It may be just a few weeks into the season, but a myriad of storylines have already made their social media and television rounds, chief among them players that seem to have taken a leap on the court and are emerging as game-changers or even potential stars.
Many of these spots could be taken by younger players — whether they surprise breakouts or guys that were just expected to improve as they take that next step in their respective careers. That said, they aren’t the only players that will take their game to the next level this season. Case-and-point, don’t always expect to see the same names here.
That said, here are five players who have jumped into the Most Improved Player race to start the season.
Honorable Mention: Luka Doncic, Wendell Carter Jr., Luke Kennard, Lonzo Ball, Aron Baynes, OG Anunoby, Donovan Mitchell, DeAndre Bembry
5. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac was expected to take a leap by many in 2019-20. And, thus far, the third-year forward has done little other than impress.
Isaac has taken strides in his offensive efficiency; he’s bumped his effective field goal percentage to 52 percent as he’s knocked down 37 percent of his three-point field goals and shot 53 percent from the midrange, per Cleaning the Glass.
Isaac has also boosted his assist percentage to the middle of the forward pack, per Cleaning the Glass, up from near the bottom of the position last season.
His improvements aren’t limited to the offensive end, however; while those are nice, Isaac’s true candidacy may come from his play on the defensive end. Thus far, Isaac has averaged three blocks per game, tied with Anthony Davis for the most in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s versatility has also been on full display. Not only does the forward have the size and length to battle other bigs on the block, but the foot speed to stick with smaller wings on the perimeter.
Issac’s elastic arms have made him in a menace in the passing lanes.
If he can continue to make a major impact on the defensive end, and keep up the offensive proficiency, Isaac should garner some major consideration for Most Improved come award season.
4. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
I know what you’re thinking: yes, Pascal Siakam has already taken home some Most Improved hardware.
And, yes, it would be unprecedented for Siakam to take home the award two years in a row; since the award’s first year, the 1985-86 season, no player has won it twice, let alone in back-to-back seasons.
That said, Siakam has been that good to start the 2019-20 regular season as he has led the Toronto Raptors to their 6-2 start.
With Kawhi Leonard gone, Siakam’s usage percentage season has jumped nearly 10 percent. While the uptick may have been expected, what’s impressive is that Siakam has maintained efficient numbers despite the extra, star-level touches every game.
Siakam’s three-point percentage, at the time of this writing, sits at 41.3 percent, up from 36.9 percent last season and on 5.8 attempts per game, up from 2.7. Also, unlike last season, Siakam has been deadly from around the arc rather than just in the corners; Siakam has drilled 44 percent of his non-corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass.
Per NBA.com, Siakam has hit on 36.4 percent of his pull-up threes, up from a measly 12.5 percent last year, also on significantly more attempts.
Something Siakam was unable to do last season was make defenders pay when they went underneath screens in the pick-and-roll. But, this season, it’s been a complete reversal, as he has attacked in these scenarios, launching threes and making defenders pay for not respecting his shot.
Siakam has averaged 27.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists through eight games. He’s the best player, on offense and defense, on a strong Eastern Conference contender. The Raptors, when Siakam has been on the court, have outscored opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions while they have been outscored by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.
And, if all that doesn’t at least put him in the conversation for Most Improved, the NBA might as well get rid of the award.
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should fall squarely in the “De’Aaron Fox” category of the second-year player that has exploded onto the scene.
The disparity in his counting stats almost immediately make his case. Last season, the Kentucky product averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while he shot 36.7 percent from deep and 47.6 percent from the floor. In 2019-20? Gilgeous-Alexander has posted 22 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists through eight contests.
The sophomore also bumped his shooting numbers to 40 percent from behind the arc and 48.5 percent from the floor.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Gilgeous-Alexander has been the best player for the Oklahoma City Thunder thus far. With his length and solid instincts, he has proven a solid defender, while he has also led the team in scoring, ranked second in offensive rating (109.8) and fifth in net rating (4.2).
Gilgeous-Alexander’s best weapon is his right-handed running layup. He can use his length to skirt to the rim, extend and toss a layup off of the top of the backboard. Here, the guard breaks out to get the bucket over the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s assist rate is down from last season, but much of that can be attributed to the presence of Chris Paul and more time for Gilgeous-Alexander without the ball. Likewise, some of his increased production could prove due to the small sample size of the early season.
