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2017 Free Agent Rankings: Point Guards

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the tiers of a deep point guard free agency class.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the final weeks of the 2016-17 regular season upon us, the looming playoffs will have major implications for this summer’s impressive free agent class. While many observers expect the major stars to stay put, an early playoff exit could be the first domino to fall in a series of events that reshapes multiple NBA franchises. With so much at stake in the coming days, Basketball Insiders is getting an early jump on 2017 free agency, starting with today’s look at a deep point guard class.

A common theme throughout is that players, in most cases, will exert major leverage on the teams that will bid for their services. The available players are divided into four tiers, two for starters and two for the reserves.

Tier 1: Top Shelf Starters

1. Stephen Curry, Warriors

The Golden State Warriors, despite Kevin Durant’s injury and an off year from Stephen Curry — by his standards — are still the best team in basketball. And it is the two-time defending MVP who is leading the way, despite shooting a career-low from three-point range and his worst overall field goal percentage since 2012-13. After posting a 31.5 Player Efficiency Rating during last year’s back-to-back and unanimous MVP season, Curry is currently posting his lowest PER in four seasons (23.7).

Despite any struggles, the Warriors are performing better as a team with Curry on court than any other player. Golden State outscores opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry on court. That isn’t a team-high, but his off-court net is by a wide margin. The Warriors are 14.9 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on court than on the bench. Draymond Green is second in on/off net differential (+10.5), Klay Thompson is third (+9.8), and Durant fourth (+9.1). Even with Curry struggling from three-point range as he never has in his career, he makes the best team in the world better through his presence on the court.

As such, anything other than a super-max contract for Curry this summer is impossible to imagine. Durant also has a player option, but with Thompson and Green each signed for 2+ seasons at relative bargains, he’s likely to stay the course as well. That may mean departures for unrestricted free agents Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Zaza Pachulia, but that’s the price of having a Big Four.

2. Chris Paul, Clippers

Advanced stats actually favor Chris Paul over Curry. The Clippers’ floor general has a +18.4 on/off differential that leads the NBA. Paul is third among point guards in Box Plus-Minus per Basketball Reference and fourth in PER compared to a rank of fifth in both categories for Curry. This likely results from the additional burden on Paul due to a top-heavy roster that isn’t getting as much from its bench as the Warriors.

While the Clippers dominate with Paul on court, the team is 9.3 points per 100 worse with Austin Rivers on court compared to off, while Raymond Felton’s differential is a disastrous -12.8. Perhaps if Paul and Curry switched teams, Curry would struggle more while Paul led the Warriors to even greater heights. But in the real world, the tie goes to the player that produces in the standings, and ultimately in the playoffs. With the Clippers now only a game ahead of the seventh-place Grizzlies, Curry has a clear edge as the best point guard available in the coming offseason.

Barring health concerns, Paul will almost certainly exercise his early termination option to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. It’s a tricky situation for the Clippers as Blake Griffin has the same option while J.J. Redick is on an expiring contract. Luc Mbah a Moute — who has become an important piece — has a player option for $2.3 million he will almost certainly decline. DeAndre Jordan is the only player in the top five of the Clippers’ rotation who is under contract for next season with no options.

Is the Clippers’ late-season swoon a sign of fractured chemistry, or a consequence of lingering effects from the thumb injury Paul suffered earlier in the season? It’s hard to say, but an early playoff exit could ignite a chain reaction with one or more starters defecting in free agency. If Griffin leaves, there’s no telling where Paul could end up. And if the Clippers go deep into the luxury tax to sign Griffin and Paul to massive new contracts, would Redick — easily among the league’s best shooters — compromise his career earnings to stick around on a bargain contract? Anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance could have disastrous consequences for L.A.

