – Washington Wizards
On Christmas Day I watched just about every minute of every game as I casually sipped Grey Goose. What I learned from that day is that John Wall has become one of the best players in the league. I was easily more impressed by his play than anything else that I saw. Coming into the league I knew that Wall was obviously talented and a winner, but I didn’t know if his game would translate over to the NBA – especially without a jump shot. But through hard work Wall is now a premier point guard in the league and has reached Superstar level. He is averaging 17.4 points, 10.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds, with a PER of 20.89. Over his last 10 games he has really stepped up his play and his shooting 50%. Yet another great player that prospered from Coach K. and Team USA. Wall is currently the leading vote-getter in the Eastern Conference’s backcourt and his Wizards have the third-best record in the East.
Follow Rich Peters on Twitter @Tricky_Roma.