Our favorite NBA role players to watch this season

Time for our eighth annual Luke Walton All-Stars — an ode to bit players who bounce around the fringes of the NBA before landing in new roles where things click. (Read about the origins of the column here.)

Joakim Noah, Memphis Grizzlies (captain)

Noah finished fourth in MVP voting in 2014. The next four years brought injuries, the death of a beloved Bulls team, infighting in New York, and a 20-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. The Knicks waived him in July. For two months, Noah was unemployed.

“Memphis was the only team that showed me any consideration,” Noah tells ESPN.com. The Grizzlies promised a small role. That was fine with Noah. He needed to build his confidence back almost from scratch.

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He injected energy right away. At his first practice, Noah dunked on rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. and screamed in celebration, “Don’t do it to him like that, Sticks!” he and his coaches recall. (Noah’s high school nicknamed him “Stickman” because he was so gangly.)

Everyone rose to match Noah’s intensity, says Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “He’s like that all the time,” Bickerstaff says. “He keeps us all on our toes.”

It isn’t just rabid, chaotic noise, though it is that, too. Noah asks detailed questions in film sessions — including at halftime — about schemes, adjustments, and player tendencies. “A lot of guys ask BS questions,” Bickerstaff says. “His are real.”

Noah knows he will never be a star again. “Physically, I’m just not the same,” he says. But he can still push the ball in transition, man the elbows, and pick out cutters:

He posted an assist rate in Memphis almost on par with his prime seasons.

On defense, he gets to spots early, barks orders, and fights hard. “His productivity has been a pleasant surprise,” Bickerstaff says.

Noah takes nothing for granted. “I’m more proud of this year than I was when I was an All-Star,” he says. “I lost my confidence on the court in a real public way. You don’t know if you are going to get that back. Just to have that feeling back — to be able to be myself, and express myself on the court — it feels great.”

Noah played well enough to earn a roster spot somewhere next year. Does he expect that?

“F— yeah,” he says.

Khem Birch, Orlando Magic

After an early-season practice, Steve Clifford pulled Birch aside, the Magic coach says. Birch was good enough to play in the NBA, Clifford told him, but it would be hard to find minutes with Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba ahead of him.

“Whatever you need me to do,” Birch responded, “I’ll do. I’ll be ready.”

A few weeks later, Birch called his agent, and said it was time for an uncomfortable conversation. “I talked about going overseas again,” says Birch, who previously played in Greece and Turkey. “I never doubted myself. I just didn’t think I was going to get an opportunity.”

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Birch really did not want to go abroad again. He still hasn’t received all his guaranteed salary from those years, he says. He remembers one road game in Turkey when referees stopped play because fans pelted Birch’s bench with bottles and coins.

Only days after that call to his agent, Orlando announced Bamba would be out indefinitely with a leg injury. Birch felt badly for the rookie. But he knew: He had a chance.

He has made the most of it. Birch knows his role on offense: set hard picks, dive like hell to the rim. Only six rotation big men roll to the basket more often per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum.

You might go 10 rim-runs without touching the ball. The attention you draw unlocks open looks for others, but who notices? Where does it show up in traditional box score stats that still play a disproportionate role in getting paid? Birch bought in anyway.

“I’m not here to score points or be the hero,” Birch says. “I’m just trying to help my team win.”

(Birch is easy to miss in other ways. Everyone with the Magic calls him one of the quietest people on the team. One official even asked Birch — who grew up in Montreal — whether he kept to himself because he was more comfortable speaking French, Birch says. He does not speak French.)

He moves his feet on defense, and is a surprisingly explosive leaper. Opponents are shooting only 50.9 percent at the rim with Birch nearby, the third-stingiest mark among all 172 rotation players who challenge at least 2.4 such shots per game. He’s also among the per-minute leaders in drawing charges.

“Everyone loves playing with him,” Vucevic says.

Since Bamba’s injury, the Magic have outscored opponents by five points per 100 possessions with Birch on the floor, per NBA.com. Birch helped stabilize a bench that had been bleeding points. Bamba’s injury was a blessing in disguise for Orlando’s playoff hopes. That’s not an indictment of Bamba; he’s 20.

Birch is headed to free agency this summer. “Hopefully I stay in Orlando,” he says. “But it’s good to know people are noticing me a little.”

Richaun Holmes, Phoenix Suns

Ah, the fourth center in The Process. Holmes showed promise as a hoppy dive-and-dunk finisher, but the Sixers had no room for him; they dealt him to Phoenix for cash.

