Basketball is a team sport. Despite the popularity of stars in the NBA, the results of games do not solely depend on the performance of one or two players. Championship contending teams need to have efficient and helpful role players that can benefit from the plays created by stars and keep the team afloat while the stars rest. Often times, having good role players are what divides championship teams from other teams. Low-usage players are often not spoken about in the NBA very much, but some specific low usage players should be valued commodities since they shoot efficiently, avoid turnovers, defend well, and have a positive overall impact on the team.
All players below have a usage rate below 20%, which I used as a maximum for being a low usage player. Usage rate is defined as the percentage of a team’s offensive possessions that a player contributed to while he was on the floor through either field goal attempts, turnovers, or free throw attempts.
Rudy Gobert, C, UTA
Usage rate: 17.0%
Despite his low usage, Rudy Gobert is not really considered as a role player for the Jazz. Instead, with 2 defensive player of the year awards to his name, he is thought of as a central piece of the Jazz’s stout defense, protecting the rim like no other big man in the NBA. During the regular season, Gobert allowed a field goal percentage of just 48.0% within 6 feet of the rim, good for second in the NBA (bested only by Draymond Green). Furthermore, Gobert blocks about 7% of the opponents’ two point attempts while he is on the floor, a top 4 rate in the league. His presence is especially felt when opponents attempt to post up or spot up against him: he allows just 0.65 points per possessions on defensive post ups and 0.83 points per possession on defensive spot ups, good for the 94th and 88th percentiles respectively. Gobert’s defensive impact is very apparent when he comes out of the game: the Jazz’s defensive rating (opponent points per 100 possessions) with Gobert on the floor is 100.9, but it rises to 112.8 when he goes off the floor.
Gobert’s impact on the floor is not limited to the defensive end. Gobert provides an efficient offensive presence, shooting 79.8% within 3 feet of the rim, 10th best in the NBA. He is able to provide a great option for pick and roll offense, ranking in the 87th percentile of PnR roll man efficiency. Additionally, Gobert creates extra possessions by rebounding shots offensively, posting a top 10 offensive rebounding percentage of 12.2%. Gobert’s efficiency in shooting and tenacity in grabbing offensive rebounds lead to his positive offensive impact, as the Jazz’s offensive rating is 116.8 with Gobert on the floor, but just 110.8 without Gobert.
Rudy Gobert is often criticized for his lack of ability in guarding players away from the rim and his limited offensive versatility. However, his defensive rim protection and offensive efficiency around the rim allows him to have one of the largest impacts on the game. In fact, Gobert’s on-off rating, which is the difference in net rating between when a player is on the floor and when he is off the floor, is +17.9, the best mark in the NBA this season.
Taj Gibson, PF, NYK
Usage Rate: 9.7%
The Knicks made the playoffs this season for the first time since 2013, mostly behind the efforts of Julius Randle and Derrick Rose. However, one player that is almost never mentioned when discussing the Knicks is Taj Gibson, their reserve power forward. Gibson’s contribution to the Knicks is one of the reasons that the Knicks have a chance to advance to the Conference Semi-Finals for the first time in almost a decade. Gibson’s best attributes are his ability to defend well and give his team additional chances through offensive rebounding. Gibson grabs about 11.6% of available offensive rebounds when he is on the floor, which means that he provides the Knicks with an extra possessions about 1 time in every 10 shots (one of the best rates for power forwards in the NBA). Taj Gibson also shoots very efficiently, posting a true shooting percentage of 66.1% (98th percentile among Power Forwards). Contrary to Gobert, Gibson does not exclusively shoot at the rim: over 20% of his field goal attempts come from beyond 10 feet from the hoop. This tendency allows Gibson to be less predictable as he has more variety in his shot attempts.
Defensively, Taj Gibson has also been one of the best power forwards. He has one of the highest block percentages of power forwards in the NBA, allowing the Knicks to create one of the best defensive big man duos in Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson. Gibson’s defensive ability is captured by his advanced metrics as well, as he had a top 7 defensive box plus minus in the NBA regular season. One reason for his defensive value is his ability in guarding spot up shot attempts, ranking in the 94th percentile in spot up defense by allowing an effective field goal percentage of just 33.9% on these types of shots. For reference, the 2021 NBA regular season league average effective field goal percentage was 53.8%.