3. Kyle Lowry, Raptors

Among NBA point guards, only Kemba Walker, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Curry and Paul have a better on/off differential than Kyle Lowry. His +10.1 trails only Patrick Patterson’s +10.9 for Toronto. With Terrence Ross departed to Orlando via the trade that brought back Serge Ibaka, Lucas Nogueira (+8.1) is currently the only other Raptor with a positive differential (minimum 300 minutes). The rest of the roster ranges from DeMarre Carroll’s -1.2 to Jakob Poeltl’s -8.8. The positive differentials for Patterson and Nogueira are almost certainly a consequence of spending the bulk of their minutes on court with Lowry (846 of 1328 minutes this season for Patterson, 734 of 1067 for Nogueira).

Lowry may not be in the same conversation with Curry and Paul, but these numbers show that he’s a difference maker that deserves to be on the highest tier of pending free agent point guards. One need look no further than the near-max contract the Magic gave Bismack Biyombo after his heroics in the playoffs to see the Lowry effect. A stout rebounder, defender and shot blocker, Biyombo has looked like a shell of himself this season without Lowry to set him up for attacks on the rim. Basketball Insiders editor and publisher Steve Kyler spoke to sources close to the Raptors during All-Star festivities in New Orleans, who said there is almost no scenario in which Toronto wouldn’t pay whatever it takes to keep Lowry, despite the wrist injury that has cost him extended time.

Simply put, the Raptors without Lowry are in danger of falling into the dreaded NBA purgatory. A healthy Toronto squad can compete for a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. If Lowry departs in the summer, the Raptors lack the cap space to replace him with anything close to equal talent. In that scenario, the Raptors would be too good to tank for high draft picks, but not good enough to contend. Toronto must do everything within its power to keep Lowry long term. Trading for Ibaka was almost certainly part of that equation.

4. George Hill, Jazz

The Jazz emerged as clear winners of the draft-day, three-team trade that brought George Hill from Indiana, sent Utah’s lottery pick (12, became Taurean Prince) to the Hawks and delivered Jeff Teague to his hometown Pacers. Hill has vastly outperformed Teague and newly-minted Hawks starting point guard Dennis Schroder this season, as evidenced by the Jazz’s current fourth seed in the brutal Western Conference. Hill’s +9.1 net differential ranks seventh among NBA point guards behind Lowry. He’s eighth in BPM and 14th in PER, placing him a step below Lowry but firmly in the upper echelon of free agent point guards.

Although Hill has only appeared in 43 games due to injury, he has emerged from Paul George’s shadow in Indiana and come into his own in Utah. It’s much easier now to see why San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich agonized over trading Hill for the pick the Spurs used to draft Kawhi Leonard. As with Lowry, the Jazz are left with no choice but to pay whatever the market demands to keep Hill. Trading a lottery pick made sense — even with Hill entering the season on an expiring contract — because Utah had plenty of young talent on the roster but lacked a frontline point guard. The Jazz’ situation was so dire last season that the team started Shelvin Mack in 27 games. That may be the fate that awaits Utah again if the organization can’t convince Hill to commit long-term. Any player that can elevate a lottery team to the brink of home-court advantage in the West deserves a spot this high on the list.

Tier 2: Serviceable Starters

5. Patty Mills, Spurs

While teams like the Warriors and Clippers are extremely top-heavy in terms of net rating differential, the Spurs are an anomaly. Patty Mills is nominally a bench player who leads San Antonio in net differential (+7.7) followed by fellow reserves David Lee (+4.7) and Manu Ginobili (+4.3). None of the trio has started more than 10 games this season. Meanwhile, the entire starting lineup is in the bottom six. This is likely due to Popovich starting Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, two players in the twilight of their career. Parker ranks no higher than 40th among NBA point guards in net differential, BPM and PER.

The upshot is that Mills may be a reserve for the second-best basketball team on Earth, but he could easily start for half the league’s teams. Mills will be paid as such this summer, and San Antonio shouldn’t think the rest of the league has failed to notice how good he is. Fortunately, the Spurs have LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard signed through next season on reasonable contracts. Parker has one year left at $15.5 million and Gasol has a player option for $16 million, but the Spurs have full Bird rights for Mills. As such, San Antonio can spend into the luxury tax to keep Mills if that’s what is required. With the number of teams that will be after him, it almost certainly is. Mills’ piddling $3.6 million contract that expires at season’s end will have the old timers pining for the days when you could go to the movies for a nickel.