But, early on, his confidence and impressive play in a significantly larger role have given Gilgeous-Alexander the look like a star-in-the-making. That said, the opportunity to make an impact, and, more importantly, the touches, should be there for him; if he can maintain his current level of play, he should be in the thick of the award race come April.
2. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
After he expertly filled a secondary role in Milwaukee last season, Brogdon jumped ship to the Indiana Pacers and earned a leading role for his trouble.
And, through the first three weeks, the former Rookie of the Year has made the four-year, $85 million deal he signed looked like a bargain. In the Pacers’ nine games thus far in 2019-20, Brogdon, as their offensive fulcrum, has averaged 21 points, 5.1 rebounds and 9 assists per game, all improved from a season ago.
With the uptick in usage, Brogdon has seen a dip in his efficiency: his 45.8 and 31 percent shooting from the floor and three, respectively, are both down from last season (50.5, 42.6). However, that drop is due, at least in part, to an early-season slump, and should regress closer to Brogdon’s career averages (48.2, 40.5) as the season goes on.
Brogdon’s passing has been crucial to the Pacers, as he ranks third in the NBA in assists behind only Lebron James and Luka Doncic. When Brogdon’s on the floor, the Pacers’ offense is also nine points better per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Brogdon’s game isn’t particularly flashy. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he plays at his own pace and, more often than not, makes the right play. Despite an increased usage rate, Brogdon’s turnover percentage has remained low.
Here, running the pick-and-roll with Myles Turner, Brogdon doesn’t press. Instead, he takes what the defense gives him and makes his way into the paint. Then, holding DeAndre Jordan in his path, Brogdon fakes the layup before whipping a pinpoint pass to a wide-open Domantas Sabonis in the corner.
That’s a sub-par defensive effort by Jordan, but taking advantage of poor defense is a necessary trait for a starting point guard.
Brogdon isn’t Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving; he doesn’t particularly stand out on any given play. That said, should he continue to prove himself one of the league’s best assist-men, voters would be hard-pressed to pass on him once his shooting percentages climb back to normal levels.
1. Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
The best candidates for Most Improved are often the surprise ones. And Devonte’ Graham, a second-round pick in 2018, has been one of the biggest surprises in the season’s early going.
Behind Terry Rozier, Graham has solidified himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ top backup guard and first player off the bench. Through eight games, Graham has averaged 17 points, 7 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 31 minutes per game, a far cry from the 5 points and 3 assists he managed in 46 appearances last season.
Graham’s three-point shooting has proven his most effective weapon. 52 percent of his total shot attempts have come from deep, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, the sophomore guard has knocked down 41.8 percent of those shots.
Graham has punished defenders that would dare give him space with a deadly pull-up jumper. These shots haven’t exactly been easy, either; per NBA.com, the majority of his three-point attempts are pull-ups and he is converting on an otherworldy 50 percent of those attempts.
Graham often sprints down the court in semi-transition, hoping his opponent backs off a tad to prevent a drive. That one step has proven all he’s needed, as he launches without hesitation at the first sign of daylight.
Of course, it would seem as if this could prove unsustainable for Graham. For reference, in his record-breaking 2015-16 MVP season, Curry hit on just 44 percent of those same shots.
That said, even if he comes back to earth, Graham has improved across the board. He has increased his shooting fouls drawn rate to 12.5 percent, up from 7.3 percent last season, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, Graham’s assist percentage has jumped by nearly 10 percent.
Beyond that, his impact for Charlotte has been easy to see. When Graham’s on the floor, the Hornets have operated at a near-even net rating. But, when he hits the bench, that number plummets to -20.3, per Cleaning the Glass.
Right now, Graham should be considered the leader in award race. And, while it’s still early, his gargantuan leap has been fun to watch; should he maintain any semblance of it throughout the season, Graham could prove a runaway winner.
There is a lot of basketball left to play but, thus far, these five have stood out from the crowd of Most Improved candidates. The NBA season is a long one, and anything — slumps, injuries, etc. — could happen. Another, relatively unknown candidate could even break onto the scene and steal the show.
And, because of that uncertainty, make sure to follow along with Basketball Insiders’ award watches as we track them throughout the season.
NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Southeast Division
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best names coming out of the Southeast Division.
It may seem like it, but, in the wake of the COVID-10 pandemic, the NBA world never truly stopped turning, even Bodog Canada is still running.
Yes, in a time of some much-needed, sports-related distraction, the play has been put on hold. But the Association has continued to chug along as the draft and free agency still loom large.
At this point, a resumed season and or expedited postseason would seem more likely than not. But, if the remainder of the 2019-20 season is forgone, players and teams must continue to prepare for that worst-case scenario. And that’s exactly what they’ve done, albeit under awkward circumstances given recent living and travel constraints; players have had to get creative with workouts, while teams have been forced to adopt a much more film-centric approach to the draft.
With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has continued to work as well. In recent days, we’ve looked at several players, spanning the Northwest, Central, Atlantic and Pacific divisions, that could hit the open market once the world gets back on track. Today, we’ll look at the Southeast division.
It may not be the cream of the free-agent crop, but there are plenty of players coming out of the Southeast that should garner serious interest and that could make a serious impact next season, either with their current team or elsewhere.
Best of the Bunch
Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards — Unrestricted — $7,000,000
While he wasn’t moved, Bertans was a hotly contested commodity at the trade deadline. That won’t change come free agency.
The 6-foot-10 Latvian is the new “normal” for the NBA power forward; a long-armed sharpshooter that can open up the paint rather than bog it down. And, in a league where front court spacing is at a premium, Bertans is set to earn a nice new deal as one of the best shooters, regardless of position, in the Association.
In 54 games with the Wizards, Bertans shot a blistering 42.4 percent from beyond the arc on nearly nine attempts per game. He set career marks in points (15.4), rebounds (4.5), 3PM (3.7) and 3PA (8.7) per game, among other stats.
Those numbers are impressive in their own right and should need no qualifier. But, just to drive the point home; Bertans is just one of five in NBA history to play at least 50 games and shoot at least 40 percent on eight or more three-point attempts per game. He would also be the only player on that list to spend the majority of his time at the four-spot.
Even among a “sexier” group of free agents, Bertans’ skillset and potential fit with a variety of different contenders would have him at or near the top of plenty of free agent lists. So, in a relatively weak class, expect his camp to try and break the bank.
And don’t expect it to take very long. Washington may push hard to keep him to appease Bradley Beal, but the sheer amount of potential interest could leave the Wizards out in the cold.
Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic — Player Option — $17,150,000
After six seasons, 2020 may be the year Fournier and the Magic part ways.
Fournier has been on Orlando’s chopping block for what seems like forever; going back to 2016, the Magic have just never seemed committed to the Frenchman. Staring at a second-consecutive eighth-place finish in the East and an inevitable shake-up coming this summer, why would that attitude change now?
Likewise, for Fournier, the Magic have struggled to sustain success during his tenure. In the midst of a career year, a career-high 18.8 points per game to go along with strong shooting and competent defense, a contract comparable to his $17,150,000 option shouldn’t be out of the question, nor should Fournier lack for suitors; why wouldn’t he test the waters?
So, what exactly does a potential team get in Fournier? A talented offensive guard and arguably the best available (pending DeMar DeRozan’s player option) in this free-agent class.
Fournier isn’t going to carry an offense, but any interested teams should already have an established star to pair him with. Think of him as a potential Khris Middleton to Team X’s Giannis Antentokounmpo; a talented player in his own right, but one that would buttress a team’s top option rather than shoulder the load himself (something he has been tasked with in Orlando).
Should he indeed look to leave the Sunshine State, the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors could prove perfect candidates for Fournier’s services. Likewise, any aspiring up-and-coming squads that are looking to add a veteran while keeping the roster relatively young could do worse than the 27-year-old.
Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $19,217,900
At 33-years-old, 2020 is probably Dragic’s last chance to earn a sizable, long(ish)-term contract. And, with rumors that the HEAT only plan to offer a one-year (albeit bloated) deal, it may come with a team other than Miami.
Regardless of the team, Dragic should continue to provide above-average offense next season and, amid a resurgence after an injury-riddled 2019, he should earn a pretty penny doing so. Even with a move to the bench, Dragic has continued to produce; in 54 games (53 off the bench) he averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists to go along with 37.7 three-point percentage, his best clip since 2016.
