When the 2013 NBA free-agency period begins this summer, every team will be looking to sign the league’s next big thing. It’s easy to simply identify the NBA’s best free agents, but if we already know who (and how good) they are, they can't hardly be called the “next big things,” can they? Instead, we’ll focus here on specific players with a chance to break out or the ability to perfectly fill an important role.
In other words, we’ll be looking at players and ideas that aren’t already “big things," so you won’t find the high-profile free-agent trio of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Josh Smith here. Nor will we discuss Al Jefferson or David West. Those guys are already established and don’t really fit the “next big thing” label.
We’re looking for value, either in the potential for improvement, the perfect role player or a guy who represents a trending idea in the league.
Get your wallets out, because here are the next big things NBA teams will be spending their dough on during free agency in 2013.
*All stats accurate through games played Dec. 2
Ronnie Brewer has never been a marquee player in the NBA, but he’ll be hitting free agency this summer at the right time. The rest of the league is starting to figure out what the smart teams have known for years: Real contenders have defensive stoppers on the wing.
Brewer is a lockdown perimeter defender in the same mold as a number of other key players on the NBA’s best teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder have Thabo Sefolosha, the Miami Heat have Shane Battier and the San Antonio Spurs have Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Those guys are all part of a growing trend in the league.
But none of them will be on the market.
As the league continues to realize the value of players like Brewer, look for free agents with defensive chops to cash in like never before.
If Ronnie Brewer is primed to draw some interest on the unrestricted free-agent market, Memphis Grizzlies defensive ace Tony Allen will be his primary competition.
Allen is just as good a defensive player as Brewer is, but the Grizzlies 2-guard is more than just a stopper. For starters, he’s terrific on the glass—Allen led all guards in offensive rebound rate last year by a huge margin.
In addition, Allen is more battle-tested than Brewer and has championship experience with the 2007-08 Boston Celtics.
If the Grizzlies make a deep playoff run this season, which they seem likely to do, Memphis may not be willing to let Allen get away so easily this summer. There’ll certainly be plenty of bidders for Allen’s services, so the Grizzlies may have to overpay to keep their best defensive player in the fold.
For some reason, Golden State Warriors forward Carl Landry has found himself bouncing all over the league during his brief six-year career. Despite a knack for scoring on the block and the ability to get to the line, Landry settled for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Warriors last summer.
The second year of that agreement is a player option, and with his career-best performance this year, Landry will almost certainly opt out, allowing him to hit free agency in 2013.
As a bench scorer, Landry is an ideal addition to any team. Of players averaging at least 25 minutes per game this year, he ranks 18th in per-minute scoring. Whether those numbers can hold up under increased playing time is a question his suitors will have to ask themselves this summer.
Acquiring a bench player with good rate stats and hoping he thrives in an increased role is another trend in today's NBA. Just ask the Houston Rockets how James Harden is working out for them.
The Warriors snagged Landry at a bargain price last offseason. With the way he’s playing off the bench this year, you can bet another team will swoop in, hoping to land a guy it believes can retain his massive production in a bigger role.
Carl Landry could definitely be the next big thing in 2013 NBA free agency.
O.J. Mayo, like Landry, couldn’t parlay a solid young career into a long-term deal last offseason. And just like Landry, he’s making the most of his situation now.
Mayo is averaging 24.8 points per 40 minutes this year, which ranks him No. 10 in the NBA. After seemingly struggling to get over the hump in Memphis, Mayo has surged in a bigger role as a Dallas Maverick. He’s scoring more efficiently than ever, and his three-point shot has suddenly gone from decent to deadly.
It wasn’t so long ago that Mayo’s ceiling seemed limitless. After all, he wasn’t drafted with the third overall pick in 2008 for nothing.
It’s very dangerous to overpay for wing scoring given how easy it is to cheaply acquire it on the open market. But assuming Mayo opts out of his deal after this year, there’ll be a handful of teams willing to pay him like an elite scorer—especially if he keeps playing like one.
J.J. Hickson is certainly making the most of his one-year deal with the Portland Trail Blazers. The fifth-year forward is enjoying a career year in the Pacific Northwest, and he couldn’t be doing it at a better time.
In the summer of 2013, Hickson will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. At just 24 years old, many teams are going to see his big statistical jump (Hickson currently averages 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds on 53 percent shooting) as a predictable phase in his still-developing game.
Of course, there’s always the danger that his improved play is a product of the extra motivation inherent in a contract year.
Whatever the source of Hickson’s breakout season, he’s going to become a free agent in a market sorely lacking size and athleticism. Expect him to have a few more good offers than he got last summer.
Last offseason, most of the free-agent chatter surrounded a handful of restricted point guards from the 2009 draft class. Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson all re-upped with their respective teams on long-term deals, but there are still a few more RFAs from the same class that are going to hit free agency in the summer of 2013.
And one of them is Brandon Jennings.
The Milwaukee Bucks point guard will be able to sign offer sheets with other teams this summer, and his current employers will have the right to match.
Jennings seems like a safe bet to receive a huge offer, and he has already mentioned that he’s doing his homework on big-market teams.
The lefty is a tricky player to forecast, mostly because it’s unclear whether he should be used as a starter or as a weapon off the bench. Good teams are increasingly utilizing players like Jennings in a sixth-man role, where his scoring talents make him a deadly option against weaker defensive units.
Wherever he ends up, Jennings has the talent to break out in a big way. It’ll be interesting to see if he does it off the bench or as an alpha dog, though.
Paul Millsap doesn’t get the notoriety of the other unrestricted free agent on the Utah Jazz roster, but he might actually represent a better value than Al Jefferson during 2013 NBA free agency.
Millsap is a beast on the boards and a highly accomplished mid-range shooter. In addition to that, he’s been showing off an improved three-point stroke as the small forward in Utah’s effective, but infrequently used “ultra-big” lineup.
There’s definitely a chance that Utah elects to keep Millsap around, but he’s also likely to receive a big offer on the open market. Bruising forwards with deep range don’t become available every day. If he lands somewhere where he can play more than the 27.1 minutes per game he’s averaged during his career in Utah, Millsap could be the biggest breakout candidate of anyone on this list.