The Biggest Sleeper Targets on the 2015 NBA Free-Agent Market
This space is not for the NBA's superstar free agents. They receive their just due over and over. Here, we only care about this summer's sleepers—the under-the-radar players who won't grab headlines or stacks of hundy-sticks but still provide great value.
Identifying these potential offseason steals is a matter of status and statistics.
These players cannot be close to household names, even if they're criminally underrated. (My apologies to Danny Green.) Past performances and season averages matter, as do the improvement they showed this past year and their ability to evolve even more.
Boiled down further: We're looking only for the players who won't be first, second or third on free-agent call lists. Their present-day value isn't that high.
Consider this a valiant attempt to change that.
Al-Farouq Aminu is borderline not a sleeper free agent anymore.
Six teams are already scheduled to meet with the five-year veteran, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge: the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors.
Still, that means up to 24 other organizations are napping on Aminu's value. Well that, and he is still considered a bust after being drafted ahead of Paul George and Gordon Hayward, among others, in 2010.
The Mavericks' five-game playoff journey did wonders for the 24-year-old's offseason stock. He converted 62.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers and improved Dallas' defense by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when on the floor in the postseason.
Of the eight Mavericks players to see 50 or minutes through the first round, Aminu recorded the highest player efficiency rating (20.4). He also posted the best regular-season net rating (plus-5.7) of anyone to finish the campaign on Dallas' roster.
His lifetime shooting percentage from beyond the arc (28.6 percent) is indeed a red flag. But at 6'9", with a strong postseason push under his belt, his premier three-and-D projection rides again.
At the same time, Aminu's yearslong bout with obscurity curbs his value to bargain-bin degrees. Though he's due for a significant raise, he raked in less than $1 million last season.
Interested teams could pay him six times as much annually and still not be in the hole for more than $5.9 million per year. Even if Aminu costs a little more, the right squad—one that plans to use him as situational 4—can make it a gamble worthwhile.
Offenses are trending in the direction of floor-spacing everything, including forwards. Defenses are valuing versatile, multiposition stoppers.
Aminu could end up satisfying both contemporary requirements—on a beggar's dime.
And (slight) spacing.
"It's a little hard to imagine that Alexis Ajinca can actually fly under the radar," wrote Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley. "That's not easy to do for someone with his size (7'2", 248 lbs) and length (7'8 ¾" wingspan), especially when his mobility and mid-range shooting touch seemingly fit today's pace-and-space NBA."
More than 30 percent of Ajinca's shot attempts came outside 10 feet of the basket with the New Orleans Pelicans last season, a commodity in itself. By comparison, Omer Asik, the Pelicans' starting center, stepped outside 10 feet less than 12 percent of the time.
With a rebounding rate that rivals that of Asik, Ajinca ranks as a better potential fit alongside Anthony Davis. The Pelicans outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when that duo shared the floor; they were a less impressive plus-4.6 with the Asik-Davis dyad.
None of which suggests the 27-year-old Ajinca is a budding superstar. He sends back a respectable number of shots but isn't a stout rim protector. Of 122 players to contest four or more shots at the iron per game, he ranked 77th in opponent field-goal percentage, allowing a 52.3 percent success rate.
But Asik isn't much better. He allowed opponents to shoot 51.1 percent around the rim (63rd) and is equally, if not more, clumsy with ball in his hands.
That won't stop some team—perhaps the Pelicans—from paying Asik, a free agent himself, between $8 million and $12 million annually in his next contract. Ajinca earned less than $1 million last season and isn't even worth close to an eight-figure salary. But Asik isn't either.
Which, to be blunt, is the point.
On the backup-big scale, Ajinca has super-steal potential for teams in need of secondary shot-blocking and a guarantee their second-unit center won't gum up the paint.
Heck, if Asik really does fetch upward of $10 million per year in free agency, the Pelicans ought to consider letting him walk and starting the far more affordable Ajinca.
A free-agency landscape teeming with talented towers threatens to overshadow Bismack Biyombo's value.
Smart teams in need of rim protection and rebounding won't let that happen. Not when the 22-year-old is now an unrestricted free agent after the Charlotte Hornets elected not to extend him a qualifying offer, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears.
Biyombo isn't going to provide anything offensively in today's jumper-jubilant NBA. Nearly 97 percent of his shot attempts came inside three feet last season, he is jealous of Dwight Howard's free-throw acumen (53 percent foul shooter for career), and he's never averaged six points per game.
Watching him handle the ball is even a grueling venture. He looks like he's trying to dribble a rock on top of a yoga mat.
There's no disputing his defensive appeal, though. He has eclipsed 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes in three of his last four seasons, and his 6.3 block percentage in 2014-15 ranked third among all players to log at least 1,200 total minutes.