6. Jrue Holiday, Pelicans

Jrue Holiday is statistically very similar to Mills and Teague in terms of the stats used above. Mills obviously distinguishes himself by playing a major role on a true contender. But Holiday has another similarity to some of the point guards already discussed. Like Lowry and Hill, Holiday will have an unbelievable amount of leverage with his incumbent team when his final year at $11.3 million expires in a few short months.

Statistically, Holiday is around average for an NBA starter. Just don’t expect him to ask for an average salary July 1. If Holiday leaves New Orleans this summer, the Pelicans would only have as much as $15 million in cap space to find a replacement. That won’t get you any of the point guards listed above, nor some listed below. Teague will certainly be out of that price range after the Pacers gave up Hill to get him.

New Orleans’ best hope might be convincing Jrue’s older brother Justin Holiday, currently enjoying a breakout season with the Knicks, to join the team via an exception or cap space. The elder Holiday recently discussed his desire to play next season on the same team with his brother with Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto. The two may be a package deal for next season, which could work out well for a Pelicans team in desperate need of aid on the wing. Since New Orleans holds full Bird rights for Jrue, the team could potentially sign Justin with cap space then exceed the cap to sign his brother. This scenario becomes even more workable if Dante Cunningham declines his player option for $3.1 million to seek a longer-term deal.

7. Jeff Teague, Pacers

Theme warning: Market economics for NBA point guards will favor the supply side this summer, and that means suppliers of spin dribbles, assists and three-pointers like Jeffrey Demarco Teague. Back in 2013, then-Hawks GM Danny Ferry decided to play hardball with Teague, a restricted free agent. Rather than make an offer, the team waited for Teague to sign a dirt-cheap, four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks where he would have reunited with recently-departed Hawks coach Larry Drew. Ferry and newly-hired coach Mike Budenholzer likely made many a toast to their bargaining acumen.

But then, a few years later, Budenholzer learned the downside of such tactics. With the Hawks organization showing so little commitment to him, Teague apparently wasn’t too enthusiastic about spending the final year of his contract in Atlanta. Early last season, Teague put his condo in Buckhead on the market. Shortly after the Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals, Teague removed all Hawks-related images from his Instagram account. Teague then made and deleted a post on Instagram claiming that he played the entire 2015-16 season with a torn patellar tendon.

Perhaps it was the Hawks’ bargaining tactics, or perhaps it was fractured chemistry after his backup Schroder was quoted by German magazine Bild saying that he would seek greener pastures if he had not secured the starting job by the end of his current contract (Schroder insisted before a road game in Charlotte last season that he was misquoted and taken out of context by Bild). Whatever the reasons, Budenholzer made the decision to accelerate Schroder’s timeline by shipping Teague to the Pacers for the lottery pick Atlanta would use on promising small forward Taurean Prince. As mentioned, with Utah easily getting the best point guard out of the deal, Larry Bird’s back will be against the wall when it comes time to negotiate with Teague. There probably won’t be as many congratulatory slaps on the back as there were in Atlanta.

8. Darren Collison, Kings

Darren Collison has been a nomadic NBA starter who hasn’t won a lot. This is likely as much the fault of roster construction as Collison’s inability to elevate his teams. That could all change this summer after his contract expires with a final year at $5.2 million. One of those hard-bargaining point guards mentioned above could very well change teams, which would leave the incumbent team scrambling for an affordable replacement. Of all the players mentioned so far, Collison is the most likely — but by no means certain — to be available for a reasonable price. For example, if Holiday bolts from New Orleans, Collison could rejoin Cousins with the Pelicans and have the opportunity to play with a superstar in Anthony Davis. That has a much better ring to it than sticking around for an excruciating rebuild in Sacramento. Collison is at the lower end of starting NBA point guards, but he’s definitely a starter. He ranks in the 26-35 range in net differential, BPM and PER.