Whatever his decision, Dragic would likely emphasize winning as he’s made the postseason just three times in his 14-year career. Even on a one-year deal, Miami may be his best bet in that regard, though teams with prior interest — the Dallas Mavericks, mainly — could serve to lure him away.
That said, should an up-and-coming roster offer him a starting opportunity (a la Ricky Rubio and the Phoenix Suns a season ago) along with a large enough salary or more in terms of long-term security, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dragic jump at it.
Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks — Unrestricted — $19,000,000
A Teague addition isn’t going to inspire much confidence in any fanbase. Nor is he going to move the needle much toward title contention.
But, at 31, Teague is still capable of solid production from the point guard spot, especially as a passer. In 59 games split between the Hawks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Teague averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 assists and shot 43.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three. A season ago, while he was limited to just 42 games, Teague averaged more than eight assists.
So, while he may not “wow” many teams, it’s clear there’s some potential there. Ideally, Teague would slot into a reserve role on a contender, an assist man and outside shot coming off the bench, but could also serve as a nice stopgap or bridge option for a team assessing their future at the position — think the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, etc. Likewise, Teague is a quality leader and role model that almost any team would benefit from bringing in.
It just probably won’t be in Atlanta.
Of course, with Vince Carter expected to retire, the Hawks could always elect to bring Teague back to maintain that veteran presence in the locker room. But, with Trae Young locked in as Atlanta’s starter amidst a bevy of other talented young guards on the roster, the fit is just a bit too awkward.
Jae Crowder, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $7,815,533
Meyers Leonard, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $11,286,515
Kelly Olynyk, Miami HEAT — Player Option — $12,667,885
Crowder has bounced around the NBA, having played for six teams in his eight seasons. But, at every stop, he’s proven at least a capable contributor and, more importantly, to have a team-first attitude.
His stats don’t jump out of the boxscore — 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals across 58 games between the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami — but Crowder is without a doubt a crucial building block. He may not win you the Larry O’Brien trophy, but the energy and passion that he can bring to the table go a long way in competing for one. Better yet, Crowder should make that impact for little in terms of compensation.
As for Leonard, any team priced out of the Bertans bidding should look to make him a top target. Aside from the fact that he’ll cost next to nothing in comparison, Leonard has proven a capable marksman in his own right; a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter, Leonard shot 42.9 percent from deep on 2.4 across 49 games with Miami. Like Crowder, Leonard is also a we-before-me personality and could prove a capable leader in a locker room in need of one.
He’s capable enough on the defensive end that he won’t kill you on a regular basis and athletic enough that, when his confidence is there, he can make a serious impact on offense. Should Leonard get lost in the shuffle as the HEAT look to pair a third star with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, expect another team to scoop him up quickly.
Now, should a team swing-and-miss on Bertans and Leonard, Olynyk may have what they’re looking for
Like Leonard, Olynyk can knock it down from distance and should prove a capable reserve wherever he may find himself next season. Unlike Leonard, however, Olynyk has a player option for next season, one that he may not be able to pass up. If a team is interested enough, they’ll need to convince him to pass on more than $13 million next season. It’s not unthinkable, should an interested party promise Olynyk more than the 18 minutes per game he averaged with the HEAT this season, but they would need to strike the right balance between pay and play.
The Unlikely Reclamation Project
Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets — Player Option — $25,565,217
Let’s just get this out of the way: Batum is probably spending one more season in Charlotte.
Through two seasons, the Batum-Hornets relationship looked promising, as the forward averaged 15 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a steal per game. After that… you know the rest. A combination of coaching changes, injury and just general poor play has turned the formerly productive Batum into the world’s highest-paid cheerleader.
With more than $27 million left on the table, it would be hard to fault Batum for sticking out the last year of his deal. He won’t — or, at least, he shouldn’t — find anything close to that number on the open market, even more reason to opt-in.
That said, should he catch wind of a potential opportunity, would Batum be willing to walk away? While an opt-out may be out of the question, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Batum opt-in, force Charlotte into a buyout and jump at a fresh start.