Sure, the exact rim-protection numbers aren't perfect. He allowed opponents to shoot 49.1 percent at the iron last season, matching the fortitude of serial sieve Amar'e Stoudemire. But that mark still ranked in the 33rd percentile of all players to face four such field-goal attempts per game.
If a team can get Biyombo for anything close to the $4 million his qualifying offer was worth, he'll be a nominal investment with the potential to yield lavish defensive returns.
He's a great consolation prize for teams that whiff on Tyson Chandler, Gasol and Jordan.
One team's collateral damage is another's chance to mine for gold-plated silver cubic zirconia.
In order for the San Antonio Spurs to make a legitimate play for LaMarcus Aldridge—as Spears says they're still doing—they need to cleanse their books of excess salary.
Said process will include unloading Tiago Splitter's deal and (most likely) letting Danny Green sign elsewhere, but it starts with renouncing the rights to the team's lower-level free agents.
Cory Joseph, for instance.
Although he has never averaged even 20 minutes per game, Joseph has starter potential and proved as much over the last two seasons. Since 2013-14, he is one of just 18 players to maintain per-36-minute averages of at least 13 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and one steal while seeing 2,000 minutes of total action.
Boasting a more polished three-point touch only makes Joseph more attractive. He connected on a career-best 36.4 percent treys in 2014-15, including 41.2 percent as a catch-and-shoot gunner.
As part of an emaciated free-agent point corps, the 23-year-old may not stay a sleeper for long.
Mo Williams is a top-seven floor general among all available players. Think about that. And then think about Joseph's sexy per-36-minute splits.
Finally, think about what he could do with additional playing time and how he shouldn't cost much more than the $3 million he's technically owed (qualifying offer) next season.
Kendall Marshall's career hasn't gone according to plan.
Touted as one of the two best playmakers from the 2012 draft class, he's bounced around the NBA after being drafted 13th overall by the Phoenix Suns, suiting up for three teams in three seasons.
That torn ACL he suffered in his right knee while playing with the Milwaukee Bucks last season only complicates matters. He's already a demonstrative defensive minus, and this injury won't do anything good for his sluggish lateral quickness.
But ACL injuries aren't the career-enders they once were. They're basically routine setbacks at this point, and Marshall has earned enough goodwill since the 2013-14 crusade to land another shot somewhere.
Gone is the rocky three-point form that aided in muddling his rookie campaign. He is shooting 39.7 percent on 224 total long-ball attempts over the last two seasons, lending hope to the belief that he doesn't always need to dominate the rock in what's becoming a movement-oriented NBA.
When he does control the ball, Marshall's court vision is pristine. He has never averaged less than seven dimes per 36 minutes, and in his lone opportunity to run point full time with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013-14, he notched an assist percentage north of 44.
Through his first three seasons, in fact, Marshall's assist percentage clears 38. Only 16 other qualified players have ever done the same.
The caveat, of course, is that Marshall has never been part of a top-flight offense. The Suns ranked 29th in efficiency when he was a rookie; the Lakers finished 21st in 2013-14; and the Bucks wrapped up 2014-15 as a bottom-five offensive unit.
Yet, for as much as we know about Marshall, there's still so much we don't know. His continued offensive upside alone is enough to warrant another chance—one that his new team won't regret offering.
Stretch forwards are all the rage in the NBA.
Jason Smith is now, unequivocally, a stretch 4. Standing at 7'0", he can even be a stretch 5.
Most (read: all) of his minutes came at center with the Knicks last season. And though he posted a PER of just 12, he at times held his own on the defensive end, limiting opponents to 49.7 percent shooting at the iron. That ranked well inside the 50th percentile of all players to contest four or more point-blank opportunities per game.
No, Smith isn't a good defender. Let's make that clear. He blocks an embarrassing number of shots for a 7-footer, and anything positive he actually did is mitigated by the fact that he played for a porous Knicks contingent.
To that end, this isn't about his defense. It's his expanding offensive range that puts him in sleeper territory.
Smith made as many three-pointers last season as he did through his first six years combined (15), and he did so while knocking them down at a career-high 35.7 percent clip.
Better still, he found nylon on 37.5 percent of his spot-up treys. His ability to stretch defenses makes him an interesting commodity insofar as teams need second-unit frontcourt shooters.
Assuming a legitimate rim protector plays behind him, the right organization could squeeze between 20 and 25 minutes (or more) out of him every night. All he needs is another contract.
"I love New York," he said of his future in March, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. "I like the triangle offense. I wouldn’t have a problem coming back to New York. I think it’s a great market, great basketball organization."
There is mutual interest on New York's end in bringing him back, per Berman. But knowing that Smith won't command much more than the $3.3 million he brought home last season, it's fair to say the Knicks will not be alone in their apparent desire.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.