In the NBA, not everyone can be a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James. These superstars command the spotlight for a good reason, and everything they do goes under a microscope. That means somebody has to take on other roles, operate under the superstars’ shadows, and be OK with whatever recognition comes their way. They are not necessarily forgotten, especially by real basketball fans, but their names are often overlooked.
This article lists 25 of the most underrated NBA players of all time because now is the time to give these underappreciated stars their much-needed flowers.
What Does it Mean to Be an Underrated NBA Player?
“Underrated” is a term thrown around a lot among NBA fans. To be underrated means that a player’s skills, contributions, and impact on the game are not fully recognized or appreciated by fans, media, or even fellow players and coaches. Despite possessing valuable talents and consistently performing at a high level, underrated players often don’t receive the same level of attention or recognition as some of the more well-known or highly publicized players in the league.
The reason why a player is underrated may vary. It could be that he’s coming off the bench, his playstyle is not flashy, or he’s playing under the shadow of a superstar. Being underrated is sometimes not about skills or impact. It’s more of a reflection of how their abilities are often underappreciated within the larger context of the NBA.
Over time, some underrated players do get their due recognition as their performances become more widely acknowledged, and they might eventually earn spots in All-Star games, awards, and discussions of the league’s elite talents. Still, one couldn’t help but wonder if these accolades do these players enough justice.
25 Most Underrated NBA Players of All Time
Listing the most underrated players in NBA history is not an easy undertaking. At only 25 players, some names are still bound to get overlooked, something these players are too familiar with. As mentioned, the underrated tag comes from all sorts of backgrounds, from All-Stars and All-NBA selections to elite defenders and offensive weapons.
Here are the most underrated players in NBA history:
1. Clyde Drexler
Ask any basketball fan to rank their top 5 shooting guards, and you’d probably get Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, and perhaps Jerry West or Reggie Miller. More often than not, Drexler’s is left out of it, which is a travesty.
Now, think about this: There was once a time when Clyde was considered every bit as good as Jordan Portland drafted Sam Bowie because they already got Drexler. That’s a bad decision by the Blazers, but the point is, Drexler was once the No. 2 shooting guard behind MJ in their primes.
If anything, Clyde was way better than Iverson. AI led Philadelphia to one Finals appearance as the bus driver, but Drexler made it to two NBA Finals as the No. 1 guy. He was the clear No. 2 behind Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995 and did an admirable job when the stakes were the highest.
Check this out: “The Glide” averaged 24.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, six assists, and 1.4 steals in 15 NBA Finals games. That’s even higher than D-Wade!
2. Kevin McHale
In his prime, McHale was an automatic bucket in the post, averaging 26 points on 60% shooting in his best year. And yet, no one’s giving him the flowers as one of the top power forwards of all time. There’s a reason why Charles Barkley calls McHale ‘the best player he’s ever faced.’ The guy had a deep bag of moves in the post and was an absolute master in the low block. He’ll hit his defender with an up-fake one moment, and he’s gone to the basket the next.
3. Mark Price
Name one guard in the 90s who made the All-NBA First team and you’d probably never guess it’s Mark Price. It’s easy to see why Price was underrated: he was barely six feet tall and weighed only 170 pounds soaking wet.
However, don’t let that size fool you. Price was described as the 90s version of Steve Nash, and that’s not too far off. He is consistently among the league leaders in assists and shot better than 40% from deep in his career. And if you didn’t know, his fellow NBA players credited Price to have invented the double-team split, so every time you see someone orchestrating that move, that’s the spirit of Mark Price right there.
4. Kevin Johnson
In the case of Kevin Johnson, it was probably injuries that relegated him to the underrated list, but in his prime, few are as good as him. In his absolute peak from 1988 to 1992, KJ averaged 21.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 11.1 assists, and 1.6 steals on 50% shooting from the floor.
Here’s why Johnson was grossly underrated: In the 1988-89 season, he was averaging over 20 points and 12 dimes, won the Most Improved Player of the Year, and yet, he did not make the All-Star team that year. He wasn’t even top 10 in the voting for Western Conference guards!
OK, maybe the fact that he was accused of a horrific crime may have something to do with his career going all but forgotten. Still, basketball-wise, KJ was as good as any prime point guard in the 90s.
5. Manu Ginobili
Ginobili probably had something to with him being underrated. He accepted a sixth man role in San Antonio, leading casuals to think he was just a reserve. The truth is, the Argentinian was the glue that connected the starters to the bench, making everything work like a well-oiled machine.
With Ginobili, the counting stats don’t matter. He was capable of doing so much more, but he sacrificed and put the team first to win. Well, the proof is in the pudding: Ginobili won four championships with the Spurs and led Argentina to an Olympic Gold Medal in 2004.
Underrated Defensive Geniuses
6. Shane Battier
No championship teams are built without guys like Shane Battier. They are selfless and love to do the dirty work that nobody else wants to do. Battier was tasked to shadow the opponent’s best perimeter scoring threat, going toe-to-toe with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James.
