- While stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry draw headlines, there are always players who excel under-the-radar. So which players should be getting a greater share of praise?
The first 30 games of the 2018-19 season have been dominated by the NBA’s headliners, from LeBron’s first season in Los Angeles to Giannis’ destruction of the East. Durant and Draymond drama controlled the conversation for a solid week, and Kawhi’s rejuvenation north of the border is expected to provide intrigue through the spring.
Yet beneath the surface of the league’s many superstar storylines has been a slate of impressive performances from unexpected sources. The Clippers’ merry band of misfits sits sixth in the West, while in the East Indiana has flown below the radar, riding its supporting cast to the conference’s third best record despite a six-game absence from Victor Oladipo. The stars drive the narrative, but in many cases, the role players have drove the standings.
So which players should be getting a greater share of praise as we head toward midseason? We selected five candidates for The Crossover’s Under-the-Radar Team through 30 games.
Montrezl Harrell, Clippers
The Louisville product worked as a limited-minutes energy booster in 2017-18, attacking the offensive glass with abandon when DeAndre Jordan headed to the bench. Harrell ran the risk of overexposure this season, splitting center duties with Marcin Gortat as the Clippers groom rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Lob City was assumed to be dead, and its replacement projected to be a touch unsightly.
Los Angeles has proved prognosticators wrong thus far, sixth in the West at 17–13 as of Tuesday night. Harrell has been a key cog in the Clippers’ success. A second-round selection in 2015, Harrell is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks. He’s developed a nascent rapport with Gilgeous-Alexander, cramming lobs with abandon on the pick-and-roll. Harrell outplayed DeAndre Jordan as 2017-18 drew to a close. The Clippers haven’t missed the current Mavs center this season.
There are few harder workers on the offensive glass than Harrell. He isn’t deterred by his 6’8” frame. He’s an anticipatory technician, swimming and spinning past defenders to snag extra possessions. His prowess on the offensive glass is reminiscent of Tristan Thompson, although with added burst in place of sheer strength. Often surrounded by a small-ball unit with Danilo Gallinari or Tobias Harris at the four, Harrell has kept Los Angeles’s rebound rate and defense at respectable levels. He’s as low maintenance as a center can get, and a perfect embodiment of the Clippers’ newfound success.
Buddy Hield, Kings
Speaking of newfound success, the Kings have proved to be more than a flash in the pan. They’re tied for eighth in the West at 16–14 as of Tuesday night, reaching 16 victories before Christmas for the first time since 2004-05. A playoff berth would end a streak of sustained futility, 12 years without reaching the postseason. Could a new era of Kings basketball be on the horizon?
If Sacramento’s playoff plans come to fruition, it will be in large part due to Buddy Hield. De’Aaron Fox is the Kings’ engine, but Hield provides crucial added horsepower, launching just under seven threes per game. Hield adds critical stretch when Sacramento doubles down on its bigs, often pairing Willie Cauley-Stein with Marvin Bagley. Kosta Koufos also appears in double big lineups, an experiment that should be scrapped moving forward.
Don’t mistake Hield for a middling spacer, though. He’s been downright electric through 30 games. Only nine players have made more triples. Steph Curry is the lone player to shoot a better percentage from three while making 70-plus threes. Hield isn’t afraid to launch a projectile from multiple feet behind the line, nor is he afraid to pull the trigger early in the shot clock. Fox is a natural partner. Hield has canned two catch-and-shoot threes per game this season, converting at a crisp 45.4%. When Fox races down the floor in transition, the Oklahoma product is his outlet.
Hield has made one fewer three than Klay Thompson this season while shooting a better percentage (Hield is at 42.9% and Thompson is at 35.0%). Sacramento hasn’t unearthed a second set of Splash Brothers, but Hield has held up his end of the bargain.
