After the 2015 All-Star Game rosters were announced last week, the most conspicuous name missing was that of Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, one of the most dynamic two-way players in the NBA. The credentials are all there for Lillard. He’s the floor general for a 34-16 Portland squad that ranks eighth in the NBA in points scored and sixth in defense, averaging 21.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
Lillard was overlooked in both the fan and coaches’ vote, and even when NBA commissioner Adam Silver opted for Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins to act as Kobe Bryant’s injury replacement for the Western Conference roster. Silver would say later he ultimately deferred his decision to the coaches’ vote.
Cousins is in the midst of a terrific season, and he’s unfairly been placed in the middle of a heated debate within NBA circles and among fans. In his fourth year, Cousins earned his first All-Star nod with career highs in points (23.7), rebounds (12.5), assists (3.2), blocks (1.6) and free throw percentage (81.8), but many reasonably point to the Kings 17-31 record and withering chances to make the postseason.
Rather than pout over the snub, arguably his second since he entered the league only three years ago, Lillard posted a video to his official Facebook page illustrating how he’ll use it to fuel further endeavors.
Lillard’s lack of recognition from fans and coaches is the most glaring and high-profile case in the NBA, but there are a number of players like him who deserve praise for their work this season.
Taking into account player efficiency ratings (PER), regular metrics like points, rebounds, shooting percentages and defense, along with how they’ve contributed to mostly playoff bound teams, let’s take a look at six of the most underrated players who might not necessarily have been deserving of an All-Star berth, but should at least receive some adulation.
Brandan Wright, PF, Phoenix Suns
How can a guy who’s been traded twice already this season be underrated? Well the easy answer is that Wright’s $5 million contract expires this season, representing a huge boon for any team that possesses him. Thankfully for head coach Jeff Hornacek, as he tries to end the Suns' five-year postseason drought, he has Wright’s production on the court, while general manager Ryan McDonough may have some cap room at the end of the season. Wright has long been heralded as one of the most efficient players in the game, ranking 13th in the league this season at with a 22.64 PER. His traditional numbers aren’t gaudy at all (7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game), but with his 6-foot-10 frame and tentacle-like arms Wright can alter shots of opposing guards and big men alike.
Wright also has the second highest true shooting percentage (71.9 percent) in the NBA, meaning when he gets the ball he’s bound to score. Wright could make all the difference as Phoenix clings to the West’s final playoff spot.
Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz
At 17-32, the Jazz are major longshots to make the postseason, but Gobert’s play in his second year should be a sign of amazing things to come. The Frenchman’s racked up a 21.81 PER while playing in all 49 Jazz games this season. He’s knocking down 62.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, and in only 21.8 minutes per game Gobert’s pulling down 7.4 rebounds, including 2.7 on the offensive glass. That places him 11th in the league in rebound rate, while he backs up center Enes Kanter.
The 22-year-old is also fifth in the league with 2.2 blocks per game, and he’s a careful defender with 1.08 blocks per foul, the league's third best rate. Gobert received attention recently after Lillard dunked on him during Utah’s loss on Tuesday, but in time the 7'1" second-year big man should get some positive press.
Monta Ellis, SG, Dallas Mavericks
Never named an All-Star in 10 seasons despite some impressive years with Golden State, Ellis is now the top scorer for the Mavericks No. 2 offense with 20.4 points per game. The 29-year-old also leads Dallas with 1.8 steals per game, ranking 10th overall in the NBA. Ellis owns just a 18.73 PER and considering his slashing and driving ability you would expect him to garner more than four free-throw attempts a game, but it’s difficult to see the Mavericks as the current No. 6 seed without him.
Ellis also manages to stay healthy, and rarely goes on prolonged shooting slumps. Ellis takes a lot of shots per game (17.5), and has the shooting percentage (45.9) to back it up.
Nikola Vucevic, C, Orlando Magic
The 15-37 Magic are once again destined for the draft lottery, but it’s not because of Vucevic. Quietly, the Swiss-born budding Montenegrin star is now the 15th most efficient player in the league with a 22.43 PER. Averaging 19.6 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, Vucevic is also tied with Cousins for second in the league in double-doubles with 30 in 52 games, behind only Chicago Bulls center Pau Gasol’s 31.
Vucevic, 24, keeps improving each season. The seven-footer has also been a double-double robot for the last three years, and opponents are no longer underestimating him.
DeMarre Carroll, SF, Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta’s All-Stars Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford, along with deadly sharpshooter Kyle Korver are getting all the attention, but Carroll deserves heaps of praise. Bouncing around four different teams his first four years in the league, Carroll found a place in head coach Mike Budenholzer’s rotation last season and hasn’t looked back. Carroll has specifically punished opposing defenses with his long-range shooting, hitting 40 percent of his 4.3 three-point attempts per game, and helping the Hawks post the No. 2 three-point offense in the league.
Carroll also helps out on the boards with 5.9 rebounds per game, and averages more than a steal a game. It's no wonder Budenholzer has given Carroll twice as many minutes per game as his previous team, the Jazz.
Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
A 2010 second-round pick of the Kings out of Marshall, Whiteside’s been assigned to the NBA’s Development League three times in his career, most recently back on Dec. 13 of last year. But once he adapted to the league and was given an opportunity, Whiteside’s been setting the NBA ablaze with a 28.97 PER, behind only New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis. It’s unlikely he’ll keep this kind of production up, with an unfathomable 26.5 rebound rate and a 64.7 true shooting percentage, which include his averages of 18.3 points, 13 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in three games this month.
But Whiteside has proven capable of commanding the Heat’s interior, while giving them some much needed depth in the frontcourt.
Honorable Mentions: Greg Monroe, PF, Pistons; Marreese Speights, C, Warriors; Shabazz Muhammad, SF, Timberwolves; Wesley Matthews, SG, Trail Blazers; Gordon Hayward, SF, Jazz; Jonas Valanciunas, C, Raptors