Holmes found himself behind a decorated veteran, Tyson Chandler, and the No. 1 pick in the draft, Deandre Ayton. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” says Igor Kokoskov, the Suns head coach. But Holmes brought a jolt of energy every time he stepped on the floor. The Suns bizarrely waived Chandler in November — you’re welcome, Bron! — opening a full-time role for Holmes.

Holmes is shooting 61 percent, mostly on dunks and layups. Like Birch, he has embraced the drudgery of endless zero-to-60 rim runs that yield little in the way of touches or numbers. Only three rotation bigs roll to the rim after setting picks more often, per possession, than Holmes, according to Second Spectrum. Phoenix has been much better with Holmes on the floor.

He has taken zero 3s after launching 77 two seasons ago as the Sixers tried to turn him into a stretch-center and find minutes for him at power forward. He hasn’t given up that dream.

“I’ll get back to shooting 3s,” Holmes says. “But it was important for us as a young team to have defined rolls. Mine was to roll to the rim.”

Kokoskov says one of his assistants recently approached him with a message from Holmes: He wants to shoot 3s. “If we’re up 40, I’ll draw up a play for him to shoot a 3,” Kokoskov says with a chuckle. “Right now, I want him to dunk everything. And dunk it hard.”

Holmes has flashed some ball skills — including play-action keepers:

For now, Holmes is thrilled to have a regular role. He remembers his first G-League assignment with the Sixers’ team in Delaware. He didn’t bring gear — headband, shooting sleeves, game-ready basketball shoes. He assumed it would be at his locker. Nope. Just a jersey and shorts. Luckily, Holmes says, he was wearing a pair of Nike LeBrons that were good enough for one game. He also hadn’t brought any food, expecting an NBA-style pregame spread. He ran to Subway to scarf down something before tip-off, he says.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Holmes says of his path. “Being undervalued and overlooked — it puts a chip on your shoulder that keeps you working.”

Holmes will be a free agent after this season. He has earned a look, even if he hasn’t quite answered questions about his rebounding and defense.

Derrick Jones Jr., Miami Heat

Jones started the first three games of the season before injuries knocked him out of Miami’s rotation. Then came Dec. 8 in Los Angeles against the Clippers, when Miami had only nine healthy players and junked up the game with a zone defense.

Jones, a 6-foot-7 leaper extraordinaire with a 7-foot wingspan, was the breakout star of that zone. He was everywhere. The zone became a staple, often with Jones and Josh Richardson at the top, arms spread, cluttering every passing lane.

“That day,” Jones says, “gave me confidence that I was here to stay.”

In Phoenix, his first stop after going undrafted in 2016, Jones occasionally showed up late to practices and meetings. His agent, Aaron Turner, liked the idea of Jones’ second chance coming in Miami; he knew the Heat would not tolerate tardiness. “I had to get that straightened out,” Jones says. “Had to be on my best behavior. There are no slip-ups here.”

Jones believes he can win Defensive Player of the Year one day, he says. The Heat have started him at both forward positions, and often have him guard the best opposing wing. He slides his feet with an unusual blend of speed and balance.

The questions come on the other end. He has shot only 29 percent from deep for his career; defenses ignore him to clog the lane. Jones has responded with smart cuts; turn your head, and he’s gone:

Jones has used the same predatory instincts to become perhaps Miami’s best offensive rebounder outside of Hassan Whiteside — a rare thing on a team that has historically punted the offensive glass to get back on defense.

It happened organically, Jones says. He and Bam Adebayo engaged in a secret Summer League competition to see who could gather the most rebounds. When the real season started, Jones kept on crashing. No one told him to stop.

Even if he doesn’t have inside position, Jones leaps into the stratosphere, unfurls one of his preposterous arms, and plucks the ball before anyone else can reach it.

The Heat also mitigate Jones’ so-so shooting by using him as the screener in pick-and-rolls — where defenses have to stick close to him.

Jones does not view his jumper as a permanent weakness. “I believe I can be a knockdown shooter,” he says. That seems far-fetched, but if he can pull it off, Jones will access new methods of leveraging his athleticism:

Luol Deng, Minnesota Timberwolves

Deng has appeared in only 22 games, surely the lowest ever in the eight-year history of this column. But that is enough for a decorated two-time All-Star — one of the NBA’s ultimate tough guys — who since that fateful summer of 2016 has been known more as a contract than a basketball player.

Ryan Saunders was so new as Minnesota’s head coach, having replaced Tom Thibodeau days earlier, that he was still working out of his old assistant coach’s office in early January when he got up to go home around 8:30 p.m. That office faced the court. He looked up and saw Deng working out with a friend. Deng had barely played all season.