9. Derrick Rose, Knicks

Ranking Derrick Rose with the second tier probably counts as flattery. Rose will no doubt be seeking a max contract from his next super team, but the reality is that he’s 41st among NBA point guards in net differential and 48th in BPM. He’s somehow 21st in PER, a stat which is known to inflate the value of inefficient volume scorers. For the Knicks, Rose is right in the middle, neither elevating the team nor dragging it down from a net rating perspective. A bigger issue is probably Carmelo Anthony checking out on the organization with a -4.3 net differential that is worse than every Knick except Lance Thomas (-8). Rose has certainly been a workhorse, soaking up nearly 2000 minutes through 60 games, the third-highest total on the team.

Has Rose done enough to justify the kind of payday he doubtless believes he’s in line for after his deal expires July 1? With so many teams with their back against the wall, it only takes one. But if the Knicks double down on a failed personnel mix, it could be another wasted opportunity to begin building around Kristaps Porzingis.

Tier 3: Quality Reserves

10. Devin Harris, Mavericks

Devin Harris grades out better than Rose in the above-referenced metrics but he’s only played 867 minutes this season. Harris has battled injury issues throughout his career and been highly effective in stretches when injuries haven’t held him back. He’s a borderline starter when healthy but he’s getting toward the end of his career.

11. Yogi Ferrell, Mavericks

Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds. How painful must Yogi Farrell’s breakout for the Mavericks but for Brooklyn fans starving for talent? Sean Marks is a young, inexperienced GM, and this was a sharp lesson in the value of taking a longer look at guys before cutting them loose. It’s a sample of fewer than 800 minutes, but Ferrell has a very respectable +1.8 net differential that’s in the top half of the Mavericks’ roster. He’s also 30th among point guards in BPM and 38th in PER, giving him stats that verge on lower-end NBA starter. There’s a less than zero chance the Mavericks decline the team option to make Ferrell a free agent. He’s only mentioned here in the interest of piling on.

12. T.J. McConnell, 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers are within a game of the Knicks and the metrics say T.J. McConnell is a better player than Derrick Rose. Shouldn’t he be ranked higher? It’s actually a fair question. McConnell has started 38 games this year with Sergio Rodriguez starting 30. The 76ers will likely target a point guard in the upcoming draft, which is rich with them. But the numbers say McConnell rates as a very competent reserve. Philly would be quite foolish not to guarantee his 2017-18 salary.

13. Ty Lawson, Kings

Although his stats can be dismissed as having been compiled on a bad team, Lawson ranks between 30th in PER and 40th in BPM. That indicates quite a bit of value for a reserve as long as you’re confident that Lawson has put his past off-court issues behind him. The one-year veteran’s minimum deal he signed with Sacramento may have served as a good rehab stop for him and a better situation could await in free agency.

14. Deron Williams, Cavaliers

The Mavericks were outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions in Deron Williams’ 1171 minutes on the court this season, so it was understandable for the team to take a shot on some younger talent. Nevertheless, he represents a significant upgrade at backup point guard for the Cavaliers, who had relied on Kay Felder previously. One of the more favorable stats for Williams is PER, where he ranks 28th among NBA point guards. As with Collison, he could be a viable Plan B for a number of teams if they miss out on their primary target in free agency.

15. Rajon Rondo, Bulls

It just hasn’t been all that the Bulls’ collection of veterans hoped at the beginning of the season. After Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler cracked down on the rookies, Rondo stood up for them. It wasn’t any one player’s fault, but the net result was fractured leadership and disunity. Only $3 million of next season’s $13.4 million is guaranteed, and there may be no front office less predictable than Chicago’s. Rondo could be sent on his way as a scapegoat for this season’s shortcomings, or he could be back with the Bulls providing quality minutes. Rondo is definitely in decline but there’s still something left in the tank.

