Season Predictions for Every Top 2022 NBA Free Agent
With media days in the rearview and training camps opening all over the league, the 2021-22 NBA season is nearly upon us.
And while a number of big-name players signed new contracts or extensions this offseason, a few stars could still crash 2022 free agency.
For some, there isn't much they might do this season to prevent them from getting a max deal. Others could help or hurt their value over the next nine months.
Breakout performances, signs of aging, good or bad health and more can move the needle. And below, you'll find predictions on exactly how those needles will move for the top 10 players who can enter free agency.
10. Kyle Anderson Will Average Career Highs in Points and Assists
Kyle Anderson put up a career-best 12.4 points and 3.6 dimes per game last year. But the 28-year-old point forward should have even more opportunities in 2020-21.
Of course, Ja Morant and a hopefully healthier Jaren Jackson Jr. will surely take a few of those possessions, but coach Taylor Jenkins trusted plenty of engineering to Anderson last season. It stands to reason that he'll redirect some of Valanciunas' leftovers there.
With Anderson's ability to run the offense, Morant can have the occasional off-ball opportunity. His profile shouldn't be dramatically altered. His dynamic drives are a crucial part of who he is, but a little more variety wouldn't hurt.
And that little extra time on the ball for Anderson should lead to slight improvements in raw production.
9. T.J. Warren Will Average 20 Points Per Game
This may not be much of a stretch. T.J. Warren averaged 19.3 points per game from 2017-18 to 2019-20, a period that culminated with an average of 31.0 points in the bubble. But he's never broken 20 per game, and he's coming off a foot injury that cost him all but four contests in 2020-21.
The Indiana Pacers also have quite a few possessions committed to Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert, all of whom had usage percentages north of 24 last season.
What separates Warren from those two guards, though, is a level of efficiency they haven't quite reached. Over the last three seasons, 138 players have logged 1,500-plus minutes and posted a 20-plus usage percentage. Warren and Sabonis' effective field-goal percentages are 18th and 16th, respectively, in that group. Brogdon and LeVert are 59th and 123rd.
While those two may get an extra shot or two per game, Warren will make more of the opportunities he's given. That's especially true now that he's embraced the three-pointer a bit more.
Over his first four seasons, Warren took 1.3 threes per game and shot 28.3 percent from deep. Since then, he's at 3.6 attempts with a 40.7 three-point percentage.
8. Jaren Jackson Jr. (Restricted) Will Spend More Time at the 5
Despite having just 11 regular-season appearances (plus five in the playoffs) in 2020-21, Jaren Jackson Jr. remains one of the league's more intriguing young players.
For his career, he has averaged 1.7 threes and 1.5 blocks per game. Kristaps Porzingis is the only other player in NBA history who averaged at least 1.5 in each category over his first three seasons.
Health is a concern, though. Beyond the absences last season, the 22-year-old has never reached the 60-game mark in an NBA campaign. His rebounding (6.3 per 75 possessions) and foul rates (5.2 per 75) don't exactly scream center either.
Still, even if it means a little more pounding inside and help from the other four on the boards, JJJ's ceiling may only be accessible through more minutes at the 5.
There, his ability to hit threes would presumably pull the opposition's paint protector outside, opening more room for a slasher like Ja Morant around the rim. At the 4, he might actually be at a mobility disadvantage against a number of teams who've turned that slot into more of a combo forward position.
There's a bit of a logjam in Memphis, with Steven Adams, Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman on the roster, but the Grizzlies have to devote a bit more time to Jackson at center.
7. Mikal Bridges (Restricted) Will Make an All-Defensive Team
Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges has quickly developed into one of the game's prototypical three-and-D players. Last season, he averaged 13.5 points and 1.9 threes per game while posting a 42.5 three-point percentage and a 64.3 effective field-goal percentage.
And during his career, there have been only six players who matched or exceeded his marks for threes per game (1.4), three-point percentage (37.6) and defensive box plus/minus (0.9).*
With his length and instincts, Bridges is a major disruptor on defense. He can get into passing lanes, but he typically doesn't launch himself in there at the expense of the scheme. He can recover back to his man or the rim after those attempts or the unusual possessions on which he's beaten off the dribble. And he just generally fills the gaps on that end in a way that covers for his teammates.
That was noticed last season, when he was the highest vote-getter to miss out on an All-Defensive team. In 2021-22, fresh off a run to the Finals, Bridges will get more attention and sneak onto one of those two squads.
*BPM is a "...basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference.
6. Russell Westbrook (Player Option) Will Post a Career-High 3-Point Percentage
Over the last three seasons, Russell Westbrook has taken 430 pull-up threes (2.2 per game) and hit just 26.5 percent of those shots. That's less than 0.8 points per attempt, a brutal mark in a league where the average effective field-goal percentage is trending toward 55 (1.1 points per attempt).
Over the same stretch, though, Westbrook shot 32.4 percent on 407 catch-and-shoot threes. That's still not a good mark for that play type, but it's comfortably better than the pull-up number. And spending time in lineups with LeBron James means Westbrook will get more open catch-and-shoot looks than he's likely ever had.
