The 5 Most Under-Utilized Players in the NBA
I have to be honest. This might be the most excited I’ve been to write an article for Analytic City. Growing up the little Point Guard myself, I have a special place in my heart for the overlooked and underrated guys. It’s tough to say that any NBA player is underrated considering they’ve made it to the best professional basketball league in the world, but for the sake of the argument, we will consider an underrated or overlooked player to be someone who averages fewer than 20 minutes per game. I’ll be highlighting 5 guys and ranking them based on who I would want moving forward. That is, if I’m starting a franchise and have to start it with guys who have fewer than 20 MPG, who am I rocking with?
- Alex Caruso, LAL:
If you’re a basketball fan, the Caruso memes piss you off. It gets under your skin because you feel like he does some really effective things for his basketball team but is clowned all over social media by people who don’t know the game. Caruso does a number of things on the court. First and foremost, though, he plays incredible defense - he’s number 2 in defensive rating in the NBA for qualifying players on NBA.com. He’s a top 10 on ball defender in the league in my opinion, and he showcased that during last year’s playoffs. No, I’m not over exaggerating and I’m certainly not joking - watch him play. People mostly know him for his high flying blocks and dunks, but he’s fantastic at staying in front of his assignment, and he’s incredibly strong and balanced when that first contact is created; he doesn’t get displaced and he’s stable enough to use his hands to steal the ball or force a bad pass. He kind of reminds me of Jrue Holiday - obviously not as talented but looks similar on defense and both can really slide their feet and are strong. I also love how Caruso uses his hands. He’s got excellent instincts and is great at picking his spots for when he makes an aggressive steal attempt or jumps a passing lane; he’s number 8 in deflections per 36 minutes IN THE NBA. Offensively, Caruso is great in transition - he’s very fast and always looks to leak out. He’s also a great athlete and can finish well at the rim. Besides that, he doesn’t do too much for the Lakers besides spot up shooting from three, but he’s 48% from beyond the arc this year and his shot looks great. He’s developing into a real threat as a 3 and D player, which is exactly the type of piece you need around stars like Lebron and AD. But, I think he can take his game to a whole new level in the coming years. I’d like to see him showcase some of the passing ability we saw in college - if you haven’t seen his college highlights, check them out. He’s got excellent vision and his height/strength allow him to make passes over the defense with power and accuracy. I expect him to showcase more of this playmaking ability in the coming years, especially once he’s on a team where he has a higher workload. If he can pair that playmaking and passing ability with his improved shooting and elite defense, he will be a PROBLEM. This dude isn’t just a meme, he’s here to stay.
- Matisse Thybulle, PHI:
Speaking of lock down defenders… Matisse Thybulle! It legitimately pains me how well this man D’s up. He’s number 8 in defensive rating in the NBA for qualifying players, and it’s basically the only reason he ever smells the court. But, it’s definitely a sufficient reason. He has the ability to completely eliminate a player from a game. He’s 6’5 with a 6’11 (!) wingspan. He basically does everything Caruso does defensively but with longer arms and even better instincts. He’s special in almost every way defensively. Incredible at moving his feet to get in front of the defender and essentially guessing which way to slide, phenomenal hands and instincts, and LONG and athletic; he’s a prototype wing defender in every way. He leads the NBA in deflections per 36 minutes with 6.5. The next player has 5.2. He’s also number 2 in steals per minute in the NBA. There isn’t much more to be said other than the fact that he’s a game changer on the defensive end of the floor. You can neutralize basically any player under like 6’7, or at least neutralize them to the point where they’re taking very tough shots. Of course there are some offensive players who are virtually impossible to neutralize, but I think Thybulle comes as close to doing that as anyone in the entire NBA. Offensively, If Thybulle can figure out his shot, which I think he can because he’s got solid mechanics, he’s going to be one of the NBA’s best 3 and D players. The thing with a guy like Thybulle is that he brings so much defensively that he can be very limited offensively and still find himself on the floor. Even if he never learns to shoot, he could become a better slasher or cutter to the rim and become the NBA’s next Tony Allen. In fact, call me crazy, but he could be better. If he figures out how to shoot, though, he can be really special. He just needs to add something to make him better than a liability on the offensive end, and if/when he does, he’ll earn more minutes and will be one of the most talked about defenders in the league. Hot Take Alert: Matisse Thybulle will make Defensive First Team next year.
- Ivica Zubac, LAC:
Zubac is a rare true big man in today’s game. He doesn’t stretch the floor and shoot threes like many modern bigs. Instead, he spends most of his time in the dunker spot and setting screens. He’s an absolute load down low, though, at 7 '0, 240 pounds and he’s got a knack for finishing around the rim, which is a lethal combo. He’s so fundamentally sound, and he’s got incredible hands; the guy rarely misses catches and is very aware and ready for passes to come his way. He’s also got great footwork and post moves, although the Clippers rarely let him go to work down there. He’s just an excellent finisher; receives the ball softly and keeps it high (with his 7’4 wingspan) while quickly elevating to the rim (he’s number 3 in true shooting percentage of all qualifying players). He doesn’t try to do anything too fancy, he just makes the simple play and finish. But Zubac is also able to set his teammates up very well with his screens. His big body and high IQ make him one of the best screeners in the league (he’s number 10 in screen assists per 36 minutes in the NBA). Many people don’t realize it, but screening is actually very much a skill; you have to be able to read the defender to see how deep and in what direction you should set the screen in order to create the most space for your teammate. Zubac pulls his game together, though, by being a great rebounder. He’s number 10 in rebound percentage in the league. And when he does get rebounds on the offensive end, he’s able to finish incredibly well around the rim with his excellent hands and lengthy wingspan (which I already discussed) or get fouled (he’s shooting 83% from the foul line this year). I know this may be a bit ambitious, but I would like to see Zubac extend his range to the midrange and even the 3 point line in the coming years. He’s got nice looking mechanics and he’s 7 feet tall with a 7’4 wingspan - it’s not like he has to have a Steph Curry-type release to be effective shooting the ball. If he can even diversify his game like Daniel Theis has - by being consistent with his midrange catch and shoot and hitting the occasional three - he can be one of the best bigs in the league. Watch out for this guy.