Tier 4: The rest

Beno Udrih and Toney Douglas, two NBA nomads, along with Spencer Dinwiddie, are the closest players in this tier to making a move up. Brandon Jennings, like Rose, has some cache as a longtime starter, but the numbers in New York were brutal. Hopefully, he can have a good run with the Wizards and move up a tier ahead of this summer’s unrestricted free agency. Felton, as mentioned above with Paul, has also underperformed. Chicago’s Michael Carter-Williams, a pending restricted free agent, is statistically similar to Felton. The Bulls gave up a rotation player in Tony Snell to get him, so Chicago will almost certainly extend a qualifying offer in hopes that he will fulfill the promise he showed as Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez gave way to McConnell in Philly, and rightly so. He grades out worse than Felton.

Mack enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as the Jazz’ starter last season. His on/off numbers improved dramatically as opportunity and role often allow. But as soon as he went back to the bench, his efficiency numbers went back to their accustomed place south of the Felton Line. C.J. Watson, Ramon Sessions, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Brian Roberts, Jose Calderon, Shaun Livingston and Isaiah Canaan have all lived further south this season. Felder, Trey Burke and Semaj Christon have been at the farthest fringes among NBA point guards with enough minutes to draw any conclusions about.

 

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: Troy Brown Poised To Bring Versatility To The Next Level

Coming into the NBA Draft with just one season of experience at the collegiate level, Troy Brown feels that his wide range of skills makes him a player who has a lot to offer.

Spencer Davies

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Coming into the NBA Draft with just one season of experience at the collegiate level, Troy Brown feels that his wide range of skills makes him a player who has a lot to offer.

Originally recruited as a point guard by Dana Altman at the University of Oregon, the 19-year-old naturally fell into the wing position as his body matured, but he wasn’t your average one trick pony.

“It wasn’t really an option,” Brown said of the transition at the Draft Combine in Chicago. “It was more so because I grew, just a lot of size and stuff like that and playing with a lot of smaller guards. It hasn’t really been a problem for me.”

In his freshman year with the Ducks, Brown filled the stat sheet. He averaged 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in over 31 minutes per game and finished third in the Pac-12 with 55 total steals.

Among his class across the NCAA, Brown was one of four players to put forth those averages in scoring, crashing the boards and dishing out passes. If you can’t tell, there’s more than one strong suit in his game and he feels the same way.

“I would just say being able to rebound at my size,” Brown said of what he best brings to the floor. “I feel like being able to push it and not having to kick it up to a guard. Being able to create fast breaks for my teammates and stuff like that and get guys open really helps a lot.”

Brown measured in close to 6-foot-7 and 208 pounds on the dot with over a 6-foot-10 wingspan, which ideally will make slot him as a three at the professional ranks. He’s a solid defender as well, though he’ll definitely need to put on more weight to match up with the bigger wings in the league.

That being said, he is absolutely capable of playing point forward and already has modeled his game after a mix of different guys in the NBA, including veterans and rookies who impact their teams on a nightly basis.

“I definitely grew up and watched Penny Hardaway a lot,” Brown said. “Ben Simmons is a really big guard—triple-double type of player, that’s how I feel like I am.

“Even the role players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston. Just big guards. Jayson Tatum, even though he played at the wing a little more, just a great mid-range game and post game.”

Most of those talents he mentioned have the all-around game, including a reliable perimeter presence. That’s where the biggest knock on him comes into play.

On over three attempts per game beyond the arc, Brown shot just a hair over 29 percent from three. As the game has become more and more driven on stretching the floor, that won’t cut it in the constantly evolving pro environment.

The numbers aren’t in his favor, but Brown believes his performance wasn’t indicative of his true ability with his jumper.

“I never felt like I couldn’t shoot before and I still don’t feel that way now,” Brown said. “I’m still very confident in my jump shot. Right now it’s just getting adjusted to the new three-point line, the NBA line. Once I get that locked down, I feel like I’ll be really good.”

If you’re familiar with the Oregon basketball tree and the league itself, there were a number of players who made the most of their opportunities this past year.

Jordan Bell is a fast up-and-coming forward for the Golden State Warriors. The Memphis Grizzlies got a gem in Dillon Brooks. Even Tyler Dorsey got a shot at significant minutes late in the season with the Atlanta Hawks.

