The NBA I Grew Up Watching: The Under-Appreciated – Part 1

The NBA is a magical place, with talent available in troves. 

Players come and go, with some permanently etched into our conscience after leading Hall-of-Fame-worthy careers. Others log their time before quietly fading into the sunset. 

I want to shine the spotlight on some of those who wowed us for a while but got derailed somewhere along the way (usually due to injury) and remain under-appreciated. To the league’s detriment, longevity was not in their favor.

But that’s not to say they don’t deserve credit for what they did on the court. 

DANNY GRANGER, FORWARD (2005-15)

There are a number of names synonymous with the Indiana Pacers over the last two decades. Most notably are Reggie Miller, Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Victor Oladipo. 

Less so is Danny Granger, the 6’9” 222 lb. swingman and lights-out scorer. Granger took charge and steadied the ship through a number of transitions years for the franchise between the Jermaine O’Neal and Paul George eras (2005-2011). 

Drafted with the 17th pick in 2005, Granger was also part of a bigger transition in the NBA: the hybridization of positions. He seamlessly moved between playing guard in bigger lineups to small or even power forward in more agile groupings, giving the Pacers the ability to match their competition. 

Granger went from averaging 7.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game on 32.3 percent 3-point shooting during his rookie season (2005-06) to 25.8 points,  5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.4 blocks per game on 40.4 percent shooting from deep by the 2008-09 campaign. 

This kid had superstar potential with immense value and was a lock for anybody looking to get the highest numbers out of their fantasy rosters. The accolades came piling in: All-Rookie Second Team in 2006, selection to the All-Star team in 2009, and the Most Improved Player Award in the same year. 

But it wasn’t just the numbers Granger put up. It was the way in which he went about getting these. Granger had a steady jumper and a relaxed rhythm that almost made it seem like the league operated at his pace.

He was a matchup nightmare on most nights at his peak:

Unfortunately, a left knee injury in the 2009-10 campaign was the beginning of Granger’s downfall.

Eventually, a degenerative condition in the same knee followed by a botched rehab regimen quickly saw the reins of the team passed to upcoming star guard Paul George—another multi-positional swingman who had quickly become Granger’s understudy.

A washed-up Granger was eventually traded during 2013-14 to the Philadelphia 76ers. He was bought out, then signed by the Los Angeles Clippers where he attempted an underwhelming comeback. Granger would continue to play some rotation minutes for the Miami Heat the following season before bowing out of the league—truly an unfortunate end to a promising career. 

Most memorable for me was the brief period (2010-2013) that saw both George and Granger on the court together. 

The duo was as dynamic as they come, which makes you wish the league saw a few more healthy years from Danny. 

JOSH SMITH, FORWARD (2004-18)

I remember having a chance to tune into the McDonald’s All-American game back in March of 2004—an annual feature showcasing the year’s best prospects. 

Among a host of big names including Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge, Shaun Livingston, and Al Jefferson, were two Smiths: J.R and Josh.

The two were completely different players: Guard J.R Smith was as flashy it comes, routinely spotted beating his man on isolation plays and heaving a number of deep threes. He finished the night with 20 points and 5 assists including 5-11 from deep. 

Forward Josh Smith was an imposing 6’9” forward with an NBA-ready physique. But he had a quiet and relatively unimpressive showing, tallying just 9 points, 4 rebounds, a block and a steal.

Yet, when these kids got drafted into the NBA, it was Josh Smith (picked 17th overall by the Atlanta Hawks straight out of high school), who impressed me the most. 

He came into the league with a ton of flaws—his jump-shot was virtually non-existent and his attitude towards improvement left much to be desired—but his raw athleticism couldn’t be disregarded. 

A nightly double-double threat, Smith clawed, swatted, dunked, stole and rammed his way to 9 exciting seasons with the Hawks as he averaged 15.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. The combination of this athletic level of offense-defense was fairly unprecedented at the time. 

The optics were equally eye-popping!

Smith led the Hawks to six playoff appearances from 2007-13—they finished with a .500 or better record in 5 of them—while winning the slam dunk contest in 2005, making the All-Rookie Second Team that same year and All-Defensive Second Team in 2010. 

