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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 4 Picks

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series, analyzing all of the fourth overall picks since 2009.

Drew Maresca

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We at Basketball Insiders are torn over the COVID-19 pandemic and basketball: We badly want to get back to at least watching games – if not attending them – but fully understand the need to do so as safely as possible for the sake of the players, coaches, league and team personnel, fans and us – the media.

Considering that there are no concrete updates pertaining to re-starting the 2019-20 regular season, we will continue to analyze what we know by taking a look back at various facets of the game.

Today, let’s continue gauging each pick in the past 10 NBA Drafts, turning our attention to the fourth overall pick.

The fourth pick in the NBA Draft seems to carry its share of challenges. Considering the talent taken after the fourth pick, the lack of All-Stars coming from this spot is pretty shocking. Granted, teams typically miss on the headliners of a given draft at four, but there has been real talent available after the top three picks in each of the last 10 drafts. How did each fourth pick perform? Let’s look back through 2009 to decide.

Hits

Kristaps Porzingis – New York Knicks – 2015

Sorry in advance Knicks fans, but Porzingis is probably the best and more appropriate selection of all of the fourth overall picks taken in the last 10 years. He entered the draft as 2015’s mystery man. Outside of international scouts, all we knew about him came from EuroLeague highlights and a workout tape. But that was enough. In said footage, we saw a 7-foot-3 center who could shoot it like a guard, as well as run and leap like a wing. The lanky Latvian won over many prior to draft night – and the rest shortly after.

Porzingis averaged an impressive 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 33.3 percent on three-point attempts as a rookie. Fast forward to the 2019-20 season and he averaged an impressive 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks on 34.9 percent shooting from deep. And remember, Porzingis was still working his way back to form following a major knee injury suffered in the 2017-18 season – which he’d seemingly done successfully, having averaged 24.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game with 36.7 percent shooting from three in the most recent two-month stretch (14 games in February and March).

Porzingis is about as good as it gets with the fourth overall pick. He should inspire hope for the Timberwolves, who will pick fourth if the NBA chooses to skip the Draft Lottery.

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies – 2019

Jackson Jr. appeared as safe a pick as possible. He’s big, stretches the floor, defends multiple positions and seems to be a genuinely nice guy. But teams have been fooled by all of those attributes before.

Only Jackson Jr. has been everything the Grizzlies hoped he’d be – and more. He was fifth overall in scoring per game amongst rookies (14.8 ppg). He was also second in blocks, and he shot 35.9 percent on three-point attempts. And that was before he paired up with rookie phenom Ja Morant.

Alongside Morant, Jackson Jr. averaged 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game, and he shot 39.7 percent on three-point attempts. He’ll have to improve his rebounding, but Jackson Jr. looks like a star in the making. He and Morant should be among the best one-two punches in the NBA for years to come.

Misses

Tyreke Evans – Sacramento Kings – 2009

Evans was perceived far differently just a few short years ago. He looked the part of a borderline star early on in his career, and he even secured the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 2009-10. And while he’s never been able to re-capture the magic he produced in his rookie season – Evans is one of five rookies in NBA history to average 20-5-5 (Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Luka Doncic) – he still put forth a number of successful seasons, including averaging 15-plus points per game seven times.

So why is Evans headlining the misses section of this article? Namely, because he got himself suspended for two years in the spring of 2019 for violating the league’s drug policy. And while he’s put up nice numbers: he only made it to the playoffs twice, went right before Stephen Curry (No. 7) and DeMar DeRozan (9), while Jrue Holiday (17) and Ricky Rubio (5) also had better careers.

So while Evans looked like a hit in the making, his inability to develop on his phenomenal rookie season along with his poor decision-making render him the most disappointing miss.

Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2012

Waiters was selected in a weird draft – one in which we saw probably the biggest bust of the decade in Anthony Bennett taken first overall. The selection of Waiters wasn’t initially seen as unfavorable – he averaged 12.6 points and shot better than 36 percent from long range during his sophomore season at Syracuse.