This isn’t last summer; the free-agent frenzy won’t be nearly as exciting. That said, and most fans would agree, any basketball action would be welcome right about now — a scratch for that incessant itch that has lingered since the NBA put the season on pause. While we hope that play can resume as quickly and safely as possible, we at Basketball Insiders also hope that, in the meantime, our continued coverage can serve as a nice reprieve to everyone.
NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Pacific Division
David Yapkowitz ventures west to continue Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with the Pacific Division.
Basketball is postponed indefinitely, and while there’s no exact timetable on when the NBA season may or may not start up again, there is certainly plenty to still talk about.
This week at Basketball Insiders, we’ve got you covered. Regardless of what ends up happening with the season, free agency is certainly going to be a major talking point. Now, there isn’t much star power that will be available this offseason, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t players here or there that could move the needle a bit for some teams.
Moving right along with our free agent series, here’s a look at some of the top free agents that could be available in the offseason.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $6,000,000
Admittedly, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Montrezl Harrell isn’t in a Clipper uniform. His career has exploded since arriving in Los Angeles, and he’s an integral piece to any championship hopes the Clippers have. He’s good enough to start for many other teams, and he often finishes games.
There’s no doubt that he’s lined himself up for a nice payday. There will be other teams interested in his services. The Clippers will need to be prepared for the offers he’ll receive. He’s a legit double-double threat who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He’s an improved defender and incredibly mobile.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has said he’s willing to open up his wallet for a contender. This will be his first major test in keeping the core of this group together. Harrell’s role is part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous, and they can’t afford to lose him.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Player Option – $27,093,018
Davis is another player whom it’s difficult to see leaving his current team. There are only a few teams projected to have cap space this summer, and none of them are anywhere close to being the contending team Davis wants. Nonetheless, he’s been adamant about exercising his player option and entering free agency.
He declined an extension with the Lakers back in January, but that’s not something to read too much into. He is eligible to sign for more money as an unrestricted free agent than if he would’ve signed the extension.
One team, however, that is projected to have cap space is the New York Knicks. If you recall, when Davis initially released a short list of teams he wanted to be traded to, the Knicks were on that list. His hometown Chicago Bulls should have space as well. Don’t hold your breath on him leaving the Lakers, but stranger things have happened.
Dario Saric, Phoenix Suns – Restricted – $3,481,916
Saric is in an interesting situation. He was once touted as being part of “The Process” in Philadelphia, but now he’s become more of an afterthought in the league. The Suns have the option to tender a qualifying offer which would make him a restricted free agent and give Phoenix the option to match any offer.
He’s a useful player who could help a number of teams. A mobile big perfect for small ball offenses who shoots the three at a decent percentage. He had fallen out of the rotation in Phoenix earlier in the season, but prior to the NBA being put on hold, he had managed to work his way back into the lineup.
He’s still relatively young at 25 years old. There will most likely be interest around the league. It’s up to Phoenix to decide how much they’re willing to invest in him — and if they potentially have his replacement already on the roster in someone like Cam Johnson.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings – Restricted – $8,529,386
Bogdanovic drew some heavy interest at the trade deadline, and the Kings rebuffed any offer. They clearly see him as one of their core players. He was having a solid year, especially during the second half of the season when he was placed in the starting lineup.
He’s a combo guard who can play a little small forward as well. He’s a good shooter and a willing passer. The Kings have already let it be known that they intend to match any offer he receives. That’s not to say other teams would be dissuaded from making an offer.
A big part of the Dewayne Dedmon deal with the Atlanta Hawks was having an eye towards clearing up potential cap space to re-sign Bogdanovic. To show that they’re on the right path, the Kings must re-sign him and match any offer he gets.
Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $15,000,000
Morris has fit right in with the Clippers since arriving at the trade deadline from the New York Knicks. He gives them another scoring threat as well as a solid defensive presence. Before the trade, he was enjoying a career-year in New York and had other teams willing to trade for him.
Depending on what happens with Harrell, could Morris be priced out of the Clippers range? The Clippers have also let it be known that they would like to re-sign Morris as well, but part of that might depend on what other offers are out there.
Morris can help a lot of teams, and the Clippers would definitely be better with him than without. But they shouldn’t break the bank on him if that’s what it’s going to take in order to re-sign him.