Smith’s undoing, however, was his attitude and immaturity. After signing a 4-year $54 million deal with the Detroit Pistons prior to the 2013-14 campaign, Smith was now a step slower and apparently started to go against the wishes of his coaches by relying far too heavily on his awful jump-shot. This quickly eroded his value and usefulness to teams.  

His defensive effort and effectiveness dried up nearly as fast.

Per Basketball-Reference.com, Smith averaged a paltry 44.7 field goal percentage (26.2 percent from deep) and 51.5 percent from the charity stripe over a season and a half with Detroit (2013-14) before being bought out. He would go on to finish his career during a couple of insignificant stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans. 

Smith remains one of those classic “what if” guys that washed out of the NBA a bit too quickly considering the immense talent. Nonetheless, he was one of my favorite players to watch during his peak years.

He appeared headed for an elite level few NBA contemporaries could match during that era. 

BRANDON ROY, GUARD (2006-13)

It’s hard to talk about generational talent without mentioning Brandon Roy. Forgotten by many because of his unfortunately short playing career, Roy’s impact on the Portland Trail Blazers franchise cannot be overstated. 

Roy was selected with the 6th pick in the 2006 Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves but quickly traded to the Blazers (for guard Randy Foye), and there was no looking back. 

Rare for a rookie, Roy (along with forward LaMarcus Aldridge) put the Blazers on his back straight away, leading the team to a 225-185 overall record and three playoff appearances during his five seasons with the team. 

With a smooth stroke from all over the court, plus an impeccable ability to create off the dribble and finish strong, Roy seemed to do everything in style. What’s more, he did it with the maturity of a superstar well beyond his years. 

Comparisons were made with other contemporary greats, including Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Houston Rockets swingman Tracy McGrady, among others. 

In fact, in a very rare moment of praise, Bryant had this to say about Roy prior to the 2010-11 season

“Roy (is) 365 days, seven days a week. Roy has no weaknesses in his game.”

And Bryant wasn’t the only eye-opening player to compliment the Blazer: 

Roy’s most complete season came during the 2008-09 campaign. In 78 games, he averaged 22.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.1 steals, shooting a 48.0 percent field goal clip (37.7 percent from deep) and 82.4 percent from the charity stripe. 

One of my most memorable moments came when Roy torched the ‘7 Seconds or Less’ Phoenix Suns on December 18, 2008, going for 52 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists while notching 19-21 from the free-throw line. The Blazers won the game 124-119. 

The Suns tried a variety of defensive coverages on Roy that night, including putting forwards Grant Hill, Jason Richardson and Matt Barnes on him.

But nothing was going to stop a man on fire that night. 

It was that type of feistiness and winning mentality that made Roy one of my all-time favorite players to watch. 

Unfortunately for Roy, and millions of fans around the world, the 2008-09 campaign would also be the pinnacle of his career. A degenerative knee condition meant that he never put together a full season during his time in the NBA. 

The show stopped during the 2010-11 season as Roy only managed 47 games. He announced his retirement from the game shortly after, though he did attempt a 5-game comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012-13. 

Despite his ever so brief time in the NBA, Roy piled up the accolades by winning the 2007 Rookie of the Year and making the All-Rookie First Team. He also made the All-Star game on three occasions (2008-2010), All-NBA Second Team in 2009 and All-NBA Third Team in 2010. 

In recent memory, I can’t think of too many other players to have made such a big impact during such a short span of time.   

Had Roy remained healthy, the Blazers may have been able to pair him and Aldridge with Damian Lillard, another generational superstar that emerged in 2012. That’s a fun thing to dream about.

***

Over the last few weeks at TBW, we have taken you down a nostalgic path and featured some of those iconic players through the ages that have influenced and inspired us as writers. Here are just a few of my favorites so far:

The Undersized Underdogs 

Stars of the 2003 Draft – Part 1 

Stars of the 2003 Draft – Part 2

The Quiet Superstar Versus The Showman

Allen Iverson vs. Everybody 

Stephon Marbury, the Mercurial Superstar

When Centers Ruled the League 

White Chocolate’s Brilliant Audacity

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