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You got push notifications about all the biggest NBA acquisitions this summer, but you might have missed some of the less heralded moves that will still make a difference during the 2018-19 season.
The underrated qualifier brings subjectivity into the conversation. It’s unavoidable. But the idea here is to find guys who didn’t generate much buzz when they signed but will either outperform their contracts or otherwise represent strong, unsung value.
Sort of a “this should have gotten more coverage” angle.
A couple of rules: First, the player in question must have changed teams to be an acquisition. No extensions or Paul George types who signed new deals with their former clubs—even if George would never qualify as underrated anyway.
Second, we’re leaving the draft alone. It’s going to take months (years, maybe) before we establish enough expectations for members of the 2018 class to be overrated, underrated or, well, rated in any meaningful way.
Finally, as far as rankings go, the highest-ranking signings will be the ones that figure to make the biggest impacts. That could mean filling a vital void on a roster, making a difference in a playoff chase or helping establish a team’s identity.
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Backup centers are almost never high-profile gets, but Ed Davis, late of the Portland Trail Blazers, gives the Brooklyn Nets a heap of value for just $4.4 million.
Davis will provide reliable rebounding, toughness and competitive play inside for the generally space-obsessed Nets. Though Brooklyn is a part of the league-wide trend eschewing offensive boards in exchange for better transition defense, second-chance points are still an important source of offense.
Few were better at securing a team extra shots last year than Davis, whose 13.7 percent offensive rebound rate ranked fifth in the league.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both hated to see Davis go, which squares with the eight-year veteran’s reputation as a leader young players look to for guidance. That’ll be important for a Nets team that has more than its share of youth (some of which, like D’Angelo Russell, hasn’t exactly gained notoriety for professionalism).
If Davis helps out on the glass, sets a strong example in the locker room and helps Brooklyn further develop its young players ahead of critical extension decisions, he’ll be much more valuable than his relatively insignificant salary.
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Wait a minute, are we still in the era where three-and-D wings are the rarest, most valuable commodity in the league?
Because if we are, it’s shocking that Treveon Graham signed for just two years and $3.2 million (second year nonguaranteed).
Is Graham, a 6’5″ wing entering his third season, limited as an offensive player? Absolutely. But the one clear skill he possesses remains precious in today’s spaced-out, spot-up attacks. He’s a career 43.8 percent three-point shooter.
Now, Graham almost certainly won’t continue to make treys at a clip higher than Stephen Curry‘s career mark if he adds more volume (which he almost certainly will in Brooklyn’s let-it-fly offense), but he’s going to be an attention-worthy threat on the perimeter regardless. In fact, if Graham’s conversion rate dips into the high 30s on significantly more attempts per game, there’s a case to be made his value will be even greater.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of striking fear into a rotating defense, and nothing’s scarier than a good shooter who’ll fling off 26-footers the second the ball touches his hands. The Nets, who averaged the second-most three-point attempts per game last year, tend to encourage a shoot-first mentality from deep.
We have to be careful with Graham. He’s a player who profiles as a useful rotation piece, not a star. Last year, the Charlotte Hornets were better on both ends when he sat. Graham plays hard, though, and he’s shown the capacity to defend at a high level. That aptitude, combined with demonstrated long-range shooting, would typically be worth at least the mid-level exception.
Brooklyn got him for the minimum, and now it has the luxury of developing Graham as a potential long-term weapon or dealing him to the contender who inevitably realizes it needs more three-and-D types on its roster.
Also, that’s two underrated signings for the Nets. Build Sean Marks a statue.
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There are lots of reasons to love the Julius Randle signing—he’s only 23 years old and averaged 16.1 points, eight rebounds and 2.6 assists last year, for example—but the best one may be the perfect match of player and team philosophy.
Nobody played faster last year than the New Orleans Pelicans, and when they went to one-big lineups following DeMarcus Cousins‘ Achilles injury, they cranked up the pace even more, averaging 104.5 possessions per contest in their final 34 games, an increase of about two extra possessions over their season-long, league-leading figure.
This seems like a good time to mention there aren’t many more dominant grab-and-go bigs in the league than Randle.
