NBA Free Agents Who Could Thrive in New Roles

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 16, 2017

NBA Free Agents Who Could Thrive in New Roles

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    Almost every NBA free agent who isn't chasing a ring will be on the hunt for more minutes, touches and a larger role.

    Oh, and more money.

    But stepping into a high-responsibility gig isn't for everyone. The production doesn't always follow, as weaknesses are harder to hide in high-volume minutes. Similarly, opponents dial in on strengths, hoping to take them away.

    When you're coming off the bench or playing spot minutes against handpicked matchups, life is easy. Things change when you get paid and have to shoulder bigger responsibilities.

    In other words, for every Harrison Barnes, there's a Solomon Hill.

    The guys on this list are all hitting free agency with a chance to expand their roles. Some are starters, some are reserves and one was virtually out of the league—so "role expansion" is relative in some cases. In all instances, though, these players have the skills to shine in higher-visibility gigs. 

    Let's get optimistic.

Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Age: 26

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $11,286,518

    Jrue Holiday has an All-Star appearance on his NBA resume, a 2012-13 selection that felt like the first of many at the time.

    He hasn't been back since, and though that has as much to do with injury and rampant franchise mismanagement n the New Orleans, it has sometimes been difficult to see him making his way back.

    Coming off a post-All-Star Break stretch with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins that actually depressed his individual numbers, Holiday should be looking for a way out of New Orleans. The point guard position has few vacancies these days, but Holiday's game—great individual defense, a good-enough three-point shot and the ability to run the pick-and-roll—should fit anywhere. He's a younger George Hill without the deadeye accuracy from distance.

    Consider this a bet that Holiday will pick his destination carefully—a return to the Philadelphia 76ers, perhaps?—and thrive as a true floor leader on offense.

    During that All-Star year in 2012-13, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds with a 46.6 effective field-goal percentage. If he ditches the Pelicans and lands someplace that lets him run things, he'll top all of those numbers and return to stardom.

James Johnson, Miami Heat

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    Age: 30

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $4,000,000

    James Johnson has never made more in a season than the $4 million he collected during this year's career resurrection with the Miami Heat.

    And while it's quaint to imagine him returning at a discount to the franchise that got him in shape and trusted him to handle everything from running a pick-and-roll to guarding opposing centers, it's just too difficult to imagine Johnson turning down the chance to cash in elsewhere.

    The guy's already 30. That means he's got another four or five years of earning potential, at best. He'd be nuts not to chase a check.

    Johnson's career year—12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists with a 53.5 effective field-goal percentage—came in a season in which he started just five of the 76 games he played. Bank on another team seeing this poor man's Draymond Green as a full-time starter.

    If Johnson stays in shape and sustains his shooting gains (last year included a career-best 34 percent conversion rate from deep), he could become a key piece of an elite starting unit. With his versatility unlocking all kinds of hybrid lineup options, it's easy to see Johnson thriving while adding to his career-best stats from last season.

    There's risk here, but Johnson's physicality and jack-of-all-trades game make him an obvious candidate to surprise in a major role.

Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks

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    Age: 23

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $4,384,490

    Maybe we're stretching the parameters here by picking someone who'll almost certainly stay with his current squad.

    But the Dallas Mavericks are basically Nerlens Noel's new team. He just happened to get there at last season's deadline rather than July 1 via free agency. Remember, too, that he played just 22 minutes per game after joining the Mavs, which means there's ample room for role expansion.

    Expect major growth from the 23-year-old center who'll be playing just his fourth season in 2017-18.

    Noel is a defensive menace—blessed with quick feet, length, uncoachable anticipation and a high motor. Even if he gets no better as a rim roller or mid-range shooter (improvements we should not rule out), his value as a transition threat makes him useful on both ends.

    The Mavs got the most out of their young talent this year. Barnes and Seth Curry grew in leaps and bounds. What's more, this is a franchise that knows the value of a defense-first anchor in the middle, having ridden Tyson Chandler to a title in 2011.

    Noel is primed to get maxed out as a restricted free agent, his minutes should explode in a full-time role and he's at an age where growth is still in the cards.

    Even if he'll be taking on new responsibilities with the same team, that's close enough for us to include him here.

C.J. Miles, Indiana Pacers

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    Age: 30

    Free-Agency Status: Player option

    2016-17 Salary: $4,583,450

    Shooting travels, and C.J. Miles is going to take his 41.3 percent knockdown rate to the highest bidder—even if he was diplomatic in his comments to Clifton Brown of the Indianapolis Star.

