3 Underrated NBA Players You Want Taking the Last Shot in 2017-18

As kids, we all practice hitting game-winning buckets in our driveway.

“Three…two…one-and-a-half…one….ahhhhhh! He hits the shot at the buzzer! The crowd goes wild! [Enter your favorite team here] wins!”

Unfortunately, this moment presents itself for very few of us in real-game situations. And if we ever are lucky enough to get a chance at a go-ahead basket, we typically whiff.

These three players know no such glass ceiling. They’re bosses in clutch time (defined by NBA.com as the last five minutes of any game or overtime where the teams are separated by five points or fewer).

C. J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

C.J. McCollum has quietly turned into one of the most underrated players in the NBA. In fact, HoopsHype’s Frank Urbina has been leading the charge to bring some much-needed respect to the former No. 10 pick:

McCollum finished last season averaging a career-high 23.7 points per 36 minutes while shooting 48.0 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from the three-point line. When you look up the definition of sharpshooter in the NBA dictionary, you’ll see a picture of his beautiful, smiling face.

However, his overall regular-season numbers have nothing on his performance during the last five minutes of tight ballgames. If you turn the 210 clutch time minutes he played last year into per-36 averages, his stats grow even more impressive: 26.9 points, a 53.5 field-goal percentage and a 44.8 percent clip from downtown. Is this guy serious?

His well-rounded offensive game poses a serious threat to defenses, especially when it matters most. The defender can’t sag off him, since he has the ability to rise up and knock down contested threes. He drained 37.7 percent of his outside shots when a defender was within “tight” range of him. When the defense became “very tight,” he improved his accuracy by swishing 43.5 percent of his attempts (although that came with significantly lower volume). Furthermore, he hit 43.1 percent of his pull-up threes. That ranks fourth among all players who attempted at least one per game.

If pressed, he uses his ball-handling abilities to get past his man. He’s also strong enough to hold that defender off and get into prime scoring position:

The ball is inbounded with 3.9 seconds left. That gives McCollum more than enough time to attack and get something going toward the basket. As soon as he receives the pass, he realizes his man has already taken himself out of good defensive position by foolishly gambling for the steal. With his man on his backside, the shooting guard has an open lane to drive toward the hoop:
McCollum 1He’s able to split the help defender well above the key and glide toward the free-throw line. By this point, the defense is scrambling because two defenders are now completely out of position:

McCollum 2The Lehigh product calmly launches a floater off two feet and nails it for the go-ahead bucket with 0.3 seconds remaining.

One of the most underrated aspects of this shot is how well McCollum knows himself; he ensures that he uses one of his best moves. He nailed floaters 50 percent of the time last year, per NBA Savant. He also gets to a spot on the floor where he’s absolutely lethal, having hit 49.6 percent of his attempts from that area:

Allen Crabbe’s departure may have some effect on McCollum’s ability to repeat this success next season. An elite shooter who banged in 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts last season, he was a key floor-spacer. He prevented other teams wings from being able to over-help and kept them honest on that end.

But don’t expect that to deter McCollum from taking, and making, the huge shots. He plays with supreme confidence and is always improving his grasp of defenses. As he continues to round out his game, McCollum will become increasingly dangerous. Look for him to carry his prime-time assassination into next season and force you to put some more respek on his name.

Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers

Speaking of disrespect, Isaiah Thomas is one of the most disregarded players in today’s game. No matter what he accomplishes, his feats are still undervalued. Excuses appear around every corner.

The diminutive point guard has developed a flair for accomplishing the uncanny when it matters most. Among every player who had 20 or more clutch-time appearances and a usage rate of 20 percent or greater, he ranked fourth in offensive rating (125.4). That’s an 11.8-point jump from his regular-season mark.

Thomas’ true shooting percentage of 65.4 was the biggest impetus behind this lofty rating. Although that’s slightly below McCollum’s 66.7 percent, the former accomplished it with a much higher usage percentage (46.0, compared to 25.3). He earned his points from three key areas on the floor: the three-point line (26.9 percent), free-throw line (33.6 percent) and the paint (33.2 percent). Daryl Morey would be proud.

The long ball was perhaps his deadliest weapon. It set the rest of his game up and forced opposing players to crowd him all over the court. If a defender didn’t play him tight enough, he would splash a bucket in their face:

NBA rhythm is a wonderful thing. With it, a player can knock down the toughest of tough shots. Without it, a player could loft up an embarrassingly inept attempt.

