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It’s hard to think of anything more valuable than efficiency in today’s NBA.
We’re obsessed with it, and that’s probably a good thing. Better to laud the players who make the most of their teams’ finite possessions than those who fatten up their counting stats with high-volume approaches. This is largely why you don’t hear sharp NBA analysts talking about points per game as often as they mention usage rate and effective field-goal percentage.
That same thinking informs our choices here. Those who can do more with less, who can contribute value in short stretches, are more important than ever.
The players we’ll designate all average fewer than 20 minutes per game and are necessarily specialists. If they could do everything well or offer elite production in one category without taking something off the table in another, they’d be getting more court time. They’d also probably be conventional All-Stars.
These, then, are All-Stars in their specific roles—imperfect players but highly useful in their areas of expertise.
So if you need someone to score, facilitate, rebound, protect the rim or provide that coveted two-way wing play in limited minutes, these are your guys.
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How He Helps: Getting buckets
Jeremy Lin leads all sub-20-minute players—we’re just going to call them sub-20s from now on—with an average of 10.7 points per game. Charlotte Hornets guard Malik Monk narrowly edges out Lin in per-36-minute scoring, but the second-year spark plug is far less efficient. Lin, who’ll transport his bench scoring from Atlanta to Toronto once his buyout is complete, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, owns a 59.4 true shooting percentage.
A career-long attacker, Lin attempts 34 percent of his shots at the rim, which ranks in the 72nd percentile among combo guards. He’s also adept from the mid-range area, where he shoots 46 percent, good enough to rank in the 81st percentile at his position. Those in-between shots have fallen out of favor, but when bench-driven offenses break down (which happens a lot because, well, they’re made up of bench players), it’s nice to have Lin’s mid-range game as a floor-raising bailout option.
Better still, Lin’s free-throw rate ranks first among all* sub-20 guards. If you’re looking for short bursts of efficient scoring, you can’t top Lin’s shooting and foul-drawing value.
With Delon Wright gone and Fred VanVleet potentially sidelined for three weeks, Lin’s services will be in high demand with Toronto.
How He Hurts: Disastrous ball security
We can probably agree that retaining possession of the basketball is kind of important to good offense. Unfortunately for Lin, this is a serious problem area.
He turns over the rock on 17.3 percent of his possessions, which ranks in the third percentile of combo guards. Chances are, if you’ve watched Lin enough, you’ll recognize the familiar sight of his extreme aggression propelling him into the lane…where three defenders are waiting to tie him up or force an errant pass.
*Except for Sindarius Thornwell, whose 5.8 minutes per game leave all of his stats vulnerable to major small-sample issues.
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How He Helps: Reliable facilitation
It’s hard for anyone to be productive on a Cleveland Cavaliers team currently in line to post the worst point differential since the 7-59 then-Charlotte Bobcats of 2011-12, but Matthew Dellavedova is doing his best.
He ranks second among sub-20s with 7.6 assists per 36 minutes. New Orleans’ Tim Frazier tops the category with 8.1 assists per 36, but handing out dimes isn’t the only aspect of reliable playmaking. The Pels’ offensive efficiency drops by 3.3 points per 100 possessions when Frazier is on the floor, while Cleveland’s dips by only 0.9 points per 100 possessions when Dellavedova plays.
Considering Delly’s most frequent on-court partner is possession-eating, offense-destroying guard Jordan Clarkson, it’s a wonder Cleveland’s offense is only marginally worse when he’s on the floor.
Contrast that suboptimal pairing with Frazier’s situation—his three most frequent collaborators are Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis and Julius Randle—and Dellavedova gains a major advantage. If Frazier can’t improve the Pels offense alongside those guys, imagine how his production would crater if he were in Delly’s situation.
How He Hurts: You mean other than literally causing injury?
Aside from habitually diving at opponents’ lower extremities, which is a great way to hurt people, Dellavedova’s 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes are third-worst among sub-20s. Other than that, there hasn’t been much to complain about this season. Dellavedova’s presence on the floor dramatically improves Cleveland’s defense, and he’s shooting a respectable 35.8 percent from deep.
He’s quietly been one of Cleveland’s most helpful players since rejoining the team in December via trade from Milwaukee.
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How He Helps: Dominant glasswork
Would you like all the rebounds? Excellent! Please hold while Ed Davis gets them for you.
The Brooklyn Nets’ veteran big man is a flat-out elite collector of missed shots. Davis doesn’t just lead all sub-20s with a 25.3 percent rebound rate, but he’s also second among all players, starter or reserve, by that measurement. Only Hassan Whiteside grabs boards more frequently.
