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DunkOrThree > Top 10 Underrated NBA Players of All Time

Top 10 Underrated NBA Players of All Time

Publish Date:03.04.2024
Fact checked by: Jackson T. Pierce

The NBA is a star-based league. Big names have long ruled the court, and that only continues to grow with each passing year. That being said, while every fan has their own list of all-time best players, there are quite a few athletes who have slipped through the cracks.

There have been many underrated players throughout NBA history. Each one put up great numbers, were great teammates, and did some amazing things while on the court. Despite that, they are largely forgotten by older fans and not widely known by new ones.

Basketball has such a high focus on superstars that underrated talents almost always slip through the cracks. Not only that, but it’s tough to recognize key players beyond the flashy shooters or high level scorers.

A great passer or excellent defender won’t typically show up on social media or in a highlight reel. Still, basketball is a team sport. The following players weren’t always the face of their team, but they were definitely the glue that held it together.

1. Dennis Johson

There are many players who don’t get the credit they deserve, and Dennis Johnson certainly falls into that category. The guard, born September 18, 1954, played for three teams during his long career (Sonics, Suns, Celtics) and served as a coach for two (Celtics and Clippers).

What makes the American guard unique is that he didn’t just play a key role in those championships, he was a main cog in the machine. The Sonics never would have won without him. In fact, he earned the NBA FInals Most Valuable Player award in 1979 for his amazing play.

On top of that postseason success, Johnson also made the All-NBA Team during his career as well as the NBA All-Defensive Team. He played hard on both sides of the ball and never let up. Many don’t know his name, but three championship teams wouldn’t exist without him.

Though he unexpectedly passed away at 52 years old on February 22, 2007, being survived by his three children Denise, Daniel, and Dwayne Johnson, his legacy as one of the most underrated players of all time will always live on.

2. Dominique Wilkins

Dominique Wilkins, as with so many underrated players, is a forgotten hall of famer who had an incredible career. The star, born on January 12, 1960, put together an incredible career that included an All-NBA Team bid, NBA All-Rookie Team, and SEC Player of the Year.

He also made 9 all-star games and went third overall in the draft. He earned the scoring title in 1986 and took home two slam dunk contests as well. However, despite that incredible resume he’s largely forgotten when talking about the all-time great players.

There are several reasons for that, but the biggest is that Wilkins never won a ring. He was an incredibly talented player, but never managed to get the ultimate prize.

He’s well known by those who watched him play, and is one of the hallmark players of the 80’s. Even so, people still downplay his achievements. Basketball is focused on rings, and Wilkins not having one is why so many people don’t know his legacy.

3. Scottie Pippen

Many of the most underrated NBA players are overlooked due to the fact that they never won or led a championship team. Scottie Pippin is a bit different. The incredibly talented forward took home six rings. He just did it in the shadow of Michael Jordan.

Pippen is someone a lot of people know, but few understand. Born on September 25, 1965 and father to 7 children (Scottie Pippen Jr., Justin Pippen, Antron Pippen, Preston Pippen, Sierra Pippen, Taylor Pippen, and Tyler Roby Pippen) the forward had an incredible NBA career.

He made the all-star game 7 times, won 6 rings, and earned a spot on 3 different All-NBA First Teams. That resume, backed up by 18,940 points and nearly 8,000 career rebounds was more than enough to put him in the hall of fame.

Unfortunately, when most people think of the 90’s Bulls they just think of Jordan. He was the face of the league for a long time and still considered the best ever. While Pippen played well, Jordan gets the credit for the Bulls’ incredible run.

4. Sam Jones

Most players on this list are still known in one way or another, but a few faded into history. Such is the case with Sam Jones. The American guard had a long and successful NBA career but, as with Pippen, got overlooked due to his teammates.

Born on June 24, 1933, Jones joined the NBA during the late 50’s where he was drafted by the powerhouse Celtics who would go on to win 10 titles. Though Jones excelled while on that team, Bill Russell largely takes the credit for that incredible run.

The center dominated the 60’s and led Boston each and every year. That’s why Jones, despite 5 all-star appearances and a retired jersey, isn’t remembered in the same way as some of the others who saw the same success.

He did a great job while in the league, and was widely known as one of the Boston greats all through his death on December 30,2021. However, his legacy paled in comparison to what Russell managed to do.

5. Bernard King

Bernard King is a hall of famer,  but he’s someone very few basketball fans know or remember. Born back on December 4th, 1956, King played in the NBA for 16 years across 6 different teams.

During that time, he made a name for himself due to his incredible speed and explosive play. He put up a ton of points, won comeback player of the year in 1980, and made the All-NBA First Team twice. He also recorded 4 all-star appearances.

However, King also didn’t do anything flashy during his career either. While his consistency and hustle earned him a gold jacket, it didn’t do a lot to make him a fan favorite. He was easily overlooked by many of the bigger names of his era, and that hurt his legacy.

He also suffered a devastating leg injury in 1985, which greatly hampered his game. Though he continues to enjoy life with his spouse Shana Taylor and kid Amina Suzanne, his career was much bigger than his reputation.

6. Fat Lever

Born August 18, 1960, Lafayette “Fat” Lever was an incredibly talented role player. In fact, he’s widely regarded as one of the best to ever step on the court. Despite that, he makes this list because most modern fans don’t know his name.

While Lever never took over a team or hoisted a championship trophy, he excelled as soon as he came into the league. Drafted 11th overall by the Trail Blazers, the shifty guard put up impressive numbers throughout his entire career.

On top of that, he made 2 all-star games, made the All-NBA Second Team in 1987, the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 1988, and had his jersey retired by both the Nuggets and Arizona State.