But the problem with the Waiters choice is his lack of development in the NBA. He averaged essentially as many points per game in his rookie season (14.7) as he did in the fifth year – which was his most successful at 15.8. And he never really committed himself to getting or staying in shape.

This season has been especially rocky for Waiters. He averaged a career-low 9.6 points per game – only the second time in his eight-year career he’s scored less than 10. And that doesn’t get into his three suspensions (for failure to adhere to team policies, violation of team rules, continued insubordination, unprofessional conduct and allegedly ingesting a marijuana edible prior to boarding a team plane) either.

To make matters worse, Waiters was selected ahead of Damian Lillard. He’s been inconsistent at best and teams expect more from a fourth overall pick than what any of his three employers received.

Dragan Bender – Phoenix Suns – 2016

Bender was unfairly compared to Porzingis in the pre-draft analysis based entirely on the fact that they were both skilled European bigs. The comparison wasn’t fair to Bender, who struggled to secure minutes in his rookie season. He averaged just 3.4 points over 13.3 minutes per game. And his production hasn’t really picked up.

There is a functional glimmer of hope – Bender played his best basketball with Golden State to close the 2019-20 season by averaging 9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 21.7 minutes per game. But function and expectations are usually not aligned, and Bender hasn’t come close to living up to the hype associated with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft.

And what’s more, lots of athletes selected after Bender have prospered: Buddy Hield (No. 6), Jamal Murray (7), Domantas Sabonis (11), Caris LeVert (20), Pascal Siakam (27) and Dejounte Murray (29). Granted, there is typically a consensus of players that’ll go as high as Bender did, but, needless to say, the Suns would have been thrilled with any of those other options. He’s a 7-foot small forward, so teams will continue being intrigued by him – but he hasn’t done enough to be classified as anything but a miss.

Josh Jackson – Phoenix Suns – 2017

Nevermind the players who Jackson was taken before – a number of whom possess far more potential than does Jackson after just two seasons. But the selection of Jackson is a bad miss because his negative attributes might have been identified if the Suns were more critical.

Jackson was seen as a versatile prospect. He put up 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while establishing a reputation as a hard-nosed defender. But he did not come without his share of baggage. The 6-foot-8 forward was suspended by Kansas head coach Bill Self for “duty upon striking an unattended vehicle, inattentive driving and improper backing” on campus in 2017. He was also charged with criminal property damage in 2016.

The Suns have a poor draft history in recent years, botching multiple selections (see: Dragon Bender). This seems to be a top-down, organizational issue, described in this 2019 ESPN article.

Jackson’s critics have been vindicated since draft night, three years ago. The youngster has been arrested at least twice since that occasion – once for felony escape and resisting arrest and another for allowing his child to become intoxicated. He’s also been fined $35,000 by the NBA for making a “menacing gesture” and again by the Suns for missing an autograph appearance.

Despite posting decent stats –13.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals and .5 blocks per game as a rookie – Jackson was dealt to Memphis as part of a deal that returned Kyle Korver and Jevon Carter. Phoenix was clearly just fed up with Jackson’s behavior.

He’s since turned his career around to some degree, staying out of trouble and establishing himself as an effective weapon in the G-League – so much so, that he was recalled to the Grizzlies on January 29 for the final 18 games played in 2019-20.

Still, Jackson’s among the most disappointing fourth picks in recent memory – mostly because his issue has been more about maturity than talent.

Middle Of The Road

Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic – 2012

Aaron Gordon is a strange case. He was definitely viewed as the best remaining player at No. 4. And he’s mostly lived up to the billing. He’s arguably the best player taken in the entire draft not named Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic – and, of course, the latter was drafted in the second and wasn’t getting serious first-round consideration.

If he had he taken another step forward in 2019-20, Gordon may have made the hits list. Instead, his output took a hit as his scoring average dropped to 14.4 points per game, with his three-point and overall field goal percentages falling along with it.

