NBA Free Agents Ready for Career Years

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 14, 2020

NBA Free Agents Ready for Career Years

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The dream scenario in NBA free agency is signing a player right before he blows up. That's never easy, and most organizations succeed if they add talent that merely sustains past levels of play.

    As proof of how tough that task can be, consider a handful of key signings from the 2019 offseason. Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Kyrie Irving all disappointed for various reasons. Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler were great, but they were similarly great on their previous deals.

    Where are the guys that will exceed expectations and raise their games to new heights after they sign new contracts this offseason? Who's going to reward his team, whether joining a new one or returning to a familiar one, with the best year he's ever produced?

    We've got a handful of the likeliest candidates right here.

Anthony Davis, Player Option

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Whether the Los Angeles Lakers close the deal on their first championship since 2010 or not, Anthony Davis isn't going anywhere. He will, however, almost certainly hit free agency by opting out of the final year of his current deal and signing a new one to stay in L.A.

    He fits our free-agent criteria, even if it's basically on a technicality. That's fine; the point in including him is to highlight how one of the league's best players could easily get even better in 2020-21.

    Having already ascended to superstar status, Davis might seem like an odd career-year candidate. But AD will head into his age-27 year with several factors pointing to a better-than-ever season.

    It's reasonable to expect the Lakers to have a more refined handle on how to best utilize him after a year of getting to know his game. Assuming LeBron James either declines or slides into more of a load-managed role in his 18th season, there will also be more opportunities for Davis to expand his influence on the offense.

    Even if his role doesn't change all that much, Davis' improving shot profile indicates his overall efficiency will continue to rise. He's increased his three-point and free-throw attempt rates in each of the past three seasons.

    If he swaps out a few mid-rangers for threes and takes even greater advantage of a shrinking league down low, the path to 30 points per game will be a smooth one.

    This year's version of AD was as defensively dominant as any we've seen, so maybe it's not realistic to expect substantially better counting stats with all the energy he's expending on D. But his comfort level should be higher in his second year with the Lakers, he's moving into the absolute prime-production years of his career and we know for certain he can post better numbers than he did in 2019-20, which saw him log the fewest points and rebounds per-36 minutes since 2015-16.

    Davis finished third in MVP voting in 2017-18, which means he'd probably have to win the award next year to validate this career-year forecast.

    That seems doable.

Fred VanVleet, Unrestricted

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Fred VanVleet figures to be one of the most sought-after free agents of a thin class. So although the Toronto Raptors have every reason to retain him, it's possible a bidding war will drive FVV's price above the point a smart organization (which the Raptors are) is willing to pay.

    Whether VanVleet stays in Toronto or moves on is inconsequential. He's in line for a career season either way.

    If he returns to Toronto, there's a good chance VanVleet will climb the offensive pecking order. He's high on the list already, but if the Raptors initiate a youth movement by letting fellow free agents Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol walk, and if they also look to move 34-year-old veteran Kyle Lowry ahead of the final year of his deal, VanVleet would surely see his touches and shot attempts increase.

    Even if Lowry returns to play out the last year of his contract and complete his mentorship of FVV, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, the Raptors would be wise to cut his minutes and afford him more games off. This season was VanVleet's first as a full-time starter, and he posted career highs in several meaningful areas. With more responsibility, he can eclipse all of them.

    Importantly, his improved numbers weren't just the result of more playing time. VanVleet's rate stats—assist percentage, free-throw rate and points per shot attempt—were all higher than ever. Those all suggest his improving production is more the result of a developing understanding of basketball craft than a few extra minutes on the court.

    If he does change cities, though, VanVleet's centrality to his team's offense will surely increase. No team is going to pay upwards of $20 million per season for a player it envisions in a supporting role. Note, too, that many of the teams with the money it'll take to pry VanVleet away from Toronto (cough, New York Knicks, cough) are bereft of lead-guard talent and will have no choice but to give him primary scoring and playmaking duties.

    With less help, there's a danger VanVleet's efficiency will dip, but the accompanying spike in counting stats and the certainty he'll remain a clamp-down defender on the perimeter will produce more overall value on balance.

Christian Wood, Unrestricted

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    This is low-hanging fruit, but we can't ignore an impending career year just because it's so obvious.

    Christian Wood was a per-minute stud as a key reserve for the Detroit Pistons, but when he took on a larger role and saw more playing time after the Andre Drummond trade, he telegraphed the best was yet to come. The stringy, springy 25-year-old big man is going to eclipse his 2019-20 averages of 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds before halftime in plenty of games next season.