Even though Taj Gibson doesn’t score a lot, he positively affects the Knicks when he is on the floor. He rebounds on offense and makes the best of his field goal attempts. On defense, Gibson is an effective defender, blocking many of opponent’s shots and defending spot up attempts well. All of this contributes to Gibson’s total impact. He had the 3rd largest on-off rating of Knicks players during the regular season with a +5.2, topped only by Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley. In his 41 playoff minutes (as of May 29th), his impact has been felt even more, as his on-off rating spiked to +21.1 (which is very high because of a very small sample).
Mikal Bridges, SF, PHX
Usage Rate: 14.9%
The Suns were another team that took a leap forward in the 2021 NBA Season. Beginning with their 8-0 record in the 2020 NBA bubble, the Suns have improved greatly over the past year. The primary reason that Bridges has been so valuable for the Suns over this time period has been his shooting. He had a 66.7% true shooting this season along with a three point percentage of 42.5%, which was 15th in the NBA and 2nd on the Suns (behind only Cameron Payne).
Bridges does not only shoot extremely well, but he also takes some of the smartest shots in the league. Only 11.6% of Bridge’s field goal attempts were taken as long 2 point shots (over 10 feet away from hoop). His efficiency at the rim is even more impressive, as he made 80.1% of his shots within 3 feet of the basket, which placed 8th in the NBA. Bridges is at his best in transition and when he spots up. His effective field goal percentage is 75.3% in transition and 58.7% when he spots up (NBA average is 53.8%). To cap off his offensive effect, Mikal Bridges limits his amount of turnovers by turning the ball over just 7.3 times per 100 possessions, the 14th lowest rate in the league.
While Bridges is not bad defensively, his offensive impact far outweighs his defensive impact. The Suns’ offensive rating with Bridges on the floor 117.5, but it falls to 110.7 when he comes off the floor. This shows just how much Mikal Bridges helps the Suns on offense. He provides the Suns with an option who is a threat to either knock down a 3 point shot or drive to the rim and convert. The Suns can bet on Bridges to avoid wasting possessions by limiting his turnovers and missed shots. While Chris Paul and Devin Booker may be the faces of the Suns franchise right now, the play of Mikal Bridges has played a large part in the sudden improvement of the Suns.
Joe Ingles, SF, UTA
Usage Rate: 16.6%
Similar to Mikal Bridges, Joe Ingles has been a great boost to his team’s offensive play. The Jazz’s offense has been one of the best in the league this season, and a significant reason is Ingles’ offensive efficiency. His best attribute is his shooting: Ingles had the 3rd best true shooting percentage during the regular season, surpassed only by Gobert and Ivica Zubac, both of whom had around 70% of their shots within 3 feet of the rim. Ingles, meanwhile, took only 10% of his shots within 3 feet of the rim. The vast majority of Ingles’ shots this season were from the 3 point line, where he shot 45%, ranking 5th in the NBA. On his catch and shoot 3 point shots, Joe Ingles shot 48.9%, 3rd best in the NBA. His shooting ability allowed the Jazz to create lots of space, with defenders having to stick to Ingles to limit his number of catch and shoot attempts. Since defenders have to pay attention to Ingles more often, it is more difficult to help when a guard like Donovan Mitchell or Jordan Clarkson drives, allowing the Jazz to be very efficient offensively.
What sets Ingles apart from other great catch and shoot players (like Joe Harris and Marcus Morris) is his ability to create plays for others. Ingles averaged 7.8 drives per game this season, and he made the most of his opportunities. On his 140 field goal attempts when he drove, Ingles shot 59.3%, the 3rd best percentage in the league (ahead of stars like Doncic, Durant, Zion Williamson, etc). But Ingles also creates plays for his teammates when he drives: About 16.3% of his drives ended with an assist, a rate topped only by Ish Smith. In comparison, 14.8% of James Harden’s drives, 13.7% of Russell Westbrook’s drives, and 13.3% of Trae Young’s drives ended with an assist. Ingles can create plays for others even when he does not drive: Ingles assisted about 24% of his teammates field goals while he was on the floor, the 4th best mark for a small forward this season.
Joe Ingles’ shooting and playmaking ability has given the Jazz an improvement while he is on the floor. During the regular season, the Jazz’s offensive points per 100 possessions increased by 3.6 points when Ingles was playing. Joe Ingles’ shooting efficiency and playmaking potential should make him one of the most valued low usage players in the NBA.