Tunnel vision is a problem, and Randle is going to take some ill-advised, stubborn attempts in half-court sets—typically when he tries to post up, meets resistance and then deems the possession a personal challenge. But there’s no denying the speed, handle, strength and size that combine to make him a juggernaut on the break.
For a Pelicans team looking to get stops and run, he’s a perfect fit.
Randle is under contract this year at $8.6 million with a $9 million player option for 2019-20. The only downside to the deal for New Orleans is that he’s almost certain to outperform that figure and earn a much larger payday when he opts out next summer.
Still, Randle can spell Anthony Davis at the 5, play alongside either him or Nikola Mirotic and assure New Orleans’ pace never drops below “face-melting.”
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Only 29.7 percent of the Milwaukee Bucks’ shots last year came from beyond the arc, a figure that ranked 25th in the league. Despite that anachronistic approach, and despite the attendant spacing crunch that resulted from such low-volume outside shooting, the Bucks still managed to rank seventh in offensive efficiency.
Now that Brook Lopez is aboard to spread the floor at the center spot, that offensive rating should crack the top five.
Lopez took a career-high 39 percent of his shots from deep in 2018-19, which ranked in the 80th percentile among players at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. He wasn’t a true knockdown threat, hitting at a rate of 34.5 percent, but from a center…at a volume of 4.4 attempts per game…that’s enough to significantly improve a team’s offensive potential.
Milwaukee badly needs to get more threes up, and the added benefit of better spacing could make Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual offense closer to the basket even more difficult to stop. We’ve watched Antetokounmpo expand his game and reach near-MVP levels of performance through physical growth and hard work. Now, though, Antetokounmpo might get better just because his situation is better.
Lopez has a lot to do with that—all for the paltry cost of $3.4 million.
Opponents could gamble and slot a smaller defender on the perimeter-oriented Lopez, but let’s not forget Lopez is a true 7-footer with conventional-center bulk. He shot 72 percent at the rim last year and has a career’s worth of evidence showing he’s flat-out elite on those in-between flips and floaters—shots he generates easily because of his strength and ability to turn and shoot over the top of opponents.
Guarding Lopez with a small could prove disastrous for defenses. He’s still more than capable of punishing mismatches.
A suspect defender, out of place in modern switching schemes and subpar on the glass, Lopez is hardly perfect. But he’s not a $20 million man anymore. For very little money, Milwaukee added a guy who could unlock new dimensions in its offense and turn Antetokounmpo loose.
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If you had to pick one stat to tell the story of the Indiana Pacers’ season, it’d be this: With Victor Oladipo on the floor, Indy was 6.4 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents. Without him, it was 7.3 points worse.
If you had to pick a second, it’d be the same metric from the Pacers’ playoff run, in which the difference in performance with and without Oladipo was even bigger.
While it’s true Indiana’s defense depended heavily on Oladipo, the larger difference came on the offensive end, where no player proved capable of creating shots for himself or others. This is where Tyreke Evans and his one-year, $12.4 million contract come in.
Before chilling for the final two-plus months of the season as the Memphis Grizzlies tanked, Evans was the team’s most productive player. He led Grizz regulars in scoring at 20.1 points per game, ranked first on the team in assist percentage, shot 39.9 percent from deep and even topped Marc Gasol in box plus-minus.
In short, Evans played like an All-Star offensive creator. Now, he brings that game to a Pacers team in dire need of an Oladipo stand-in for whenever the reigning Most Improved Player takes a breather.
Indiana won 48 games a year ago, despite a glaring shot-creation weakness. If Evans is merely serviceable as a second-unit leader, he’ll be an upgrade worth a win or two. If he’s anywhere close to how good he was with Memphis, the Pacers will deserve serious consideration alongside the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers in the East’s elite.
And that’s to say nothing of how effective lineups featuring the dual creation of Oladipo and Evans might be in critical closing stretches.
Because he so perfectly addresses a team need, and because his presence could take the Pacers from good to great, Evans and his paltry one-year deal stand out as the most underrated signing of the offseason. Everyone should have been in on this guy, but the team that needed him most was the one that got him.