Ranking the Best Undrafted Free Agents in the NBA Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2020

Ranking the Best Undrafted Free Agents in the NBA Since 2000

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    Jose Calderon
    Jose CalderonDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Hundreds of players hope to hear their names called in the NBA draft, but only 60 of them realize the dream. Everyone else begins their professional journey as an undrafted free agent.

    And every once in a while, teams uncover a gem.

    Finding a major contributor outside of the draft is immensely difficult. Since 2000, no undrafted free agent has made an All-Star team. Even the best UFAs are often complementary pieces.

    Nevertheless, several undrafted players have played key roles on championship rosters over the last two decades. Others have developed into longtime starters.

    The list is limited to players who were eligible for the 2000 draft or later and were not chosen. For example, former Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace starred in the early 2000s but does not qualify because he was a part of the 1996 class.

    Overall production is the biggest factor, though longevity, championship impact and peak performance are also considered.

8. Fred VanVleet

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    If there's a "controversial" inclusion, it's probably Fred VanVleet. Since he's played only four seasons, you could at least make an argument for Andres Nocioni, Kent Bazemore, Anthony Morris or Gary Neal, among a few other candidates.

    However, VanVleet helped the Toronto Raptors win their first-ever NBA title.

    After a quiet rookie campaign, he averaged 8.6 points in 2017-18. He bumped that up to 11 points per game during the 2018-19 regular season and chipped in 14 points per game in the 2019 NBA Finals to defeat the Golden State Warriors.

    VanVleet followed up that terrific season with a career-high 17.6 points, 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game in 2019-20.

    His statistical sample isn't huge, but no other UFA has played such a critical role on a championship team. And among eligible players with 200-plus appearances, VanVleet is one of only eight with 10-plus points per game, per Stathead.

7. Jeremy Lin

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    A teammate of VanVleet's on the title-winning Toronto roster, Jeremy Lin watched most of the championship run on the sideline. A majority of his NBA production happened several years earlier.

    After captivating the basketball world in his breakout 2011-12 season, Linsanity put together four strong seasons. During the four-year stretch from 2012-13 to 2015-16, he averaged 12.2 points and 4.5 assists across three franchises.

    Injuries marred Lin's time on the Brooklyn Nets, and his brief tenure with the Atlanta Hawks led to a buyout in 2019. He soon joined the Raptors and won an NBA title as a reserve.

    Overall, he's tallied 11.6 points and 4.3 assists per game. Those averages rank fifth and third, respectively, among all UFAs with 200-plus appearances since 2000, according to Stathead.

6. Joe Ingles

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    Chris Nicoll/Associated Press

    Longevity and consistency give Joe Ingles the edges over VanVleet and Lin, respectively. Ingles has played twice as many games as VanVleet and has regularly held a key role for the Utah Jazz.

    Through six seasons, Ingles has contributed 8.3 points, 3.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. The versatile forward has knocked down a tremendous 40.7 percent of his three-point attempts and is known for being a smart, reliable defender.

    Ingles will probably never be an All-Star, but his skill set is incredibly valuable for a perennial playoff team.

5. Robert Covington

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Robert Covington is the epitome of a modern three-and-D talent.

    The 6'7" forward has buried 35.6 of his career long-range attempts and can defend multiple positions. Since becoming a full-time player in 2014-15, Covington has averaged no less than 12.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.

    To date, Covington's best season came in 2017-18, when he earned first-team All-Defensive honors and ranked 11th in the league with 203 three-pointers on the Philadelphia 76ers.

    While that peak is what separates Covington from Ingles here, they could be flipped without much argument.

4. J.J. Barea

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    If focusing on peak performance, J.J. Barea would be lower in the rankings. Longevity is the point guard's primary appeal.

    Among qualified UFAs, only two players have more appearances than Barea's 831. Along the way, he's averaged 8.9 points and 3.9 assists per game. Barea has amassed the fifth-most assists (3,270) among undrafted players in NBA history.

    Plus, his team impact must not be overlooked.

    During the 2011 NBA Finals, Barea played a pivotal role in the Dallas Mavericks toppling the Miami Heat. In the last two games specifically, he averaged 16 points and five assists. Without Barea, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs might not have won a title.

3. Jose Calderon

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Jose Calderon played 14 seasons but only advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in 2017-18. That's a real disappointment for one of the NBA's most accurate three-point shooters ever.

    Known mostly for his seven-plus years on the Raptors, Calderon drilled 40.7 percent of his threes in 895 appearances. Through the 2019-20 season, that ranks 25th all-time. He also led the NBA by knocking down 46.1 percent of his three-point attempts in 2012-13 and knocked down a league-high 98.1 percent of his free throws in 2008-09.

    Efficiency wasn't the only strength of his game.

    Along with his 8.9 points per game, Calderon is the UFA leader in assists per game with 5.8, per Stathead. He averaged eight-plus assists in four separate seasons with the Raptors.

2. Udonis Haslem

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Udonis Haslem is Heat Culture.

    "He's the embodiment," head coach Erik Spoelstra said, per Andrew Sharp of The Ringer. "Years on from here, when we'll say, 'What's the Miami Heat culture?' We can describe it and say, 'Hardest-working team, most professional, best-conditioned, and so forth.' Or we can just pull up a picture of Udonis Haslem."

    While that isn't necessarily enough to call Haslem one of the top UFAs ever, his career is best separated into two pieces.

    After playing one year overseas, he joined the Miami Heat in 2003-04 and landed All-Rookie team honors. In his first seven seasons (517 games), Haslem averaged 10 points and 8.1 rebounds.

    During the 2010s, Haslem contributed on two title-winning teams early in the decade and gradually worked into his culture-keeper role. That is best evidenced in his 44 total appearancesincluding zero in the playoffsfrom 2016-17 through 2019-20.

    The production earlier in Haslem's career was important, but team impact is why Miami will likely retire his No. 40 jersey.

1. Wesley Matthews

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Haslem's impact on Miami's success is clear, but leadership is not exclusive to him. Wesley Matthews has that and more.

    In 11 seasons, the versatile forward has scored 13.1 points per game while hitting 38.1 percent of his threes. And although an Achilles injury in 2015 interrupted the peak of his career, Matthews also built a strong defensive reputation.

    Among players eligible for the list, the Marquette product is the career leader in points and steals. He also holds a dominant lead in three-pointers made (1,663) over his next-closest challengers in Covington (927) and Calderon (920).

    Matthews has fully earned his spot as the best undrafted free agent over the past two decades.


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