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NBA Daily: Four Former First-Rounders To Keep An Eye On

After having their team options recently declined, there are four young players worth keeping an eye through the trade deadline and into unrestricted free agency, writes Ben Nadeau.

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In most cases, it can be unusual for a franchise to decline their team option before a rookie can reach the qualifying offer and restricted free agency stage of the journey. Yet, every year, there seem to be a few former first-round stragglers that get left behind in the process. Whether these players never quite broke out, struggled in reduced roles or failed to stay healthy, everybody in this piece recently had their team option declined. On one hand, these decisions mean that they’ll be unrestricted and free to sign with whomever they please this upcoming offseason. But on the other, it also means that a few of these young prospects can start building their resumes and show their respective teams that they may have made a mistake.

Last year alone, the doubly difficult-to-pin-down Jahlil Okafor and Mario Hezonja both had their options declined. But 12 months later, it’s hard to say the Philadelphia 76ers — who then traded Okafor to the Brooklyn Nets in December — and Orlando Magic, respectively, were all that wrong in their longterm line of thinking. Nevertheless, this current crop of potential-but-troubled prospects must not only look to prove themselves ahead of free agency but also audition for the other 29 teams as well.

With that in mind, there are four intriguing situations to monitor as the season hurdles toward the trade deadline, playoffs and eventual offseason.

Honorable Mentions: Malachi Richardson, Toronto Raptors; Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Oklahoma City Thunder; Tyler Lydon, Denver Nuggets; Henry Ellenson, Detroit Pistons

Rapid-Fire Recap: Richardson has played in 18 games for the nearly conference-leading Raptors but only at a paltry 5.1-minute clip — even before in Sacramento, the 6-foot-6 guard had struggled to jump-start his career. Luwawu-Cabarrot, who was included in the Justin Anderson for Mike Muscala swap in July, has labored similarly in Oklahoma City. Lydon, unfortunately, hasn’t forced the issue in two seasons amidst a strong Nuggets frontcourt either. Ellenson has averaged 17.9 points and 8.9 rebounds over 21 games for the Grand Rapids Drive this season, but he’s stuck behind All-Star Blake Griffin.

Justin Patton, Minnesota Timberwolves

To this point, there’s little indication that Justin Patton is an NBA-caliber player — but for many, that mysterious allure is what makes the 21-year-old an interesting case to watch. During his lone year at Creighton in 2016-17, Patton averaged 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game — somehow, it’s also the last time he’s really played basketball under the spotlight. After he was traded on draft night in the Jimmy Butler-to-the-Wolves deal, Patton promptly broke his foot during a workout, underwent surgery and was sidelined indefinitely. In 33 games with the Iowa Wolves last year, Patton put up numbers in-line with his collegiate marks — but breaking into head coach Tom Thibodeau’s notoriously tough veterans-first rotation was always going to be an uphill battle.

Before his sophomore season even began, Patton broke his other foot and required surgery too — hence the declined option. Of course, Patton was traded again with the aforementioned Butler in November, this time to Philadelphia. As of 2019, Patton isn’t close to a return — although he’s aiming to do so by the end of the season, ideally — but there’s a strong likelihood that he’ll enter UFA with less than ten games played over two seasons. Still, that inherent potential is still tantalizing, especially headed into a would-be third professional season at just the age of 22.

Even if Patton doesn’t play any role for the 76ers in 2018-19, he’ll be a hot-ticket item as a seven-footer that will hope to run the floor and protect the rim.

Furkan Korkmaz, Philadelphia 76ers

It’s been a mighty busy season so far for the Turkish sharpshooter, that’s for sure.

After beginning the year on the outside of the rotation, Korkmaz, understandably, desired a trade. With that declined team option, Korkmaz was eager to get on the court and prove that he still belonged. Perhaps more quickly than he could have imagined, Korkmaz got his extended shot. That acquisition of Butler also came with the departure of Dario Saric and Robert Covington, thus opening up space on the wing for their 21-year-old asset. And as Jessica Camerato pointed out earlier this month — it’s not always been easy, but Korkmaz is making the most of his newfound opportunities.

