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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

10 best under-the-radar NBA acquisitions

Sure, it’s fun to observe how superstar talent adjusts to a new habitat — Chris Paul finding his wings in Houston, Jimmy Butler howling at the moon in Minnesota, and Kyrie Irving projecting Force ghosts in Boston. But often times, the more rewarding exercise is pinpointing the summer acquisitions who have given their new teams the best bang for their buck in spite of little fanfare and infrequent appearances on World Wide Wob’s Twitter feed. Here are 10 players who have best exemplified that latter category so far this year.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com*

Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers

If you love somebody, set them free from Russell Westbrook. That’s exactly what Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti did this offseason in dealing Oladipo to the Indiana Pacers as part of the Paul George trade, and the fifth-year guard has been on a killing spree ever since. Oladipo’s 24-5-4 averages this season are close to Miami Heat-era Dwyane Wade-type production out of the 2 spot. His 42.5 percent shooting from deep is a wonder of the modern world. Oladipo has become Indiana’s starter, finisher, and Messiah all wrapped up in one. An All-Star nod this February is probably a realistic expectation, which is saying something considering how much Indiana was questioned when they made the trade.

Enes Kanter, C, New York Knicks

While we’re on the topic of Oklahoma City refugees, here is another one who is having himself a nice little season. In between becoming The Empire State’s most beloved enforcer, Kanter is producing career-highs in rebounds (10.1) and assists per game (1.7) while also bumping up his shooting efficiency to a DeAndre Jordan-esque 60.2 percent. His defense isn’t just Shaqtin’ A Fool fodder anymore either, as Kanter is finally in positive territory in defensive box score plus-minus for the first time in seven NBA seasons. A fitting blue-collar bopper alongside the unicorn superstardom of Kristaps Porzingis in the Knicks frontcourt, Kanter is the sidekick that America needs right now.

Kris Dunn, PG, Chicago Bulls

[barely audible whisper as eyes dart from left-to-right] “The Bulls have the longest active winning streak in the league.” Indeed, the Bulls are winners of five straight, and none of it would have been possible without Dunn going berserk for them lately. Since supplanting Jerian Grant in the starting lineup, Dunn is averaging a cool 13.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He has become the lifeblood of Chicago’s offense, both as a scorer and as a distributor, and he’s playing with a tenacity and a confidence that is rare to see from a second-year point guard. Not too shabby for a guy who was originally seen as a throw-in to the trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota.

Taj Gibson, PF/C, Minnesota Timberwolves

Undersized big men who play below the rim and conduct the majority of their business from the midrange won’t exactly win the adoration of Twitter or have 12-year-olds buying their jerseys in bulk. But box-score junkies can certainly appreciate Gibson’s impact for the fourth-best-in-the-West Timberwolves. His willingness to do the dirty work — setting screens, catching bodies on the offensive glass, protecting the rim — has made him a better partner for Karl-Anthony Towns than Gorgui Dieng ever was. Gibson’s familiarity with coach Tom Thibodeau from their Chicago days helps too, as the veteran is making 11 and 8 a night with good percentages and stellar defense fashionable again.

Aron Baynes, C, Boston Celtics

How did the Celtics go from 27th in rebounding last season to a top-ten team on the boards this season? Look no further than Australia’s favorite man bun. The seven-foot Baynes has started 21 of 32 games for the Eastern Conference-leading C’s and has responded by posting 10.3 rebounds per 36 minutes as well as the best individual defensive rating of any rotation player on the team. He is a brawny body who deters opposing ball-handlers from venturing into the painted area, and he averages a tremendous 1.15 points per possession on rolls to the rim to boot. And if you still need some convincing as to how big Baynes has been for Boston since his arrival, just ask Tommy Heinsohn.

PJ Tucker, SG/SF, Houston Rockets

This spot could have easily gone to fellow shape-shifting 3-and-especially-D forward Luc Mbah a Moute. But Mbah a Moute is currently sidelined with a bum shoulder, leaving Tucker to hold down the fort for Houston’s supporting cast. He’s definitely game though — the Rockets often ask Tucker to toggle between defending quite literally all five positions, and his ability to do so successfully has unlocked some seriously destructive lineup combinations with length and shooting all over the floor. Tucker fills in all of the blanks for Houston (some cases in point being his 37.1 three-point percentage and his 5.9 rebounds per game as a reserve), and it’s hard to imagine them owning the NBA’s best record (a white-hot 24-4) without his all-purpose contributions.

Lou Williams, PG/SG, LA Clippers

Sweet Lou has been at his sweetest this season on a Clippers team in desperate need of a sugar kick. He may be the only surviving guard left on the roster, but the former Sixth Man of the Year is earning all his minutes on his new squad. Williams is about to scale the 20 PPG Mountain for the first time in his career and is also enjoying personal bests in three-point efficiency (39.1 percent) and assists (4.9 per game). Whether you need a 40-point eruption or a timely three-shot foul in crunchtime, Williams finna deliver as he helps the Clips move past the Lob City era of old and towards the Lou City era of new.

Tyreke Evans, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies

Tyreke is quickly skyrocketing past Mike and Chris in the Evans power rankings. A forgotten man who couldn’t get anything more than a one-year, $3.29 million deal this summer, the former Rookie of the Year has put his “damaged goods” reputation to rest for good in Memphis. 19/5/4 in barely 30 minutes a contest will do that for you, as Evans has been looking like the illegitimate love child of Damian Lillard and Lance Stephenson this season. No matter if he is electroshocking the Grizzlies’ second unit to life or running with the starters and dropping off picture-perfect dimes to Marc Gasol down low, ‘Reke is gonna wreck, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.

Zach Randolph, PF/C, Sacramento Kings

At 36 years old and in his 17th NBA season, Randolph should be looking like Old Man Winter right now, especially on a young rebuilding team like the Kings. Instead, he continues to punk fools on the block like it’s 2004. Z-Bo has been the one constant in a chaotic Kings frontcourt rotation this season, and you can pencil him in for 14 points and 7 rebounds a night and forget about it. Three-and-a-half-inch vertical leap aside, the veteran Randolph for $12 million a year is one of the best bargains you will find in the league today. The full-body bruises he continues to inflict on opponents are a testament to that.

Thabo Sefolosha, SF/PF, Utah Jazz

A role player on his third team in five seasons may not quite fit the mold of an instant difference-maker. But Sefolosha has been a quality piece on a Jazz side still struggling to make up for Gordon Hayward’s production on the wing. The Swissman owns sparkling 52/43/81 shooting splits and is asserting himself as arguably Utah’s best one-on-one stopper despite being a 33-year-old on an elite defensive team. Sure, 7.9 points per game (actually a career-high for him) in nightly 20-minute cameos won’t be much of a hit with the ladies. But Thabo has the plus-minus nerds on his side, and isn’t that all you really need?

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