2018 NBA Free Agents Who Need a Change of Scenery
NBA free agency is often about opportunity.
It's an opportunity for teams to expand their talent bases and players to expand their wallets. It's also an opportunity for select players to get stalled (or stalling) careers back on track by breathing the fresh air of a new hoops home.
Sometimes systems don't fit players, like when an interior big finds himself on a squad that prefers to initiate attacks on the perimeter. Sometimes situations don't work with prospects, like when win-now clubs don't have the patience to endure inevitable growing pains. Sometimes players get pushed far enough down the depth chart that the only escape route involves changing sceneries altogether.
At least five members of the 2018 free-agent crop fall under this umbrella. We'll examine each of them by looking at the problems presented under their current working conditions and explain why a new setting could be the key to rewriting their NBA stories.
The Orlando Magic saw something in Mario Hezonja they deemed worthy of 2015's fifth overall pick. They seemed to second-guess that evaluation almost instantly.
They only gave him 17.9 minutes per night as a rookie, and shortly into his second season, he made his first appearance on the trade rumor mill, per Marc Stein, then with ESPN.com. Hezonja played fewer games and minutes as a sophomore, and while his third season produced several career highs, they were only 9.6 points and 3.7 rebounds in 22.1 minutes.
During Hezonja's "breakout" season, he was sixth on Orlando in shots per 36 minutes (13.4) and seventh in usage percentage (19.9). All this despite the facts the Magic were a mess on offense (25th), they were nowhere near the playoff race (14th in the East) and Hezonja had once been billed as "a perfect mix of athleticism, shot-making ability and confidence" by Sam Vecenie, then of CBS Sports.
Orlando seemed to lose faith far quicker than it should have. Hezonja has disappointed, but there are still many interesting elements of his arsenal.
"Hezonja has a wing's offensive game but proved he could play plenty of power forward last season," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "Only 23, it's possible Hezonja has much more to give after a rough initial stint in the Magic's losing environment."
Hezonja still has plenty of potential for the right coach and organization to uncover. Orlando hasn't done it in three years, so why would it start now? He should consider the Magic declining his fourth-year option as a sign it's time to ditch Orlando and find a place better equipped to maximize his skills.
There's an alternate universe where Rodney Hood's midseason trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers scratched a huge itch for both parties. The bigger spotlight finally gave Hood his deserved praise as a potent scorer, and his on-ball creativity finally answered the season-long question regarding the identity of Cleveland's third-best player.
But we don't live in that universe. In our world, Hood has been a colossal disappointment as a Cavalier, to the extent he's only seen action in two of Cleveland's last four games.
When Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was pressed on why Hood remained in the rotation despite middling results, Lue didn't have a convincing answer. When Lue was later asked why he benched Hood for Game 3 of the conference finals, he said there was no reason.
Raise your hand if you think this sounds like an ideal developmental situation for a fourth-year player. Your eyes aren't playing tricks on you—there are zero hands raised.
Maybe this isn't the most surprising development, given that inconsistency has always been one of Hood's primary issues. Still, you'd think Cleveland's lack of non-LeBron James self-sufficient scoring would have made Hood's acclimation a higher priority. After all, a late-season mini-surge had drawn high praise from the King himself.
"He's a very dynamic player, and that's what we want," James said in late March, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. "That's what we need. ... We want him to be the scorer that he is, that he can be."
More and more, it's looking like Hood can't be that type of scorer in Cleveland. He needs a club that will stick with him through inevitable rough patches and not just banish him to the bench.
Alex Len doesn't need to read the writing on the wall regarding his Phoenix Suns tenure coming to an end. Watching general manager Ryan McDonough conduct a Facebook Live interview would have been enough to drive that point home.
McDonough called finding a center a "slightly higher" priority than nabbing his next floor general, per azcentral.com's Scott Bordow. Since the Suns are heavily invested in multiple big men (Tyson Chandler, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss) and could add another with the No. 1 pick (Deandre Ayton) or in free agency (Clint Capela?), Len knows he'll "probably" be on a different roster next season, via Bordow.
