Best Landing Spots for NBA's Under-the-Radar Free Agents
Some NBA free agents just sneak up on us.
So much time is dedicated to crystal-balling the future of contract-year superstars. The speculation attached to LeBron James' impending foray onto the open market (player option) could fill a library's worth of books.
Whatever attention is left to go around from there mostly gets doled out to a mixture of middle-tier talents, washed-up well-knowns, high-profile busts and slap-you-in-the-face breakouts. After that, there might be some remaining love for the trendier role players—those who've become hipster-cool to appreciate, such as Ed Davis and Luc Mbah a Moute.
That still leaves a lot of players out in the cold. Some deserve to be on the outskirts of everyday consideration. Others, though, offer far more value than their afterthought peers.
These free agents aren't anywhere near established stars. Nor are they cornerstones in the making. Many of them are unproven. Most of them are filling smaller roles.
All of them are shaping up to be bigger offseason prizes than advertised.
Remember: This group goes beyond underappreciated names. It consists of the deepest of the deep cuts—players who seldom register on the mainstream radar. Their best potential landing spots will be chosen based on a combination of team needs, cap space and the loose assumption they're not guaranteed to re-up with their current squads.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 63.0 percent shooting
Best Fit: Brooklyn Nets
Montrezl Harrell shouldn't be someone who fits anywhere. He's a 6'8" center who doesn't shoot threes, grab a ton of defensive rebounds or thrive when switching into space.
And yet, at the same time, Harrell just works. And works. And works.
He is a stout defender overall for someone who regularly forfeits inches at his position. He holds his own around the rim and is an unflappable pest on the block. He's allowing 0.69 points per post-up possession, a top-eight mark among almost 100 players to guard at least 50 of these plays.
Harrell borrows a page from Clint Capela's book—working title, Not Doing Too Much 101—at the other end, with a little extra ball-handling. Transition opportunities (20.5 percent), cuts (17.4) pick-and-roll dives (15.4) and putbacks (11.6) make up nearly two-thirds of his offensive possessions. He doesn't try to exist outside his wheelhouse; he dominates his niche.
Sticking Harrell on a so-so rebounding team like the Brooklyn Nets isn't perfect. He has a lower defensive rebounding rate than Chris Paul. But his glass-crashing numbers are on the come-up, and Brooklyn likes to lean on its guards and wings for a more equal-opportunity approach to corralling misses.
Spending time under head coach Kenny Atkinson would be great for Harrell. He'll get an exploratory green light from three, and his defensive stands will be tested beyond stationary stances.
The Nets, for their part, could use another "big." Their Jahlil Okafor experiment never really started, and Timofey Mozgov is unplayable. They have the cap space to make a play for non-cornerstone restricted free agents, and Harrell is young enough to grow with them while not yet good enough to compromise their 2019 draft position.
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, 47.4 percent shooting
Best Fit: Minnesota Timberwolves
Joe Harris may have priced himself out of Brooklyn.
That is real sentence, in the year 2018, presented without the slightest hint of irony or snark.
The Nets aren't in position to shell out long-term money for most of their complementary incumbents. Reinvesting in a core contending for a bottom-five record is hardly good business, and keeping anyone of serious value falls within a gray area when they're about to regain control over all their future first-round picks.
Brooklyn's roster is also overloaded with swingmen and wing types: DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe, Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, D'Angelo Russell et al. And four of them—Carroll, Dinwiddie, Hollis-Jefferson, Russell—will be entering contract years in 2018-19.
Harris almost assuredly will become collateral damage of that perimeter hodgepodge. This summer's market isn't expected to be particularly robust, but there will always be strong calls for lights-out shooters.
More than one half of Harris' looks come as spot-up triples, on which he's shooting close to 40 percent. He is a valuable weapon curling around screens and makes quick, effective decisions while grabbing the ball on handoffs. His off-the-bounce game is even coming along. He's shooting 57.8 percent on drives—the third-highest clip in the league among 150-something players averaging at least four attacks per game.
The Minnesota Timberwolves need this exact ancillary device. They're dead last in three-point-attempt rate and possessions finished off screens, and they're a bland 15th in catch-and-shoot efficiency. They won't have meaningful cap space over the offseason but will, failing something major, have access to the full mid-level exception ($8.6 million).
Dangling a chunk of that should put them in the running for Harris' services.
Josh Huestis, Oklahoma City Thunder
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 2.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 33.0 percent shooting
Best Fit: Chicago Bulls
Josh Huestis isn't having a season that screams, "I belong here, dammit!" even by afterthought standards.
This year is the first in which he's enjoyed semiregular playing time, and he hasn't exactly made the Oklahoma City Thunder rue the day they declined his team option for 2018-19. He's shooting under 30 percent from long distance and throwing up junk around the rim. He's not a frequent foul-line visitor, but he would kill for Andre Roberson's accuracy from the charity stripe.