“The normal thing for a player to do — especially one who has had success and made money like Luol — would be to remove himself from the team,” Saunders says. “He did the opposite. He almost became more invested.” Deng has been a valuable mentor to both Karl-Anthony Towns and Keita Bates-Diop, Saunders says.

Saunders had long admired Deng. As an assistant with the Wizards under his late father, Saunders crafted what he called “the Luol Deng drill.” Prime Deng was a master at catching passes on the move, so he was already at full speed upon his first dribble. After one hard bounce, he pulled up for easy jumpers. Saunders taught that to Washington’s young wings.

“I told him, ‘I tried to teach your move, and no one could do it!'” Saunders chuckles.

After spying Deng’s late-night workout, the coach hatched plans to play him. Saunders threw Deng in on Jan. 12 against New Orleans, and he stayed in the rotation until suffering an Achilles injury six weeks later.

(The irony of Deng entering the rotation only after the Timber-Bulls fired Thibodeau is sort of incredible.)

He was astonishingly good considering he hadn’t played for most of two years, and that the Wolves used him mostly as a wing. Deng hit 61 percent of his 2-point shots, plowing through smaller guys in transition and in the post — where he finishes with a silky jump hook:

Minnesota scored 1.44 points per possession any time Deng shot out of the post, or dished to a teammate who let fly — the second-fattest figure among 159 guys who recorded at least 25 post-ups, per Second Spectrum. He still runs hard into the catch:

His long arms and nimble feet still serve him well on defense; the Wolves even had him guard some opposing superstars, including James Harden.

It is one of the glorious, random stats of the season: The Wolves — the 36-44, drama-ridden Wolves — outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions during Deng’s 392 minutes.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little surprised at how well he played,” Saunders says.

Jared Dudley, Brooklyn Nets

Dudley is now a three-time Walton — the most appearances by any player, and a testament to how often he has toggled from rotation guy to benchwarmer (and back).

It’s jarring when Dudley shoots. He has to be wide open. He is allergic to the rim. He has finished only 10.4 percent of Brooklyn possessions with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover — the fourth-lowest usage rate among all rotation players. (The lowest belongs to PJ Tucker, who has graduated from Walton status in his second season as Houston’s heavy-minutes stopper.)

But there is a method to Dudley’s seeming passivity. He’s a good enough long-range shooter that defenders rush out to him. He’s a smart passer amid that scramble. He sees how he might create something for a teammate before he even gets the ball, which is why he gets rid of it so fast. You get frustrated when Dudley demurs on an open triple, but two passes later, you understand: Someone else gets a better look.

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He thinks one step ahead on defense, too. He’s slow and ground-bound, but he’s somehow in the right place exactly when he needs to be. His brain makes his body fast. He might not stop you, but he’s going to make you do some extra work.

Everyone loves an unselfish teammate. Dudley has leveraged that adoration into a role as veteran soothsayer. He watches film with Caris LeVert, and points out passes LeVert missed, the two say.

After a heartbreaking crunch-time loss to the Thunder in December — Brooklyn’s eighth straight — dropped the Nets to 8-18, players sniped at each other, Joe Harris told me in March. Dudley led a players-only film session the next day, freezing the tape when he saw a chance to hold someone accountable.

The soothsayer role is tricky. Teammates can tire of the same voice. They grow wary of soothsayers playing up their importance in the media. Dudley has struck the right balance on a young team that needs veteran leadership.

Honorable mention Walton status to fellow Net Ed Davis, a rebounding machine and beloved teammate wherever he goes.

Bruno Caboclo, Memphis Grizzlies

It’s still unclear whether Caboclo could play for a good NBA team, but he doesn’t look out of place in an NBA game. That is a milestone.

Caboclo is shooting 36 percent from deep in Memphis on decent volume, and he’s not afraid to launch semi-contested bombs. He runs the floor, lopes in for offensive boards, and has all the tools to be a plus defender across every position.

He is even dribbling with new decisiveness when defenders run him off the arc:

There is still so far to go. Caboclo hurries his 3-pointer if he senses a whiff of pressure, hurling high-arching prayers in the general direction of the backboard. He is somehow both wild and tentative at the same time off the dribble. You can see him learning the boundaries of his physical possibilities. He seems startled on some drives that he is already at the rim, and surprised on others that he has not gotten as close to it as he thought.

But this all counts as progress. The Raptors invested enormous resources — time, people, money — just guiding Caboclo through day-to-day adulthood. It is starting to pay off in Memphis.