J.J. Barea, Mavericks
The pride of Puerto Rico is arguably the best he’s ever been at 34, still dizzying past defenders with his sub-6’0” frame. Barea is fifth on the Mavs in scoring despite playing under 20 minutes per game, providing a steady hand when the electric (and turnover prone) Dennis Smith heads to the bench. Barrea is a strong prober, patient yet decisive. The Northeastern product isn’t intimidated by the elongated limbs of switched bigs. Barea is a master at holding the defender on his hip, then flicking forward a layup before a large paw can poke it away. Barea’s engine isn’t as quick as it used to be, yet he thrives anyway as a skilled technician.
Dirk Nowitzki has been injured for much of 2018-19, leaving Barea without his longtime pick-and-roll partner. In Nowitzki’s stead has been Maxi Kleber, who has made strides in his second season despite similar statistics. Barea and Kleber have quickly formed an impressive rapport, sporting a 113.9 offensive rating in 288 minutes together. The rate is Dallas’s third best for two-man pairings with over 100 minutes played.
Kleber is a skilled alley-oop target with long arms and a shifty torso, leaving Barrea with room for error. Kleber’s also been a quality dump-off candidate when Barea draws attention underneath the rim, showing softer hands than in his rookie season. Kleber doesn’t have the same success with Smith, scoring just 92.4 points per 100 possessions. Smith hasn’t quite learned how to find bigs in traffic. Barea is an expert at the pocket pass.
Luka Doncic has rightfully stolen the headlines during Dallas’s hot start, showing a precociousness unseen by a rookie this decade. But even if Doncic’s torrid starts slows, Dallas should stick around the West playoff picture, in part because of its veteran jitterbug.
Dennis Schroder, Thunder
The Thunder have long been searching for a quality third guard behind Russell Westbrook. Raymond Felton and Alex Abrines were overmatched last season, as were Cameron Payne, Dion Waiters and Randy Foye in year’s past. Is Schroder the answer Oklahoma City has needed?
The 2013 first rounder entered Oklahoma City with an unfavorable reputation. He’d pound the ball into oblivion with the Hawks, hunting for his own shot at the expense of his teammates. Schroder was one of six players to tally over 250 turnovers in 2016-17. He became one of 11 players since 2010 to have at least 250 turnovers and under 500 assists in a season. Schroder had become a shoot-first point guard who didn’t really shoot that well. He made just 29% of threes in his final season with the Hawks.
A change of scenery has clipped Schroder’s worst tendencies. He is logging 16.5 points and 4.8 assists per game, fitting snugly in stints next to Westbrook and Paul George. He’s an impressive slasher and willing passer in transition and excels at whipping the ball to the corner as he flies toward the paint. His three-point rate has jumped to a serviceable 33.9%.
Defensively, Schroder adds another ball-hawking menace to Oklahoma City’s lineup. The Thunder are one of three teams to have five players average over one steal per game (Memphis and Indiana are the others), a collection of long limbs and opportunistic pickpockets making up the roster. And that’s without Andre Roberson. Oklahoma City nearly dethroned the 73-win Warriors behind it’s suffocating defense and elite athleticism in 2016. With Schroder, they’ll attempt to replicate the formula again come April.
Danny Green, Raptors
Leonard has been the Raptors’ leading man during the their 23–9 start, yet increased attention should be paid to Toronto’s other former Spur. Green has gone full 2014 Finals in Toronto, hitting triples at a 42.3% clip, his best rate since 2012-13. He has regained status as an elite marksman after three straight seasons under 38% from three.
Green’s rejuvenation is far from just a boost in the box score. He’s been instrumental to Toronto’s attack, a vital spacer among the Raptors slate of bigs and interior slashers. Lineups with Green have been downright destructive in 2018-19. Of the NBA’s five best two-man lineups by offensive rating, four include Green. The Green-Kyle Lowry pairing has blitzed opponents to 120.5 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the NBA. Green and Pascal Siakam boast a +16.7 net rating, trailing only Green and Lowry for tops in the league. Toronto has been dominant with Green on the floor.
The Raptors wilted against LeBron’s Cavs last season, going 4-of-15 from beyond the arc as they were eliminated for Game 4. As DeMar DeRozan clanked long two’s, little respect was paid to OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka. Green should provide the reliable shooting Toronto lacked last season.