But he’s still viewed positively around the league as both a versatile defender and a unique offensive talent who can bang down low and help initiate the offense. He’s probably due for a change of scenery, but he’s still viewed as a unique talent with untapped upside.

De’Andre Hunter – Atlanta Hawks – 2019

Hunter is the most recent fourth overall pick, so it’s tough to impart too much judgment. He came in with relatively high expectations, with the Hawks sending the eighth, 17th and 35th overall picks to the Pelicans (via the Lakers) for the rights to Hunter. All of those picks turned into Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Didi Louzada (did not play in NBA in 2019-20).

While Hunter’s 3-and-D skill set was badly needed by Atlanta, this writer can’t help but think that he might have been better served to land on a team with fewer wings. He’ll never maximize his potential in Atlanta splitting time with Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter.

But he didn’t even get to finish his rookie year due to a now-shortened NBA season. In 63 games, he averaged a respectable12.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists, posting a below-average PER (8.6). Hunter’s biggest let down was probably his three-ball; he shot 41.9 percent on 2.8 attempts during his sophomore season at Virginia, compared to the 35.5 percent on 2.7 attempts with the Hawks.

Hunter’s story is still mostly unwritten. He seems to have the right attitude and skillset to succeed – but he’ll probably struggle to gain any real traction in the near future. It’s unlikely that he’ll go down as a miss, but his path to a hit is a tough one, too.

The Role Players

Wesley Johnson – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2010

Johnson is best known for getting crossed out of his shoes by James Harden. But he was selected over DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward and Paul George. He was also taken ahead of Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Avery Bradley. A recent Bleacher Report article that re-drafted the 2010 NBA Draft slotted Johnson at No. 19 overall.

Prior to leaving the NBA for the EuroLeague in 2019, Johnson was good for 7.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. He never broached the 30 minute per game mark across an entire season, and he never cemented himself as a full-time starter. Calling Johnson a role player might seem a tad generous, but he played a consistent role for four of his six teams – which can’t be said for all of the guys on this list.

Tristan Thompson – Cleveland Cavaliers – 2011

Thompson is the hardest fourth pick to classify. By some measures, he’s a hit – e.g., he averaged a double-double in each of the last two seasons. By others, he’s… less of one as he failed to break double-digit points per game in five of his nine NBA seasons, four of which were played alongside LeBron James.

Ultimately, he’s probably an upper-echelon role player. He’s been around for long enough to know what you’ll get from him. He’ll work his butt off rebounding the ball and defending. But he’s not a versatile enough defender to stay with faster stretch-fours (e.g., Jayson Tatum), and his shooting – while adequate – leaves something to be desired.

What makes this pick truly hard to classify is the fact that the Cavaliers passed on Klay Thomson, Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard to select Thompson – but he was also an integral part of the franchise’s first NBA championship.

Maybe he belongs in multiple categories.

Cody Zeller – Charlotte Hornets – 2013

No one saw Zeller as a franchise-saver. Still, he probably could’ve been more successful had he been drafted into a better-run organization. Instead, he was selected by Charlotte, who really only had a young Kemba Walker to build around. They needed a savior. Instead, they got a role player.

Zeller was – and remains – an athletic big man who can run the floor extremely well. He registered career highs in point (11.1) and rebounds (7.1) in 2019-20 – so it’s great that he’s still getting better. But after seven seasons in the league, we probably can’t expect much more. Further, the 2013 NBA Draft saw the Hornets pass on CJ McCollum, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dennis Schroder – so it’d be really hard to pass Zeller off as a hit. But he is still playing for Charlotte, so at least there’s that.

To say that the NBA Draft is an inexact science is a huge understatement. Some franchise cornerstones never pan out, while unknown prospects become stars. The fourth pick clearly presents its own unique challenges, mixing pressure with fewer prospects. Ultimately, teams understand the risks associated with picking so high. But there is still no way of guaranteeing a successful pick – it’s what makes the NBA Draft the event that it is.

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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