The NBA role player All-Stars

The NBA is finalizing the 2023-24 All-Star game rosters, but every All-Star needs a few good role players. These are the NBA’s unsung role-player All-Stars.

New Orleans Pelicans v Boston Celtics
New Orleans Pelicans v Boston Celtics / Brian Fluharty/GettyImages

The count is in, and your NBA All-Star starters and reserves have been selected. The Western Conference will trot out LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to do battle against the Eastern Conference squad comprised of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Tyrese Haliburton, and Damian Lillard.

Waiting in the wings to spell the West's best and most popular players will be Devin Booker, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Anthony Edwards, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Karl-Anthony Towns. In the Eastern Conference, Paolo Banchero, Jaylen Brown, Jalen Brunson, Tyrese Maxey, Donovan Mitchell, Julius Randle, and Bam Adebayo will fill in for the beasts of the east, with two injury replacements likely to be inserted for Embiid and Randle due to injuries.

The All-Star game is heavy on talent but light on role players

While the All-Star rosters are packed with star talent, they are bereft of role players. Role players are not as talented as their star brethren but are incredibly important to team success. The biggest, badest engine is useless without four wheels, and if you skip out on brakes, your joy ride will end in a fiery mess. Role-players don’t make your team go, but they do ensure your stars’ talents don’t go to waste. 

The NBA All-Star game has devolved into an unsightly exhibition (or maybe it always was) that hardly resembles an actual NBA game. No one tries on defense. Half of the players would rather be anywhere else, and that’s a generous estimate. And there are no role-players to tie the stars together like astronomers’ lines give shape to a constellation. 

NBA role-player All-Star Honorable mentions 

Before we get to the 15 role-player All-Stars, let’s give some shine to the five players who just missed the cut. Tobias Harris, Jonas Valančiūnas, Naz Reid, Jrue Holiday, and Cason Wallace. Harris has had an excellent season for the Sixers as their third banana, averaging 17.9 points per game on a 55.7 percent effective field goal percentage, but his role is just a tad too large to be considered a role-player, and with Embiid likely to miss an extended stretch, his importance will only grow. 

Jonas Valančiūnas falls into a similar boat as Harris. While he’s decidedly behind Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum in the pecking order, he also has a usage rate of 20.4 percent and has a fair share of possessions designed for him. He’s averaging 14.1 points per game on a 63.7 percent true shooting percentage, making him one of the league’s most efficient scorers. 

Naz Reid, the Timberwolves’ third excellent center, is their go-to bench-scoring option. His status as one of the better sixth men in the league gives him a role that isn’t all that role-playery. His improved 3-point shot, 41.7 percent, has allowed him to share the court with Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, but this is still a player who gets to be the focal point on offense for stretches. 

Jrue Holiday is the most overqualified role-player in the NBA, but when you play on the Boston Celtics, that’s just life. Holiday probably shouldn’t miss the cut, but he was an actual All-Star last season and hasn’t been quite as impactful as a distributor as expected. 

Cason Wallace has been a revelation for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The rookie guard is averaging 6.7 points on 42.1 percent 3-point shooting and 60.2 percent shooting on twos while playing solid defense. His only problem is his role is too small. An 11.9 percent usage rate makes him a role-player for sure, but that’s not an All-Star role-player. That’s a role-player role-player. 

NBA role-player All-Stars: Guards

Derrick White - Boston Celtics

Derrick White had a real case to actually make the actual All-Star team, but since he didn't, he can start for the imaginary role-player All-Star team. White is in the midst of the best season of his career and absolutely fills up the stat sheet. He’s averaging 15.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game, making him one of five qualified players to hit the 15/4/4/1/1 threshold. The other four are Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo, and Scottie Barnes.

Any way you slice it, White is one of the most impactful two-way players in the league. He’s an efficient scorer, defensive beast, and can run the offense when called upon, but he’s still a role player in the Celtics’ lean, mean, shamrock green machine. White is so good at his role that he’s a borderline star. 

Donte DiVincenzo - New York Knicks

Donte DiVincenzo has a strong argument for the best off-season signing of the summer. His box plus/minus of 4.2 ranks 21st in the league, just behind Kristaps Porzingis and ahead of CJ McCollum, and he was a key reason the Knicks rattled off a 14-2 January. Like most role-players, DiVincenzo derives a lot of his value behind the 3-point line.

