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NBA Daily: Six Underrated Free Agents Worth Watching

With cap space drying up across the league, here are six underrated and market value free agents that could make a difference in 2018-19.

Ben Nadeau

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With only a few teams still standing, many may avert their eyes to the upcoming free agency class. For teams with low draft picks and early postseason exits, free agency stands as their best opportunity to improve. But with cap space across the league stretching thin, most franchises can’t even afford to chase big money options like Aaron Gordon or Marcus Smart. Contenders and middle-of-the-road front offices will scour the class for under the radar options in the coming months, looking for difference makers at a manageable cost. And while some of them won’t come as cheaply as they might have in previous years, these six players should be in high demand when free agency opens on July 1.

Shane Larkin, Boston Celtics — Unrestricted Free Agent
2017-18: 54 games, 4.3 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 38.4 percent shooting
Last Contract: 1 year, 1.5 million

Fans in Boston have fallen in love with Shane Larkin’s gritty, unafraid demeanor and fearlessness of the big moment — and it’s not hard to see why. Although Larkin’s individual statistics suffered as a reserve, he’s clearly proven that he belongs in the NBA for the foreseeable future. After spending the 2016-17 season in Spain, Larkin’s addition to the Celtics’ roster initially came as a surprise, but he ended up being far more than positional insurance.

With much of the rotation floating in and out of healthiness, Larkin had plenty of chances to assert himself as a bench spark plug. Amazingly, Larkin scored 10 or more points in 10 games and the Celtics won all but one of those. Capped off by a near triple-double — 12 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and zero turnovers — in the season finale, Larkin has endeared himself to the Massachusetts faithful. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess if Larkin will return to Boston this offseason, but his two-year improvement could net him a longer deal in a bigger role.

Larkin had to leave Game 4 last night in Philadelphia with a left-shoulder separation — but the Celtics will hold their breath, he’s been important for them all season long.

Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets — Unrestricted Free Agent
2017-18: 78 games, 10.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.9 three-pointers and 41.9 percent from three
Last Contract: 2 years, 2 million

The Brooklyn Nets’ latest success story has been popular at Basketball Insiders this season and that’s because the once-forgotten sharpshooter is well on his way to finally cashing in. Under head coach Kenny Atkinson, Harris has flourished in the Nets’ three-point heavy offense, as well as evolving into one of Brooklyn’s steadier defenders. While he doesn’t hold the potential promise that Caris LeVert or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson might, Harris played an important role in keeping the Nets from bottoming out once again.

A young, inconsistent roster made a habit of squandering Harris’ best individual nights in 2017-18, but the reserve often made his presence known. When Harris scored above his season average, the Nets were 16-24 — an unexpected game-changer for a franchise without control of their own first-round pick. His best performance of the season came against the Cleveland Cavaliers — the team that drafted him in 2014 — and Harris lit them up for 30 points and seven rebounds on 6-for-7 from three-point range. What team couldn’t use a cheap, high-percentage rotation player like that?

Recently, both the Nets and Harris made it clear that a mutual return is in the cards, according to Michael Scotto of The Athletic. But at just 26 years old, the former Virginia standout could attract the attention of some serious contenders. Either way, after he was dumped by the Cavaliers halfway through his second season, it looked like Harris’ NBA career would be short-lived. Instead, he’s about to sign the longest, most money-laden contract of his life — not bad for a former No. 33 overall pick, right?

Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks — Unrestricted Free Agent
2016-17: 70 games, 12.8 points, 2.7 assists, 2 three-pointers and 42.5 percent from three
Last Contract: 2 years, 6 million

The rebuilding Dallas Mavericks have plenty of intriguing free agent decisions to make this summer — Nerlens Noel and Yogi Ferrell included — but perhaps none more so than Seth Curry. After playing just four total games between three franchises from 2013-15, Curry parlayed a late-season run with Sacramento into a guaranteed deal for two seasons in Dallas. With the Mavericks, Curry found himself staring down the ultimate green light and, on most nights, he didn’t disappoint. Last season, Curry started 42 contests and made two three-pointers per game at a 42.5 percent clip, anointing himself as a microwavable shooter to keep an eye on.