Shaquille Harrison, Chicago Bulls

Harrison was still on a 10-day contract last season in Phoenix when he lined up to defend Dennis Schroder, then with the Hawks. Harrison picked Schroder up full-court. And then he did it again. After several possessions, Schroder, joking but probably a little exasperated, whispered to Harrison, “Yo, you don’t have to do this,” Harrison recalls.

“No, I do,” Harrison responded. “Trust me.”

Harrison knows he has to defend like all hell to stay in the league. He’s just 29-of-111 from deep over two seasons, and he barely even looks to shoot from midrange.

He prefers to burrow in for floaters, which he can loft with either hand. But Harrison is not an explosive vertical athlete; about 10 percent of his attempts have been blocked:

Defenders duck way under screens, making it hard for Harrison to puncture the defense, draw help, and unlock profitable passes. His assist rate dropped this season, and Chicago mostly played him alongside other point guards who ran the offense.

But that chest-to-chest defense remains. It has been there since kindergarten, when Harrison discovered the easiest way to score was to steal the ball and coast in for layups. Coaches finally asked Harrison to defend with his hands behind his back, because the unfiltered Harrison experience was unfair to the other children, he says.

Perhaps it won’t surprise you, then, that Harrison doesn’t mind the hard-charging style of Jim Boylen, the Bulls’ new head coach — including the hours-long practices that nearly fomented rebellion in Boylen’s first week in the top job. “It wasn’t new to me,” Harrison says. “I’ve had coaches who had practices like that. A lot of guys were hurting, but it was another day in the office for me. I think I’m kind of a Jim prototype.”

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He’s right. “He’s my kind of guy,” Boylen says. “I have never seen anyone embrace constructive criticism like Shaq. I’ve coached him hard, and he’s taken it in the chest.”

Harrison improved his finishing around the rim late in the season. He’s smart about faking toward picks, coaxing the defense that way, and darting the other direction — an antidote to the “go under everything” gambit.

He plans to spend the summer working on his jump shot. Harrison’s brother, Monte, is a prospect with the Miami Marlins, and Harrison has talked about the two being the next pair of NBA-Major League Baseball brothers, Boylen says. Honing at least a usable midrange jumper would transform Harrison from a fringe backup on bad teams into a solid backup on good ones.

“That can take me from five years in the league, to 10,” Harrison says.

Kenneth Faried, Houston Rockets

On Jan. 16 in Houston, another game in which Faried would play zero seconds for Brooklyn, he noticed the injury-plagued Rockets starting Tucker at center and saw his future. “‘They are not even playing a big!'” Faried remembers thinking. “‘I could come here and play right away.’ It sucked [Clint] Capela was hurt, but it opened a door for me.”

That brain wave accelerated buyout talks with the Nets, sources say; Faried debuted for the Rockets five days later.

If you wanted to pick one player to define the league’s evolution over the last three-plus years, you could do worse than Faried. (Greg Monroe would like a moment, too.) He became a starter in Denver as a rookie, and averaged double figures in scoring for five straight seasons. But the tectonic plates of the game were already shifting beneath his feet. He couldn’t shoot 3s, protect the rim, or switch on defense.

Few players have fallen further, faster. Faried must be shocked on one level, but he says something that happened during his first year in Denver taught him NBA stardom is fragile.

“I saw Denver sign Nene for all that money and trade him that same year,” Faried says. “After that, I said, ‘OK, this league is cutthroat.’ No one really cares about you. They treat [Nene] like that?”

Faried never lost faith. “In my mind, I’m a starter,” Faried says. “I always felt I had a place in this league. I never let anyone tell me I didn’t belong.”

He was a perfect stand-in for Capela, and now fittingly for Nene when Nene contracts a case of Nene-itis. He knows the role: screen for James Harden, roll hard, dunk lobs. He runs the floor, tries on defense, and has even hit 7-of-19 on 3-pointers. (Seriously: Mike D’Antoni lets everyone shoot 3s. He let Michael Carter-Williams fire at will. It’s kind of surprising that Capela has taken only two in his career.)

“Everybody is shocked I’m knocking it down,” he says. “But soon they’re going to be running at me, and then it’s pump fake, and next thing you know, I’m at the rim.” That is a fitting coda to the Faried saga: use 3s to get more of the roaring 2s that made him famous.

Also receiving votes: Thomas Bryant, Alex Len, Dewayne Dedmon, Danuel House, Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet, Gary Clark, Maxi Kleber, David Nwaba, Rodney McGruder, Alfonzo McKinnie (no Warriors!), Boban Marjanovic (too famous!), and recent Waltons Gerald Green, Seth Curry, JaVale McGee, Royce O’Neale, and Mike Scott.

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