Here’s the thing, though: Great individual rebounders sometimes get a little too board-happy, sacrificing good help position for a better shot at a miss or even failing to box out because they’re so focused on the ball. Robin Lopez is the antithesis of this phenomenon, as his individual rebounding averages rarely impress. Meanwhile, because Lopez’s first priority is preventing the opposing center from getting the ball, his teams consistently rebound better when he’s on the court.
Davis falls into this category too. The Nets rebound 52.7 percent of all misses when he plays and 49.0 percent when he doesn’t. What’s more, Brooklyn’s defensive rating when he plays is 101.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. When he sits, it’s 111.4.
Davis isn’t out for his own stats. He’s a true team-first boardsman.
How He Hurts: Negative space
Davis is about as far from a modern offensive center as it gets. He’s taken 80.8 percent of his shots from inside three feet this season and hasn’t made a single one from beyond 10 feet. Even on a triple-obsessed Nets team that has allowed starting center Jarrett Allen to attempt 36 triples (at a 16.7 percent clip), Davis has the reddest of three-point lights.
He’s tried two treys on the year.
I’m not going to look this up, but I feel good guessing he tried really hard to rebound both of those bricks.
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How He Helps: Relentless shot-snuffing
Knicks rookie center Mitchell Robinson averages 17.6 minutes and (it feels like) at least that many highlight blocks per game. Whenever New York plays, it’s tough to scroll through Twitter without coming across a highlight video of Robinson covering 25 feet and slapping a three-point attempt into the stands.
In addition to pioneering the art of swatting jumpers, Robinson is also a terrific rim protector. This makes sense: 7’1″ centers with ridiculous bounce and alarming length tend to look imposing inside.
He leads the league and (obviously) ranks first among sub-20s with a 9.8 percent block rate. And though some swat-hunting bigs sacrifice position trying for highlight rejections, the advanced metrics love Robinson’s impact on team defense.
He’s tied for 12th in BBall Index’s Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus. Opponent field-goal percentage drops by 7.8 percentage points inside six feet when he’s designated as the primary defender. And the Knicks’ team defensive efficiency improves by 3.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
His shot-blocking and interior presence make a huge impact in short stints.
How He Hurts: General raw rookie stuff, which is fine!
Robinson didn’t play collegiately, which means he came to the Knicks this past summer with limited experience. That manifested itself in foul-prone play early this year, though he’s improved in that area. You’d like to see him convert more than 50.8 percent of his free throws and provide a little stretch, but it’s probably fair to give the 20-year-old some time to develop his game.
Finally, Robinson’s role as a defensive fulcrum entails communication. He’s the back-line signal-caller, which has been a struggle. He’s working on it, though.
“He’s teaching me how to talk a little louder,” Robinson said of DeAndre Jordan’s recent influence, via Chris Iseman of NorthJersey.com. “Just start screaming out screens, all the other stuff. He helps me out a lot during games.”
If Robinson’s trajectory continues, he won’t be a low-minute All-Star for long.
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How He Helps: By being the best two-way wing you never watch
Royce O’Neale is the most complete role-playing three-and-D wing among our sub-20s, and it isn’t close. All the guy does is shut down several positions on D, light it up as a catch-and-shoot sniper and make a massive two-way impact on one of the league’s top teams.
O’Neale is a burly 6’6″ with a 6’10” wingspan, which allows him to physically overwhelm both wing positions and even bang with some 4s underneath. If it’s a switching defense you want, he can play it. Beyond the versatility on D, there’s eye-popping production. O’Neale is tied for 13th among all small forwards in D-PIPM and ranks 11th at the position in DRPM. Cut down the field to sub-20s, and O’Neale’s stats look even more impressive.
He’s first among sub-20 wings in defensive box plus-minus and 11th in steal percentage. When he’s on the floor, Utah’s defensive rating improves by 2.3 points per 100 possessions, which is a significant jump for one of the league’s best defenses overall.
On offense, O’Neale finishes 68.8 percent of his shots at the rim and 42.7 percent from deep. He basically never shoots two-point jumpers, giving him one of the best shot mixes in the league. No wonder he ranks in the 98th percentile among wings in effective field-goal percentage..
O’Neale does everything a team could ask from a non-star wing.
How He Hurts: By doing non-role-player things
O’Neale is turnover prone and gets into trouble when he’s used as a creator. A wing who averages 1.4 assists against 0.9 giveaways isn’t ideal. There’s a reason 97.7 percent of his threes and 74.6 percent of his twos have been assisted this year.
Granted, we’re talking about a role-filler here, not a star. Those guys are supposed to feast on good looks created by teammates, and O’Neale is eating well.
Also, he has one too many e’s in his last name. That about covers it in the criticism department.