NBA Free Agents Who Could Blow Up on New Teams in 2021
Many of the biggest names that were due for free agency in 2021 have already signed extensions with their current clubs, weakening the class' top end. But as is the case every offseason, plenty of talent is still available.
For non-stars, success on a new team is all about a change of scenery, finding the right situation or a combination of the two. Last year's examples include Bogdan Bogdanovic in Atlanta and Jerami Grant in Detroit, while Julius Randle's 2019 signing with the Knicks is clearly starting to pay dividends as well.
With this in mind, let's take a look at some impending free agents who could blossom with a team change. As a logistical note, we've selected a few players who are restricted free agents and one with a player option, two contract statuses that complicate their ability to sign with another team for various reasons.
Spencer Dinwiddie (Player Option)
Though he's coming off a partially torn right ACL, it's possible—perhaps even likely—that Spencer Dinwiddie declines his $12.6 million player option for the 2021-22 season.
First, he'll likely get more money than that on the open market. The last time the Colorado alum was healthy for a full season, he averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists per game, a stat combo only matched by some of the league's elite guards (and Nikola Jokic) this year. Dinwiddie's efficiency lagged behind most of those players, but the point stands that when he's healthy, he's a force to be reckoned with on offense.
Secondly, though, Dinwiddie is now superfluous in Brooklyn. With the offense running through Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on virtually every possession, much of his appeal is lost, and players like Joe Harris and Landry Shamet have established themselves as superlative off-ball threats in Dinwiddie's absence. You could argue that he'd feast more than ever alongside the Nets' fleet of scorers, but there is such a thing as too much talent, and with the 28-year-old not quite good enough to be a star and overqualified to be a role player, he's currently adrift on the roster.
With some salary machinations, teams like the Pelicans and Warriors could sign Dinwiddie, fill major roster holes and give him significant opportunities for growth in the process.
Talen Horton-Tucker (Restricted)
Though he hasn't played much in the playoffs, Talen Horton-Tucker put together an impressive regular season for the Lakers. The second-year pro got more minutes than players like Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews while finishing third on the team in assist percentage.
In fact, he was such a strong addition to Los Angeles' rotation that back in February, ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported that "people think [Horton-Tucker] could get the Tyler Johnson poison-pill contract." In case you've forgotten, that's a reference to the four-year, $50 million deal that Johnson signed with the Miami Heat in 2016.
A lot's changed since February for the Lakers. Neither Anthony Davis nor LeBron had suffered their season-altering injuries when Windhorst relayed that theory, and their absences may have reminded the Lakers of the urgency to win as much as possible while LeBron is still in peak form. If that's the case, then GM Rob Pelinka may look to acquire more experienced veterans in the offseason, potentially sacrificing a less-developed prospect like Horton-Tucker in the process. This might be doubly true if a team like the Bulls or Wizards presents a Tyler Johnson-level offer to the Lakers for the Iowa State alum, and he'd do well to find a team with consistent minutes available.
It's understandable that Horton-Tucker's been benched for the playoffs, but he showed a lot this year. With more development and playing time, he could be in for a breakout campaign in Year 3.
Frank Jackson (Unrestricted)
After getting buried in the Pelicans' busy backcourt through his first two seasons, Frank Jackson found his way to the rebuilding Pistons on a two-way contract. Though Detroit wasn't competing for much and didn't have much of an offensive hierarchy beyond Jerami Grant, Jackson shone, shooting 40.7 percent from three and recording the second-best net rating on the team.
The value of positive advanced stats while playing for a 20-52 team is certainly debatable, and the Duke alum doesn't do a ton besides score, but coach Dwane Casey repeatedly sang Jackson’s praises throughout the lost season, so at the very least there's that.
It remains to be seen whether Jackson can translate such production to a winning environment, but we're in the midst of seeing a player with his spark-plug skillset do just that in Utah—Jordan Clarkson.
The recently named Sixth Man of the Year seemed like an empty-calorie scorer through stints with the Lakers and Cavaliers, but has catapulted to new heights with the Jazz. He's basically the same player he was in those previous stops—middling efficiency included—but is now an integral rotation member on the West's top seed.
Jackson hasn't shown nearly as much as Clarkson did with Los Angeles or Cleveland, but get him in a winning environment and let's see how much he progresses. Teams like the Nuggets and Pacers could use a second-unit gunner and should take a low-cost flyer on the 23-year-old.
Lauri Markkanen (Restricted)
For over a year now, it seems like Lauri Markkanen has just been marking time in Chicago. Reports of his unhappiness emerged right before the 2019-20 season went on hiatus, and being demoted to a mid-tier bench player behind Nikola Vucevic, Thaddeus Young, Patrick Williams and Daniel Theis surely didn't placate him.
To Markkanen's credit, he took it all in stride on the court, rebounding from a dangerously flat third year to record a career-best 59.4 effective field-goal percentage this year. The former lottery pick made at least four threes in a game 10 times and earned the confidence of coach Billy Donovan by season's end.
However, the Bulls are much more invested in the first three aforementioned big men for various reasons—Vucevic is an All-Star, Young is an integral point of connectivity both on and off the court, and Williams is the team's most recent lottery pick—and Theis' versatility makes him a more pressing priority in free agency than Markkanen, so the Arizona alum might be the odd man out regardless.
