The talent level in the NBA is at an all-time high. With all the blinding star power shining every night, too many talented players slip through the cracks and fall under the average fan’s radar. So with the 2022-23 regular season nearly complete, I wanted to show appreciation to some of those unsung heroes that have made this season such a memorable one. Let’s dig straight in.
Zach Collins was the main spark of this article. After an injury held him out for the entirety of the 2020-21 campaign, he came to the Spurs with a lot to prove and has surpassed all expectations. He jumped out of the gates playing like one of the best backup bigs in the business and is now flourishing as a starter since Jakob Poeltl’s departure. He’s a stout interior defender, a floor-spacer, and an impact rebounder who does all the dirty work. An enforcer in the truest sense, Zach is never afraid to stand up for his teammates and has been involved in multiple scuffles as a result. He bounced back from injury better than ever and at just 25 years old, he’s cemented a spot in San Antonio’s long-term plans.
Joe Ingles & Jevon Carter
This Milwaukee Bucks squad is perhaps the best of the Giannis era. While Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez enjoying career years plays a large part in that, the biggest difference-maker is the depth on Coach Bud’s bench. Milwaukee’s roster boasts eleven playoff-caliber players, something no other team in the league can hold a candle to. The leaders of the stacked bench mob are Joe Ingles and Jevon Carter.
Ingles, who spent his entire career with the Jazz before this year, tore his ACL last season which could have spelled disaster for a guy in his mid-thirties. Instead, he’s been as productive as ever in his return to the court. He’s a fierce competitor and trash-talker who has been a steady veteran presence for this Bucks unit with his reliable shooting and secondary playmaking. He’s slow but precise in his movement and while he doesn’t provide much rim pressure, his court vision is excellent and he can find guys in their spots consistently. He even directs pick-and-rolls as a ball handler and is essentially the point guard at times. Considering his solid defensive ability too, Ingles has probably been Milwaukee’s sixth-best player and will be a vital member of the rotation in the postseason.
After the 2022 trade deadline, the Brooklyn Nets waived Jevon Carter to open up a roster spot for Goran Dragic. That decision blew up in their faces. Carter is miles ahead of Dragic (who, funnily enough, is also a Buck now) on both ends and has been a rock in Milwaukee’s lineup in the midst of a storm of injuries. He’s hounded opposing ball handlers and knocked down flurries of ballsy pull-up triples in all 79 Bucks contests this season. Coach Budenholzer received a lot of criticism for leaving Carter on the bench in the playoffs last year, but the steady little guard has made committing that mistake again impossible with his play in this Milwaukee campaign.
Dennis Schroder & Troy Brown Jr.
The post-bubble era has been a wild ride for the Los Angeles Lakers. Their rosters have been incompetent and their superstar duo has spent almost as much time in street clothes as they have on the court. This year’s trade deadline breathed some life into their chances at making noise in the crowded West as Rob Pelinka made multiple deals to add legitimate talent alongside LeBron and AD. Even before the deadline, through thick and thin, Darvin Ham has consistently seen winning contributions from Dennis Schroder and Troy Brown Jr.
Schroder, a veteran guard in his second stint in the City of Angels, has quietly been one of basketball’s best backup point guards. His effective inside-the-arc scoring, heady floor generalship and P&R directory, and solid point-of-attack defense have been critical in keeping the Lakers afloat no matter who’s healthy. He’s been the butt of many jokes about when he declined a contract worth upwards of $80 million, and while that decision is still questionable, he’s set himself up for a nice little payday this offseason.
Brown Jr., who was picked just outside of the lottery in 2018, struggled to find a real role as a pro during his time with Washington and Chicago. He took a one-year, bet-on-yourself deal last summer and it has paid off. He’s brought a lot of hustle to this Lakers squad both defensively and on the glass. As a bonus, he’s making good on a career-high percentage of his deep-range tries. He’ll likely move on to a new home after his contract expires and he’ll help bring success wherever he goes.
Behind the arc is where Houston product Quentin Grimes impressed the most as a rookie, but he’s rounded his game out as a sophomore and become a key component of this playoff Knicks team. His name has been tossed around in All-Defense discussions because of his ability to dance around screens and stay glued to his man. On the other end, he’s been aggressive in attacking closeouts and using that advantage to finish at the rack or dish a well-timed dump-off to an open comrade. Of course, he still swishes treys with his beautiful stroke and has become a quintessential 3&D off-guard as a full-time opener for New York.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Few players embody the title “three-point specialist” more than Tim Hardaway Jr. of the Mavericks. He rarely produces in other areas but can win Dallas games when he heats up from outside. They’re 6-3 on the season when he hits six or more triples. His highs are high and his lows are low but when he’s cooking he makes a big impact on victory and, as a bonus, launches some mind-boggling heat-checks that make his best outings a blast to watch.
Before Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving requested trades out of the blue, the Nets were on a roll and looking like an upper-echelon contender. Their roster went through a massive recasting, with four new starters joining the lineup, but Brooklyn’s resident iron man remained after the dust settled. He’s missed only five possible contests while playing a career-high in minutes, providing high-level catch-and-shoot ability, wing defense, and ball movement every time he’s on the hardwood. It’s a shame the Nets imploded because O’Neale would have really aided them in competing for the Larry O’Brien and he deserves that opportunity.