    "If it does happen (opting out), it’s not solely because I’m trying to get out of here," he said. "It’s a business decision. The market, salary cap, everything is going up. It’s not like I’m 22. I’m nowhere near done, but you don’t want to waste anything."

    Miles inexplicably came off the bench in relief of Monta Ellis for much of the year, and you can bet his next team won't be so foolishly married to a starting 2 who can't shoot or defend.

    With the size to play the 2, 3 or 4, Miles is a viable 30-minutes-per-night option, despite topping out at 26.3 in 2014-15.

    Pair him with a pass-first point guard and another wing who can handle the opponent's best scorer, and Miles can do real damage as a second or third offensive option.

    Among 24 players who tried at least 300 catch-and-shoot threes last season, Miles ranked sixth in accuracy at 42.6 percent, per Only Stephen Curry, J.J. Redick, Otto Porter Jr., Klay Thompson and Ryan Anderson knocked down a higher rate.

    Teams are going to recognize that when Miles inevitably opts out, and somebody's going to pay him like a full-time starter.

    Consider this a bet he takes the role and runs with it.

Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs

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    Age: 28

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $3,578,947

    To be clear, nobody's suggesting Patty Mills will leave the San Antonio Spurs.

    But it's possible.

    As a point guard who can stretch the floor and crank up the defensive pressure, he'll get huge offers in free agency from teams who see the career reserve as a legitimate starter. If he winds up with the Philadelphia 76ers, for example, he'll be a monster—drilling threes as Joel Embiid sucks in the defense posting up and Ben Simmons whips the ball around the floor.

    Even if he sticks with San Antonio, Mills is going to blow up.

    That's because Tony Parker's quad injury puts his effectiveness in doubt going forward. And as promising as Dejounte Murray has looked in postseason flashes, the Spurs may not feel comfortable handing him the reins for 30 minutes per night.

    That leaves Mills—a better player than Parker for at least the last two seasons and a perfect fit alongside an offense built around Kawhi Leonard isolations and LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups—to take on the full-time starter's role he's deserved since 2015.

    Stay. Go. Doesn't matter.

    Mills' responsibilities will grow either way, and he's in for a huge 2017-18—not to mention a fat raise on his bargain salary.

Omri Casspi, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Age: 28

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $3,148,524

    The first thing to acknowledge is we're not that far removed from Omri Casspi hitting over 40 percent of his threes in back-to-back seasons.

    Though his disappearance from a Sacramento Kings rotation that needed his skills last year (and his subsequent banishments to New Orleans and the Minnesota Timberwolves) make it seem like the days of Casspi delivering a real impact came decades ago, that's just not the case.

    In 2014-15 and 2015-16, he was a fantastic undersized power forward.

    As you've probably guessed, those were the two straight years of shooting over 40 percent from deep. But what you may not realize is that he's been moving toward the point of helping out on defense, too. In fact, he graded out as a positive contributor in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus in 2015-16, and then did it again in his lost 2016-17 campaign.

    In the right place, surrounded by the proper mix of interior defense and unselfish offensive ball-handlers, Casspi can provide elite floor spacing at a premium position.

    Remember, he went toe to toe with Stephen Curry in the most exciting back-and-forth shooting duel in the last decade. He's cool with the spotlight.

Ian Clark, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 26

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $1,015,696

    When B/R's Dan Favale said it, we had all the information we needed to include Ian Clark: "Clark's an official 'possibly going to get paid more than we think because he's had good moments on a really good team' candidate."

    There's more to Clark's case, of course, but everything ties back to Favale's observation. Clark has developed his NBA game in the ideal training ground over the last two seasons.

    Want to learn how to free yourself up for space off the ball? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are pretty good teachers.

    Want to develop the compulsion to make a quick pass-shoot-dribble decision? Cut your teeth in Steve Kerr's motion-or-die offense.

    Want to hone your competitive edge? Practice every day with Draymond Green and see if you survive.

    Clark was a go-to scorer for four years at Belmont, and he's a career 36.4 percent shooter from deep, despite subsisting on scraps from the end of the Dubs' bench. He doesn't have the size to affect bigger wings on D, and he's not quite quick enough to handle top-end point guards. But he's a creative scorer with good feel and a deep reservoir of in-between shots to complement his three-point stroke.

    Better still, we actually have evidence of what Clark can do when given touches. In March, the Warriors rested several starters against the Spurs, and Clark scored 36 points as the offensive focal point.

    He can absolutely be a spark plug sixth man for a quality team, and there's a good chance somebody pays him to do just that.

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    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or Salary info courtesy of Basketball Insiders. Accurate through May 15.