Considering Len averaged just 19.9 minutes the past five years in Phoenix, he's not exactly fretting about a probable change of address.
"I'm looking forward to this offseason," Len said, per Bordow. "I think it's going to be exciting. It's the first time I'm actually going to have a chance to go where I want to go."
It's tough to tell how the market will treat him, since he's yet to establish himself as either a shot-blocker or a floor-spacer. He was a restricted free agent last summer and found a tepid enough response that he wound up back with the Suns on the $4.2 million qualifying offer.
Still, the former No. 5 pick will turn only 25 in June. He's averaged a per-36-minute double-double each of the last four seasons with his per-36 points and rebounds climbing every campaign (15.1 and 13.4, respectively, in 2017-18). His 19.4 player efficiency rating this past season ranked 44th among the 275 players who logged 1,000-plus minutes.
He's skilled enough to provide value somewhere, preferably on a team with a stronger point guard crop and a less cluttered frontcourt.
Save for perhaps Kawhi Leonard, did anyone have a stranger year than Nerlens Noel?
Last summer, he reportedly had a $70 million offer on the table from the Dallas Mavericks, who ultimately pulled it and left Noel clinging to the qualifying offer, sources told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. Noel spent the early portion of the campaign in head coach Rick Carlisle's doghouse, the middle chunk sidelined by a torn ligament in his thumb and the final five games suspended for violating the Association's anti-drug program.
Noel even had a hot dog controversy, proving anything can become a thing in the 24-hour news cycle.
Somewhere along the way, Noel also made 30 appearances, averaging career lows nearly across the board (5.6 rebounds, 4.4 points and 0.7 blocks in 15.7 minutes). He also quietly (silently?) averaged at least two steals and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes for the fourth consecutive season. Brice Johnson is the only other player to do that more than once in this stretch, and the seldom-used reserve only did it twice.
So, if you've already labeled Noel as a lost cause, you might be rushing to judgment.
"We don't know where all of this is going, but he can do this," Noel's college coach, John Calipari, told Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "He is somebody who is athletic, has length, can block shots and has an impact on the game."
The good Noel can defend in space, protect the rim and climb the ladder to crush down alley-oops. There's a reason Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson touted Noel as "a Tyson [Chandler] starter kit" in February 2017, per Adam Grosbard of the Dallas Morning News. Noel hasn't lost that level of upside, but it's unlikely he approaches it without leaving Dallas first.
Jahlil Okafor feels ancient. Not just because his game is built around antiquated skills, but more so that it's taken so much time to gain any kind of traction in his career.
He's only 22 years old—younger than Kyle Kuzma and potential first-rounder Grayson Allen. Okafor, the No. 3 pick in 2015, has made fewer career appearances (131) than 11 different members of the 2016 draft class.
Maybe Okafor simply doesn't fit in today's NBA. His career 68.2 free-throw percentage leaves little hope he'll ever develop a jumper, and his limited lateral quickness can leave him exposed in several different defensive situations.
Still, he deserves an opportunity to prove whether he can contribute at this level. (He did, after all, average 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks as a rookie.) He's been denied that to this point. The Philadelphia 76ers had too many centers when they brought him on board, and the Brooklyn Nets didn't seem hugely invested in his development.
"I always tell Jah ... you've got to go to a place that's going to be engulfed in you and is going to give you that opportunity," Jabari Parker, who is an impending restricted free agent after four years with the Milwaukee Bucks, said, per The Athletic's Michael Scotto. "That's all it takes. It's just a chance, right? He really hasn't been given a chance. That hasn't been fair to him."
Okafor is entering unrestricted free agency. If some team is offering that opportunity, he'll have the freedom to find it.
Clubs knew his weaknesses in 2015 and still viewed him as one of the top prospects. It's hard to imagine they've all lost interest already.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.