Speaking of Roberson: His season-ending patellar tendon injury initially resulted in a heightened role for Huestis. Corey Brewer's arrival earlier this month has basically put an end to that. Huestis is averaging under seven minutes over Oklahoma City's past five games.
Still, he retains diamond-in-the-dregs potential at the defensive end. He's similar to Roberson in many ways. He has the size, at 6'7", to body up against stronger wings and some bigs but the lateral gait to keep pace with tinier guards.
Paul George is now the only one of Oklahoma City's wings to have guarded more pick-and-roll ball-handlers. And the 0.65 points per possession Huestis gives up in these situations ties him for the league's sixth-best mark among 164 players to pester more than 90 such plays.
Good teams, like the Thunder, need someone with a more established touch from outside or around the rim. The Chicago Bulls aren't limited by that criteria. They're in the early stages of a rebuild and thin on the wings.
With both Zach LaVine and David Nwaba up for new contracts this summer (both RFAs), fleshing out the perimeter with clearance-rack free agents should be a priority. The Bulls have the scratch to make a bigger splash, but burning through too much cap space too soon is disingenuous to a gradual reset.
They can live with the burden of Huestis' unpolished offense given what he'd do for their defensive ceiling and wallet.
Doug McDermott, Dallas Mavericks
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Best Fit: Phoenix Suns
Doug McDermott has earned himself some extra money since joining the Dallas Mavericks at the Feb. 8 trade deadline. He's canning 52 percent of his three-balls and making quicker passes after pump fakes and when defenders close out on him near the arc.
After receiving a spot start for Harrison Barnes in a March 17 loss to the Nets, McDermott is back to coming off the pine—and just as well because he's an integral cog in one of the most electric bench-heavy mobs around. The Mavericks are outscoring opponents by 24 points per 100 possessions in the time they've run out Dirk Nowitzki alongside McDermott, J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell and Dwight Powell.
Small-sample theatre (84 minutes) could be at play here, but the floor balance McDermott injects into this unit is no anomaly. As Bobby Karalla wrote for Mavs.com:
"That’s what those four players do in a nutshell: Nowitzki screens and shoots, Ferrell cuts and shoots, Powell screens and rolls, and Barea is the guy who makes all the decisions.
"Now enter Doug McDermott, a knock-down 3-point shooter with an extremely fast release, strong cutting ability, and hops. Quality 3-point shooters have gravity of their own, and the driving force behind this lineup's nuclear offense is the interaction of McDermott's influence with Nowitzki’s, Powell’s, and Ferrell's. Simply put, teams fear 3-point shooters."
You know who could use three-point shooters? The Phoenix Suns. They're 22nd in long-range frequency and dead friggin' last in accuracy. They need proven marksmen to orbit Devin Booker drives and pick-and-rolls, and McDermott adds another element as someone who can run around screens and fire away without taking too long to gather himself.
General manager Ryan McDonough is on record saying the Suns will be aggressive in free agency. McDermott isn't the first name that springs to mind when contemplating summertime hustle. But the Suns have to be realistic. They're unlikely to land some of the biggest names, while many of the other A-listers, such as Aaron Gordon (RFA), don't make much sense at near-max price points.
Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 2.5 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.8 blocks, 61.3 percent shooting
Best Fit: Milwaukee Bucks
Lucas Nogueira's diminished role with the Toronto Raptors doesn't have that much, if anything, to do with his play. He's more the casualty of the team's frontcourt depth.
Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas have all played too well to be leapfrogged. Serge Ibaka is the only battle-tested three-point shooter up front, and his minutes are already down compared to last season. The Raptors aren't going to marginalize him any more for a non-spacer—particularly when he's taking home more than $20 million per year.
Nogueira is the most disposable among the bunch. He was dealing with a right calf issue at the beginning of the season, when Toronto distinguished itself among the NBA's elite, so he kind of missed the boat. Both Poeltl and Siakam are easier to keep and groom since neither of them is about to finish off his rookie-scale contract.
Toss in the Raptors' proximity to the luxury tax—they'll blow past next year's $123 million threshold without touching the roster—and Nogueira is as good as gone. No matter, though: Their nonessential loss will be another team's impactful gain.
Nogueira is already a quality rim-runner. He's shooting better than 70 percent out of the pick-and-roll for the second consecutive season. He isn't someone an offense runs plays for in the post, but that's part of his appeal. Besides, he has flashed, on occasion, some range outside the paint and the capacity to dribble around defenders from inside the block.