On the season, DiVincenzo is shooting 41.8 percent from three on 6.8 attempts per game. His combination of massive 3-point volume and sterling efficiency has had a profound impact on the Knicks’ offense. When DiVincenzo is on the court, the Knicks’ offensive rating of 121.4 is plus-4.5 points better than when he sits. The rest of the league will be kicking themselves that the Knicks were able to sign arguably the best role player in the league for a paltry four-year, $50 million contract.

Mike Conley - Minnesota Timberwolves

There was a time when Mike Conley was the best player to have never made an All-Star team. Fortunately,  in 2020-21, his final All-Star-worthy season, he was selected. Now 36, Conley has lost a step but has excelled as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ game-managing point guard. His stats aren’t impressive, 10.8 points and 6.3 assists per game, but his impact is immense.

With Conley on the court, the Timberwolves have a net rating of plus-9.9, but it falls to plus-1.9 when he sits. His ability to make the right decision, time and time again, has helped stabilize an offense where their two most talented players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, are questionable decision-makers. Simply put, the Wolves wouldn’t be where they are without Conley playing his role to a tee. 

Alex Caruso - Chicago Bulls

Alex Caruso is the best defensive guard in the league. He’s one of two players in the top 20 in both steal and block percentage and should easily make his second consecutive All-Defensive team. Caruso’s defensive exploits are remarkable but well-known at this point. It’s his offensive performance this season that has made him a role-player All-Star. 

Caruso is averaging a career-high 10.1 points per game on 40.9 percent 3-point shooting and 60.8 percent on 2-pointers. When you add hyper-efficient, albeit low-volume, scoring to elite defense, you get an elite role-player. If the Bulls ever put Caruso on the market, he’d go for a surprisingly large haul. 

Isaiah Joe - Oklahoma City Thunder

There isn’t a ton of complexity to Isaiah Joe’s game. He catches the ball, shoots said ball, and it goes in 40 percent of the time, and it’s worth three points. The Thunder have been one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league, and Joe’s 4.8 attempts on 42.4 percent efficiency certainly helps. 

Floor spacing is a pre-requisite for the modern role-player, and that’s what Joe provides. Does it matter that he does little else? Maybe when he gets to the negotiating table, but the blend of volume and efficiency he provides from three will always be valuable. 

Grayson Allen - Phoenix Suns

Speaking of 3-point efficiency, Grayson Allen is your league leader in 3-point shooting at 49.8 percent. The Suns had an injury-riddled and disappointing start to the season, but Allen’s bonkers shooting helped keep them afloat. Now fully healthy, the Suns can finally take full advantage of Allen’s 3-point shooting gravity. 

On defense, Allen doesn’t do much outside of compete. However, when you have a true shooting percentage of 69.9 percent, all you need to do is give an honest effort on defense. With shooting splits of 51.5/49.8/88.6, Allen has a real shot to produce a 50/40/90 season. 

NBA role-player All-Stars: Forwards

Al Horford - Boston Celtics

Al Horford has established himself as one of the league’s best role-players over the past three seasons. Since arriving in Boston for the second time in 2021-22, Horford has seen his usage decline each season, but he remains a hyper-efficient shooter and a critical chess piece for their defense. Every team could use an Al Horford. He can play center or power forward, space the floor, make connective passes, and guard the other team’s best frontcourt player. 

Horford’s 3.5 BPM is 31st in the NBA, and his usage rate of 11.0 percent is by far the lowest of anyone in the top 45. The Celtics are the best team in the NBA because they have an All-Star starter, Jayson Tatum, flanked by All-Stars and elite role players, and Al Horford is one of the best in the business at his role.  

Dario Saric - Golden State Warriors

The Dario Saric-Chris Paul partnership was shaping up to be one of the best two-man bench combinations in the league. Unfortunately, a hand injury sidelined Paul and has left the duo’s on-court net rating of plus-7.4 frozen in ice. However, Saric has trudged on and been one of the few bright spots for the Golden State Warriors. 

In 20.5 minutes a night, Saric is averaging 10.2 points on 41.2 percent 3-point shooting, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. His combination of shooting and passing from the front court has been vital to keeping the Warriors’ second units afloat, and for as bad as the Warriors’ season has been, it would be even worse without Saric. 

