Predicting the 9 Biggest Steals in 2020 NBA Free Agency

Mandela Namaste@@mandiba13Contributor IApril 11, 2020

Predicting the 9 Biggest Steals in 2020 NBA Free Agency

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The 2020 free-agent class is widely considered a downgrade from the past several cohorts, but that doesn't mean what happens this offseason will be irrelevant or unimportant.

    Every year, the market is flush with undervalued players who end up making a difference in the playoffs. From Eddie House on the late-2000s Celtics to Shane Battier and Mike Miller on the Heatles to David West on the Warriors, the recent history of the NBA is filled with these types of players making serious contributions to winning.

    With cap space a near-luxury now and fewer marquee players available, teams will either become more lackadaisical or more fastidious in their offseason pursuits, but one thing remains true no matter what: Acquisitions on the margins often prove just as important to a team's success as flashy, star-studded deals. 

    Today, we've provided nine potential steals for next offseason's free agency. These players were considered based on playing time (or lack thereof), name recognition and skill set.

    Let's take a look at the guys who could quietly swing a team's fortunes.

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings

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    On one hand, it makes sense that the Sacramento Kings would decline Harry Giles' fourth-year option. He's played 96 total games in two years and is averaging just seven points and four rebounds per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field for his career. Plus, with Marvin Bagley III a higher developmental priority and Richaun Holmes breaking out this year, Giles was naturally getting pushed out of the rotation anyway. 

    However, it's also silly for the Kings to decline that option.

    In flashes, Giles has shown that high ceiling many predicted in high school, and if he gets on a team with a good medical staff that puts him in the best possible position to succeed, he could be a game-breaker. While not a primary scoring option, Giles could function as a poor man's Al Horford in his best-case scenario, facilitating offense from the high post and guarding multiple positions on defense.

    The best part about Giles' current situation from a front office perspective is that it's a no-lose situation. He'll likely just be worth a minimum contract, so if he continues to have health issues, cutting him barely even registers as a loss. However, the potential rewards of him finally shaking those injury troubles and becoming a stalwart NBA player are great.

    He'd be a great pick-up for a team like the Pistons or Spurs that lacks salary cap space and needs to take personnel gambles in order to create excitement for the future.

Josh Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Quietly, Josh Jackson may have had the most concerning career of any 2017 rookie, and that includes Markelle Fultz.

    While Fultz's controversies have largely been limited to his jumper, Jackson's dealt with a finger gun incident, skipping an autograph session, resisting arrest and escape charges, potentially exposing his child to marijuana, and more. On the court, his first two seasons with the Suns weren't much better, as he was benched for Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges and soon shipped to Memphis, where he was immediately placed on the G League roster.

    However, Jackson appears to have turned his act around in Memphis, and he could be a low-risk, high-reward signing in Giles' mold. The wing averaged 20.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game in the G League and continued to be efficient when the Grizzlies called him up, recording career-best shooting splits and ranking third among Grizzlies regulars in net rating.

    And while his improvement could absolutely be a corollary of the classic contract-year statistical bump, none other than Mr. Grit and Grind himself, Tony Allen, has spoken out in support of Jackson from a character perspective.

    Even if Jackson has turned a corner both on and off the court, it would behoove him to sign with a team that boasts a strong culture and established veterans. Dallas and Milwaukee immediately come to mind as potential destinations in that vein.

    With the right structure, Jackson could begin scraping his potential and remake his image in the process.

Furkan Korkmaz, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Going into the season, the Sixers' main offensive weakness was a lack of shooting in its starting five. That deficiency ensured a heavy dependence on bench gunners like Furkan Korkmaz, and surprisingly enough, he's delivered this year. 

    Korkmaz announced himself early on with a game-winner against Portland, and he has periodically rained fire down upon opponents from deep, recording eight games of at least four made threes, including a double-digit win over the Bucks. Coach Brett Brown wants to use him like Lou Williams, and Sixers players say they've never seen him this confident. These are all great signs for a guy who shot just 38.8 percent from the field in his first two NBA years and looked ready to play in Europe after last season. 