Naz Reid & Taurean Prince
All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns was sidelined with a calf strain for a large chunk of this season, leaving a gaping hole in Minnesota’s scoring output. They needed someone to step up and Naz Reid delivered. He’s a fluidly skilled center/power forward combo who can handle the ball and get to the cup while also being a capable floor spacer. In some ways, he replicates what Towns brings to an offense. Reid has lept into the top tier of backup bigs and will command considerable money for his services as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Taurean Prince has been as dependable as they come on the wing for coach Chris Finch. He’s a spot-up threat and a serviceable defender who’s been a staple in Minnesota’s rotation all year. Prince won’t wow you with his statistical output but he’s the type of guy that can be trusted to play significant minutes in playoff settings (think Pat Connaughton in Milwaukee’s 2021 Finals run or Markieff Morris for the Lakers the year prior). He also exploded for a fiery 35-point, 8-3PM performance in March in which he shot 92% from the field and 100% from deep which is pretty wild.
Davion Mitchell & Trey Lyles
The Sacramento Kings are undeniably the most exciting story of the season. After piecing together a refurbished roster through the trade market, free agency, and the draft, they snapped their woefully extended lottery streak by not only clinching a spot in the ‘offs but by securing a top-three seed in the Western Conference. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis (who are both having All-NBA caliber seasons) headline the Beam Team but around them is an incredibly balanced group that has made this surgance possible.
Sacramento’s historic high-octane offense has been the platform for their takeoff and enough to overcome defensive deficiencies. That said, sophomore guard Davion Mitchell has been a buoy for them on D. He’s been praised for his lockdown capabilities since college and is living up to the hype, putting a real stake in All-Defense discussions. In some ways he’s a smaller Jrue Holiday on the perimeter, using impeccable core strength and lateral quickness to blow up plays and completely shut down his matchup.
I owe a huge apology to Trey Lyles. In an article two years ago where I jumbled together some positive thoughts on the Spurs, I threw a stray at him, flat-out saying “Trey Lyles sucks”. I’ve come a long way with my writing since then and Lyles has progressed equally. His do-it-all attitude at the four has been huge for Sacramento’s bench unit. Catch-and-shooting, timely cutting, rebounding; whatever you need, he’s got you covered. So, Trey, I apologize and I’m glad to see you succeed.
The only rookie on this list, AJ Griffin has flown under the radar of not only fans but somehow also his coaching staff. He’s been a professional in nearly every aspect of shooting from the second he stepped on an NBA court for the first time, whether it’s spotting up, turning and firing on the move, or stepping in for a one-dribble pull-up when he gets chased off the line. He’s also a solid defender on the ball and has delivered two game-winning buckets this season. All of that said, Griffin’s role in Atlanta’s rotation has been minor compared to the value he can provide. He was even getting DNP-coach decisions in early March, an inexcusable offense from Quin Snyder. Whenever he’s been given the proper minutes, Griffin has shown out and he feels like a lock for All-Rookie.
Despite being a lottery pick in 2020, Aaron Nesmith’s first two years in the league were void of both playing time and productivity. Then, last offseason, he was tossed into the trade that landed Boston Malcolm Brogdon which was just what he needed to grow. Nesmith has been a common member of Indiana’s starting five which he’s done by hanging his hat on the defensive end. He’s been relentlessly focused on getting stops while doubling as a viable spot-up shooter on the other end, fitting the always trendy 3&D label. The 2023 campaign has been like a second draft for Nesmith and he’s made the most of it.
Delon Wright & Daniel Gafford
While their mediocre record suggests otherwise, the Wizards have been a sneaky fun watch this year. Two major reasons for that are Delon Wright and Daniel Gafford.
Wright trails only former All-Star Kristaps Porzingis in box plus/minus this season amongst all Wizards. He makes them a better team when he subs in because of his ball-hawking, intelligent ball movement, and shooting. The veteran combo guard isn’t flashy but gets the job done at a high level night in and night out.
Gafford is one of the most thrilling watches at the center position. Every time he dives to the hoop or soars to catch a lob he does so with the intention of tearing the basket down. On defense, he prowls the paint waiting to exterminate any shot thrown in his direction. Simply put, the man’s a beast and he can dominate games with bounce, intensity, and vigor.
Dennis Smith Jr.
If there were a comeback player of the year award in the NBA, that honor would go to Dennis Smith Jr. Injuries turned a bright future into a bleak one that seemed at risk of ending when Portland waived him last season. Then, his hometown Hornets offered the 25-year-old another shot, one that he took full advantage of. Smith has shined defensively, using his athletic gifts to be an absolute menace despite standing at just 6’2”. Even considering his lack of a perimeter jumper, he’s extended his career with his newfound All-League guarding ability and it’s been one of the cooler subplots of this season.
This article could go on forever and ever if I mentioned everyone that came to mind when thinking of unsung heroes, so before I wrap things up here are some others: Doug McDermott, Chris Boucher, Donte DiVincenzo, Aaron Holiday, Coby White, Devonte’ Graham, Cam Reddish, Miles McBride, T.J. McConnell, Jaylin Williams, & Svi Mykhailiuk.
Part of what makes following the NBA so much fun is appreciating the contributions brought to the table by every single player, from the top dogs to the two-way guys, and the core mission at the Bench Mob Blog is to help everyone do just that. So, if you don’t know much about these guys, check ‘em out sometime. In the meantime, send your favorite unsung heroes to me on Twitter @thebenchmobblog. Thanks for reading, and see you next time!