Brown didn’t play with any of them, but admits he’s had conversations with Brooks about the entire pre-draft process, receiving “words of wisdom” whenever they’ve gotten the chance to talk.

As for his own expectations for year one in the NBA, Brown agreed that those types of roles are a good starting point and hopes to follow that path before bigger things come his way.

“Of course I want to be the best I can,” Brown said when asked about his goals. “I want to be the best player, but coming in as a rookie you have to really stick with yourself and know what teams you’re coming in and playing with and your role on the team.

“I feel like the more you perfect your role, the more minutes you’ll have. By doing that, I feel like I can climb up the board and become a starter.”

In order to do that, he’ll have to improve his consistency from game-to-game.

But make no mistake about it—Brown has the tools, the work ethic and the personality to become a potential first-round steal outside of the lottery.

And with a toolbox as deep as his, there’s no reason to believe Brown won’t achieve his aspirations.

“Ultimately I feel like because of my versatility on the court, I can do a lot of different things,” Brown said.

“It’s just playing with the ball in my hands I feel a lot more comfortable making plays for my teammates and making the right plays and playing the right way.”

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NBA Daily: The Restricted Free Agency Crapshoot

With free agency money scarce, restricted free agents may be impacted the most this summer, writes Lange Greene.

Lang Greene

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The NBA playoffs are heating up as we approach the Finals, but there are other topics in the league simmering beneath the surface. The 2018 NBA Draft is less than a month away and the annual free agency period begins on July 1.

After rampant league wide spending the past two summers, free agency money won’t be as plentiful in 2018. The biggest group impacted will be players entering the land of restricted free agency. Extending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent is always tricky – especially at the beginning of the free agency period. In short, the offering team gives up their cap space while the player’s current team has time to decide whether or not to match the contract. If the current team does so, the offering team not only misses out on the player but also other free agents who are likely to come off the board during the waiting period.

For this reason most league executives are hesitant to dip their toes into the restricted free agency pond, especially if their cap space is limited in nature.

This summer there will be multiple players entering restricted free agency looking for significant pay bumps with an uncertain market for their respective skill set. The biggest question will be whether these guys ultimately find a deal to their liking or gamble on themselves and take the qualifying offer.

Taking the qualifying offer is a risky alternative. But it gives players an opportunity to showcase their skills in a contract year and enter unrestricted free agency the following summer.

Dallas Mavericks center Nerlens Noel is the most recent example. The former lottery pick reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million deal last summer and signed a one-year contract worth $4.2 million. Fast forward, Noel played in just 30 games this season, was suspended for five games for a positive drug test and also tore a ligament in his left thumb. Noel is far from done as he is under 25 years of age, but the one year gamble did not work in his favor and he will enter free agency this summer looking for another prove it type of contract as a consequence.

Today we’ll take a look at some players who may face the same decision as Noel did last summer. With limited cap space, will these players take the one-year qualifying offer or be able to secure a mega deal in free agency? Please note, we are excluding guys almost guaranteed to receive substantial deals this summer (i.e. Zach LaVine, Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic, etc.)

Marcus Smart, Guard, Boston Celtics

After signing All-Stars Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in free agency the past two summers, the Celtics aren’t projected to have cap space. But the team can match any offer for Smart. The question is whether president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will proactively retain arguably the team’s toughest defender or allow the market to set itself. Smart is a tough as nails competitor, but the Celtics will have decisions coming up in the next couple of years on Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. Not to mention Horford, who has a player option for the 2020 season, can also elect to enter free agency next summer. What exactly is the market for a sub 40 percent shooter from the field (sub 30 percent from three-point range) and a player who has only played more than 70 regular season games once in four years?

Rodney Hood, Guard-Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers

Hood was likely on his way to an eight figure per year salary, until he arrived in Cleveland. While with the Utah Jazz, Hood established himself as a double-digit scorer with high upside. However in 13 playoff games with the Cavaliers he is averaging 4.9 points on 42 percent shooting and 16 percent from three-point range. Hood has also been in and out of the rotation with an unfavorable plus-minus. Hood has upside but his market value has likely taken a hit entering free agency this summer.