Jalen Johnson - Atlanta Hawks

According to reports, the only untouchables on the Hawks’ roster are Trae Young and Jalen Johnson. While that shows how poor the Hawks season has gone, it also shows how great Johnson has been in his first extended run in the NBA. The third-year forward is averaging 15.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game on 59.4 percent effective field goal percentage. 

He’s a bolt of energy on defense and offense and has solidified the Hawks' power forward position. Because Johnson is so young and has such a limited track record, it remains to be seen how real his 37.1 percent 3-point shooting is, but he does so many other things well, it’s not a make-or-break skill, unlike most role players. 

Herbert Jones - New Orleans Pelicans

Herbert Jones is the forward version of Alex Caruso. He’s an elite defender with low usage offense, and unlike Caruso, he can actually guard elite scoring forwards. Also, like Caruso, Jones is enjoying the best shooting season of his career, shooting 39.6 percent from three and 57.3 percent on twos. 

Jones is the only Pelican starter who isn’t a below-average defender, and they have the tenth-ranked defense. They have strong defenders on the bench, but Jones is the single biggest reason the Pelicans have a top-ten defense despite the shortcomings of their stars. 

Aaron Nesmith - Indiana Pacers

While Tyrese Haliburton gets all the praise, Aaron Nesmith has quietly been a huge part of the Pacers’ success. He’s averaging 12.5 points on 46.4 percent 3-point shooting while routinely taking difficult defensive assignments. Nesmith’s defense isn’t elite, but on a better defensive roster, he’d look a whole lot better. 

The Pacers are on pace to set the NBA record for offensive efficiency, and Nesmith’s shooting is a big reason. If his defense was a bit better, he’d be maybe the best role player in the league, but that doesn’t take away from how good he has been. 

Larry Nance Jr. - New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans didn't garner a single All-Star, but Larry Nance Jr. means they’ll have two role-player All-Stars. Nance doesn’t have eye-catching statistics, even for a bench player. He’s averaging 5.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. However, deployed as a small-ball center, Nance’s mobility and shooting unlocks devastating lineup combinations for the Pelicans. 

Even though he is undersized at center, Nance has had a significantly positive impact on the Pelicans’ defensive rating, improving by four points per 100 possessions. The cherry on top has been a career-best 46.2 percent 3-point shooting, albeit on only 1.3 attempts per game. 

NBA role-player All-Stars: Centers

Goga Bitadze - Orlando Magic

Goga Bitadze has been the breakout star of niche-NBA-defensive-sicko-Twitter. Starting the season as the third center, Bitadze was thrust into the starting role when Wendell Carter Jr. suffered an injury and never looked back. His box score statistics aren’t impressive, but he has anchored the Magic’s fourth-ranked defense for the majority of the season. 

With Carter back from injury and Moritz Wagner excelling as the backup center, there won’t be many minutes for Bitadze going forward. It’s unfortunate that the Magic have too many good centers, but Bitadze proving he can anchor a defense before hitting free agency is excellent timing for his bank account.  

Kelly Olynyk - Utah Jazz

Kelly Olynyk is having his most distilled Kelly Olynyk season ever. He’s shooting a career-best 42.7 percent from 3-point range and dishing 4.3 assists coming off of Utah’s bench. Olynyk has always been a good shooter and passer, but this season, he is leaning into those two skills like never before. 

After a rough start to the season, the Jazz have been red hot, and Olynyk’s ability to connect the dots has been vital. Passing from the center position has increasingly become important, and Olynyk is one of the best in the business. 

Isaiah Hartenstein - New York Knicks

Usually, when a team loses a player as vital as Mitchell Robinson was to the Knicks, things go south in a hurry, but thankfully for New York, Isaiah Hartenstein was waiting in the wings. Hartenstein isn’t as physically bruising as Robinson, but he’s an excellent pick-and-roll partner for Jalen Brunson. 

Hartenstein doesn’t have the gaudy passing numbers as he has had in the past, but he is an above-average passer from the center position, and due to his size, he can protect the rim admirably. However, his secret weapon is his ability to secure offensive rebounds. Hartenstein’s offensive rebound percentage of 14.8 percent is the second-best in the league. 

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