If star NBA players are like the presents underneath the tree, then the “others” might as well be stocking-stuffers. For multiple fan bases, the hope is that their supporting casts provide more candy than coal on NBA Christmas Day.
Though the Omicron variant of COVID-19 threatened the Christmas slate of games, the show will go on. While big names such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and others — barring further COVID complications — serve as headliners, a slew of underrated NBA players will also try to make a statement and leave fans feeling merry and joyous.
Here are five underrated players to watch on NBA Christmas Day.
G/F Pat Connaughton, Milwaukee Bucks
I wrote about Pat Connaughton as possibly the most underrated signing of the NBA offseason after his Opening Night performance against the Brooklyn Nets. Indeed, Connaughton — earning less than $5 million this season — has been a tremendous asset for the Milwaukee Bucks thus far.
The seventh-year forward gives the Bucks a key floor-spacer and rebounding presence when he’s on the floor. Connaughton is averaging 12.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in just under 30 minutes per contest. He’s shooting 40.6% from beyond the arc on 6.4 attempts.
Connaughton doesn’t just shoot the ball. He is a terrific off-ball cutter who can anticipate teams sending doubles at Giannis Antetokounmpo, which often frees the 28-year-old up for open forays into the paint. He’s also a strong, though infrequent, screener. According to NBA.com, the Bucks score an NBA-best 1.59 points per possession when Connaughton serves as the roll man in pick-and-roll.
Although the former Notre Dame product is only marginally impactful defensively (0.5 box plus-minus), his size and ability to guard multiple positions afford head coach Mike Budenholzer various options with his rotations.
The Bucks remain a top contender in the East. Contributions from depth players such as Connaughton and Grayson have helped define Milwaukee’s contender status.
F Nemanja Bjelica, Golden State Warriors
Nemanja Bjelica is another guy who caught my attention before the season started as a reserve player who seemed like the perfect pick-and-pop partner for Stephen Curry. His playmaking ability also drew rave reviews from Draymond Green.
Bjelica doesn’t get a ton of run on a nightly basis. But when he does, he makes a positive impact.
Belly is averaging 16.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per 36 minutes. He’s shooting an even 40% from beyond the arc on 2.4 attempts per contest. His ability to handle the ball and see the entire floor benefits Golden State’s motion offense.
Most importantly, Bjelica’s status as a floor-spacing big makes things easier for Curry. He keeps defenders honest, allowing Steph to exploit his matchup and find driving lanes or create space for jumpers. Can Belly give the Dubs an added boost against the Suns on NBA Christmas Day?
F Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns surprised some fans when they drafted Cameron Johnson No. 11 in the 2019 NBA Draft. After all, Johnson was already 23 years old at the time, and he also appeared to lack the athletic traits typically sought after in lottery picks.
However, Johnson is a legitimate difference-maker for a Suns team that has the best record in the NBA. If anything, his current contributions show just how underrated he may have been during the draft process.
The former North Carolina star provides vital scoring off the bench. Johnson is averaging 10.4 points and shooting 41.4% from beyond the arc on 5.4 attempts per game. He can spot up and knock down triples but has also shown a surprising ability to break defenders down off the dribble and make plays when he gets into the paint.
Phoenix might actually gain more from Johnson’s defense. The Suns give up 5.1 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. His +6 net rating ranks second among the team’s wing players, trailing only Mikal Bridges.
Chris Paul is excelling. Devin Booker is arguably a more dangerous scorer than ever before. Deandre Ayton is intent on proving he deserved a max extension this offseason. But if the Suns hope to get over the hump and win a championship, they need guys like Johnson to play quality minutes. He’s done just that thus far.
G Patty Mills, Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets needed Patty Mills to fill a sizable void when they announced Kyrie Irving ineligible to participate at the start of the season. Trying to replace Kyrie is an impossible task, but the Australian guard has done his very best since Opening Night.
Mills is averaging 13.6 points on a whopping 43% shooting from beyond the arc. It’s heavy volume, too, as he hoists 7.4 triples per contest. His shooting does quite a bit for Brooklyn’s offense.
The Nets score 12.7 more points per 100 possessions with Mills on the floor. They’re also more efficient with the ball, carrying a 13.0% turnover rate with Mills compared to 16.7% when he sits.
Mills has been terrific in filling space and anticipating the next pass. There were multiple occasions during a Dec. 14 matchup with the Toronto Raptors that he capitalized on the attention drawn by a Kevin Durant post touch, moving to the corner to create a passing lane for an open jumper.
The 33-year-old doesn’t complicate matters. If he has space, he’ll shoot. If the defense plays tight, he’ll look to drive off screens and attempt to find the next pass. He also moves well without the ball and will even come up to screen on the perimeter.
There’s a simplicity to Mills’ game. That’s typically cause for remaining one of the NBA’s most underrated players for over a decade. Still, he’s been a winning player for the Nets.
F Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are a collection of underrated NBA players. They’re one of the most slept-on contenders in the league this season. Joe Ingles is among the most underestimated winning player in the league.
Ingles’ raw numbers hardly catch the eye. He’s averaging 7.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.1 rebounds in 24.8 minutes. However, a deeper dive is required to discover his actual value to the Jazz.
According to NBA.com, the Jazz score 1.12 points per possession when Ingles is the primary ball-handler in pick-and-roll. That ranks first among all players with a 25% frequency and at least 15 games played.
Indeed, Ingles spearheads Utah’s offensive actions. He creates ball movement while also having the ability to hide behind screens and knock down 3-pointers. Although Utah has a higher offensive rating when he’s off the floor, its assist percentage is over five points higher with him on the court.
The 34-year-old might have a “Humbug” look about him, but the underrated point forward often plays a winning tune for the Jazz, and will likely hope to do so against the Dallas Mavericks on NBA Christmas Day.