Battier only got his flowers when he teamed with the Big 3 in 2012. It’s not a coincidence Miami finally got over the hump with him in tow, but Battier’s presence still largely goes unnoticed. After all, he did not average huge numbers in the Heat’s championship runs. That said, his defensive versatility made everything click in South Beach, allowing the team to get away with playing small ball most of the time.
7. Maurice Cheeks
Ask someone who’s been a longtime NBA fan to name five of the best defensive guards in the 80s, and chances are, they wouldn’t mention Maurice Cheeks. The fact of the matter is, Cheeks was as good as anyone on D, making four straight All-Defensive First Teams from 1983 to 1986 and the Second Team in 1987. Cheeks won a championship for the Sixers as their starting point guard in 1983 and finished his career in the top 10 all-time in steals per game. And yet, nobody bats an eyelash, which makes him underrated in anyone’s book.
8. Ben Wallace
Probably the best defensive player of all time, Big Ben still doesn’t get the love he truly deserves. Some analysts give him flak because of the lack of offensive output, but really, it should be the other way around. How someone who couldn’t make a jump shot or free throw to save his life became a five-time All-NBA member is an argument that should work in his favor. It shows how transcendent Ben’s defense was, something the NBA has never seen since his peak in the 2000s Pistons.
9. Alvin Robertson
Robertson wasn’t a champion like Battier, Cheeks, and Wallace, but he was one hell of a defensive player. His defense showed on both the eye test and the stats– he was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and NBA’s all-time leader in steals per game (2.71). Unfortunately, Robertson never made it past the first round of the playoffs and he was best known as the guy who scored the first points for the Toronto Raptors in 1995.
10. Gerald Wallace
Aside from old-school fantasy owners, no one knew who Gerald Wallace was. It’s actually a crime that “Crash” only had one All-Star selection and one All-Defensive team across his name. He should have at least three! In the 2007-08 season, the guy put up 19.4 points, six rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.1 steals. The following year, he was good for 16.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.7 steals.
Of course, these numbers didn’t translate to winning, but sheer figures alone should put Wallace ahead of other players like Caron Butler and Rip Hamilton. “Crash” consistently gets it done on both ends and should get more love if he’s playing today.
Underrated Offensive Studs
11. Alex English
English was the NBA’s highest scorer in the 80s, even better than Larry Bird and George Gervin in that department. He started a streak of nine seasons where he averaged at least 23.8 points, peaking at an insane 29.8 points per game in the 1985-86 season. He’s the first player to score 2,500 points in eight straight seasons, and for some reason, modern basketball fans don’t know who he is.
12. Vinnie Johnson
Nicknamed “The Microwave” because of his ability to heat up quickly, Johnson was vital for the Pistons’ championship teams in the late 80s. Danny Ainge, a bitter rival for the Boston Celtics, gave him that nickname, a testament to how opponents respected Vinnie’s game. Johnson made the game-winning bucket in Game 5 of the 1990 NBA Finals, giving Detroit its back-to-back titles. Nobody remembers this shot besides Pistons fans, so that should make Johnson a shoo-in on this list.
Imagine that: The Pistons could have easily gone to Joe Dumars or Isiah Thomas for that shot, but they went to the Microwave to bring home the bacon. That’s how good Vinnie Johnson was, and nobody seemed to remember.
13. Marques Johnson
Before Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, Ray Allen, Michael Redd, and Giannis Antetokounmpo were averaging 20+ points in a Buck uniform, there was Marques Johnson. Johnson did get recognition when he was playing– five-time All-Star and three All-NBA selections. But, unfortunately, nobody remembers how good this guy was in his prime.
In his second season with the Bucks, Johnson averaged 25.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, three assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.2 blocks. He claimed to have coined the phrase “point forward” when he was asked by Don Nelson to assume ballhandling responsibilities from the small forward positions because of injuries during the 1984 playoffs.
14. World B. Free
There are many great NBA players in history, but did you know averaging at least 30 points per game was only achieved by less than 40 individuals until the 2022-23 season? And one of those otherworldly offensive talents was World B. Free.
Born Lloyd Bernard Free, this dynamo of a combo guard achieved the feat in the 1979-80 season. He messed around and averaged 30.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. He also averaged over 28 points one season and had a streak of eight seasons where he scored at least 22 points a game.
15. Jack Sikma
Sikma was a walking contradiction– he was the all-time leader in FT percentage at the center position and one of the better passers and rebounders as well. How often have you seen a center shot better than 92% from the charity stripe all season?
But that wasn’t just what Sikma was all about. In the 1979 SuperSonics championship run, Sikma averaged 14.8 points, 11.7 boards, 2.5 assists, and 1.4 blocks. He had eight seasons averaging a double-double and shot 38% from three over the course of the 1988-89 season on decent volume. Jack Sikma was ahead of his time in many ways, and no one seemed to care.
