NBA / Jan 13, 2014 / 5:00 pm

The NBA’s 30 Biggest Unsung Heroes

Khris Middleton

Khris Middleton (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports)

Behind every great team, the superstars and the dynasties, are the guys that the average fans don’t know about. Regardless of the amount of talent at the top of the roster, coaches are forced to look for production from role players on a nightly basis. While the average fan may not realize these players exist, their impact, while consistently failing to show up in the box scores, is not disregarded by teammates or coaches.

Michael Jordan once said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” If that is not enough in itself, John Wooden had a lot to say about the importance of every player on a team: “The main ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team.”

Listed below is a player for each team that has an effect on their team that goes beyond the box score, that doesn’t always show up as points, and rarely gets recognized by those outside of his own locker room.

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Milwaukee Bucks – KHRIS MIDDLETON
After appearing in just 27 games in his rookie season with Detroit, Middleton has latched on with the bottom-feeding Milwaukee Bucks. In 36 appearances for the Bucks, including 24 starts, Middleton has averaged 11.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest on 45.5 percent shooting from the field. Despite the above average numbers, Middleton has stayed out of the spotlight due to his underachieving team and the flashes of brilliance shown by the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Middleton has quietly submitted himself as one of the most consistent players on Larry Drew‘s roster. As a matter of fact, Drew has turned to his second-year versatile forward at the end of games for his shot-making ability. December was the month of Middleton’s career, notching games of 29 and 27 points respectively.

“He’s grown a tremendous amount,” Bucks coach Larry Drew told reporters recently, “Looking at his situation in Detroit last year and where he was to where he is right now, it’s like night and day.”

It is clear that Middleton is a force to be reckoned with in the future, and could turn out to be a key piece to the Bucks’ rebuild.

Not only has the second-year player been able to get it done at the offensive end, but he has often been matched up against the opposing team’s premier wing scorer. At this early stage in his career, Middleton has been in charge of slowing down superstars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Orlando Magic – NIKOLA VUCEVIC
Vucevic showed some promising glimpses in Philadelphia during his rookie season, but with Doug Collins running the show for the Sixers fresh off a loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the 7-footer was shipped off to Orlando as a part of the blockbuster deal that brought Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia.

While neither team could have imagined it at the time, the Magic clearly got the better end of the trade. Bynum failed to suit up even once for the Sixers, and Vucevic has proved to be a steady and reliable force down low. Vucevic isn’t exactly a household name, or at least not yet. Last year, the USC product posted per game averages of 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds. In just his third season in the Association, Vucevic is on his way to averaging a double-double for the second time in his career, currently averaging 13 points and 11 boards.

Despite Orlando’s struggles, Vucevic has impacted his young team in a positive way in just about every aspect of the game. Offensively and defensively, the Magic are a more efficient team with their starting center on the floor. Per 100 possessions, Orlando scores four more points at the offensive end while holding its opponents to fewer points on the defensive end.

However, his impact goes further than that. Orlando’s rebounding numbers are drastically improved with Vucevic on the floor. To demonstrate just how effective he is on the glass, the Magic rebound just 23 percent of their own shots at the offensive end without Vucevic on the court, but when he is holding down the paint they average 26.2 percent. While that increase of 3.3 is a vast difference, the difference of 4.9 percent on the defensive glass better demonstrates just how bad Orlando would be without Vucevic.

Utah Jazz – MARVIN WILLIAMS
Over Marvin Williams’ eight-year career, it is safe to say that he has been undervalued around the league. Not many of your average basketball fans know about Williams, but there aren’t many guys in the NBA with his unique skill-set. At 6-9 with the ability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line and the athleticism to run the floor and finish in transition, Williams causes many mismatches at the offensive end.

In approximately 27 minutes per contest, Williams is posting averages of 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. Additionally, the stretch power forward is shooting a career-high from deep at 40.4 percent. Given his rare combination of size and athleticism, it is no secret that Williams is a threat in transition. To be exact, he averages 1.29 points per possession in transition, finishing 60.9 percent of his attempts.

Offensively, Utah is drastically better in almost every statistical category with Williams on the floor than they are without him. For instance, they average just 98.1 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the bench and an impressive 107.2 with him on the floor. While Williams is certainly not known for his playmaking skills, the ball seems to move without an agenda when he is on the court. The Jazz assist 59 percent of their field goals with Williams, but without him, just 54 percent of their field goals are assisted on. Another dramatic improvement at the offensive end when Williams is on the court is Utah’s ball security. When the veteran is on the floor, they average just 13 turnovers as a team per 48 minutes as opposed to the 16 they average in his absence.

Sacramento Kings – ISAIAH THOMAS
Despite the loud splash that new ownership has tried to make this season, Isaiah Thomas has somehow managed to supply the Kings with some of the best point guard play in the league thus far. Bringing in Rudy Gay raised some eyebrows, and perhaps that is justified, but Thomas is raising eyebrows around the league for different reasons. After being taken with the last pick in the 2011 Draft, the 5-9 point guard has become a centerpiece of the Kings franchise. With averages of 19.3 points and 6.3 assists per contest on 45.3 percent shooting to go with the impressive 41 percent clip he is connecting at from three-point range.

The impact that Thomas has goes beyond those basic per game numbers though. Not only has he impressed with his outside shooting, but he is averaging 1.03 points per possession in isolation situations, 1.24 in transition, and 1.29 coming off screens. Defensively, he has done what opponents have failed to do to him, stifle them. Opponents are averaging a lowly 0.73 points per possession in isolation situations against Thomas. To go along with that impressive number, the undersized guard has defended the pick-and-roll extraordinarily well, allowing just 0.79 points per possession.

If all of those numbers failed to do Thomas justice, the Kings average eight more attempts per 48 minutes from the free throw line with him on the floor than they do without. At the other end, his quickness and activity allow him to disrupt the opponent’s offense. To be exact, the Thomas-less Kings average four less turnovers forced per 48 minutes than they do with him on the court.

Philadelphia 76ers – SPENCER HAWES
By far, Spencer Hawes is having his most effective season as a center in the NBA. With career-highs in points per game with 14.3, rebounds with 8.6, assists with 3.4, blocks with 1.5, and three-point shooting at 44.4 percent, Hawes has found himself a niche in Philadelphia.

In a different role in new head coach Brett Brown‘s offense, 7-footer has excelled in every aspect of the game. Serving as more of a facilitator and floor-spacer on a roster of young players that like to attack the rim, Spencer has created countless open looks for others and found himself open from the top of the key more than a few times. Providing veteran leadership to a rebuilding team and an option to run the offense through efficiently in the high post, Hawes has established himself as not only one of the most versatile big men in the league, but a hot commodity.
Still, with the surprising rookie campaign of point guard Michael Carter-Williams, Spencer has escaped the spotlight.

Defensively, Hawes has become one of the better pick-and-roll defenders when it comes to big men. When his man is setting the screen, they are averaging just 0.75 points per possession. At the other end, the Sixers’ veteran center is averaging 1.19 points per possession as the pick-and-roll man, good for 10th in the NBA.

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  • GriLtCheeZ

    Great article but one thing is wrong: Nic Batum’s stats are mixed up. You have his assists and rebounds reversed. He’s been great this year. Peace!