Aron Baynes, Phoenix Suns – Unrestricted – $3,481,986
Not a lot of fuss was made when the Boston Celtics traded Baynes to Phoenix last summer. But when Deandre Ayton was suspended at the beginning of the season, not only did Baynes step in to fill the void, he was also on his way to earning a solid payday in the offseason.
He’s a tough, physical player who plays strong defense and is active on the glass. This season, in particular, he showed off a new ability to shoot from three-point range. Unfortunately for him, he suffered injury problems and then saw his role decreased when Ayton returned to the lineup, putting a damper on his production.
It’s hard to tell if any potential contract offer would be hindered based on his performance in the second half of the season, or if teams will look at his early play as evidence of what he could do with extended minutes and more of a defined role. Ayton is the future though at center for the Suns, and unless Baynes is willing to sign for less and play a backup role, the Suns should allow him to walk.
Kent Bazemore, Sacramento Kings – Unrestricted – $19,269,662
Bazemore is due around $19 million this season. It’s highly likely he doesn’t get a contract that big this offseason. He was talked about as a potential buyout candidate after the trade deadline, but Sacramento opted to keep him.
His overall production has gone down from when he initially signed his deal with the Atlanta Hawks, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a serviceable player. In 21 games with the Kings, he put up 10.3 points per game while shooting 38.6 percent from three.
He can help a team, especially a playoff contender, off the bench. At this point, the Kings have younger options at his position and will need to re-sign Bogdanovic. He could end up being a steal for a team.
Harry Giles, Sacramento Kings – Unrestricted – $2,578,800
Giles was once one of the most highly touted prospects in the country. Unfortunately for him, he suffered injury setbacks and hasn’t quite been able to carve out a role in the NBA. His time with the Kings has marred by setbacks, and the team declined his fourth-year option before the season began.
As per the CBA, the Kings are limited in only being able to offer Giles a one-year, $4 million contract. Other teams are free to offer whatever they want. When he was given playing time after the trade deadline, he finally looked like he was turning the corner and becoming a productive NBA player, and then the season was put on hold.
The last couple months of the season would’ve been huge for Giles’ contract outlook. If he would’ve maintained that level of play, there would be no doubt he would have earned himself a new contract. For now, he’s going to have to hope that will be enough. He’s still extremely talented and extremely young. It’s not going to break the bank to sign him and any team looking to take a flier on a potential low-risk, high-reward player, this is their opportunity.
NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Atlantic Division
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best free agents from the Atlantic Division.
To say the events of the past three or so weeks were irregular would be the understatement of the year. And during an already tragic year for the NBA, the league made the tough choice to postpone the season, prior to government intervention, on Wednesday, Mar. 11.
In the two-plus weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdowns, players have continued to entertain the league’s fans in creative and interactive ways. But watching our favorites play Call of Duty is no substitute for NBA action. Considering the remainder of the 2019-20 season isn’t a given at this point, Basketball Insiders has instead shifted its focus on the next guaranteed league-wide event – free agency.
Ben Nadeau covered the best free agents from the Northwest Division on Tuesday, while Spencer Davies identified the best free agents available from the Central Division yesterday. Next, let’s shift our focus to the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Division’s class is lacking true star power. There is no Anthony Davis, Mike Conley or Paul Milsap, either – and most of the established talent in the Atlantic is locked up well beyond 2020. But what the division lacks in established free agents, it makes up for in promise. A number of the following players are younger guys who have yet to fulfill their full potential and there might even be a few future All-Stars listed below.
So, for the next five or so minutes, forget about everything going on outside and dive into a rundown of the best free agents the Atlantic Division has to offer.
Most Likely To Be Priced Out Of His Current Team
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $9,346,153
Without question, VanVleet will be the most sought-after free agent from the Atlantic Division this offseason, whenever that is.
VanVleet turned 26 years old last month and was originally signed by the Raptors after going undrafted in 2016. He’s accumulated approximately $20 million in career earnings. While that’s better than more than 99% of us, his next contract will probably feature two commas and eight zeroes – that’s the kind of money most of us can’t fathom. And while there should be at least one more big payday for VanVleet after this one, the uncertainty of recent events might convince himself to secure his family sooner rather than later.
All indications point to VanVleet’s satisfaction with Toronto, too. He had this to say about his impending free agency last October in an interview on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid: “But, I mean, I’ve been on record about how I feel about this place,” the fourth-year guard said. “This organization knows how I feel about this place. So in a perfect world, we know what would happen.”
