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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 6 Picks

Jesse Blancarte checks out a decade’s worth of No. 6 overall picks in the NBA Draft to find the hits, misses and and in-betweens.

Jesse Blancarte

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Basketball Insiders continues to revisit the last decade of NBA drafts by taking a look back at which players were selected sixth overall. The sixth pick has been a mixed bag over the last decade, with superstar guard Damian Lillard headlining the group. There are certainly a couple of picks teams would love to have back, especially considering that many of the league’s current star players were left on the board beyond the sixth pick over the last decade. With that said, let’s take a look at the last decade of the sixth overall pick.

The Hits

Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers – 2012

There is no real debate here. Damian Lillard is the best player to be drafted sixth overall in any draft over the last decade. Lillard was an absolute steal for the Portland Trail Blazers, who acquired the right to select Lillard sixth overall in 2012 by trading Gerald Wallace to the Brooklyn Nets as part of a larger deal that proved costly for Brooklyn.

Lillard is arguably the best overall point guard in the league right now (as long as you don’t count players like James Harden or LeBron James as point guards), at least until Stephen Curry shows he is fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered earlier this season and shakes off any lingering rust. Through 58 games this season, Lillard is averaging 28.9 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and one steal per game, while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range…on 9.9 three-point attempts per game!

Lillard has placed the struggling Trail Blazers on his back this season and has kept them in striking range of the eighth seed.

Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics – 2014

Marcus Smart has always been a defensive ace and has improved his offensive game throughout his six seasons in the NBA. Smart has the size, strength and tenacity to guard the league’s most explosive guards, dynamic wings and physical big men. Smart isn’t going to be tasked with guarding Joel Embiid in the post but, in an emergency situation, he probably has as good of a shot at stopping Embiid as any guard in the league.

Through 53 games this season, Smart is averaging 13.5 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. Smart’s value to Boston cannot be accurately captured in traditional or even advanced metrics, but he is truly a game-changing player for the Celtics.

Buddy Hield – New Orleans Pelicans – 2016

The 2016 draft featured several quality players who are each working their way up the NBA’s totem pole. Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Pascal Siakam and Malcolm Brogdon are some of the most prominent players to come out of this draft, along with Buddy Hield.

Hield played four years of college ball, so there was concern that he had limited upside. However, Hield proved himself to be a lethal shooter and big-time performer in college and entered the NBA with high expectations. Hield did not last long with the New Orleans Pelicans, as he was a featured piece in the trade that landed DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans in 2017. Hield has performed well for the Sacramento Kings, though he has faced some tough stretches at times. He will never be a lockdown defender, but when he is in rhythm, he can be one of the most explosive scorers in the league. Through 64 games this season, Hield is averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range (on 9.7 three-point attempts per game).

The Misses

Jonny Flynn – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2009

Here is the thing about Jonny Flynn: He was drafted sixth overall in the 2009 draft, ahead of other players like Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Darren Collison, Taj Gibson, DeMarre Carroll, Wayne Ellington and so on. Here’s the other thing: Flynn was drafted sixth overall by the Timberwolves right after they had drafted Ricky Rubio, another point guard, with the fifth overall pick in the draft. There were issues regarding when Rubio would leave Spain and come play in the NBA, so drafting another point guard wasn’t a crazy idea, but passing on Curry in favor of Flynn was questionable at the time and turned out to be a historically disastrous decision.

To be fair to Flynn, he was a highly rated prospect as we approached the 2009 draft and it’s not his fault the Timberwolves decided to take him — even after selecting Rubio one pick ahead of him. It’s also not his fault Curry was drafted after him and turned into one of the best point guards of all time. Flynn would only play in 163 total NBA games in his career and just 18 in the 2011-12 season. Injuries derailed Flynn’s career unfortunately, and the rest is history. Were it not for injuries, Flynn could have developed into a solid point guard. But between the injuries, the early end to his career and with several players drafted after him (Curry most notably) putting together excellent careers, Flynn definitely has to be considered a “miss” in this series.

Ekpe Udoh – Golden State Warriors – 2010

If you gave the Golden State Warriors the chance to go back and do the 2010 draft over, they would probably pass so as to not risk changing history. When you have a dominant run with a historically great group of players, there’s little reason to look back a decade and worry about a missed draft pick. However, if you take away the dynastic run, then Golden State would definitely take the chance to go back and take someone other than Ekpe Udoh with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft.

The players the Warriors passed on include: Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Ed Davis, Avery Bradley, Greg Monroe and so on. George and Hayward are the obvious missed opportunities here, but, as we said, Golden State isn’t losing sleep over how things worked out. Notably, Udoh never put up major stats, but he was in the league as recently as the 2018-19 season with the Utah Jazz and proved to be a fringe role player at times throughout his career. That’s not what you’re looking for with the sixth overall pick, but Udoh didn’t completely flame out.

Jan Vesely – Washington Wizards – 2011

Jan Vesely’s NBA career didn’t pan out the way he or many analysts expected. But it wasn’t for lack of confidence. Before coming to the NBA, Vesely was compared to Blake Griffin because of his athleticism and highlight-worthy dunks. When asked about being called the “European Blake Griffin” during an interview, Vesely responded “I don’t know. I think Blake Griffin is the American Jan Vesely.”