Julius Randle, Forward, Los Angeles Lakers

Randle has increased his scoring and field goal percentage every season since entering the league. He is a traditional power forward and doesn’t shoot the three ball consistently, which limits his value in some circles. Randle is also seemingly the odd man out in Los Angeles if the team is able to secure two max level guys this summer with their cap space. This puts Randle in a holding pattern. But the second half of the regular season was very promisinmg as Randle put up 19.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game after the All-Star break.

Jabari Parker, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks

Parker was once considered the Bucks’ foundational building block. Yes, even more so than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Funny how a span of less than five years can change career trajectories. Parker has played in just 183 out of 328 regular season games since entering the league. 56 percent availability. He has displayed a knack for scoring, when healthy, but his role during the team’s playoff run this season was wildly inconsistent. Parker’s injury history is a red flag for potential suitors and the Bucks may opt to let Parker’s market value play out before issuing a mega deal this summer.

Dante Exum, Guard, Utah Jazz

Exum flashes potential, but he has also missed plenty of time due to injuries. Exum has appeared in just 162 out of a possible 328 regular season games since entering the league. Young guys can only get better when playing and Exum just hasn’t had the court time to warrant a significant pay increase without leveraging the risk associated with his injury history.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Zhaire Smith ready to take the next step in the NBA

Zhaire Smith is ready to prove his worth and he seeks to transition to the NBA.

Simon Hannig

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Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech is a name that rises up on a lot of people’s draft boards this season with his stellar play, especially on the defensive end.

This past season, Smith averaged 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 assists per game. He also shot 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from three point range. Despite a strong performance this season, though, Smith has not been consistently appearing in NBA Mock Drafts until at least 2019.

He addressed it at the NBA’s Draft Combine in Chicago.

“Yeah, I didn’t know that,” Smith said of his seemingly low perceived value. “I really don’t pay attention to all that, but it is what it is.”

One of Smith’s biggest strengths that makes him an intriguing prospect for an NBA team is defense.

“Just being a little physical,” Smith said. “Not too physical where they can draw a foul on me, but just playing. Getting low. Just playing. Moving my feet.”

Smith had a highlight reel dunk vs. S.F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was one of those dunks you had to watch over and over again because you could not believe it. It came off of a pass from his teammate, Keenan Evans.

Although on play is rarely enough to get a player noticed, the play did exhibit Smith’s exceptional athleticism. Along with his defense, his ability to convert explosive finishes could also help his value among NBA teams and potentially help him end up in the league.

“Yeah. If it was a bad pass, I made it look good, but yeah,” Smith said of the dunk. “I just adjusted to it. It just happened. I didn’t even know that was what had happened.”

For players coming into the NBA, there is a bit of a learning curve—both with respect to surviving in the league and how to fit in with their particular team.

“I see myself fitting in probably rookie, first two years, just fitting in, doing good, being a solid role player,” Smith said. “And in a few years I can see myself as an All-Star.”

During his freshman year at Texas Tech, Smith played in all 37 games, including 21 starts. He holds a total points record as a freshman with 417 points. He also totaled 185 rebounds, 42 blocks and 42 steals. The 42 total blocks for a freshman were second in team history.

In terms of his numbers being more than “empty” production, on the season, Texas Tech was 19-8 when Smith scored 10 or more points. And during the team’s four-games March Madness run, he averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, one block and one steal per game.

Although it’s early, Smith could end up being an “under the radar” type of prospect, similar to the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell. To this point, he has been mostly renowned for his excellent defensive game, but his offensive game is respectable, even if it is still considered a work-in-progress.

As for whether he can be the “next” Donovan Mitchell, Smith didn’t shy away from the prospect.

“I think so,” he said. “…If I put in the work.”

For him, the process is just beginning. Hopefully, for his sake, his NBA journey is far from over.

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