But in light of the volatility in global financial markets, does Toronto still believe that it can successfully build a contender around VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, knowing that it might be impossible to add more top-tier talent?
VanVleet is arguably the best point guard prospect in the 2020 class. While some teams will feel like paying more than $25 million per season for VanVleet is overkill given his height and limited athletic ability – others will see his season-to-season development, scrappiness and clutch play as more than worth it.
Most Likely To Look Elsewhere Due To Coaching Change
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets – Unrestricted – $7,666,667
Harris’s situation is similar to VanVleet’s. Harris was the 33rd overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft by way of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite being in the league for two more years than VanVleet, they’ve made approximately the same total amount in career earnings.
Harris’ star has also never been brighter, except for maybe last season. He posted career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (4.3) and minutes per game (30.9) in 2019-20. He also shot a more-than-respectable 41.2 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game this season, down from a ridiculous 47.4 percent in 2018-19. And he did all this inside the flow of the offense.
So why would the Nets let Harris leave, you ask? They won’t, if it is up to them. Harris is an unrestricted free agent, so where he plays next year and beyond is entirely up to him.
Why, then, might Harris explore leaving the Nets, a team with whom he would almost certainly compete for a championship next season? He probably wouldn’t have – until Mar. 7, when the Nets mutually parted ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson was the Nets coach for Harris’ entire tenure with the team, while the latter was a huge supporter of the former.
Additionally, there are the inevitable disruptions that playing alongside megastars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will bring – like decreased role and increased media scrutiny. Still, Brooklyn gave him a home after he was unceremoniously dumped in the G League — so, for now, only time will tell.
Most Likely To Prefer A Fresh Start
Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks — Restricted — $3.551,100
Judging by Trier’s body language and decreased availability in the Knicks’ locker room in 2019-20, it’s safe to assume that he was less-than-pleased in New York this season.
He entered the NBA last season as an accomplished scorer whose draft stock took a hit after testing positive for Ostarine, a performance-enhancing drug. And despite inconsistent playing time, Trier’s rookie campaign reinforced the idea that he was more prepared to score at the professional level than scouts and executives thought. He averaged 10.9 points over 22.8 minutes per game during his rookie campaign and most people around the team felt he would develop into a dependable sixth man capable of providing off-the-bench punch.
But Trier’s role changed this year and he has played in 24 of the Knicks’ 66 games and posted just 6.5 points in 12.1 minutes per game.
Trier is already 24, older than most sophomores. But he’s also played for the Knicks, whose rotations have impeded the progress of a number of other younger players in the recent past (see: Frank Ntilikina). It would be shocking if new team president Leon Rose prioritizes a long-term deal for a player that’s been out of the rotation all season when the Knicks have so many other holes to fill.
But fear not, Iso-Zo fans, someone will take a chance on Trier. And he’ll look significantly better on a playoff roster, capitalizing on the spacing that talent affords.
Most Likely To Seek One Last Payday
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,604
The Raptors are a tough team to peg. In spite of many proposing a rebuild in the days post-Kawhi Leonard, Toronto played out 2019-20 with their roster as is. As of the most recent day of the season, the Raptors were 46-18 – good for the third-best record in the entire league.
But like most great minds, team president Masai Ujiri is probably motivated by succeeding at seemingly impossible challenges – like a full-on rebuild. And this might be his best shot. The Raptors have a number of players entering unrestricted free agency, including headliners like Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet.
While the VanVleet situation is probably out of the team’s control, Ibaka and Gasol are realistic returnees – so long as it’s desired by the Raptors.
Gasol fits the profile of someone that can be brought back on an inexpensive deal. He’s already 35 and would dictate far less on the open market than Ibaka. On the other hand, Ibaka is somehow only 30 and played incredibly well in 2019-20, averaging 16 points and 8.3 rebounds over 27.5 minutes per game.
While his defensive prowess isn’t what it once was, he’s still more than serviceable and makes up for any regression with three-point shooting (39.8 percent) and versatility.
With tough financial decisions ahead, the Raptors will probably let Ibaka walk without making too strong of a recruiting pitch. But what team offers him the kind of money that lures him out of Canada is anyone’s guess.
