I can feel that familiar rush of excitement coming back.
The NBA is coming back, and I can’t wait to see real game action (not to mention, the playoffs!), even if it will be in a uniquely fan-less environment. Now I can zoom back in on the players I love watching the most.
In an era punctuated by run and gun, high octane offenses, I’ve always had an eye out for the often overlooked and relatively rare type of player: the one who works equally hard on both ends of the floor and takes pride in doing all the things that don’t necessarily stand out in the stat sheet.
The modern game that is now characterized by the step-back three or a flashy alley-oop finish on the fast break is also home to the ‘effort plays’—that ever so crucial late-game deflection or a dive out of bounds to recover a loose ball, giving a team its second wind just when you thought there was nothing left in the tank.
So when the NBA’s Board of Governors and NBPA recently approved a plan to get the season back up and running, I couldn’t help but get excited for the hustle players who play with their hearts on their sleeves, excelling at orchestrated chaos on the court.
Here’s a look at some of those on the top of my list.
THE HUSTLE LEADERS
Kawhi Leonard, Forward, Los Angeles Clippers
Just prior to the season being suspended, the Clippers were beginning to find their stride with a bolstered roster. Kawhi Leonard (26.9 ppg.) and guard Paul George (21.0 ppg) led L.A. to a 7-3 record over its last ten games, showing signs that the two had begun to click on offense.
But the two have also been equally dangerous on the other end of the floor, leading the Clippers to an impressive 106.6 defensive rating (fourth in the league).
Particularly pesky for the team’s opponents is Leonard’s knack for bulldozing passing lanes and reaching in when its least expected. Per Advanced NBA stats, he netted 3.6 deflections a game—good for fifth this season among all players and second among forwards.
Leonard’s 6’7”, 225-pound frame is a matchup nightmare for most defenders on offense, but combined with his agility and strength, he also stifles most matchups with his defensive prowess. He is among the league’s rare true two-way threats.
Time and time again Leonard has brought his unique talents to every team he has played on. And with a great supporting cast around him this season, the Clippers seem destined for a deep playoff run.
Jimmy Butler, Guard – Forward, Miami Heat
Prior to the lockdown, the Miami Heat sported a 14-10 record against teams .500 or above, including multiple victories over the Milwaukee Bucks (twice), Philadelphia 76ers (thrice), Dallas Mavericks (twice) and Toronto Raptors (twice).
Undoubtedly, Jimmy Butler has been behind much of the Heat’s surprise success this season. His intensity on both ends of the floor has become contagious to a diverse Miami roster and was lauded by coach Erik Spoelstra in January:
“He will find different ways to impact the game, if it means drawing a foul, getting a steal or deflection, or setting a screen for somebody else. He is like a five-tool baseball player, but for basketball. He does everything across the board to help you win.”
Butler’s skill in orchestrating the team’s defense and uncanny knack of never giving up on a possession makes him easily one of my favorite hustle players to watch. He is currently averaging 3.5 deflections a game (third among forwards) and 1.4 loose balls recovered (ninth among all players) this season.
This is all in addition to his offensive numbers of 20.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game.
Anthony Davis, Forward, Los Angeles Lakers
When the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans completed a much-anticipated trade involving superstar forward Anthony Davis at the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign, the team knew exactly what they were bringing on board: a two-way force that ensured the Lakers were again destined for success.
Davis is a rare big man, combining length and a strong frame (6’10”, 253 pounds) with incredible flexibility and agility for his size. With his presence in at power forward (and sometimes at center), the Lakers have amassed a 105.5 defensive rating this year (second in the league) while holding teams to 44.3 percent shooting (sixth in the league).
Davis’s defensive impact pops out in the numbers: 1.9 loose balls recovered (first), 2.4 blocks (third), and 1.5 steals (15th). And the eyeball test tells the same story: Davis’s remarkable ability to switch assignments on D is exemplified by his 4.7 contested threes per game (second), making him a strong contender for defensive player of the year:
Bam Adebayo, Center / Forward, Miami Heat
Part of all that emphasis on the Heat’s defense this year includes Bam Adebayo, who has become much more than just a pleasant surprise.
In addition to the massive jump in averages from the year prior—16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals in 34.4 minutes (2019-20) as opposed to 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 blocks, 0.9 steals in 23.3 minutes (2018-19)—it’s the way Adebayo impacts both sides of the court.
He’s easily in contention for the most improved player award this year.
On the offensive end, Adebayo has become the cornerstone of the Heat’s dribble handoff system. He’s always sure to get to the right spots in the high post and top of the key while using his big frame and flexibility to screen off scrambling defenders. Then, he’ll make the perfect pass to put shooters like Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro in the best position to hit.
Per Advanced NBA stats, Adebayo is third among active players this season with 5.2 screen assists per game behind only Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis.
But to focus only on his screening and passing would mean discounting his rare handles for a big man.
Adebayo’s dribbling ability has allowed the Heat to put the ball in his hands all the way from the backcourt, taking playmaking pressure off rookie guard Nunn (as well as veterans like Butler and Goran Dragic) while generating a variety of new looks for the team.
Adebayo’s defense is punctuated by his power, energy, agility and pogo stick hops. In a system of constant switches, Adebayo is able to quickly rush to the perimeter off of kick-outs to contest shots.
Per NBA stats, he leads the NBA with 6.0 box outs a game and is eighth among all players with 720 total shot contests. Per Basketball-Reference, Adebayo is ninth in the league (behind teammate Jimmy Butler), having contributed a win-share of 8.1 this season.
HOW THE RAPTORS HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT KAWHI LEONARD
When it comes to hustle and heart, it’s hard to dismiss what the defending champion Raptors have done this season. That’s why they get a whole section.
When the Raps lost out on the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes during the offseason, few expected them to be in the position they are now. Instead of brooding over the loss of their championship-clinching superstar, the Raptors have scraped and clawed their way to a 46-18 record while amassing a 104.9 defensive rating (second to only the Milwaukee Bucks).
Per Advanced NBA stats, the Raptors are also second in the league with 17.2 deflections a game and 28.2 contested threes per game.
A big contributor to that is guard Fred Van Vleet, who finds a way to harass ball handlers and pick off passing lanes. Van Vleet leads the league with 4.2 deflections a game.
When it comes to hustling, however, backcourt mate Kyle Lowry is no slouch either, making up for his lack of size by leading the league with 0.58 charges drawn per game. The savvy vet still makes plays all over the court.
And then there’s 6’9” forward Paskal Siakam who brings length and agility on defense, thereby allowing the Raptors to recover from drives and quickly close out on perimeter shots.
Siakam leads the league with 5.7 contested threes per game in addition to raking up 7.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game.
When the dust settles and the NBA finally resumes its season in July, fans will be missing from the stands, and home-court advantage will be all but a pipe-dream.
Teams will have to look to something else for an edge, and these hustle players are perfectly placed to do just that.