His stats aren’t terribly impressive when stacked up against other greats, and he never had any impressive postseason runs. Even so, he ranks 11th all time in regular season triple-doubles. That might not make him as well known as other great players, but he played for a long time (1982-1994) and never dropped off.

7. Nate Thurmond

Sometimes players are underrated because they didn’t do enough, sometimes they are overshadowed by other athletes, and sometimes they just played a long time ago.

That last point is the case with Nate Thurmond. Born July 25, 1941, the superstar entered the league during its early years. While he excelled throughout his career and continued to stay close to basketball until his death on July 16, 2016, he’s not someone many fans know.

Thurmond was the first player to record a quadruple double (1974), and he’s also one of the only players to average 15 rebounds a game for an entire career and one of the only ones to average more than 20 rebounds per game during a season.

He also has the season record for most rebounds in a quarter and recorded more than 40 rebounds in a game during a contest against the Pistons on November 9, 1965.

That power allowed the big man to make 7 all star games, and make both 2 NBA All-Defensive First Teams and 3 NBA All-Defensive Second Teams. He was rookie of the year and had his jersey retired by both the Warriors and Cavaliers.

However, he never won a ring, largely kept quiet, and played a long time ago. Those aspects made him less well known, and less appreciated, than his peers.

8. Alex English

Born on January 5, 1954, Alex English is another hall of famer that’s underrated as a result of being extremely good but never truly great throughout his 15 year career. He played hard, put up great stats, but fell short in terms of championships and legacy.

Unlike many of the other stars on this list, English bounced around the league. He played for 4 teams during his time in the NBA, and it took him 4 seasons to rise from a late second round pick into a bonafide starter.

Once English hit his stride, he excelled. The small forward made 8 all star games, 3 All-NBA Second Teams and became the scoring champion in 1983. He also won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, which helped get his jersey retired and his name in the hall of fame.

However, English never took home a championship. He also never led his team in the same way as other superstars. He was a great scorer with a lot of talent, but that’s not enough to be idolized or properly appreciated by fans.

9. Dennis Rodman

As with Scottie Pippin, Dennis Rodman was a great player who was vastly underrated due to playing with Michael Jordan. His rebounding and incredible defense were key parts of the late 90’s Bulls, but they didn’t show up in highlights in the same way as Jordan did.

Born on May 13, 1961, Rodman is widely considered one of the best defenders in NBA history. On top of that, he has the 23rd most rebounds of all time and his tenacity and hustle were two big reasons the Bulls reached their second 3-peat.

Unfortunately for Rodman, he played with the best ever. On top of that, his strengths weren’t flashy and he was quite a character. Many people know him for his off-court antics, but they forget just how well he played when he suited up.

10. Jerry West

Few players are more iconic, and more underrated, than Jerry West. While some modern fans might know his name, it’s often forgotten when discussing the greats.

Born back on May 28th, 1938, West is a father of 5 children (Jonnie West, Ryan West, Michael West, Mark West, and David West) and a pure basketball lover who only ever excelled during his time in the NBA.

Not only did he win a ring as a player, but he took home a staggering 8 titles as an executive as well. He did that by putting together some of the most recognizable teams of all time, including the Showtime Lakers, the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, and the 2010 Warriors.

He was also a 14-time all star, made the All NBA First Team 10 times, and is one of the only players to earn Finals MVP for a series he didn’t win (1969). He’s also the inspiration behind the NBA’s iconic logo.

Despite that impressive resume, he did struggle in the big time. He lost 8 Finals series, which cause many fans to tarnish or disrespect his legacy. He gets some credit, but deserves a lot more.

What Defines an Underrated NBA Player?

Analyzing the above sections, there are many reasons a player may be considered underrated. Typically, the term refers to incredibly skilled athletes who don’t get any love in the media or who are largely forgotten about by fans.

Players with long, successful careers or important cogs in a championship machine are almost always underrated simply because most people don’t think they’re that good, or they don’t know who they are in the first place.

Why Do Some NBA Players Remain Overlooked?

Being a good NBA player with a long career is incredibly tough. The league has a high turnover rate and is extremely competitive. That leads to some players getting lost in the fold.

It doesn’t matter how good of a player someone is, if they don’t have a strong star presence or aren’t a team leader, it’s hard to stand out. Some players can average 15 or 20 points a game with plenty of assists or rebounds and they’ll never get the respect of true superstars.

The NBA is a league of the here and now. Older players are quickly forgotten, and even current all stars don’t get too much play if they’re humble or keep to themselves. Those who don’t win rings are usually also perceived to be worse than they are.

How Does Media Coverage Affect Underappreciated Player Perception?

Going off the above section, media coverage matters a lot too. The press always impacts how players are perceived, and that’s only gone up with modern social media. If someone doesn’t make a lot of highlights, they can fade into the background.

Players with a high media presence or who are more active online are more likely to be idolized by fans, who then prop them up and increase their popularity. That then causes them to be in the cultural eye, and helps them be more widely known and appreciated.

In contrast, strong players who didn’t have a lot of media presence or current all-stars who aren’t always in front of the camera tend to be underrated because they aren’t as widely known or lack the popularity. Fan interaction matters, and those who stay away from the spotlight can stay overlooked their entire careers.

What Impact Do Underrecognized Players Have on Their Teams?

Underrated players don’t get the celebrity or status of more popular stars, but they are still incredibly important elements of any franchise. Though teams typically need a big star, basketball is a team sport. It’s hard for anyone to succeed without a supporting case.

Skilled role players go a long way. They help bring experience to a team, can serve as mentors, put up all types of stats, and give a hundred percent day in and day out. Underrated athletes also don’t need the spotlight, which means they are more likely to be team players.

A team with one or two well known players typically won’t do as well as one with a few underrated ones. That’s because such athletes know how to work together and aren’t typically out for themselves. They add depth and can take a good team to great.

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