By Rob Mahoney
By this point in the season, we know the major players and the most dangerous teams, and far too often leave the less prominent contending cast members and the brighter spots on downtrodden squads stuck in the margins. But today we cast a light on five players who are doing good work without much notice:
J.J. Redick, Orlando Magic
The Magic's best player has been widely overlooked by virtue of being the Magic's best player, but a trade-deadline relocation could put public regard of Redick in the proper focus. Basketball fans at large appreciate Redick as a catch-and-shoot gunner, and while that element of his game is indeed valuable, it's only the beginning of his much wider skill set.
Redick has evolved into a remarkably solid all-around player during his six-and-a-half seasons, with the most dramatic improvements coming in the 28-year-old's now-dependable pick-and-roll play. He does fine work on high ball screens and side ball screens alike, and can attack from all angles because of his ability to work off the dribble securely with both hands. He's not good enough to create off the bounce full time, but he's a fantastic, sweet-shooting supplement for any team in need of versatile guard play, and Redick should be even more useful in the context of a more talented roster.
Beyond that, Redick does a terrific job of staying in front of his man on defense and uses his hands to control driving lanes and stay within contesting range. He doesn't have the speed to stick with every mark, but his footwork is tight enough to deny favorable angles to more dangerous opponents. He's also proved to be an effective funnel for a team with a quality shot blocker in the past, making him that much more valuable to a potential suitor should the Magic look to trade him as rumored.
Oh, and that catch-and-shoot work? It's as good as advertised. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Redick is making an impressive 45.5 percent of his spot-up three-point tries and 46.3 percent of his threes in transition. He'll space the floor, he'll work off the bounce, he won't give up ground defensively ... what can't Redick do?
The undrafted, 6-foot-7 power forward is all hustle. His offensive game is unrefined, but he's the type to capitalize on a pick-and-roll gone wrong, squeeze through a put-back attempt off an offensive rebound or be in prime position when a teammate creates a turnover. He has that unteachable knack for being in the right place when the game turns chaotic, and often he's the beneficiary of those fringe buckets found as a result of broken fast breaks or botched play action.
Part of the reason for that is Adrien's rebounding focus, an orientation that largely gets him moving toward the rim as an offensive sequence develops. As a result of his board-seeking nature, Adrien is never really caught out of position. His limited game and lack of size can get him into trouble at times, but he's generally found within a few hard dribbles of the rim and understands how to make an impact with his hustle without getting in the way of the play action. That in itself is an underrated skill; it can be difficult for a midseason addition to know where to be in breakdown situations (he's played just 20 games with the Bobcats after starting the season in the D-League, but Adrien's instincts have given him some instant chemistry to fuel his per-minute productivity.
Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls
No name on this list carries with it more baggage. The 5-9 Robinson, 28, has a reputation of being a showman first and ball player second, and there's a certain flair to his game that no coach -- not even the all-business Tom Thibodeau -- has been able to extinguish in seven-plus seasons. His shot selection is suspect, his intended moves can be too audacious and his defense is mitigated by both his technique and his height. But Robinson has proved to be a hugely valuable offensive player for the Bulls this season, as evidenced by his team-best 18.7 points per 36 minutes and newfound title of Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
Robinson, who is hitting 43.5 percent from the field (his career high is 43.7 percent) and 39.4 percent from three-point range (his career high is 39.7 percent), is an impressive off-the-dribble shooter and does a great job of leveraging his height to create shots. He knows just how much hesitation might cause a larger opponent to bite, and defenders are often far too willing to chase blocks on Robinson's attempts because of his low release point.
But as has generally been the case throughout Robinson's career, his most valuable contributions come when a team takes the ball out of his hands. The Bulls have a trio of smart passing big men in Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, and it's through their play at the elbows that Robinson is afforded the chance to curl and cut for open jumpers. The feeds to Robinson don't always lead directly to a shot attempt, but by catching the ball with a head of steam and typically with his defender trailing, Robinson is able to create far better shots for himself and his teammates. There's nothing wrong with a ball-handler who needs a little structural help to get going, and Robinson makes for an incredibly useful shot creator once the Bulls get him running into open space.
Ed Davis, Memphis Grizzlies
Every Raptor seemed to benefit from the absence of Andrea Bargnani, but none more so than Davis, the 13th pick in the 2010 draft. In Bargnani's vacated role, the third-year big man had posted season averages of 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per 36 minutes -- enough to intrigue the Grizzlies and earn Davis a place in the three-team deal that landed Rudy Gay in Toronto. Memphis, which features Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur up front, won't be able to offer Davis a lot of immediate playing time, but the Grizzlies no doubt value his potential to produce quickly and improve dramatically. Davis, 23, isn't just insurance against another injury for Arthur; he's a valuable asset, an emerging big man who is already quite versatile despite his slim frame.
Of particular interest to the Grizzlies should be Davis' post work, a place where his long arms and lefty finishes have been good for consistent makes this season. Davis doesn't have much to work with in actually backing down opponents, but he manages to maneuver himself into scoring position quite often and has great body control on his release. Many of Davis' attempts appear to be horribly off-balance, but he accounts for his contortions well and finishes softly nonetheless. He knows his limitations and has enough weapons to circumvent matchup trouble against bigger opponents.
Davis has a decent mid-range game, is an improved passer and figures to work well off any of Memphis' big men. He has shades of Arthur in his play, but has a ways to go before he can defend on Arthur's level. Davis doesn't project as a star and needs more time and instruction to really flesh out his game, but he already -- and unexpectedly, given his shaky play in years past -- looks the part of a solid third big man and stands to learn plenty from the Grizzlies' multiskilled bigs.
Johnson is more flexible than he's often given credit for, beginning with the fact that he's experimented more with a mid-range jumper this season, his eighth in the NBA. There was a point not too long ago where the 6-9 Johnson wouldn't even look at the rim after making a catch at 18 feet, but now he at least considers shooting (he makes 35.8 percent of his mid-range tries, which isn't bad in his case). It's not exactly a weapon, but it's indicative of the ways in which the 25-year-old former second-round pick -- who began his career as a utility rebounder -- is pushing out the boundaries of his game.
The far more successful enterprise, however, has come in Johnson's widening his value as a finisher. Many big men complete plays easily enough when rolling through open space, but adding a defender or two severely complicates their process. Johnson was no different, though in recent years he's found ways to continue his roll, avoid offensive fouls and manage a reasonable shot at the basket. He's still a bit reckless and charges too often (Johnson averages 5.1 personal fouls per 36 minutes), but he's getting better at reading those situations and already looks far more comfortable in doing so. Johnson has incorporated some dribbles and spins to give himself more room to work with, and, as a result, he has been finishing his rolls to the basket at a perfectly respectable rate of 0.97 points per play, according to Synergy Sports Technology.
Johnson hasn't been outstanding defensively, but he's so much better than every other Raptors big man that his shortcomings are completely tolerable by comparison. His most valuable attribute is his lateral speed, as he's capable of hedging and recovering in the pick-and-roll without too much trouble, but his shot-challenging leaves a little to be desired and he tends to arrive a bit late when rotating in help. Johnson still grades out as a pretty good defender, though, and he's pretty sound across the board considering his average rebounding numbers. There's nothing all that spectacular in his game, but a decent all-around big man who's cutting down on his weaknesses is a valuable piece to have around. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.