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?
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