Most Likely To Leave Early To Cash In On A Weak Class
Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics — Player Option — $32,700,690
This one is probably a stretch. Elfrid Payton is more likely to be cut loose by New York, as is Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. Further, Brad Wanamaker is more likely to leave Boston than Hayward. But it’s infinitely more fun to consider the possibility of Hayward fleeing Beantown, isn’t it?
This concept is complicated by two key points: Hayward won’t command anywhere near the $34 million he’ll walk away from next season, while he’s probably never been happier with a coaching staff considering coach Brad Stevens was also his college leader at Butler.
But there’s a key incentive driving this hypothetical, too – if Hayward opts out, he can guarantee himself a multi-year contract worth more in 2020 than he’ll be able to negotiate in the competitive class of 2021. And in the eternal words of DJ Quick, if it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.
It may even be the right time for Hayward to seek a new contract, too. He’s scoring 17 or more points per game for the first time since 2016-17. Better, he’s proven to be healthy, score in bunches and make players for those around him. The long-time Jazz-standout is now averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33.4 minutes per game – all as he shoots 39.2 percent on three-pointers and slightly above 50 percent from the field.
And if Boston is unwilling to spend because it understands future needs like Jayson Tatum must be met, the situation between Hayward and the Celtics can become contentious.
Most Likely To Split For A More Defined Role
Glen Robinson III, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted – $1,882,867
Dust-ups happen and teams and players do their best to publicly make nice afterward for the greater good. Basketball Insiders’ own Spencer Davies broke the news in February that Robinson III was confused with his role in Philadelphia.
The 76ers are well-stocked at the wing position and, as a 26-year-old journeyman, Robinson III certainly knows that he’ll only get so many opportunities to cash out in the NBA. The Athletic recently reported that Robinson III is not ruling out a return to the Warriors despite the presence of Andrew Wiggins, and he’ll obviously explore other situations, too. Already though, his time in Philadelphia looks like a thing of the past.
Robinson III finally broke double-figures in scoring this season at 11.8 per game. He also set career highs in assists (1.6 per game) and rebounds (4.3), while hitting a career-best 48.6 percent from the field. Wherever he signs, Robinson III will be a relatively-inexpensive and serviceable bench player who could develop into a regular part of a rotation.
Most Likely To Chase The Biggest Opportunity
Alec Burks, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted — $2,320,044
Burks is the most established of the remaining free agents on this list. He averaged 10.7 points per game this season — but he’s proven he can do more, like the year he put up 16.1 over 48 games with Golden State in 2019-20. Burks is an inconsistent defender, but he’s shown flashes of competency on that side as of late. Still, what he adds offensively typically outweighs his defensive limitations.
Burks has been set back by a series of injuries and he’s already 28 years old, so it’s unlikely he’ll expand past much more than he’s done thus far. But that’s more than enough for a number of contending teams in need of scoring off the bench.
He can always fall back on Philadelphia given their need for depth, but his scoring punch should enable a deal beyond the likes of that franchise can afford. If he’s stuck between offers, Burks will probably go with whichever team offers him the biggest role.
Maurice Harkless, New York Knicks — Unrestricted — $11,011,236
The eight-year NBA veteran has averaged 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1 steal per game throughout his entire career. Beyond that, Harkless’ per-36 numbers are surprisingly consistent year-to-year, which, long story short, means that you know what you’re getting in the established wing.
But that’s not a bad thing as Harkless is an above-average defender. He’s long and versatile, possessing the ability to switch in most pick-and-roll scenarios. Further, Harkless doesn’t require touches, but he can score when needed.
The February trade that landed Harkless in New York probably threw a wrench in his already up-in-the-air plans. He didn’t spend enough time with the Knicks to gauge the rotations, while it’s assumed that the coaching and overall roster will undergo a major revamp this offseason regardless. In that case, Harkless will probably leave New York and he’ll have a number of suitors.
The Atlantic Division’s free agents might lack star power, but there are some big-time role players available. Some will walk with big money, whereas others will be forced to settle for less than they’d hoped — but that’s what free agency is all about right, isn’t it?
Regardless of who gets what, we can all agree that the world is a better place when basketball is being played. Stay tuned as Basketball Insiders continues our free agent series tomorrow.