    So, how can Korkmaz parlay this breakout year on the open market?

    For now, it looks like he should remain a bench spark-plug. In 12 starts this year, the Turk is averaging just 8.5 points per game on 37.9 percent overall shooting and 33.9 percent three-point shooting, so he's not ready for prime time yet. But for a team in need of bench shooting and competent perimeter defense like Denver, Minnesota or even the Sixers themselves, Korkmaz could be worth $20-30 million over the next three years.

    If he continues improving like he has this year, that might even seem like a bargain in due time.

Jordan McLaughlin, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    A pattern is emerging in NBA draft discourse.

    Seemingly every year, point guards who boast high basketball intelligence but are older, undersized and subpar athletes get passed over for the potential-laden Dante Exums and Frank Ntilikinas of the world. Inevitably, this type of player, from TJ McConnell to Fred VanVleet to Jalen Brunson, finds his way onto a competitive team and contributes to winning anyway.

    Jordan McLaughlin may be next in that line. 

    Yes, McLaughlin is just 5'11" and already 23 years old. But when you know basketball, you know basketball, and he knows basketball. The former USC Trojan ranks eighth in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio, third on the Timberwolves in effective field-goal percentage and, as expected, is well-positioned to stick in the league for the near future.

    For all the crowing about how older college players have more defined skill sets, McLaughlin has demonstrated several potential growth areas this year. He's a turnstile on defense (though considering his teammates, can you blame him?) and makes just 66.7 percent of his free throws, a stat that looks inexplicable considering his otherwise solid shooting splits. But somebody with his smarts is bound to succeed in the league, and a team with a smart front office is bound to snap him up.

    Watch out for teams like the Celtics and Jazz in the McLaughlin sweepstakes this offseason, and remember this warning when he's burning opposing second units in the years to come.

Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    After years of struggling to find a place with the 76ers and Mavericks, it seems like Nerlens Noel has finally realized his NBA role in Oklahoma City.

    In his first three NBA seasons, Noel tried to do way too much, recording a 17.8 usage percentage, 16.5 turnover percentage and 53.8 true shooting percentage. However, in the ensuing three seasons since his benching and isolation in Dallas, he's given up dreams of becoming an offensive focal point, instead becoming a low-minute version of Clint Capela or Jarrett Allen.

    Noel finishes easy buckets around the basket on offense and defense—the part of his skill set that was never in doubt remains a key strength. In fact, when the season was suspended, Noel was leading the Thunder in defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) by a country mile, recording a 3.4 mark, while second-place Chris Paul clocked in with just a 1.2 DBPM.

    All of this bodes positively for Noel's NBA future. Now, could he be excelling in his role specifically because of the Thunder organization and the structure it provides? Perhaps. In that case, it would likely benefit the 25-year old to look for similarly competitive, forward-thinking clubs.

    Teams like the Clippers and Rockets immediately jump to mind as contending clubs that could use a big man, if only to eat up 10 to 15 minutes per game. If he leaves Oklahoma City, perhaps Noel will continue to find success in one of those situations.

Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    After a breakthrough 2018-19 season that saw career-best efficiency, Jahlil Okafor's NBA future seemed bright. Looking to keep a good thing going, he re-signed with the Pelicans last summer and was promptly buried on the frontcourt depth chart behind three new acquisitions—Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes.

    Those three players all deserve more playing time than Okafor, so it's nobody's fault. The situation just became unfavorable to the former Dukie, and so he should find a new one.

    To Okafor's great credit, he's stayed ready and, as such, has been as good as ever when on the floor this year, with a 61.1 field-goal percentage and a career-best 3.1 assists per 36 minutes in 28 games. He remains a disaster on defense, ranking last among Pelicans regulars in defensive rating, but if Enes Kanter and similar players can maintain a decade-long career in the NBA without playing much defense, then Okafor is well on his way to doing the same.

