What is a role player in basketball?

What is a role player in basketball?

What is a role player in basketball?

Rotational players in the NBA can be separated into stars and role players.

It is easy to describe the stars. They are the team’s first or second option on offense, scoring around 25-30 points per game with defensive responsibilities being optional in many cases.

The cast members are what you would call the supporting cast. The majority of rotation players fall under this category and they are more diverse in their roles and place in the pecking order compared to stars. They range from high-profile starters to niche specialists who play maybe 10 minutes a game off the bench.

While stars are usually a triple threat on offense and can score from virtually anywhere, role players are non-star players who fill a specific role, either on offense or defense. Stars can also be strictly offensive-minded, while role players must at least be serviceable on both ends of the court.

The nature of star players

If every basketball player only filled specific roles, there would be no point in having the term ‘role player’ in the first place. They would just be players.

So the term ‘actor’ only means something next to the term ‘stars’.

Successful teams will always have their stars. As their name suggests, these players are the ones the coach, teammates, and fans rely on.

It’s important to keep in mind that the star category is huge in the NBA. At the very top, you have all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephan Curry. We classify these players as superstars. You also see stars like Chris Paul, James Harden, and Jayson Tatum who are borderline superstars, and then the regular stars who don’t have household recognition.

Stars are responsible for picking up points in the game through their attacking process. If the coaching staff is used as a scoring machine, the coaching staff may be willing to overlook deficiencies in their defensive ability.

Look no further than point guard Trae Young for an example of a star who is a dynamic scorer but can’t guard a statue on defense. On the other hand, Giannis Antetokounmpo would be a good example of a two-way star.

Role players as unsung heroes

While role players rarely make headlines, they are instrumental in winning. The difference between a good team and a great team often comes down to how well the role players do their jobs. There are undoubtedly games where a superstar carries their team to victory, but for consistent team success, a team requires role players to do their part.

Examples of role players

Casters come in a variety of specializations and sizes, and we’ll discuss a few of the most important ones here.

Three and D players

Three-and-D players are arguably the most sought-after type of role-player in the modern NBA. They are also the most versatile.

As the name suggests, these players specialize in two things, long-range three-point shooting, and defense. They usually shoot guards or small forwards with the size that allows them to guard multiple positions and an above-average three-point shot.

Their main role on offense is to space the floor, and you’ll mostly see them in the corners or running off screens. That second part is especially important for a dynamic offense, so you want 3-and-D players to have great conditioning and a good motor.

These guys are some of the most important players for their teams, and you’ll usually find them playing prominent roles on title contenders. Given the very high demand for three and D players and a relatively low supply, they are probably the highest-paid role players in the league on average.

Examples: Mikal Bridges, Keldon Johnson, Bobby Portis

Edge Protector/Defensive Anchor

As the name suggests, these players are interior defense specialists and act as the last line of defense for their teams. This role requires a lot of height, which is why most edge defenders are centers.

Every basketball team wants as many easy shots at the rim as possible, and the rim protector’s job is to use their presence to turn those easy shots into misses. Contrary to popular belief, being an elite shot blocker does not necessarily make one a rim protector. It’s more about contesting shots at the rim and turning them into misses.

Look at Hassan Whiteside’s early years for a good example. He had elite block numbers, but Miami had a worse defensive rating when he was on the floor compared to when he was off.

Since securing the rebound is necessary to close out a successful defensive possession, rebounding is a very important complementary skill for rim protectors.

They aren’t expected to do much on offense, and their offensive roles are usually pretty limited as a result. Most rim protection specialists are just screen setters and lob targets on offense.

Examples: Rudy Gobert, Jakob Poeltl

gum dude

Out of all the casters, glue guys are probably the hardest to explain as they don’t have a precise checklist that defines them. The best way to do this would be to say that they fill the team’s gaps with their hustle and energy.

They always have a very good car and they raced amazingly. Whether it’s diving for every loose ball there is, chasing their defensive assignment from baseline to baseline, or grabbing offensive rebounds, glue guys do whatever it takes for their team to win. This usually makes them both fan and locker room favorites.

They will usually come off the bench and play for a few minutes, but they will leave their heart on the court during their limited playing time. Since they usually make up for what they lack in other areas with effort, coaches can count on them to provide quality minutes in almost any scenario, even when the main men are on the bench for a break.

Examples: Jose Alvarado, Steven Adams

Related readings:

Why do some basketball hoops have double rims?

Who is the shortest NBA player right now?

How many rings does Kawhi have?

Secondary player

Teams that only have one playmaker see their offense grind to a halt when playoff defenses focus all of their attention on that playmaker. Therefore, any team with title aspirations must have at least one more playmaker.

This type of role player usually comes at the point guard position, but they can also be wings. Their job is to keep the offense going and create scoring opportunities for the rest of the team or create their offense when the situation calls for it. They are players who can make something out of nothing but don’t quite fit into the star category.

Their playing time and role within the attack will largely depend on the composition of their team, and they can range from high-end starters to bench players. Regardless of their minutes or exact job descriptions, there will always be a playoff team that needs them.

Examples: Tyus Jones, Delon Wright

Three-point specialist

Three-point specialists can be considered a subset of three- and D-players. Unlike their two-way counterparts, these specialists focus strictly on long-range shooting. Their percentages from beyond the arc are borderline unreal and their motor is off the charts, but they are unable to guard multiple positions.

Some are even considered defensive liabilities, but the spacing they provide is so good that teams can’t afford to play them. Given their defensive limitations, their roles usually diminish in the playoffs when opponents are always hunting the weakest link on defense.

Bringing them out in the postseason can be risky, so coaches need to figure out how and when to bring them out for the best effect. If done well, they can sway the flow of the game.

Examples: Duncan Robinson, Kyle Korver

Stretch big

Stretch bigs are power forwards and center with the ability to push away from the basket. By being a scoring threat, both when positioned at and beyond the arc, they ‘stretch’ the opposing team. Dirk Nowitzki was the league’s first elite stretch big who truly changed the expectations placed on bigs.

This role is a little outdated given how today’s basketball goal now requires almost everyone, including the seven-footers, to be able to shoot. But less than a decade ago, stretch bigs were the most popular type of role player.

In their heyday, stretch teams enjoyed a huge spacing advantage on offense because their streak drew opponents away from the paint and opened up driving lanes for other players.

This role is nearly extinct in modern basketball because not only does everyone have to be able to shoot, but big men are becoming more and more adept at perimeter defense. Once a very prominent type of role player, today stretch bigs are only considered regular three-point specialists.

Examples: Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilyasova

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