If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: The NBA is a superstar’s league. Sure enough, if you don’t have an elite, top-tier game-changer, you’re likely not going to win the title. But that doesn’t mean that role players aren’t important, or that they don’t deserve recognition for their efforts.
With more emphasis than ever on efficiency, there have been a few players who have played those roles almost to perfection to begin the 2021-22 season. These aren’t All-Stars. If you want a look at them, you should head over to this story. Here, we’ll focus on five players who might be flying a bit under the radar and have gotten off to excellent starts this season.
*Stats accurate as of Jan. 8
For players with at least 300 possessions, you might be surprised to hear that Connaughton is fourth in the entire league in offensive efficiency with 1.184 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. Not only is Connaughton smashing his career highs in points per game (11.1) and 3-point percentage (.403), but he’s also being deployed in different ways. Mike Budenholzer has utilized Connaughton as a screener much more often than he did last season, making use of the athletic guard’s unique skill set. In the vein of smaller players like Bruce Brown and Gary Payton Jr., who are often used as roll men, Connaughton’s athleticism and strength allows him to get to the rim, where he’s in the 90th percentile in the league as a finisher, according to Synergy.
What separates Connaughton from players like Brown and Payton, however, is his ability to be a pop threat. If the defense takes away the roll or he ghosts the screen, he can space to well beyond the 3-point line and knock them down consistently.
Adding yet another dimension, if the defense closes out hard on his pop, he has the ability to put the ball on the floor and utilize his aforementioned finishing ability around the rim.
Connaughton has become elite in catch-and-shoot situations, in the 84th percentile according to Synergy, but his other talents allow him to be a much more versatile — and crucial — role player for Milwaukee.
Despite having a reputation as a shooter, Johnson didn’t actually shoot all that well last season, landing at just under 35 percent from 3-point range. This season has been the polar opposite, as Johnson is fifth in the NBA at 44.4 percent from deep, and is in the 94th percentile as a spot-up shooter, according to Synergy Sports.
Even when the defense locates Johnson on the perimeter in transition, it only takes a split-second of inattention for him to cut backdoor and get to the rim, where he finishes at a high clip.
Johnson is only 3 for 20 on midrange jumpers this season, so that is clearly the next step in his evolution. But for now, he’s finding a way to be an incredibly efficient spot-up shooter in both the half-court and transition for the Suns.
The Cavs are one of the NBA’s best stories this season, and Love’s resurgence is a big part of the narrative. The 33-year-old veteran’s efficiency is through the roof, posting the eighth-best points per possession (1.14) of any player with at least 300 possessions, according to Synergy. He’s averaging two more points in three fewer minutes than last season and shooting a career-best 43 percent from the 3-point line, while adding 7.6 rebounds per game. That translates to per 36-minute averages of 23.9 points and 10.5 rebounds.
Love is an absolute knock-down shooter when he’s left alone, making 47 percent of his 3-pointers characterized as “wide open” by NBA.com, but he’s also adept at creating space on closeouts. Love could teach a clinic on the pump fake-side dribble while making sure he stays behind the 3-point line after the defender flies by.
He’s also been able to play alongside other big men — and you know Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff likes to go big — by using his vision and touch to get the ball to Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen near the basket, where they’re both elite finishers.
With his shooting, rebounding, passing and durability this season, Love has proven that he’s still an effective player when many left him on the scrap heap. Ironically, now that his trade value is the highest it’s been in years, the Cavs may not want to let him go.
Curry has slowly but surely stepped out of his older brother’s shadow as his career has progressed, and he’s now turning in one of the most efficient seasons in the entire NBA. You might be thinking, “OK, so he hits a lot of 3s … of course advanced metrics love him.” But Curry’s offensive production goes well beyond his long-distance shooting ability.
First, anyone who’s watched even a small amount of 76ers basketball can see that the Curry-Joel Embiid dribble hand-off is one of the deadliest weapons in the league. Curry is averaging 1.388 points per possession in hand-off situations, according to Synergy, which is in the 96th percentile. He and Embiid have developed a connection that makes them nearly impossible to guard, and it allows Curry gets a lot of open looks from the midrange, where he’s shooting 59 percent — by far the best in the NBA.
What you might not know about Curry, however, is that he’s also been an elite pick-and-roll ball-handler this season. When you include passes, Curry has been the most efficient of any NBA player with at least 300 possessions out of the pick-and-roll. With Ben Simmons yet to play this season and players in and out of the lineup in health and safety protocols, Curry has thrived with the added playmaking responsibility. He has no problem rising up off of a pick if the defense foolishly gives him space, but he can also find the roll man or a cutter for an easy basket.
As a result of his development and opportunity, Curry is averaging a career-high 3.9 assists to go with 16.3 points per game on 51/41/87 shooting splits. It’s safe to say that the 76ers wouldn’t be where they are without him.
Zion Williamson has yet to play a game and the Pelicans got off to a dreadful start to the season, so it’s understandable if you haven’t seen much of Hart this season. He’s one of the rare players who rates well in efficiency despite not being a big man or a particularly good 3-point shooter (he’s at 34 percent this season). His biggest improvement has come in his playmaking ability, where he’s received extra opportunity due to Williamson’s injury and the departure of Lonzo Ball.
Hart has nearly doubled his career-high assist average to 4.4 per game, and he lands in the 89th percentile in offensive efficiency including assists, according to Synergy. He has a knack for getting into the lane and drawing defense, which means he finds a lot of baseline cutters and weakside corner 3-point shooters.
The reason he draws so much defensive attention in the lane is that he’s an excellent finisher for his 6-5 height. Hart is averaging 1.304 points per possession around the basket, sixth among guards with at least 50 such field goal attempts, according to Synergy. He’s not a high-flier, but he uses his strength, angles and touch to put the ball in the basket at a high rate. Watch how he bullies Lu Dort — yes, Lu Dort! — out of the way, while maintaining enough balance to avoid a travel and finish the bucket:
Hart is averaging a career high in points (12.9) and field goal percentage (51.6) this season in addition to his lofty assist totals. When Williamson finally returns, Hart will be an excellent secondary playmaker and finisher for New Orleans.