    As for a potential fit, well, we've seen Okafor in the unstructured chaos of the Process-era Sixers, and that didn't work out for any parties involved. He'll need to be a second-unit star for a playoff-caliber team in need of interior heft, like the Warriors or Trail Blazers.

    If a team like that is able and willing to bring him in a slightly-above-minimum contract for one or two years, it'll likely get repaid in spades by a guy who's hungry to thrive.

Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks

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    In 2018-19, Trier burst onto the scene, recording nine games of 20-plus points for a team that desperately needed a bright spot. However, with the influx of veterans and arrival of RJ Barrett last summer, he's gotten lost on New York's bench. Trier has played just eight games since the New Year and only played more than 15 minutes once in that time.

    What gives, Mike Miller?

    To start with, the strengths and limitations of Trier's skill set are straightforward. He's a very good isolation scorer, ranking in the 61st percentile this year and the 80th percentile last season. However, that often comes at the expense of team basketball. Trier ranks 12th on the Knicks in assist-to-turnover ratio and ranks above only Dennis Smith Jr. in offensive rating.

    However, despite all this, Trier is absolutely worthy of an NBA roster spot. He's become a far more efficient shooter this year, recording a 49.8 effective field-goal percentage (eFG) last year and a 57.1 eFG this year, showing improvement as a secondary distributor as well.

    From Jamal Crawford to Lou Williams, players of Trier's ilk have a place in the league today. They just need the right situation to thrive in, and the unpredictability of New York certainly isn't that for Trier or anybody else.

    But remember his name, and don't be surprised if he's pouring in 30 off the bench in a playoff game sometime soon.

Marvin Williams, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    If you can find another 15-year veteran from the 21st century who's been less discussed than Marvin Williams, you should get a prize.

    Though never even the third best player on a team, Williams is just one of four players from the 2005 draft remaining in the NBA, and two of the other three are Chris Paul and Lou Williams. This must mean that the former second overall pick is doing something right, and that something is seeing the future of the NBA.

    Through his first three seasons in the league, Williams only averaged 0.5 threes per game, but since then, the jumper has become a defining part of his skill set. At first, being a stretch-four was anomalous in a good way, but as the years went by, he became more and more of a garden-variety big man, though always smart and versatile enough to hold down a rotation spot.

    Somehow, the UNC alum is still very much alive and kicking and, depending on how the season ends, may finally get his first taste of Conference Finals basketball this year with the behemoth Milwaukee Bucks.

    As he was a trade deadline acquisition to begin with, and Milwaukee has several far more pressing personnel priorities, Williams will likely be on the market this offseason, hoping to extend his career once more. For contenders in need of veteran leadership, bench IQ and shooting, he'll be worth taking a chance on, even with just a minimum contract.

Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    By far the most productive player on this list, we're nearing the point with Christian Wood where he actually gets paid what he's worth, and casual fans of that lucky team overreact negatively. However, such animosity toward said team or Wood would be foolish. He's now worthy of being called a starting big man in the NBA.

    After years of dominating Summer League, Wood finally got a chance in the big time, beating out Joe Johnson for the Pistons' final roster spot, and thank goodness he did.

    Though the Pistons have been irrelevant through most of this season thanks to injuries to Blake Griffin and trades of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, it's not thanks to Wood. The 24-year old has been a flat-out stud this year and really leveled up after Drummond's departure, averaging 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 56.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three on 4.2 attempts per game since February 7.

    Those stats would immediately get him on the Eastern Conference All-Star team and might even make him a contender for the West's squad.

    It's hard to say what kind of team might need Wood. He's so skilled and modern enough that almost anybody from the Hornets all the way up to the Raptors could benefit from his services. But one thing's for sure: If he can thrive on this messy Pistons roster, he'll succeed anywhere.

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