- Immanuel Quickley, NYK:
Immanuel Quickley is an exciting young prospect who has made himself tough to eliminate from the Rookie Of The Year discussion. At 1st in points per minute of all rookies, he’s been an absolute spark plug off the bench for the Knicks. He’s got a very well rounded offensive game; He can shoot it well from three and will only get better, he’s got an excellent floater and runner, and he can finish in multiple ways at the rim. The most impressive thing about him, though, is the pace at which he plays. He is very methodical and effective in the pick and roll which he does a ton (#10 in pick and roll frequency at 48%. That means 48% of his offensive touches occur in pick and roll. Wow). He’s great at setting his defender up and changing speeds in order to run his man into the screen. He also loves to get the defender on his back, which allows him to slow down his decision making and toy with the defense for an extra half second. Once he does this, he’s absolutely unbelievable at shooting the floater. He shoots it fading to either direction, off the glass or not, and while moving at full speed. It’s extremely impressive, honestly. He seems to utilize this runner/floater so much more than other players; he’s just so comfortable with it and it catches a lot of big men off guard because most players don’t go to it as much as he does. For example, he’ll be sprinting at full speed toward the defender with his head down and will quickl(e)y flip up the ball in an unconventional and uncomfortable looking fashion, completely surprising the big man who’s shuffling backward. Quickley is also excellent at getting by his defender; he’s got a quick first step and is a very good ball handler. He’s second in drives per minute among all players with fewer than 20 mpg, so he’s getting into the paint pretty effortlessly. He doesn’t have very many holes offensively at all and I think he’ll only improve on that end; he’ll learn to get his teammates involved better and will refine his shot selection. Defensively, Quickley has potential to be an elite defender. He’s 6’3 but has a 6’8 wingspan, and he slides his feet very well. He works hard on that end, just as most John Calapari Alums do - you can’t get away with taking possessions off or missing rotations in a Kentucky game or practice. Immanuel has a real chance to be a star in this league; he plays well beyond his years and he’s willing to learn and develop. He’ll get more opportunities as this season goes on - I think he’ll start at some point this season - and if he doesn’t, then we can just chalk it up to the Knicks being the Knicks.
- Talen Horton-Tucker, LAL:
Finally, we get to Talen Horton-Tucker. To put it as simply as I can, THT is a really good basketball player. Let’s start on the defensive end. He’s 7th in the NBA in defensive rating for qualifying players, and 7th in steals per minute for players under 20 mpg - he’s an excellent defender. He’s only 6’4 but has a 7’1 wingspan (this 9 inch difference is second to only Mo Bamba), which he’s able to use in passing lanes and on the ball to poke at the offensive player. He’s also got great instincts and is an exceptional athlete - he covers ground EXTREMELY quickly and slides his feet very well. He’s gonna be an absolute terror on that end of the floor in the coming years, especially as he continues to learn under Lebron James and AD, two of the best and smartest defenders in the league. But what really excites me is Tucker on the offensive end. He already has such an incredible feel in the pick and roll and in transition, as well as finishing around the hoop. He uses his wingspan in almost every situation that he can, often fully extending out to glide past his defender. I love watching him finish at the rim. He’s so crafty and loves the reverse righty finish on the left side with that english. THT is also extremely strong around the rim and he really seeks out contact from the defender, no matter how big or small. Donovan Mitchell comes to mind a little bit as I watch film of THT’s takes to the hoop. They both utilize their incredibly long arms to quickly stretch out to the rim, as well as their strength to body defenders in the paint and get them off balance before elevating over them. Horton Tucker is 5th in drives per minute for guys under 20 mpg, so he pretty effortlessly gets past his defender. He has a quick handle, and again, his long arms allow him to crossover blasphemously wide - he just looks different. He’s also a well rounded scorer who has improved his shooting mechanics tremendously - he’s up to 86% from the line after shooting 50% last season. Although he hasn’t shot the ball great from 3, I think he’ll improve in his shot selection from there and really refine his technique. There’s no question the foundation is there for him to become a good shooter, and he clearly has a solid work ethic as evidenced by his increased FT%. So, let me finish this article off by making another bold claim, or as some might call it a hot take. This one could have a VERY long shelf life and we might not know the result of it until the end of Tucker’s career, at which point who knows where I’ll be? But, you can find me and tell me I was wrong (unlikely) if you so choose.
The trajectory of his development is promising, and I absolutely love the skill set he has. He can really score the basketball and can lock up on D. This man will be here for a LONG time… so get familiar with him.
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