Korkmaz has hit two or more three-pointers in 10 of his 28 appearances and his minutes have been on a steep, albeit inconsistent, climb since November. It’s no secret that three-point shooting comes at a premium in today’s NBA, so Korkmaz should have no issue finding a new home — if he wants one — come the summertime. Of note, Korkmaz is another recent first-rounder to deal with a debilitating foot injury — in this case, a Lisfranc injury — but he appears to be well-past any lingering side effects on that front.

Once upon a time, Korkmaz looked like an exciting overseas prospect, but with a steadier ration of minutes coming his way, he’s started to supply those moments in bigger and bigger doses.

Marquese Chriss, Houston Rockets

Flipped to Houston in that De’Anthony Melton-Brandon Knight offseason trade, Maquese Chriss has found it tough sledding in Texas thus far. For starters, the Rockets both attempt and make more three-pointers than anybody else in the league, so Chriss’ 30 percent mark from deep already puts him at a severe disadvantage. Chriss has struggled with a sprained ankle this month, but the forward hasn’t cracked head coach Mike D’Antoni’s rigid rotation in any case. In fact, Chriss has played more than 10 minutes on just a single occasion this season, earning nearly 14 of them during a 31-point blowout victory against the San Antonio Spurs last month.

As the former No. 8 overall pick, Chriss’ professional outlook has been bleak, to say the least — but again, age remains a key factor. Chriss will turn 22 years-old just after he becomes eligible to sign a new deal this summer. In a new system — read: not Houston’s — and within an organization that has a better reputation for fostering young talent, there’s still plenty of hope left for the former Husky. After all, Chriss is just a couple years removed from starting 75 games as a rookie in 2016-17 and consistently reaching that 15-point plateau — all on solid efficiency rates to boot. Ultimately, there’s a chance that Chriss won’t even finish the year with Houston as the reigning conference runners-up will certainly look to bolster their bench down the stretch.

Dragan Bender, Phoenix Suns

Then there’s Dragan Bender, the other once brightly-shining asset in the Suns’ never-ending rebuild effort. In fact, Bender and Chriss even ended up in Phoenix together after the since-fired general manager Ryan McDonough emptied their pick chamber to pair the two prospects during the 2016 NBA Draft. That hindsight-powered perspective has taken on new life this week following the Bogdan Bogdanovic buzzer-beater — the Kings’ major takeaway from that deal, plus a few other additions — but, at the time, it seemed like a risk worth taking.

Although Chriss’ positional clash has been understandable, particularly so this season, Bender was supposed to naturally fill that three-point shooting role at power forward. At 7-foot-1, it was easy to see how Bender could usher in a new era for the Suns, even at the high-risk gamble of No. 4 overall. His rookie season was filled with ups and downs, including an arthroscopic procedure to remove a bone spur that knocked him out for almost two months, but he was afforded the world in year two. In 2017-18, Bender played all 82 games but averaged just 6.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 three-pointers over 25.2 minutes per contest.

To put the final nail(s) in the coffin, the Suns then subsequently drafted Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick last June, traded for Mikal Bridges and then added Ryan Anderson before the season. Just like that, Bender has fallen out of favor in Phoenix, and he’s featured in just 11 games so far at a miserable eight-minute allowance. A fresh start for Bender will be essential but time (and his NBA-ready skillset) are still on his side. Almost one year ago, Bender dropped 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks on 6-for-8 from three-point range. That performance alone — a perfect distillation of what he could offer a new suitor — will likely earn him another chance.

At the end of the day, the track record for team option-declined contracts has slid heavily in the franchise’s favor. The NBA is a business and when your high-money assets aren’t contributing, often times, it’s best to just cut bait. Still, the game of basketball loves a good revenge narrative and these youngsters could supply the entrancing arc. Between injuries, opportunity or fit, Patton, Korkmaz, Chriss and Bender will all be eager to turn the page sooner rather than later. Given their favorable age, athleticism and worthy skillsets, the foursome still has plenty of miles left in the tank. Whether the revenge tour starts now, in April or next year altogether, these talented prospects can still succeed in the NBA,  they just may need to find the right home to do so.

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

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