In today’s edition of “Let’s talk about sports to distract ourselves from apocalyptic horrors,” we follow up our list of most overrated NBA players with their diametric opposites: the most underrated.
What makes a player underrated? It’s hard to argue Scottie Pippen was underrated in his prime, as he made the NBA’s Top 50 players list in 1996. But that’s 24 years ago, an eternity in the NBA. Basketball has evolved into a much different game, and a huge number of today’s fans never saw Pippen play.
Some other players on our list suffer from the same problem: the march of Father Time. Others are more recent stars who just weren’t appreciated enough. In no particular order other than alphabetical, here they are:
30.2 and 27.8.
That’s what Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (then Chris Jackson) averaged per game during his two years at LSU. And the only reason his numbers dipped his sophomore year is because he played with Stanley Roberts and Shaquille O’Neal.
History has been unkind to Rauf, as he was the NBA’s Colin Kaepernick during the 1990s. He believes his refusal to stand during the national anthem (something he later changed to standing prayer) due to religious reasons led to him being blackballed from the league.
But, when he was in it, he destroyed all your favorite teams. Everything that Steph Curry and Trae Young are doing now is only possible because Rauf did it first. And unlike them, he didn’t have anyone to model his game after.
— Carron Phillips
“It was always the challenge of, ‘Kobe can’t win without Shaq,’ right?” Kobe Bryant said in 2016. “If I had went my whole career and we had won championships, God bless you guys, but guys would be saying at the Hall of Fame, ‘He won with Shaq.’ I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to hear it.”
You know why Kobe was able to win without Shaq? Pau Gasol is why Kobe was able to win two titles without Shaq. But we can just gloss over the six-time All-Star with a 21.4 career PER who averaged a double-double over the course of those two championship seasons.
Yeah, that was all about Kobe proving he could win without Shaq. Please.
— Jesse Spector
You could argue that Kemp is more of an underachiever than underrated, but he was an absolute force in the 1990s. He was the precursor to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, entering the NBA with no college experience and transformed the Supersonics into a perennial contender.
Kemp never got his ring, as he’s part of that generation of players denied a championship by Michael Jordan, but he and Gary Payton led Seattle to an average of nearly 60 wins a year from 1992-93 to 1996-97. He suffered from addiction and injuries and was finished as a great player at age 30, but he still averaged 18 and 10 rebounds a game over a 10-year period. And he was as exciting a player to watch during that time as there was in the league.
— Chris Baud
It pains me how much the game has forgotten the greatness of Bernard King. Were it not for a horrific knee injury in March of 1985 (torn acl, torn knee cartilage and broken leg) while starring for the Knicks, King’s greatness would be more widely remembered. Did you know King once scored 60 in a game? And scored 50 in back-to-back games? And did you also know that in the 1984 Eastern Conference semifinals vs. the Celtics he dropped in 40, not once, but twice, pushing Larry Bird’s Celtics to a Game 7? And that in the 1984-85 season, before his injury, he scored 40 or more 13 times in just 55 games?
King was a force, devastating inside of 12 feet, and unstoppable on fastbreaks. Few know any of this because of his injuries, one that cost him a full season, and one he managed to return from and put up surprising numbers, including averaging 28.4 points per game for the Bullets in the 1990-91 season.
— Eric Barrow
Shout out to Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and DeMar DeRozan, but Lowry has been the unquestioned leader of the Raptors and linchpin throughout the most successful run of the young franchise’s existence. He will hold franchise records for games and minutes played, three-pointers, steals, assists, win shares and VORP.
Lowry’s most definitely had some ignominious no-shows in big games. It happens. And the vultures pile on, failing to recognize that, perhaps more than almost any other player, Lowry consistently makes winning basketball plays, not all of which are indicated by his numbers.
But I’m not here to litigate his career or resume like a nerd. It’s simple: He’s the connective tissue that, no matter his running mate — DeRozan, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam — has kept the Raptors at or near the top of the conference for the last half decade-plus.