It sometimes looks like Nogueira is too long for his own good. His movements on defense seem slow and deliberate. But he's deceptively quick. He can close out on standstill snipers and effectively uses his wingspan to contain ball-handlers on switches.
Talking the Milwaukee Bucks into this flier shouldn't be hard. Nogueira is more flexible on the offensive end than their other options at center, and despite still getting a feel for box-out positioning, he grabs enough of his defensive rebounds to be considered an upgrade.
Above all else, Nogueira should come cheap. And the Bucks need cheap. They'll be capped out to the moon and back if they plan on re-signing Jabari Parker.
Youngish restricted free agents are seldom bargains, but the Association is teeming with 5s. Plus, potential suitors (probably) needn't worry about the Raptors matching rival overtures—assuming Toronto even extends Nogueira a qualifying offer.
David Nwaba, Chicago Bulls
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 52.5 percent shooting
Best Fit: Atlanta Hawks
David Nwaba is listed at 6'4" but plays like he's 6'8" going on 6'11". He's an easy plug-and-go defender against both guard spots, and his 7'0" wingspan allows him to log time opposite most wings—some of them small-ball power forwards.
The Bulls don't hesitate to roll out Nwaba against explosive brawn. During their March 17 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he even saw time on LeBron James. That exposure was limited, and the Bulls don't have many other options. Paul Zipser saw more time on James than anyone that contest. But that doesn't make Nwaba's defensive malleability any less impressive.
Opening up his offensive game remains a challenge. He isn't someone a team can trust to run pick-and-rolls and doesn't look comfortable attacking off the dribble. His 40 percent clip from beyond the arc is encouraging, but it comes on just one attempt per 36 minutes.
"When he has good tempo and balance, he shoots pretty well," Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "But I've really loved what he's given us with that first group because of his toughness and physicality on the defensive end and his ability to push the ball as a facilitator on offense."
Although Nwaba's incomplete scoring resume will dissuade over-the-top sales pitches, it shouldn't deter the Atlanta Hawks. They have money to burn and need another wing capable of splitting time with Taurean Prince against the toughest assignments.
DeAndre' Bembry isn't strong enough to soak up those responsibilities with regularity. Kent Bazemore, when healthy, often does the trick, but he turns 29 in July. He won't finish his contract—which has two years and $37.4 million left on it—in Atlanta.
Stomaching Nwaba's offensive shortcomings won't be a problem if he's pulling his weight on defense. The Hawks can use him as a cutter, moderate-usage spot-up shooter and pace-pusher off rebounds until he's ready for a more expansive on-ball role.
And in the event he's never ready, well, a cross-position stopper with finite offensive tools still has a place in a league enamored with the former.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 41.8 percent shooting
Best Fit: Charlotte Hornets
Generating offense without Kemba Walker on the court has been a season-long struggle for the Charlotte Hornets. This issue won't vanish over the offseason.
Indeed, the Hornets have had an easier time in recent weeks, posting a respectable 105.6 offensive rating during the minutes Walker spends on the bench since Feb. 1. But this uptick comes amid a favorable schedule, still includes a substantive drop-off and, most critically, can hardly be counted on to last.
Finding a reliable stopgap to ferry the offense in Walker's absence must top the Hornets' offseason to-do list—provided they're not cannonballing into a rebuild. And with nothing more than some portion of the mid-level exception to peddle, they'll have to be methodical about whom they target.
Fred VanVleet is the rare restricted free agent they might be able to poach. The point guard market isn't brimming with meaningful additions, which makes him a commodity. But the league isn't flush with opening gigs either.
Pretty much all of VanVleet's admirers will be looking at him as a second-unit lifeline. That opens the door for those with mid-level money—exponentially so considering the Raptors, who have the right to match any offer he receives, will be up against the luxury tax before accounting for his next deal.
Charlotte shouldn't waste any time phoning VanVleet when the new league year begins July 1. Toronto is outscoring opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions when he plays without Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The offense suffers when he's stripped of Delon Wright as a backcourt partner as well, but VanVleet continues to headline strong defensive units even then.
Running solo with the Hornets would be different. They don't enjoy as much depth. But the elbow grease VanVleet spills on defense is not personnel-dependent. He is one of the best pick-and-roll ball-handler harassers in the league, blasting through and getting over screens with the physicality and ease of someone much bigger than 6'0".
Sticking him beside other playmakers isn't an issue. Toronto has primed him for off-ball duty. More than one-third of his shot attempts are coming as standalone threes, and he's burying comfortably more than 42 percent of them.
Only seven players who qualify as point guards own higher RPMs on the season. Seven. That's it. In any other summer, VanVleet would be well outside the Hornets' grasp.
Fortunately for them—insofar as delaying an inevitable, much-needed rebuild can be fortunate—this won't just be any other summer.