The NBA playoffs typically showcase superstar players making the big bucks, but this year several underpaid, up-and-coming stars are making an impression. Using 2021-22 salaries and an average of the advanced metrics RAPTOR, EPM and LEBRON, Sportico calculated the 10 NBA players who provided wins over a replacement player at the cheapest cost this regular season. Five of those 10 players have had enormous impacts in the playoffs.
The Grizzlies’ leading scorer in the first round is not All-Star starter Ja Morant, but Bane, who has shot a blistering 22 for 47 from 3-point range, including seven in a comeback Game 3 win. Bane fell to 30th in the NBA draft, with his age and short 6’4” wingspan cited as concerns, but his 43.3% on threes at TCU has translated to the NBA. He ranks in the top 10 in both catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage and pull-up 3-point percentage since entering the league in 2020.
Bane’s shooting complements Morant, who loves to drive and kick out to shooters. If Bane has a signature play, it’s the “fly by” three, where he pump fakes, lets his defender fly by him, takes a dribble and drains the shot. He was second in the NBA this season in threes made after exactly one dribble, and he’s got five of those already in the playoffs.
The Grizzlies will likely offer Morant a lucrative extension this summer, but Bane still has two more years left on his four-year, $9.94 million rookie deal, which makes him the team’s 10th-highest-paid player.
The Dallas Mavericks appeared to be in trouble when Luka Doncic was sidelined to start the playoffs with a strained calf. Then Brunson lifted Dallas to a surprising 2-1 series lead over the Jazz by scoring 41 and 31 points in back-to-back wins without Doncic.
That type of scoring explosion exceeded expectations, but Brunson had averaged 20.4 points and 7.5 assists on 49% shooting in the 17 regular season games that Doncic missed. In fact, the Mavericks’ offense was slightly more efficient this season when Brunson was on the court without Doncic than vice versa, per Cleaning the Glass.
Brunson has one of the most complete scoring packages in the league. He ranked fourth in shooting percentage on drives among the 100 most frequent drivers this season, finished first in points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler among the 100 most frequent pick-and-roll ball handlers, and was the fourth most prolific scorer in late shot clock situations, per NBA.com.
If you split the court into five zones (zero to 3 feet, 3 to 10 feet, 10 to 16 feet, 16 feet to 3-point line, and behind the 3-point line), Brunson is one of only four players this season to attempt at least 10% of his shots and shoot above league average from each zone.
With superstars like James Harden and Kyrie Irving expected to pick up their player options, Brunson might be the best free agent on the market this summer. He was eligible for a four-year, $55.6 million extension before the 2021-22 season, but the Mavericks chose not to commit, and now they might lose their Luka insurance. His price tag has likely shot up to at least $80 million, with several teams reportedly interested.
No rookie has made an All-Defensive team since Tim Duncan in 1998, but Jones’ versatility gives him a chance this season. Per NBA.com matchup data, the two players he guarded most frequently this season were 6’1” Donovan Mitchell and 6’9” LeBron James. He actually spent more total time guarding All-Stars than Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart.
Jones, with his 7-foot wingspan, also provides unique off-ball defensive value for a wing. Like a great free safety, he covers so much space that he allows his teammates to play aggressively knowing that Jones has their backs if necessary. Jones finished fourth in the NBA this season in blocks plus steals as well as fourth in deflections. In a Game 4 first round win against the Suns, he blocked three three-pointers.
The second round pick has also shown flashes on offense, often in transition, and is the Pelicans’ fourth-leading scorer in the first round. He has two more years left on his cheap rookie deal, a blessing for a New Orleans team that owes Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum more than $30 million each next year, and has a looming Zion Williamson extension decision.
Anyone who watched Poole shoot just 26.8% in his first 16 NBA games back in 2020 would be shocked to hear him discussed as a third Splash Brother alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson just two years later.
When his backcourt partners each missed extended time this season, Poole remained healthy and slid seamlessly into their roles in Steve Kerr’s motion offense. Only four players made more shots off screens this year than Poole, and two of them were his teammates Curry and Thompson.
After the All-Star break, Poole averaged 25.7 points per 36 minutes, a mark exceeded by only 14 other players, all of whom are former All-Stars. He’s carried that over into the postseason, averaging 21.0 points on 72% true shooting (more efficient than Curry and Thompson).
In February, it was reported that it could cost the Warriors $80 million over four years to extend Poole this offseason, but that number has surely risen with Poole’s recent level of play. If they don’t agree to a deal, Poole will become a free agent in 2023, the same summer as Andrew Wiggins. Golden State will have to choose one or the other to avoid a historically high payroll, but this is a team that added $68 million to their 2021 luxury tax bill for a one-year Kelly Oubre experiment—the Warriors have never been afraid of spending.
Gary Payton II
After spending five years in and out of the G League and being cut from four NBA teams, the undrafted Payton got the Warriors’ 15th and final roster spot last summer. His $1.94 million contract wasn’t guaranteed for the full season until after New Year’s.
It’s surprising that it took so long for Payton to solidify a role with the Warriors, because his athleticism and high IQ are perfect for the team that finished first in the NBA in points off of cuts in five of the past seven seasons. Payton seldom looks to generate his own shot, but at just 6’3”, an inch shorter than his father, he led the NBA this season in points off of cuts among all players shorter than 6’7”, en route to the highest field goal percentage ever by a guard.
It helps to dunk everything you possibly can, but Payton’s percentage around the basket is astounding. No player 6’4” or shorter has ever shot at least 65% on at least 200 2-point attempts in a single season. Payton shot 75.4% on twos this year.
Ironically, it was his outside shooting that propelled the Warriors into the second round when Payton made two fourth-quarter threes in Golden State’s Game 5 win over the Nuggets on Wednesday.
It’s his defense, though, which will especially come in handy as the Warriors advance deeper in the playoffs and face guards like Morant, Chris Paul and Devin Booker in the Western Conference. Only Patrick Beverley matched up with Morant on more defensive possessions this season than Payton, who led the NBA with 2.8 steals per 36 minutes, the 10th-highest mark in the past quarter century.
Teams rarely strike gold on an undrafted player like Payton, but rookie scale contracts are bargains when players picked in the late first round or early second round outperform expectations for those draft slots. Bane, Brunson, Jones and Poole were each drafted between 28th and 35th—that’s where teams have the best chance of getting immediate bang for their buck.