    The samples are small with Wood, who failed to crack a rotation prior to last year and shuffled between five teams in parts of four seasons. He's only ever started 16 games, 12 of which came after the 2019-20 trade deadline.

    That said, Wood's skill is undeniable, which means his production in a full-time starting role is sure to be high.

    At 6'10", the rangy forward/center's scoring efficiency ranked in the 96th percentile on rolls to the rim. Given his foot speed, lift and length, that's not altogether surprising. But he checked in at the 86th percentile in points per play on spot-up chances. Inside or out, Wood is a bucket.

    He averaged 21.9 points and 9.4 rebounds while posting a 64.7 true shooting percentage in his dozen starts, numbers that, if he'd managed them over the full season, would have put him in the company of just two other players: Karl-Anthony Towns and John Collins.

    A point of caution: We listed Wood (and VanVleet, for what it's worth) among our riskiest 2020 free agents because there's downside potential in signing him to a massive deal based on relatively little information. Whether the Pistons keep him or some other club signs him away, there's no way to be sure how productive Wood will be when he's not just playing out the string in a lost season, or when opponents make him a higher priority, or if he loses the edge sharpened by literally playing to save his career after getting some financial security.

    Still, Wood has the talent to roll out of bed and put up 20 points and 10 boards with good efficiency. And he's still young enough to price in the potential for improvement. This is the rare case where Wood could simultaneously disappoint the team that signs him and still produce, by far, the best year of his career.

Jerami Grant, Player Option

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Jerami Grant explicitly said he wasn't going to exercise his player option for 2020-21, and that's because he has good reason to believe he'll outproduce the $9.3 million he'd get by picking it up.

    Paul Millsap, 35, remains a valuable starter and leader. But he's also due to hit free agency this offseason, and the Denver Nuggets shouldn't have a hard time deciding between two players at the same position when one is almost decade younger than the other—particularly when it cost them a first-rounder to get Grant from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019.

    The premium on defensive versatility, which Grant has in spades, has never been higher. And now that the agile 6'8" forward has backed up 2018-19's 39.2 percent shooting from deep with 38.9 percent on a higher per-minute rate of attempts in 2019-20, there's no justification for keeping him out of the first unit.

    More minutes as a starter should mean more picture-perfect setups from Nikola Jokic. And with opponents sure to key on emerging scoring threat Michael Porter Jr. next year, Grant figures to be in line for the highest-quality looks of his career.

    It may also be true, though seemingly counterintuitive, that there's an adjustment period to playing with a center like Jokic. Few players have experience sharing the floor with a big man who rewards every cut, roll and flare with an on-time, on-target pass, and even fewer quickly grasp that, if they're attentive, Jokic can even lead them into open shots when they're seemingly blanketed by the defense.

    So in addition to a larger allotment of playing time and diminished defensive attention, Grant will also benefit from a season of learning how to play with the best passing big man the league's ever seen.

    The result? A career year.

Chris Boucher, Restricted

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Never bet against the Toronto Raptors' player development acumen.

    Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet are all demonstrably better (and in Siakam's case, entirely different) players today than they were before the Raps coached them up, and Chris Boucher is a great candidate to be the next breakthrough success story.

    At 27, the rail-thin energy big may appear unlikely to break through. But if Toronto retains him in restricted free agency, Boucher could have a surplus of playing time available to him. Ibaka and Gasol may both be gone, leaving frontcourt minutes aplenty for whoever wants to snatch them up.

    The Raptors were one of the best transition teams in the league this past season, and Boucher's open-floor zip fits right into their preferred style—far better than the tugboat pace of Gasol, for example. Boucher is also a willing three-point shooter who (and we're banking again on the Raptors' development track record) could exponentially add to his worth by getting that career 32.1 percent long-range hit rate up to a modest 35.0 percent clip.

    An elite shot-swatter (93rd percentile in block rate among bigs) and offensive rebounder (95th percentile), Boucher could make a major impact with more minutes, even if he doesn't improve the other areas of his game. And as the league downsizes, the odds of some hulking opponent playing him off the floor are only decreasing.

    We're assuming Toronto will match any offer sheets for Boucher, but the logic behind this career-year prediction still holds if he changes teams. Confident, energetic floor-stretching bigs who impact play around the rim on both ends have value anywhere. And regardless of where Boucher lands, he'll almost certainly be in line for more than the 13.2 minutes per game he got in Toronto while stuck behind established vets on the depth chart.

    Package that opportunity with the likelihood of organic growth in his fourth season, and Boucher is a lock to be better than he's ever been.

            

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.