Six Eastern Conference Players Who Were Underrated in ESPN’s NBA Rank
ESPN unveiled its ranking of the top players in the NBA for the 2022-23 season, as voted on by over 200 reporters, editors, producers and analysts. And, like all rankings, everyone agreed with every ranking, and no one was mad online.
Obviously, if you’ve spent more than 5 minutes on Twitter in your lifetime, you know that last part was said in jest. No one has ever agreed with anyone on anything online.
And getting everyone to agree on the rankings of individual NBA players will never be possible. There are different factors that go into everyone’s rankings, and even the true basketball savants who watch more games in the world than anyone else will evaluate things differently than each other.
With that in mind, we’ve decided to fire up the player projections for this season at The Analyst using DRIP, our all-in-one projection metric. By comparing a statistical model like DRIP to the voting of a wide array of individuals, we can compare which players may contribute more to the game than it seems when just watching them play.
No matter how much stock you put in statistical models when evaluating the game’s best players, it is useful to see why certain players are ranked higher by DRIP than by consensus voting to highlight what kinds of players are valued by these models. By going beyond the simple ranking of players by DRIP and explaining why certain players are valued higher by the metric, we can find what parts of the game stick out more in modeling than scouting, and, in turn, learn about player evaluation in a different light. With that in mind, here are some of the players in the Eastern Conference that DRIP thinks should be ranked higher than they are on ESPN’s list.
ESPN NBA Rank: Not in Top 100
DRIP Rank: 83
Injuries undoubtedly played a role in Lopez’s omission from ESPN’s top 100, but, when healthy, Lopez is an excellent fit on one of the best teams in the league.
There aren’t many players that bring the shooting and defense combination that Lopez does at center. He is one of only six players to average 1.5 3-points made and 2.5 blocks per game last season. And, while you wouldn’t think of him as someone who spots up from the same range that Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard take their 3s, Lopez will let it fly from well behind the arc.
Giannis Antetokounmpo rightfully commands the attention of the entire defense when he is in or around the paint, and Lopez routinely takes advantage by making it impossible for defenders to recover to him in time. Here, Isaiah Stewart thinks he has enough time to recover to Lopez when he is one pass away, and he would if Lopez was right at the 3-point line. Instead, he’s well behind it, and gets off the shot with ease. There have been clamors to put Antetokounmpo at center more often, but the Bucks can get the best of both worlds when Lopez is playing well: a real floor-spacer and an anchor on the backline of the defense that allows Giannis to roam when he wants.
His free-throw shooting is also a boon for the Bucks. With a superstar who has struggled at the line in at times, it sure is helpful to have a seven-footer who has shot at 83.6% or better from the line in each of the past four seasons.
ESPN NBA rank: 96
DRIP rank: 71
It’s easy to understand Curry’s most valuable talent. He shot 42% on 5.8 3-point attempts per game last season, and that was his worst percentage in six years. It was also the sixth-best percentage in the league for anyone who attempted at least five 3-pointers a game.
But Curry’s elite shooting on 3-pointers and size may have caused some to label him as just a shooter, and that is underrating his skillset. For starters, Curry was also efficient inside the arc, especially for his size. Among the 69 players 6-foot-4 or shorter than attempted 100 2-point shots last season, Curry ranked fourth in field-goal percentage, making 55.3% of his 365 2-point attempts, per NBA.com. Although he shifted to taking more 3-point shots and fewer 2-pointers after his trade to Brooklyn, his ability to punish a defender that is too aggressive on a close out is a huge asset for the Nets.
And while Curry will always be more of possession finisher than a creator for others, he’s improved his passing as well. His assist rate was a career-high 16.3% last season, and, while the Nets again used him in his more traditional spot-up role, his ability to pass on the move against a scrambling defense has added a wrinkle to a team that is too often static around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Curry will never be the primary playmaker for a high-functioning offense but, as a complementary player with his shooting abilities, the passing has improved enough to add another dimension to his game.
ESPN NBA Rank: 67
DRIP Rank: 48
People were split on whether the New York Knicks made the right move signing Brunson to a reported four-year, $104 million deal. But DRIP sees Brunson as a top-50 player in the league, and a nice building block for the future of a team still trying to land a true superstar to lead the team forward.
You might not think of 6-1 guards as versatile, but Brunson’s ability to play both on and off the ball in high- and low-usage roles has a lot of value for a team that is still building its roster. Brunson can play next to a ball-dominate player like Luka Doncic, but also proved he is up to the task of running an offense when Doncic was out this season.
Brunson’s biggest strength is his tempo. He’s never in a hurry, but he’s always on time.
There are so many examples of these plays, with Brunson’s footwork and inner clock confounding even the best defenders. He keeps all his options open until the last minute and, when the defense shows its hand, Brunson is ready for anything. He’s a creative passer and finisher, with moves and counters for any situation. He rarely makes a mistake; Brunson was sixth in the league among players that played 30+ minutes per game in assist/turnover ratio.
He’s not a high-volume shooter, but he can knock down 3-pointers, particularly in catch-and-shoot situations. He was tied for sixth in 3-point percentage (50%) on corner 3s among all players who attempted at least one a game. When R.J. Barrett or Julius Randle are taking their turns in the offense, Brunson can space well enough to make it work.
