Deandre Ayton, Jalen Brunson’s Top Free-Agent Landing Spots After 2022 NBA Draft

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured Columnist IVJune 24, 2022

DALLAS, TX - MAY 6: Jalen Brunson #13 of the Dallas Mavericks drives to the basket to score against Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of Game Three of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals at American Airlines Center on May 6, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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With the conclusion of the NBA draft on Thursday, the offseason now turns to free agency and the start of the new league year on July 1.

And two of the most intriguing names to follow are Phoenix Suns center and restricted free agent Deandre Ayton and Dallas Mavericks point guard and unrestricted free agent Jalen Brunson.

For both players, the most logical team for each to sign with is their current one. The Suns are a true contender, and Ayton's rim-rolling skills and ability to defend on the perimeter fit well with the team's star duo of Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

And the Mavericks are a burgeoning power in the West, fresh off a berth in the Conference Finals. Brunson thrived in Jason Kidd's first year on the job, averaging career highs in points (16.3 PPG) and assists (4.8 APG), proving to be an excellent complement to superstar Luka Doncic.

But what if they don't return?

A whole slew of teams have been rumored to have interest in Ayton this summer, including the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers.

If Ayton's main goals are to sign a max contract and have a bigger offensive role—two things the Suns may be unable to offer him or uninterested in offering him—the Pistons could sign him outright to a max deal after clearing cap space in the Jerami Grant trade. He would instantly be one of the centerpieces of the franchise alongside Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, and Detroit's future prospects would look very, very bright.

The downside for Ayton would be going from a title contender to a young team thick in the middle of a rebuild. And even if he's comfortable with that change, the Suns will have the option to simply match a max offer and retain Ayton.

So while the Pistons feel like the front-runner, it's hardly a foregone conclusion.

The Thunder probably fell out of the running after drafting Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren at No. 2 overall on Thursday.

The Raptors would be an interesting fit, though they have plenty of mouths to feed in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby. Ditto for the Hawks, which already have Clint Capela anyway. There would probably be too much overlap between Ayton and Julius Randle in New York, making that a wonky fit, though that hasn't stopped the Knicks from making head-scratching moves in free agency in the past.

But the Hornets are an intriguing option. LaMelo Ball and Ayton would make for a thrilling pick-and-roll pair, while the Hornets have a young core that came close to the playoffs this year and play an exciting brand of basketball.

The issue for the Hornets will be trying to retain restricted free agent Miles Bridges while also finding a sign-and-trade with the Suns to land Ayton that Phoenix will agree to this summer. It's hard to imagine the Suns being too excited about getting Gordon Hayward back in such a deal, so Charlotte will have to get creative, but Ayton and the Hornets are a natural fit.

The Trail Blazers could also rebuild on the fly by adding Ayton to pair with Damian Lillard in the pick-and-roll, building a core around that pair, Grant and Anfernee Simons, though taking on Grant's salary likely has taken the Blazers out of contention.

Then there's Brunson, with consistent rumors that the Knicks covet him. It makes sense—the Knicks desperately need a true point guard, and he would be a huge upgrade in that regard. The 25-year-old wouldn't turn a New York roster devoid of a true superstar into a title contender, but he might help them return to the playoffs.

The Knicks also cleared Kemba Walker's expiring $9.2 million salary in a draft-night trade, adding even more cap space to their coffers. And they added a number of future conditional first-round picks, which could be ammunition if players like Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell become available in trade talks (sign-and-trade talks in Irving's instance).

Brunson will likely have other suitors, but this feels like it will come down to the Mavericks or Knicks. Staying put in Dallas is his best option from a contending standpoint—at least for now, depending on what other moves the Knicks might be envisioning—but anything can happen come free agency.