Thomas gets a little creative in order to gather enough rhythm and put down a standstill three. Just before the five-second mark, he gives the now-switched big a slow jab step. This jerk isn’t really meant to fool the defense into thinking he’s driving. It’s a ploy for him to gain momentum and get his legs underneath him before launching a deep shot.

This second video is a great illustration of how he uses his body to create contact with the defender, thus forcing the referee to make a quick decision:

The action on this play is simple, but effective.

Kelly Olnyk purposefully runs between the point guard and his defender and pops to the opposite wing. As a three-point threat, his man can’t stray too far away without giving up an easy triple.

With Olynk’s defender momentarily preoccupied, the rest of the Celtics’ spacing is a work of art. They plant the two wings in opposite corners to keep their men out of the paint. Marcus Smart, the worse outside shooter, is placed on the weak side. Avery Bradley is then set up in the strongside corner, forcing his man to make a painful decision about whether he should help on the drive or stay put:

Thomas 1After the Celtics’ big sets a ball screen, Thomas is able to turn the corner and get a step on Anthony Davis.

Bradley’s man decides not to help, leaving the former Husky on an island with one of the best defensive big men in the league. The point guard knows he’s in trouble, so he deftly puts his shoulder into Davis’ chest. This creates some separation and allows him to attempt a difficult layup. Davis is too long for this maneuver to work, but luckily, the ref blows the whistle and sends Thomas to the line for two.

A lingering hip injury is all that stands in the way of the two-time All-Star replicating his crunch-time heroics this year. ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe has reported he could miss most of the 2017-18 season if it doesn’t heal correctly. Even though Thomas disagrees, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it remains to be seen when he’ll get back on the court.

When he does return, however, he will have a change of scenery now that the trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers is official. This move will do nothing but help him thrive in his clutch-time role.

LeBron James has made players like Matthew Dellavedova look like above-average starters. Imagine what he can do for an already proven All-Star. We also know James has no problem passing it to the open man when the game’s on the line. Thomas will benefit from this because he has the “dawg mentality:” He has all the confidence in the world and will never hesitate to take the big shot.

Assuming health, he will be one of the most exciting players to watch during the last five minutes of close ballgames. And there’s no doubt he will carry over last season’s success with the additional chip the Boston Celtics placed on his shoulder.

Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

Jimmy Butler isn’t necessarily underrated in the conventional sense. He’s viewed as a genuine star. But he’s underrated in the sense that we don’t talk about his role as a closer nearly enough.

His finishing ability, like the rest of his game, has proved a late-bloomer. Although he has long been a stud defenseman, he’s only demanded majority attention on the offensive side of the floor for the past three years. Now that he has the hang of the NBA game, however, he’s—DJ Khaled voice—takin’ over.

Butler averaged an insane 41.6 points per 36 minutes during clutch time throughout the 2016-17 season with the Chicago Bulls while posting a true shooting percentage of 63.0 and an effective field-goal percentage of 51.0. His playmaking skills have also improved to the point they’re a true weapon—especially at the end of games. His assist percentage of 31.5 is up there with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, George Hill and many other esteemed point guards and dime-droppers.

Butler’s passing abilities will bode well for his new Timberwolves squad. He’s bound to be a positive influence on Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. If nothing else, he can help teach a team that struggled in the second half of games how to emerge victorious from tightly contested tilts.

Creating easy shots is the name of that game, particularly when the defense locks down during crunch time:

Butler leverages the threat of a ball screen to get deep into the lane. At this point, the help defense rotates over, leaving a wide-open man in the corner. He waits until just the last second and then delivers a perfect, on-time pass for a three-pointer.

Later in the same game, the stakes have been raised. Facing a three-point deficit, Chicago desperately needs a bucket to keep pace with the Atlanta Hawks:

Again, Butler uses the threat of a ball screen and darts down the lane in the opposite direction. Anytime he gets his man on his hip, said defender is in trouble. He’s too big and too strong to allow that guy back into a position where he can do anything but foul:

Butler 1

He continues to do a great job using his body and creating enough separation to lay the ball off the glass for two points. This knack for reaching the hoop is what makes him so special. He may not be a freak athlete, but he has enough burst to turn the smallest window into positive results.

Playing on a better team, look for him to enhance his clutch gene. Even though players like Wiggins and Jeff Teague aren’t elite outside shooters, they are still improvements over Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. Upgraded spacing will allow Butler more room to create for himself and others when the clock is winding down.

So, at the end of the day, when the sun is setting and the stakes are highest, teams should look to these three guys to make the impossible, well, possible.

They have ice in their veins and need to be recognized as the cold-blooded killers they truly are.

Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianSampsonNBA.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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