"Underrated" is a word perhaps used too loosely in any sport, especially in the NBA. Yet when a player busts out new career-highs across the board, excels on a new team, or plays a pivotal role in a team’s emergence while defying low expectations, it’s difficult not to label them as underrated.
Too often we hold players to lofty standards at the start of their careers. This is never more evident than where a player is drafted. If they go No. 1 overall or in the lottery at all, then they should immediately acclimate to life and play in the NBA. If not, then they are "a bust." Should they fall into the second round of the draft and become an immediate contributor, front office executives’ jobs are on the line because they missed out on a low-risk, high-reward player.
Still, all that has to do with public perception and behind-closed-doors NBA business rather than how well and hard a player’s worked to either reach a new level or get back there.
Based off their solid work during the 2015-16 NBA season, the five players below all deserve far more credit than they’ve received in the past and have proven to be largely underrated this season.
Will Barton, SG, Denver Nuggets
A shoe-in for Sixth Man of the Year, the instinctual scorer Barton has come a long way since Portland selected him in the second round back in 2012. Denver acquired him in a trade last season and the change in scenery led to more minutes, which in turn allowed Barton to get a better feel for the NBA court. This year he’s soared with 14.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists over 28.6 minutes per game, all career-highs and all reasons to believe Portland’s loss is Denver’s gain for the long haul.
Derrick Favors, PF, Utah Jazz
The Jazz may sneak into the playoffs thanks to their maturing big man. Favors leads the team in player efficiency (22.0), averaging 16.6 points per game on 51.6 percent shooting. The 24-year-old averages 8.2 rebounds a game and also has been a solid contributor on defense with 1.18 steals and 1.43 blocks per game. Quinn Snyder is getting the most out of Favors, who has raised his scoring average every year since entering the league in 2010-2011.
Jeremy Lin, PG, Charlotte Hornets
His defense eventually cost him his starting jobs in both Houston and Los Angeles, but the workhorse has found his niche in Charlotte this year mainly because he does so many of the intangibles. Lin's an excellent backup to leading scorer Kemba Walker, capable of running the offense when Walker sits, or stabilizing the shooting guard position if the Hornets require a little more firepower. Lin’s lifted his scoring and shooting back to respectable numbers, and he’s been Barton’s toughest competition for Sixth Man honors.
Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston Celtics
The 5-foot-9 speedster and crossover master has made Sacramento wish they found a way to keep him. Thomas is 12th in the league in scoring, tied for 13th in assists, and his leadership is a big reason why Boston’s in position to host a first-round playoff series. The 27-year-old averages more points (22.4) and has a better shooting percentage (42.8) than John Wall, Derrick Rose and Mike Conley.
Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
Another reason for Kings fans to shake their heads. A former second-round pick of Sacramento, Whiteside played 18 NBA games between 2010 and 2012, then was completely out of the league for two seasons. The 26-year-old turned things around in a big way, and is currently the league leader in blocks (3.8 per game) and one of only 10 players averaging a double-double. Whiteside is arguably the NBA's biggest reclamation story and a big reason the Heat clinched a playoff berth. Only DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard have a better shooting percentage.