Monday , Oct , 22 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Thriving in Obscurity: The NBA’s All-Time Most Underrated Players

To become a cultural and international icon, a star athlete must possess a unique combination of remarkable athletic ability, charisma, and in many instances, luck. History has shown that the most talented athletes are not necessarily the most popular. In today’s celebrity-worshipping society, a professional athlete’s achievements in his sport are often forced to take a backseat to his image and marketability. As a result, multiple players with prodigious talent drift towards obscurity and never come close to reaching the levels of fame that some of their lesser-skilled counterparts enjoy.

The main problem with this situation arises from the fact that people tend to disregard what they are not constantly exposed to, and in the process, exceptional talents go unnoticed.  Some of the greatest contributions to the game of basketball have come from names that may not be familiar to the casual fan.  Even those with a more encyclopedic knowledge of the game constantly underrate some of the sport’s all-time great players.   

Dominique Wilkins is almost universally acknowledged as being the most underrated NBA player of all-time.  His omissions from the 1992 Dream Team and the “NBA 50 Greatest Players of All-Time” list in 1997 were inexcusable.  During his career, his fame was no match for Michael Jordan’s, Magic Johnson’s, and most of his fellow stars, perhaps because he played for a team with little post-season success.  He retired as the NBA’s eighth all-time leading scorer and as one of only four players to average more than 25 points per game for ten consecutive seasons, the others being Michael Jordan, Jerry West, and Karl Malone.  He was described by Magic Johnson as a player capable of performing any kind of play on the court, Michael Jordan expressed his belief that he was one of the fifty greatest, and Kenny Smith remarked that he considered Wilkins one of the twenty greatest players in NBA history. 

In similar fashion, Alex English was another high-scoring small-forward who, despite scoring more points than any other player in the 1980s, was shunned from the list.  A consistent scorer whose per-game average rarely dipped below the high 20s, his quiet demeanor and straight-forward style of play prohibited him from becoming a star in the Showtime era.  Adrian Dantley was also a victim of the same fate.  As a 6-5 low post scorer with little flash to his game,  he averaged over 30 points in four consecutive seasons for the Utah Jazz and finished a 15-year career with 24 PPG and .540 FG% averages.   

Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland, two point guards from the New York area who entered the league in the late 1980s, proved to be among the best passers in the game for nearly two decades.  After 17 seasons, Jackson would amass the second highest career assists total of all-time, behind John Stockton.  Although Jackson has found some success as a commentator and analyst, during his playing days stardom eluded him, and he was never selected to play in an All-Star game. Strickland, who had a flashier yet arguably not as efficient style of play than Jackson, found some notoriety stemming from his off-court behavior. He also was never an All-Star, and is considered by many to be the best player of all-time to have never received this honor. A dependable passer, he had a five season stretch in which he never averaged less than 17 points and 8 assists in the same year.  

Sam Cassell was another point guard who was underrated for the vast majority of his career. Like Strickland, he was always a consistent scorer and passer, but he was criticized for sub par defensive play and for having a shoot-first, pass-second mentality. Routinely mocked for his lack of crossover-star looks, his unofficial status as “the ugliest player in the league” certainly played a part in his inability to become one of the NBA’s most beloved players. Nevertheless, he was an extremely effective clutch performer who excelled under pressure, as he demonstrated in his rookie season when he gradually earned more playing time.  In his first two years he went from being Houston’s second point guard off the bench to their most reliable crunch-time scorer.  He would also prove to be one of the Rocket’s key players in their two NBA Finals appearances.  After ten years of productivity in the league, and various All-Star snubs, he was finally recognized for his efforts and was selected to play in the game in the 2002-03 season.  

Enormous amounts of credit should be given to any person who performs his or her job at a consistently high level without being compensated appropriately.  When one commits to his job with just as much passion as his peers and is not rewarded for it, it is not uncommon to become discouraged, lose focus, and ultimately give up.  Underrated athletes understand that their job is to be the best at what they do, and in this case, their responsibility is to play the best basketball they can, whether or not they enjoy the glamour and perks of the limelight, and the players mentioned in this article never failed to deliver.