By now, expectations for Markkanen have changed. He should no longer be considered a primary scoring option, but either a starting power forward who purely stretches the floor or a sixth man with a perennial green light. Think Kelly Olynyk or Davis Bertans with a little more off-the-dribble prowess. This skill set should undoubtedly appeal to teams like the Spurs and Pelicans in need of frontcourt shooting.
Frank Ntilikina (Restricted)
Knicks fans are likely frustrated by Frank Ntilikina. Despite continuing to play scintillating defense, he's out of Tom Thibodeau's rotation (shooting an abysmal 19.4 percent on two-pointers this year likely has something to do with that). However, such a lopsided skill set doesn’t have to excise the Frenchman from the NBA just yet.
Before the 2017 draft, the general consensus on Ntilikina was that he wasn't likely to be a team’s primary decision-maker, and his surest pathway to success would be as a George Hill or Patrick Beverley-style guard who mainly plays lock-down defense and spots up from three. Good news for Ntilikina—that's still possible. Before this season, it was nearly impossible to fit him into that kind of role because the Knicks were so consistently subpar, and he just fell out of favor with Thibodeau this year.
There's actually a contemporary comparison for Ntilikina to follow at his next stop—Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle often looks similarly lost on offense, but because he's playing with Joel Embiid and an above-average supporting cast, he's able to get by and shine on defense, where he's rapidly become one of the most terrifying perimeter stoppers in the sport.
Perhaps Ntilikina just needs a team with multiple incumbent playmakers to take the pressure off and let him do what he does best. For instance, if the Bucks or Lakers come calling with a minimum-salary deal and the Knicks decline to match it, the rest of the NBA should be scared.
David Nwaba (Unrestricted)
After taking a circuitous path to the NBA, David Nwaba has bounced around, suiting up for five teams in as many seasons. Unfortunately, he's had absolutely terrible timing to this point, playing with the Lakers right after Kobe's final season, the Bulls post-Jimmy Butler trade, the Cavaliers after LeBron's second departure, the Nets during Kevin Durant's year of rehab, and the Rockets during and after James Harden's ignominious separation with his longtime franchise.
For once, let's get Nwaba on a proper contender.
To the 28-year-old's great credit, he's powered through all kinds of dysfunction, usually ranking around the top of net rating leaderboards for these bad teams. He recently returned from a ruptured Achilles to contribute to a Rockets team in tatters for much of this season. Writing for USA Today, Ben DuBoise opined:
"Nwaba finished with the highest defensive rating among all players on Houston's roster for the 2020-21 season. He's strong, explosive, versatile enough to guard multiple positions and has good instincts. That athleticism also helps to make him a force in transition."
Just eyeballing that description of Nwaba's skill set, he belongs on an ascendant team, and with the Rockets likely to be rebuilding for the next several years, he should be on the first flight out of Houston when free agency begins. Though even smaller than somebody like Draymond Green, he's got a similarly relentless motor and unselfish nature, and would be a second-unit boon to clubs like Memphis and Miami.
Cameron Payne (Unrestricted)
However, since signing with the Suns, the Murray State product has fully revitalized his career. He's become a far more efficient scorer and a team leader, one who recently earned plaudits from Chris Paul.
None of this has abated under the postseason spotlight, either. In his first playoff series as a rotation member, Payne is averaging 13.0 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 42.1 percent from three against the Lakers.
Finally, the player the Thunder drafted six years ago has arrived.
It would be understandable if Payne stayed put. Phoenix just finished its best regular season in 15 years, and it's possible that he eventually replaces Paul as Devin Booker’s full-time backcourt partner. But if he continues to impress through the remainder of the Suns' playoff run, point guard-hungry teams like the Clippers or Raptors will likely come calling with big checks.
After struggling to find his footing in the league, Payne should at least investigate what's out there, because organizations like the aforementioned two could help him continue climbing toward his lottery-ratified ceiling.
Jarred Vanderbilt (Restricted)
After an injury-shortened career at Kentucky and getting buried on the Denver Nuggets' depth chart, it looked like Jarred Vanderbilt might fall by the wayside before his career could even get going. Thankfully, he's found his footing for a team that desperately needed his contributions.
Treated as an afterthought in the trade that sent Malik Beasley to Minnesota and Robert Covington to Houston, Vanderbilt slowly wormed his way into Minnesota's rotation, eventually flirting with a starting spot for much of the year—and for good reason. Though basically a Ben Simmons-level shooter, the 22-year-old does so much else well. He ranked second among Timberwolves in on/off-court splits, third in rebounding percentage and shot 60.6 percent overall this year.
Oh, and Vanderbilt is a ferocious defender. As a young player, he still falls asleep at times and gets over-aggressive, but those moments of youth are balanced out with extraordinary efforts against the league's best offensive talent. Who else is stealing the ball from right under Nikola Jokic's nose?
It would make sense for Minnesota to match any offers on Vanderbilt. After all, he's one of the team's only competent defenders. But if the team drafts somebody like Evan Mobley or Jonathan Kuminga in the lottery or trades for a pedigreed veteran like Harrison Barnes, then Vanderbilt's rotation spot might be gone. In either case, he'd be an excellent fit for teams like the Mavericks and Hornets in need of versatile, high-IQ defenders.