Unfortunately, a stress reaction of the left tibia kept Curry out in 2017-18 until he underwent season-ending surgery in February. Should the younger Curry be injury-free this summer, he’ll be an underrated flier for a team looking to bolster their bench. Three-point marksmanship is clearly the calling card of this stellar NBA bloodline, but Curry will be out to prove his one season with Dallas wasn’t a fluke. Curry’s hot-in-a-hurry skill set will make him one of the most underpriced free agents this offseason — who’s ready to take the jump?

Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies — Unrestricted Free Agent
2017-18: 52 games, 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.2 three-pointers
Last Contract: 1 year, 3.3 million

It was an absolute career resurgence for Tyreke Evans in 2017-18 and he’ll be a hot ticket item again come July. In fact, Evans was heavily chased at February’s trade deadline but remained in Memphis after the Grizzlies wouldn’t budge from their first-round pick asking price. As of now, the Grizzlies can only offer the 28-year-old the mid-level exception but plenty of franchises — good, bad, young, old — could utilize a veteran ball-handler like Evans. His two previous seasons were marred by injury issues, so Evans bet hard on himself with the one-year deal.

It’s been a long road for Evans, who won Rookie of the Year way back in 2009-10, but he’s made a strong case to stick around even longer. Over his nine-year career, Evans has averaged double-digits in the scoring department in every season and five or more assists in six of them. Additionally, this was Evans’ best season from three-point range by far, just proving that some things do indeed get better with age. At this stage in his career, Evans will bring reliable playmaking without the gaudy price tag of other options.

On the other hand, should Evans choose to finally chase some rings, he’ll likely have the pick of the litter once free agency opens.

Wayne Ellington, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted Free Agent
2017-18: 11.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.9 three-pointers and 39.2 percent from three
Last Contract: 2 years, 12.2 million

Speaking of late-career surges, veteran journeyman Wayne Ellington likely just had his best season yet. Since 2009, Ellington has played for seven franchises but has found Miami the perfect fit over the last two years. Holding down a career 38.1 percent average from deep, Ellington has made a living beyond the three-point arc and absolutely feasted from there with the HEAT. Previously, Ellington’s season-high for made three-pointers was 1.4 per game, a contribution he made for the 21-61 Los Angeles Lakers back in 2014-15.

This season, Ellington knocked down 2.9 three-pointers per game, a mark that was eighth-best across the entire league. The names ahead of him were Stephen Curry, James Harden, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Paul George, Kyle Lowry and Eric Gordon, the latter of which signed a four-year deal worth $53 million back in 2016. While Ellington won’t command nearly as much this summer, it still bodes well for the sharpshooter moving forward. Miami is dangerously close to paying the luxury tax, which would make a return to South Beach unlikely without another move preceding it. Ellington already led one playoff-bound team in three-point shooting — could he find success with another?

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic — Unrestricted Free Agent
2017-18: 75 games, 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.2 three-pointers
Last Contract: 3 years, 11.7 million (rookie deal)

This season has been eventful for Mario Hezonja, an up-and-down campaign that officially kicked off when the Orlando Magic declined their team option back in October. Much has been made about Hezonja’s work ethic and attitude, but some strong late-season performances will make the Croatian an interesting option in free agency. When he’s on, Hezonja can appear like one of the most promising youngsters in the entire league — but his biggest issue has always been finding that consistency each and every night.

In December, Hezonja dropped his most impressive game to date, the 6-foot-8 semi-positionless talent notched 28 points on 8-for-12 from three-point range to go along with six rebounds and three steals. Or there was his monstrous 24-point, six-rebound, four-steal and three-block effort against the Chicago Bulls a few months later — the kid can clearly play. The point is this: Through three NBA seasons, there have been more cons than pros for Hezonja, but those type of performances certainly acknowledge that the 23-year-old has the ability to make something of his frustrating start.

At times, Hezonja filled a handful of roles for an injury-decimated Magic squad — handling the rock on one night before grabbing minutes down in the post in another. He’s already an effective slasher and a flexible defender, so improving his three-point percentage (33.7) will be key in his next opportunity. His inconsistencies likely mean that no franchise will knock down the door at midnight to sign Hezonja long-term — but under the right head coach, Super Mario could absolutely bloom. Polarizing, sure, but as an under the radar signing, Hezonja certainly fits the bill.

While most will have their sights set on DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and the growing lot of restricted free agents, there’s still plenty of worthy signings elsewhere. From Shane Larkin to Mario Hezonja, deals could be found around every corner — but which front office will find the diamonds in the rough?

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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