We’re less than a month away from the resumption of the 2019-20 season, and the league’s stars (save for Russell Westbrook) are in Orlando ready to fight for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo will dominate the headlines in Orlando, and one of the aforementioned trio will likely win Finals MVP. But those players won't single-handedly swing the playoffs. Every champion needs contributions from unlikely sources, often ones who don’t stand out in a scan of NBA rosters. So which impact players could make a name for themselves on the national stage? Let’s assess the most underrated players set to appear in the NBA restart.
Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat
Duncan Robinson is used to being a relative unknown on the floor. Miami’s sharpshooting forward attended Phillips Exeter Academy immediately after high school, playing a year of New England prep school ball before joining Michigan in 2015. Robinson had a solid college career in Ann Arbor before going undrafted in 2018, leading to a Summer League stint with the Heat. Few knew about Robinson’s potential after he earned a surprising roster spot in Miami. But his skill is no secret anymore.
Robinson has emerged as one of the NBA’s most lethal long-range shooters in 2019-20, canning 44.8% of triples. His impressive percentage doesn’t tell the whole story. Robinson has among the fastest releases in basketball, leading to an NBA-best 206 catch-and-shoot threes this season. Robinson also provides stretch numerous feet beyond the three-point line. For a team that often encounters spacing concerns given Jimmy Butler’s shaky jumper, Robinson’s range is invaluable. He’ll be a key piece if the Heat want to make a Finals run.
Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies’ pair of top-five picks earn a significant share of the attention in Memphis, and rightly so. Ja Morant has been a true phenom since the second he entered the NBA, torching defenses as perhaps the most athletic point guard in basketball. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t quite the same athlete as his young point guard, but the Michigan State product’s range and versatility has drawn rave reviews. The same praise isn’t quite heaped on fellow forward Brandon Clarke. The 2020 playoffs could change that.
Clarke has emerged as a dynamic offensive force in his rookie season with Memphis. The Gonzaga product is shooting an outrageous 62.3% from the field–the third best mark of all players with at least 600 points–adding a 40.4% mark from three. Clarke is an elite rolling option in two-man dances with Morant. He can both stretch beyond the floor and finish above the rim in traffic. There’s still work to be done on the defensive end, but such is life for most youngsters. Clarke has the talent to become a truly valuable member of Memphis’ young core, beginning with an eight-game sprint in Orlando.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Mavericks
Perhaps Hardaway’s $18 million salary in 2019-20 is a bit bloated, but the discussion surrounding his contract has obscured his effectiveness as a player. The Michigan product has emerged as an impactful third option for Dallas, playing a pivotal role as the Mavericks seek their first playoff appearance since 2016. Only two players have hit more catch-and-shoot triples this season, and no Maverick has hit more threes. Dallas scores 117.7 points per 100 possessions when Hardaway and Luka Doncic share the floor. There’s not much more you could ask of a third-option on the wing.
Robert Covington, Rockets
Let’s stick with Lone Star State forwards, this time highlighting one who makes his money on the defensive end. Robert Covington earned All-Defense honors in 2017-18, though he doesn't often get mentioned in the next tier after Kawhi Leonard. But the list of better wing defenders doesn’t extend far. Covington is a true force on the defensive end, serving as a key piece in upholding Houston’s small-ball attack. Daryl Morey’s midseason gamble has thus far paid off.
Covington has formed a dynamic frontcourt tandem with P.J. Tucker in the duo’s short time together. Tucker serves as the back line of Houston’s defense, battling opposing bigs and protecting the rim despite standing just 6’5”. Covington is more of a jack-of-all-trades in Houston’s scheme. He defends smaller guards and elite wings, and the Tennessee State product is a dominant weak-side defender. Covington's effort never wanes. His head remains on a swivel. It’s no wonder why he has the third-most blocks in the NBA since joining Houston on Feb. 4. Covington should be an integral part of Houston’s roster both in Orlando and in years to come.
Norman Powell, Raptors
Toronto remains a legitimate Finals contender in 2019-20 despite Kawhi Leonard’s departure, a testament to the Raptors’ organizational excellence. Masai Ujiri established himself as a leading talent evaluator and general manager before the Leonard fleecing, and Nick Nurse may be the most creative defensive coach in basketball. Toronto’s roster is stacked with homegrown success stories, led by Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. Norman Powell marks another Ujiri hit.
The 2015 second-round pick continued to climb Toronto’s rotation in 2018-19. This season has marked Powell’s true breakout. Powell is averaging 16.4 points per game this season, nearly double last year’s clip. He continues to show greater comfort behind the arc at 5.4 attempts per game, and he’s one of the NBA’s top forces driving to the tin. Of the 144 players with at least 200 drives this season, only six shoot a better percentage on such attempts. Powell sports serious explosion around the rim, and he’s become more comfortable making plays off handoffs and in the pick-and-roll. Powell is more than a solid third guard. He’s a key to Toronto’s Finals hopes.