NBA Difference Makers: Five Undervalued Players

This isn’t a list of players who have developed into well-publicized and well-documented difference makers this season (Draymond Green). It isn’t a list of guys who have captured the media’s attention after coming out of nowhere and blowing the roof off (Hassan Whiteside). This is a list of players who haven’t captured headlines, but their impact on their respective teams has been a subtle and understated variable in their team’s success and playoff aspirations.

Jared Dudley, Milwaukie Bucks

The Clippers gave a protected first round pick to the Bucks just to dump Dudley’s contract this offseason. The move may have been necessary when considering the Clippers had to make moves to stay under the tax apron and still fill out its roster, but that a discussion for another time. This is about Jared Dudley and the boost that he’s given the Bucks that has allowed them to remain comfortably in the East playoff picture[1]. Dudley may have been an afterthought when he was initially traded, but his positional flexibility, efficient shooting and veteran leadership has been invaluable to the young Bucks.

Dudley has spent a lot of time playing as a stretch four this season and despite his lack of size for the position, his heart and toughness defensively have allowed the Bucks to thrive with him in the lineup. His real value as a stretch four is of course his shooting, and Dudley’s numbers are impressive. He’s shooting 46.4 percent on catch and shoots this season[2], a very good number, but his effective field goal percentage of 59.8 is higher than every player averaging more than 4.5 catch-and-shoot PPG except Kyle Korver[3].

It’s not just his shooting, Dudley’s play is having a sizeable impact in all aspects of the game. Consider that the Bucks’ net team rating (points scored subtracted by points allowed per 100 possessions) is 2.9, but with Dudley on the floor that number rises all the way to 8.5 with the team’s defense allowing nearly four fewer points per 100 possessions.

jdud

Dudley’s efficiency and effort has given head coach Jason Kidd a lot of lineup flexibility, something that has been much needed considering Jabari Parker’s season-ending injury, Ersan Ilyasova’s variety of injury issues this season and the mysterious hiatus and overall mind of Larry Sanders.

Donatas Motiejunas, Houston Rockets

DONUTS!!! Motiejunas’ development has been crucial to Houston keeping pace in the bloodbath that is the West. Not only has he stabilized the PF position that has been a revolving door in Houston since Dwight Howard came to town, but he’s also given the Rockets a post threat in Howard’s injury absence. Motiejunas’ scoring has more than doubled this season jumping from 5.5 PPG last season to 11.6 this season and his rebounding has also improved considerably, 3.6 RPG to 6.2 (2.1 ORPG).

Motiejunas has shown a full display of footwork and post moves on the block that are typically associated with savvy NBA veterans, such as Tim Duncan. Aside from his effectiveness as a block scorer, Motiejunas has displayed a nice touch and a floater near the rim that gives him the ability to compensate for the cramped spacing when sharing the floor with Howard. Also his 3-point shooting, while not great by any means, is good enough at 33 percent to make him a respectable spacing option when Howard is working inside.

donuts

However, the most shocking aspect of Motiejunas’ game may be his defense. He’s certainly not close to Howard defensively[5], but Motiejunas’ opposing field goal percentages have actually been better than Howard’s across the board this season[6] despite defending more effective shooters.

Aaron Brooks, Chicago Bulls

Brooks has resurfaced on the NBA radar after bouncing around the league and playing sparingly the past five seasons. He’s been a consistent off-the bench performer for the Bulls as he’s been one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA this season. The fact that Derrick Rose remains extremely fragile and missed considerable time early in the season has made Brook’s presence in Chicago all the more meaningful. Even with Rose playing on a consistent basis, Brooks has often played as a two guard in crunch time for the Bulls.

Brooks has emerged as a complimentary scorer off the bench averaging 11.2 PPG while shooting an impressive 45.5 percent from three which ranks third in the NBA behind Korver and Courtney Lee. Also his true shooting percentage which accounts for shooting of all types[7], trails only three point other guards who are averaging at least 20 minutes per game (Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Isiah Thomas). Brooks’ shooting has made a clear impact on the potency of the Chicago offense as his offensive rating of 109.8 is nearly five points better than the Bulls’ overall team mark of 105 and a whopping eight points better than when he is off the court entirely.

brooks

However, the Bulls must make a tradeoff when playing Brooks and that tradeoff comes at the defensive end. Brooks’ defensive rating of 104.2 points allowed is the worst mark on the team and the ratings of his fellow brethren that come off the bench are significantly better than Brooks’, so it can’t be attributed to playing alongside lesser defenders. The main problem with Brooks is his size at just six feet tall and 161 pounds. That’s a tough size disadvantage to overcome against point guards and when sharing the court with Rose, one of them has to defend a two guard or wing player. In spite of his defensive struggles, Brooks’ net rating of 5.6 is the best on the team while the Bulls have been just a half point better per 100 possessions with Brooks on the bench this season.

