ROOTING FOR THE UNDERRATED IS OVERRATED. UNLESS IT'S FOR ONE OF THESE TWO GUYS.
THE DECADE'S MOST MISUSED AND misunderstood sports word is "underrated." It means, obviously, "to rate too low, to underestimate." And, really, do we underestimate any athlete anymore?
Thanks to the Internet, 93% of the American population now has a sports column, podcast or blog. All we do anymore is estimate things! Even if a player is underrated for a nanosecond (think David West in 2007), that changes as soon as the inevitable crush of experts races to dub him that. In certain cases, Ben Wallace Syndrome can develop: A guy carries around the underrated tag for so long, he becomes overrated-or, in Wallace's particular case, wildly, perplexingly overrated. (Note: This has just happened to Andrew Bynum.)
If you want to find someone who is truly underrated, you have to look for a player who 1) actually matters, and 2) has the potential to remain underrated for more than a few minutes. Sixers rookie Marreese Speights may be underrated, but who cares? Utah's Paul Millsap is so underrated, he could earn $55-$60 million in free agency (thus immediately making him overrated), but by the time this issue hits newsstands, everyone will realize Millsap is just as valuable to the Jazz as Carlos Boozer (thus making him properly rated). If it's so easy to see someone is underrated, he isn't underrated.
My personal definition of underrated has three parts. First, it needs to refer to someone currently achieving at a crazy high level, only nobody seems to realize it. Second, that guy has to resonate in a unique way with his fans, even as nobody outside that circle realizes the degree of his resonation. (And if I just made up that word, so be it.) Third, he needs to make you think, I bet that dude would be really fun to follow on an everyday basis, except hardly anyone is actually thinking that.
That last characteristic is a little tough to understand. I will explain. Any NBA fan knows Derrick Rose is going to be unbelievable. He will be either a poor man's Magic or a rich man's (not to mention drug-free) Micheal Ray Richardson. He plays in a big market. He's been appropriately covered. He's played on national TV a few times. He's drawn his share of raves. He's probably going to be Rookie of the Year, unless voters stupidly buy O.J. Mayo's me-myself-and-I routine. Rose, therefore, is properly rated, non-Chicago fans being sufficiently envious of Bulls fans and sufficiently appreciative of his skills (as well as his resonation).
But Kevin Durant-now, he's a different story. For someone to be truly underrated, we have to feel as if we've already thought him through, digesting him before arriving at a conclusion and moving on. We spent the first half of 2007 arguing the who-should-go- No. 1 merits of Durant and Greg Oden, picking them apart, choosing sides. Durant won the argument by default after Oden missed his rookie season with a knee injury, then struggled enough this season to get us all wondering if he's better than even Bynum (a guy I just called overrated).
Meanwhile, Durant won ROY playing for a disintegrating franchise and currently toils in obscurity in a new town for a team that is the dregs of the league. Yes, GM Sam Presti imploded the team like the Kingdome so he could start over with lottery picks and cap space, building a foundation for 2011. And yes, it's a smart move. But something weird happened in the process: We all stopped thinking about Durant. He's a nonentity. Ask the average fan to tell you who will be the best player in the NBA in three years, and the first five answers will be LeBron, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, D-Wade and either Rose or Carmelo. (Except in LA, where Lakers fans would go with the first three, then Bynum and Trevor Ariza.) I don't see Durant getting many votes.
Um does anyone realize he just turned 20 on Sept. 29, making him younger than Mayo? That he's breaking every scoring benchmark by age? That he's been averaging 26 points, eight rebounds, 48% shooting, 85% from the line and 43% on threes since Thanksgiving? Go online and check out his ESPN.com game log. Do it now. I'll wait.
(Twiddling my thumbs.)
Got it? Now look at those point totals: 28, 25, 26, 26, 28, 26, 25 You know in Jaws when Richard Dreyfuss calls the shark an "eating machine"? Durant is a scoring machine. He was put on this earth to collect points. We have never seen anyone quite like him before: a 6'9" forward with Plastic Man arms, 30-foot range and the ability to thrive in big moments. He has more career buzzer-beaters than LeBron. Trust me, it's true.
Know also that NBA players peak between ages 25 and 29. So what's Durant's realistic peak? Will he average 33 a game on percentages of 55-90-50? Will he average 36 ppg? Thirty-eight? Seriously, where does this go? Nobody's discussing that. Nobody's even acknowledging it. And that makes Kevin Durant totally, completely, unequivocally underrated. I can't think of five current players who are more fun to watch. I'm jealous of the Thunder's fans. I am.
By my count, Durant is one of only two athletes who are actually underrated. The other? Manny Ramirez. I spent 9,500 words explaining my bizarre attachment to him on ESPN.com in October. I will spend another couple hundred here. Forget the sheer entertainment value that comes from following Manny on a daily basis. Just look at the stats. He's three quality seasons away-90 HRs, 300 RBIs, 550 hits and a .900 OPS-from becoming the greatest righthanded hitter ever. Add those to his career numbers, and he's sitting in the top 10 in career OPS and slugging, the top three in RBIs, the top seven in homers and closing in on 3,000 hits. And no one who saw himin all his Ruthian glory with the Dodgers last summer or reach base 24 of 36 times in October can honestly say he's washed up. Say he tanked it in Boston, but only after you concede that he played 22 of 24 games for them in July and had the best offensive month of anyone on a team he was allegedly quitting on.
Whatever. The guy was created to hit baseballs. Even at 36, he can perform this task at an abnormally high level, make any decent team good and any good team great. And yet nobody wants him after his messy divorce with Boston-a divorce that, by the way, the Red Sox cannot escape without blame. Manny gave them seven quality years and two titles, and they yanked him around in Year 8. No, he didn't handle it well; I'm not sure I would have handled it well either.
So he's spent the winter sitting on the open market like a sofa on Craigslist. The Angels, who need him more than anyone, claim they're fine with Juan Rivera. Really? Juan Rivera? That's what you're telling your fans? I don't get it.
All I can tell you is this: Manny is immensely fun to watch day in and day out. He's a monster offensive force, a historic one, even. And he is exceedingly, incredibly available.
He will draw fans to any ballpark, and nobody is interested. You can say it's because he's a cancer; I say it's because he's unequivocally underrated. He will soon find a team and prove one of us right.
And it's going to be me.
(By the way, this column is totally underrated.)
The Sports Guy writes much longer for Page 2 on ESPN.com.