Again, Vesely never lacked confidence. Unfortunately, that confidence and his overall skillset never translated into much production in his short stint in the NBA. Over three seasons (162 total games), Vesely averaged 3.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 15.2 minutes per game. Vesely signed a contract with Turkish club Fenerbahçe in 2014 and signed a three-year extension with the same club last year. He has found more success since leaving the NBA, including winning 2018-19 Euroleague MVP.

The Middle of the Road

Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic – 2017

Jonathan Isaac hasn’t necessarily become a household name in his time in the NBA, but he was having somewhat of a breakout season until injuries sidelined him earlier this year. Most of Isaac’s per-game averages were up but more importantly, he was becoming a major difference-maker on the defensive end. Through 32 games, Isaac averaged 12 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per game.

At 6-foot-11, Isaac has the length, speed and athleticism to guard smaller players on the perimeter, bigger players in the post and act as an effective weakside shot blocker. Isaac has been contributing all over the court the Magic, a team that features several other lengthy and athletic forwards and big men. As Isaac continues to develop and carve out a more defined role on the Magic, it is likely he will continue to climb his way up the NBA totem pole and establish himself as a unique big man who can cause havoc on the defensive end.

Jarrett Culver – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2019

Culver is in the middle of his rookie season, which is currently on hiatus. So the jury is still out on Culver but, for the time being, we are putting him in the “Middle of the Road” category. Culver has shown some defensive ability in his rookie season, but it is clear his offensive game is a work in progress.

Culver is shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range (on 3.5 attempts per game) this season. While Culver is a capable passer and playmaker in the pick-and-roll, he has often been hesitant this season and made unforced errors. However, this is Culver’s rookie season and he’s only played in 63 NBA games overall so far, so it’s too early to come to any long-term assessments of the young prospect.

Mohamed Bamba – Orlando Magic – 2018

Mo Bamba has the size, length and developing skill set to one day be an impact player in the NBA. He likely won’t punish teams in the post on a nightly basis, but he has skill around the basket and can shoot from three-point range. However, if Bamba is ever to be a major difference-maker, it will likely be on the defensive end.

Bamba wasn’t the obvious pick for the Magic on draft night, especially since Orlando already had Jonathan Isaac on the roster. Bamba and Isaac aren’t completely duplicative players, but they overlap in some key areas and aren’t a great fit (at least so far) on the court. But if Bamba and Isaac develop more chemistry and come anywhere close to reaching their respective potential, they could make for a dynamic frontcourt duo.

Notably, in picking Bamba, the Magic left players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the board. To be fair, however, Gilgeous-Alexander was not projected to be picked so early in the draft and had made his desire to go to the Los Angeles Clippers known. The jury is still out for most of the other notable players selected after Bamba, so it’s not as if the Magic made an obvious mistake in selecting Bamba. This is especially true considering that Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young were off the board by the time Orlando was up to pick.

In 60 games this season, Bamba averaged 5.5 points, five rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point range.

The Role Players

Nerlens Noel – New Orleans Pelicans – 2013

Nerlens Noel was drafted sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, who traded Noel on draft night, along with a 2014 first-round draft pick, to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holiday. Holiday has been a fixture for the Pelicans ever since, so the deal certainly worked out well for New Orleans. Noel spent several seasons with the 76ers, struggling with injuries and eventually being nudged out by a logjam of centers, including Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.

It’s not great when you are one of the 14 players drafted ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that hasn’t really been held against Nerlens Noel during his NBA career. However, Noel’s inability to live up to expectations and his off-court issues have been. Though it seems that Noel has been in the NBA for a long time, he’s still just 26 years old and has plenty of time to stabilize his career and try to recoup some of the money he lost when he turned down a four-year, $70 million contract from the Dallas Mavericks and opted instead for a one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer.

When Noel is healthy and focused, he is a mobile big man who can guard wings on the perimeter, switch effectively and serve as a solid rim protector. Noel’s offensive game is limited but he generally takes high percentage shots and doesn’t demand to be a focal point on offense. In 55 games this season, Noel is averaging 7.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, one assist and 1.5 blocks in 18.4 minutes per game.

Willie Cauley-Stein – Sacramento Kings – 2015

Leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and, to a lesser extent, Kristaps Porzingis, were the prized prospects that many believed would have star potential. After that, it was a mixed bag of players who had talent but it was unclear who was the best of the rest. To drive home this point, after those four players came off the board, the next five picks were Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson and Frank Kaminsky. So it’s not as if the Sacramento Kings left an obvious future star on the board when they picked Cauley-Stein (unless you are one of the people that knew Devin Booker was destined to become a star).

While Cauley-Stein has not developed into a top-level center, he has had some pretty explosive performances in his career and is a nice option as a backup. Like Noel, Cauley-Stein has solid athleticism and the ability to be a difference-maker defensively when he is healthy, focused and put in a position to succeed. Cauley-Stein will probably never live up to early expectations but he can be a quality rotation player on a good team.

The last decade has provided us with a wide range of outcomes with the sixth overall pick. We have a superstar in Lillard, an elite defender in Smart, intriguing prospects like Isaac and Bamba and busts like Flynn and Vesely. Sometimes bad picks are made to look even worse when future star players are still on the board, with arguably no greater example than the case of Jonny Flynn. But the draft is tough to get right, even with a pick as high as the sixth overall pick.

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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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