On defense, he uses his brains and tenacity to ensure he’s not a liability at his height. He will never be Defensive Player of the Year, but he is willing to give up his body, as he was ninth in the league in charges drawn last year. DRIP projects him as an average defender, and that is more than enough to make him an excellent player when paired with his offensive skillset.
ESPN NBA rank: 70
DRIP rank: 43
It’s easy to see why Horford is an analytics darling. He’s a versatile defensive big who can play anywhere on offense around the superstar talent of the Boston Celtics. His ability to play in several different lineups allow the Celtics to use him in a variety of ways, and they’ll be asking on him to pick up an even bigger load defensively to start the season if Robert Williams III misses a significant amount of time.
Horford is a great connecting passer in the halfcourt but is also adept at moving without the ball when needed. As the players around him got more comfortable carrying the offensive load, Horford started to get ignored more on offense. So he made himself available at the right times.
Horford’s timing is the key to this play. Stephen Curry is coming to help take away the pass once Draymond Green has to contain Jaylen Brown, but Horford starts his cut before the pass even gets to Brown. It allows him to get his body between Curry and the ball, and Curry has no chance at deterring him.
Horford may have lost a step from his prime on the other end, but he’s still a handful on most switches. If you don’t believe me, ask Jevon Carter.
Horford’s still athletic enough to play in any scheme, and smart enough to enhance any lineup defensively. His versatility on both ends is the biggest reason he’s seen as a top-50 player by DRIP.
DRIP also projects a bit of a rebound season for Horford’s shooting. He only shot 33.6% on 3-pointers last year, which was his lowest percentage since 2014-15. But Horford shot a career-best 84.2% on free throws, and was at or above 35% on 3-pointers in each of his previous five seasons. Reports of his demise from deep may be premature. It also doesn’t hurt that he shot 47 of 98 (48%) on 3-pointers in the playoffs, second-best of any of the 50 players who attempted at least 50 3-pointers.
Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso
Ball ESPN NBA rank: 78; Caruso ESPN NBA rank: Not in Top 100
Ball DRIP rank: 38; Caruso DRIP rank: 68
We end our list with a pair of Bulls defensive stalwarts that kept the Bulls as a feel-good story for most of last season, but then both faced injuries and watched the team plummet down the standings as a result.
Ball’s evolution from second overall pick to ideal offensive role player is remarkable, but he’d fit in on any team. He was often the “tac” in “tic-tac-toe” plays in the halfcourt, parlaying the advantage of a DeMar DeRozan or Zach LaVine drive into a pass to another open player while the defense tried to catch up to the ball. He’s one of the true grandmasters of the sport on both ends, seeing plays two passes before they happen.
He’s also the primary reason for most fast-break points for the Bulls, and the team struggled to get any easy points in transition after he got hurt.
After some well-documented struggles with his shot early in his career, he’s turned into one of the very best high-volume 3-point shooters in the league. Thirty-seven players attempted at least seven 3-pointers per game last season; Ball led all of these players in 3-point percentage. His 3-point percentage last year (42.3%) was better than his free-throw percentage was his second year in the league (41.7%). Talk about shooting development.
Defensively, Ball pairs with Caruso to give the Bulls two of the best defenders in the league at the point of attack. Although they have different skillsets on defense, Ball and Caruso both have the ability to get over screens at the point of attack and blow up offensive sets before they happen. Nikola Vucevic, although not as bad as his turnstile reputation would suggest (DRIP sees him as a passable defender), predictably looked much better on defense before the injuries to Ball and Caruso.
Here Javonte Green is tasked with guarding Christian Wood, so the Rockets run action to get those two involved. Green drops back to contain any play from Wood, leaving the sharpshooter Garrison Matthews some daylight to trigger a 3-pointer while Ball navigates the screen.
Except… there is no daylight. Ball gets through Wood like he’s a minor inconvenience and gambles that he can block the ball without fouling. There is a subtle fearlessness to Ball’s defense. He bets on his intuition, whether it is a play like this or a jump into the passing lane at the exact right moment, completely abandoning his man if he feels like it’s the right move. More often than not, he’s right.
Unfortunately, Ball’s knee problems that plagued him last year have already reared their head again, as he underwent arthroscopic surgery. So, the Bulls will need other players to replace Ball’s production to avoid an early-season hole as he works his way back to form.
On defense, that player is Alex Caruso. While Ball’s defensive prowess can be subtle at times, nothing about Caruso is subtle. Sure, he’s a smart defender who navigates screens exceptionally well, but he does it in the loudest of ways. If a player isn’t one of the very best dribblers in the league, Caruso will put them in jail in a way that is obvious to everyone.
Caruso gave Will Barton fits here, but Barton was hardly the only victim to Caruso’s thievery. Caruso was fifth in the league in deflections per game among players who played at least half the season. And he was third among players who played 20 minutes per game in steal rate.
DRIP projects Caruso as the best defender on the Bulls this year, slightly better than Ball and well above anyone else. And with Ball slated to miss significant time, the Bulls will need Caruso to prove DRIP right for their defense to work.
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