Wednesday March 11th, 2015

The Bucks have surprised the NBA community this season by shattering expectations en route to a winning record. Head coach Jason Kidd and 20-year-old phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo garner most of the praise—and rightly so—but shooting guard Khris Middleton has been a hugely underrated X-factor contributing to the team’s sudden rise.

In fact, it’s not unfair to say that Middleton is actually the single most underrated player in the game today.

Milwaukee’s success to this point has been wholly dependent upon its completely revamped defensive prowess. Even without rim protector extraordinaire Larry Sanders, who opted to call it a career due to personal reasons, the Bucks rank second in the league with a defensive rating of 99.1. Milwaukee finished second-to-last in that category just a season ago by surrendering an ugly 108.9 points per 100 possessions. Only the Warriors (97.4) boast a superior mark this season.

As a perimeter defender who can guard multiple positions, Middleton has been a key piece for Kidd’s team. The stats back that up, as the Bucks are a vastly superior defensive team when he’s on the court versus when he sits.

With the former second-round pick on the floor defending, Bucks opponents post a defensive rating of just 97.6 (compared with a mark of 106.3 when he's on the bench). For the Bucks' opponents, the same scenario plays out in effective field goal percentage, rebound percentage and assist percentage—they’re simply better when Middleton isn’t playing.

Moreover, Middleton is draining 42.6% of his three-pointers and averaging career highs in points, rebounds and steals despite playing fewer minutes on average compared to a season ago. Add in the fact that he’s still just 23 years old and it’s clear the Texas A&M product has become a valuable commodity.

At season’s end, Middleton will become a restricted free agent. Milwaukee will no doubt want to keep him around as the franchise continues to mold a promising future, but he could (and should) garner a hefty pay raise.

And he isn’t the only under-the-radar, soon-to-be free agent. Quite the contrary, as a number of unsung names will be available this summer:

Draymond Green, F, Warriors

At this point, it’s logical to assume Draymond Green has made a dramatic shift from “underrated” to “properly rated” in the eyes of many. He’s staking a strong claim to win the NBA Most Improved Player Award, as his numbers have shown improvements across the board.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will continue to get the most credit for Golden State’s dominance, but Green is the glue guy holding everything together. He can defend multiple positions and stretch the floor with his outside shot. Those skills make him truly invaluable. He’s set for a big payday this summer even though he hasn’t yet earned the “star” label.

Robin Lopez, C, Trail Blazers

Portland’s starting center hasn’t been as solid statistically this season as he has in the past, but he’s still blocking a team-leading 1.6 shots per contest. Additionally, he’s been a terror on the offensive glass. A whopping 48% of his rebounds have given the Blazers a second-chance opportunity.

As a competent 7-footer who’s still relatively young (he’ll turn 27 in April), Lopez is sure to garner plenty of interest from suitors in need of a big body.

Gerald Green, SG, Suns

After reinventing himself as a three-point sharpshooter with the fast-paced Suns throughout 2013-14, Gerald Green has seen his role (and, subsequently, his effectiveness) decline during a disappointing year for Phoenix fans.

As a heat-check shooter off the bench, however, Green still has plenty of value. When his outside shot is falling, he can single-handedly win games. That’s a worthwhile trait to find in the free-agent market.

DeMarre Carroll, SF, Hawks

Four members of the Hawks' starting five were named All-Stars in 2015—Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Kyle Korver. The fifth member, small forward DeMarre Carroll, remains thoroughly underrated despite being a key cog in Atlanta’s system.

His offensive strides may simply be a product of head coach Mike Budenholzer’s brilliance. Still, he’s a steady defender who’s draining threes at an above-average clip from everywhere. If recent NBA trends have shown us anything, it’s that those 3-and-D players are becoming more and more coveted. Carroll will likely benefit in a big way from that trend this offseason.

Ed Davis, PF, Lakers

The Lakers have not played well this season (putting it lightly). Actually, Los Angeles has done a great job tanking for better lottery odds. The one flower in a field of weeds, though, has been 25-year-old former lottery pick Ed Davis.

The youngster out of North Carolina is leading the Lakers with a 19.9 PER. That mark ranks Davis No. 43 in the league, ahead of guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, Goran Dragic and Serge Ibaka.

He has a player-option for next season that would pay him about $1.1 million, but he’s played his way to a much more lucrative salary. Look for Davis to test the free agent waters and find teams willing to nab him as a promising young big man.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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