Myers Leonard, Portland Trailblazers

Leonard’s stat line of 5.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 0.3 BPG certainly won’t blow anyone away, but he’s finally developed into a rotational big man capable of providing quality minutes. Leonard’s improved level of play was critical for the Trailblazers during the absence of starting center Robin Lopez who returned to the starting lineup this week. Leonard and Lopez play two vastly different styles, but Leonard’s strengths allowed Portland to stay afloat in the West during Lopez’s absence.

Leonard’s greatest asset is the outside shooting he provides as a stretch five. While stretch fours are becoming a staple of the NBA, stretch fives are still a rare luxury that not many teams possess. Just seven centers have shot 20+ threes this season and Leonard’s 42 percent clip leads the group and is five percentage points better than Chris Bosh, who is second. Also Leonard’s true shooting percentage ranks third in the NBA among centers where he is grouped with diving dunk machines like DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside whose true shooting percentage is bloated by alley-oop dunks and easy putbacks.

leonard

Leonard’s value is as a big man perimeter threat, but he isn’t the same post defender and rim protector that Lopez is. However, opponents are scoring at essentially the same rate when Leonard and Lopez are on the court (94.1 with Lopez, 94.6 with Leonard), and opponents actually have a lower field goal percentage and are grabbing fewer offensive rebounds with Leonard on the court. Leonard has also been slightly better as a primary defender in terms of opponent’s shooting percentage, although the number of shots are nearly half so take those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. This is not to suggest that Leonard has been a better defender than Lopez this season as he is prone to committing fouls. Leonard is averaging 6.8 fouls per 48 minutes, while Lopez is averaging 4.3. Also when Lopez is on the court, opponents are averaging 17.3 FTA compared to 23.8 with Leonard.

Leonard is by no means a better overall option for Portland than Lopez, but that isn’t what it matters here. He was able to deliver this season when the Trailblazers needed him in Lopez’s absence while also proving he is a capable big man deserving of rotational minutes in the playoffs.

Alex Len, Phoenix Suns

Len struggled in limited action as top-five lottery pick last season in 42 games before missing the remainder of the season due to injury. This season, Len has shown steady improvement as the season has progressed and has overtaken Miles Plumlee as the team’s starting center. He is averaging 6.2 PPG, 6 RPG and 1.5 BPG in 20.4 MPG this season, but his numbers have climbed steadily month-by-month to the point that in January, Len was averaging a respectable line of 7.4 PPG on 58.8 percent shooting with 7.6 RPG and 2.2 BPG in 23.6 MPG.

Len’s value really stems from what he provides on the defensive end where his 7-foot-3.5-inch wingspan makes him an effective rim protector and shot blocker. Len hasn’t been an elite rim protector this season, but he has been good enough to boost the Suns’ overall defense. The Suns overall defensive rating is 104.1, but when Len is on the floor it falls to 101.7. Len lacks a sense of awareness and anticipation that is generally developed over time with more game action, and he has also been fouling too much at 7.3 fouls per 48 minutes.

len

Offensively, Len isn’t a standout player, but he does possess a promising jumper and is shooting 67.1 percent less than five feet from the rim. Unlike others bigs such as Jordan or Whiteside, Len’s shooting percentage isn’t just due to converting easy alley-oops and drop-off passes as 37.3 percent of his close range field goal makes have been unassisted this season showcasing an ability to score in post-up situations.

Len hasn’t been blowing the doors off in Phoenix this season, but he has unleashed some of the promise and upside that made him a top lottery pick. If Len can keep his play at its current level it may just what it needs to hold off the Pelicans and Thunder in the playoff race.

[1] I know it’s the East and Milwaukie’s 27-22 record would have them outside of the playoffs in the West, but still.

[2] Via nba.com

[3] Korver’s effective field goal percentage is 70.7% over 10 percentage points higher than Dudley’s…and he’s taking more shots…and he’s taking more difficult shots. Basically Kyle Kover is an absolutely ridiculous shooter.

[4] Calculated on the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions.

[5] Houston’s defense has a net rating of 97.4 with Howard on the floor compared to 98.6 with Motiejunas. They have played substantial minutes together.

[6] It’s worth noting that Howard challenges many more shots than Motiejunas overall, especially at the rim.

[7] 3-point %, free throw % and field goal %.

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