— Vince Thomas
Michael Jordan won six rings, but people often forget that he didn’t get any without Scottie Pippen. Because even after the dynamic duo parted ways, Scottie still had postseason success in Houston and Portland, while Jordan had none in Washington. But the greatest reason Pippen is so underrated is the 1993-94 season. Chicago went 57-25 during the regular season in 1992-93 before winning their third consecutive championship.
Then Jordan retired to play baseball, and Scottie kept them afloat. In that next season, without Jordan, Pippen led the Bulls to a 55-27 record with Pete Myers as his starting shooting guard.
— Carron Phillips
Had Wallace been a boring guy, he might be known as someone whose highest similarity scores for career arc on Basketball Reference matched him most closely with Carmelo Anthony, Otis Thorpe, Alex English, and A.C. Green. And while Anthony may be overrated, Wallace never got treated like that kind of player. Instead, he was the “both teams played hard” guy and the “ball don’t lie” guy.
It’s a disservice to a player who was the last piece of the puzzle for the 2004 Pistons’ title team, a top-50 player in the last three decades by VORP and a top-40 player in the last three decades by Win Shares — ahead of Hall of Famer Vlade Divac on both lists, for what it’s worth.
— Jesse Spector
While Webber is known for his failure to win The Big One, you have to consider that Tim Donaghy says the refs were crooked in a key Game 6 vs. the Lakers in 2002. From 1996 to 2003, Webber made five NBA All-Star teams, averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds in six of those seasons, and led the league in rebounding during the 1998-99 season.
The 2000-01 season he was Top 10 in the league in both points and rebounds. Webber has been overlooked by many fans because his career overlapped with Shaq, but Webber undoubtedly helped change the league with his athleticism and versatility as a big man.
— Donovan Dooley
Think about this. Dominique Wilkins was not named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players Team, chosen in 1996, despite being a nine-time NBA All-Star. The reason ‘Nique is overlooked is because most people think only about his highlights. Yes, he is The Human Highlight Reel, but he also averaged just shy of 25 points per game and seven rebounds for his career. And yes, he’s the most-prolific in-game (and Dunk Contest) dunker of all time.
His ability to leap beyond opponents to grab boards in traffic and put them back in one motion was a weapon. And his thunderous dunks got crowds on their feet, demoralized defenders and generated momentum. The fact that he’s looked at as just a highlight generator and not one of the greatest players of his generation is a joke.
— Eric Barrow
For too much of his career, folks have mistaken Peace for a cartoon character — a mix of Tracy Jordan on “30 Rock” and “The Sopranos’” Paulie Walnuts — a jester and a goon. Not his teammates or his opponents, though. He often had the highest hoops IQ on the court, capable of running an offense as point forward and then impersonating Ed Reed on defense.
After a 2009 playoff game in which Artest put up 21-8-7 against the eventual champion Lakers, and harassed Kobe Bryant all night, I asked Yao Ming about Peace. He told me Artest was the smartest player he ever played with.
Peace was basically a player-coach his final two seasons with the Lakers from 2015-2017. It was wild to see him with his arm paternally draped over young players’ shoulders the same way he was up under Chuck Person’s arm as they exited the Auburn Palace floor on Nov. 19, 2004. The difference is that Person was shielding Peace from angry-mob fans slinging cups of beer at him while old-head Lakers Peace was schooling youngsters during his last active years.
— Vince Thomas
Billups is a classic underrated player. He lacked the flash and athleticism of point guards such as Allen Iverson or Tony Parker. He was considered a disappointment as a No. 3 overall pick by Rick Pitino’s Boston Celtics and bounced around the league for his first five years. But he fit in perfectly with Detroit, winning Finals MVP in 2004. He improved his shooting tremendously, hitting on 43% of 3-point attempts from 2004-05 to 2005-06.
When he was traded to Denver for Iverson in 2008, it slammed the door shut on the Pistons’ window to contend for a title. But Billups still had gas in the tank, leading the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals, his seventh straight year making it to the NBA’s Final Four.
Billups also made the NBA’s All-Defense second team twice.
— Chris Baud