16. Tiny Archibald
How many players in NBA history averaged at least 34 points and 11 assists in a season? That’s right! Nobody except Nate “Tiny” Archibald. It seems like no one’s talking about how good Archibald was. Maybe it’s because he didn’t have much playoff success before he got to Boston, but that should be beside the point. He was the precursor to the high-scoring, small point guards that came after him, such as Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway.
17. John Havlicek
Havlicek holds plenty of the Celtics’ all-time records, such as most points, most number of games, and most field goals made. Yet, “Hondo” is still way behind the other Green in terms of mentions and overall fan sentiment, perhaps because of recency bias. That shouldn’t change the fact that Havlicek won eight titles, two without Bill Russell, and posted eight seasons scoring over 20 points a game. Those 70s Celtics are some of the most underrated NBA teams ever, and their leader was also an underrated star in his own right.
18. Moses Malone
How do you know Big Mo is underrated? Well, for one, he’s not the most popular Malone in the league. That distinction goes to Karl, but Moses was probably better at his peak than the Jazz legend ever was.
Here are some Moses Malone numbers to digest: He was a three-time league MVP and led the Sixers to the 1983 championship, with insane averages of 26 points and 15.8 rebounds in the postseason. How about this? Big Mo is only one of seven players to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds a game throughout his career.
19. Elvin Hayes
Remember the seven players to have averaged at least 20 points and 12 boards? Another name in that exclusive company is Elvin Hayes. In fact, Hayes had nine of those seasons, and once averaged 21.4 points, 18.1 rebounds, and three blocks in 1973-74. For some reason, Hayes never won MVP, although he made the All-NBA First Team three times and helped the Washington Bullets win a title in 19878.
20. Dave DeBusschere
DeBusscherre was the poster boy of blue-collar basketball during his 12-year career, including two championships and eight All-Star appearances. His work ethic was second to none, and he competed with the best of them despite just being 6-foot-6, 225 pounds. Many people will tell you that Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and Earl Monroe were the stars of those Knicks championship teams in the 70s. But make no mistake about it, DeBusschere did the dirty work so his teammates could shine the way they did.
Other Underrated Players
21. Hal Greer
Greer made the All-NBA Second team seven times, meaning there were only a handful of guards better than him in the 60s. Those guards were Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. To be ranked behind those guys and still is a relative unknown among basketball junkies is the very definition of underrated.
22. Michael Adams
Adams was the only player in history to average at least 26 points, 10 assists, and two steals in a season. That happened in the 1990-91 season when Adams played in a historically bad Nuggets team. Nevertheless, there’s a reason why no one ever achieved those numbers. And to think, Adams was just 5-foot-9 with an ugly-looking one-handed jump shot!
23. Rod Strickland
Rod is one of the best not to make an All-Star team and one of the most underrated NBA players ever. You know the guy is underrated when he’s best known as Kyrie Irving’s godfather instead of the great basketball player he was. Strickland was so ahead of his time he pulled a Euro-step in the 90s and got called for a travel! Seriously, the ref didn’t know what to make of that move and blew the whistle.
In his best year in 1997-98, Strickland averaged 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 10.5 dimes, and 1.7 steals, yet he didn’t make the All-Star team. His peers voted him as an All-NBA Second Team member that year, but that shows not everybody appreciated his game.
24. Fat Lever
Name 11 career triple-double leaders and you’d probably leave out one name: Fat Lever. Lever was not only an underrated Denver Nugget, but he is also one of the most underrated NBA players ever. In one of his best seasons (1988-89), Lever averaged 19.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists, and 2.7 steals, a stat line never again replicated in seasons after.
Here are some of Lever’s Nuggets and NBA records:
- Denver record for most assists in a game (23)
- NBA record for most assists in a half (16)
- NBA record for most steals in a quarter (8)
- Second behind Nikola Jokic for most triple-doubles in Nuggets history (43)
25. Nate Thurmond
Any great big man in the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain era tends to be underrated, and Nate Thurmond was one of them. Thurmond was not the most efficient big guy around, as he never shot 45% from the field in any of his 14-season career. What he lacked in accuracy, he made up with ferocity on defense, averaging 15 boards and 2.1 blocks for his career, including a season where he averaged 22 rebounds a game.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Thurmond ‘the best defender he ever faced’ and was the first to record a quadruple-double. He tallied 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, and 12 blocks in his debut with the Bulls, Thurmond’s No. 12 season.
Wrapping Things Up: The Most Underrated NBA Players of All Time
NBA fans are quick to use the adjective “underrated” to describe their favorite players. There is probably some truth to it, one way or the other, but there is no better way to judge an NBA player’s career than when it’s done and over. After all, to be underrated means a player’s skills, impact, and contributions are not adequately appreciated, something fans can only assess when these players are not around.
Based on these assumptions, who are some of the most underrated NBA players of all time? Well, some of these names are never mentioned by today’s media and fans, such as Jack Sikma, Alex English, or Mark Price. Some were legit All-Stars like Clyde Drexler, Hal Greer, and John Havlicek, but fans don’t appreciate how good they truly were. But then again, these guys were called underrated for a reason, and that label is something they need to live with, unfair or not.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.