LeBron is one of the best playmakers in the history of basketball, particularly when it comes to drive-draw-and-kick possessions. Even at 36 years old, he should still be able to break the first line of defense regularly. That will force defenses into pick-your-poison scenarios. If they have to choose between giving up open looks to Wayne Ellington or Westbrook, the former is almost certainly who'll be chased.
Of course, all of this depends on Westbrook's ability to connect on those open looks at a rate he hasn't recently. His career-high three-point percentage is 34.3. So, this prediction could more generally say Westbrook will simply benefit by playing with LeBron.
5. Deandre Ayton (Restricted) Will Return to the 2nd Option
As an NBA sophomore, Deandre Ayton averaged 18.2 points on 14.9 field-goal attempts per game. He was second on the Phoenix Suns in usage percentage, had an above-average effective field-goal percentage and gave his team's offensive rating a 3.1-point boost when he was on the floor.
Despite the game's evolution away from the traditional center, Ayton established himself as an offensive plus. That season, when he and Devin Booker shared the floor, the sub-.500 Suns were plus-5.3 points per 100 possessions.
Suddenly, he was closer to the rim-running and -protecting archetype than he was to the bruising centers of the 1990s. Individually, the shift probably helped Ayton. Focus led to improvement on the defensive end. Scoring efficiency ticked up as plenty of mid-range shots were sacrificed.
His game was, in a word, streamlined.
This season, expect Ayton to return to his old spot in the pecking order. Paul is 36 years old. And while last season proved there's still plenty in the tank, a slight step back could be in order, especially if everyone's on board with this team being Booker and Ayton's.
Ayton won't necessarily return to the number of face-up jumpers he took in 2019-20, but if Phoenix just increases the volume on the more efficient offense he discovered last season, his raw numbers will look a bit more like they did in year two.
4. Zach LaVine Will Average a Career High in Assists Per Game
Yes, an uptick in pace and skyrocketing three-point-attempt rates have made some individual numbers look supercharged, but Zach LaVine's 2020-21 scoring numbers are underrated, even in that context.
LaVine's 59.6 effective field-goal percentage was 5.8 points higher than the league average. And he's one of nine players with a season in which he averaged at least 25 points and one three per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.
In 2021-22, though, LaVine should have significantly more help carrying the scoring load. Lauri Markkanen is gone, but Nikola Vucevic will be there from opening night. DeMar DeRozan is now on the opposite wing. And even Lonzo Ball shot quite a bit more than Tomas Satoransky.
That should translate to more playmaking opportunities for LaVine, who averaged a career-high 4.9 assists per game last season.
Ball isn't a Rajon Rondo-like 1 who controls the ball for the majority of a possession before dropping it off to the scorer for a shot. Instead, he's a ball mover and floor spacer. He, DeRozan and Vucevic give LaVine finishers at all three levels of the floor.
Ball has hit 37.6 percent of his threes over the last two seasons. DeRozan remains one of the game's more prolific mid-range threats. And Vucevic can get going from either of those areas or the post.
3. Kyrie Irving (Player Option) Will Lead the Nets in Points Per Game
Predicting anyone but Kevin Durant will lead the Brooklyn Nets in scoring might seem bold, but it's not without precedent. Stephen Curry had a higher scoring average than Durant in two of their three seasons together with the Warriors. They were tied the other year. And in 2020-21, Durant and Kyrie Irving both averaged 26.9 points per game.
That last stat is a little tougher to put a lot of stock in, since Durant played in just 35 games, while Irving appeared in 54. They were only on the floor together in 27 contests, which suggests they didn't have to share quite as much production as other duos. James Harden came into the mix, too, though he seemed intent on being the facilitator in the star equation.
When all three were on the floor, Irving had an astronomical 66.8 true shooting percentage. The amount of defensive attention Durant and Harden commanded often left Irving to cook against guards and wings who simply didn't stand a chance.
And health and safety protocols aside, assuming relatively good health, Irving will log more than the 202 minutes he played alongside KD and Harden in 2020-21. That will mean more hyper-efficient scoring.
2. Bradley Beal (Player Option) Will Average 30 for a 3rd Straight Season
Eleven players in NBA history averaged at least 30 points in three different seasons: Michael Jordan (eight times), Wilt Chamberlain (seven), Oscar Robertson (six), Adrian Dantley (four), Allen Iverson (four), Jerry West (four), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Bob McAdoo.
Bradley Beal, who's eclipsed 30 per game in each of his last two campaigns, will do so again in 2021-22.
Last season, he pulled it off while playing alongside notorious usage fiend Russell Westbrook, who took 19 shots per game. The Washington Wizards have multiple developing young players and an influx of new talent, but no one will approach Westbrook's, well, approach.
Beal is as clearly the alpha on this team as he has ever been. He figures to take around as many shots as he did last season, if not slightly more than his 11.2 per contest. And an adjusted shot profile could lead to more points.
"Deeper threes. I'm not trying to compete with Dame [Lillard], I'm not Logo Lillard. But I want to shoot deeper threes and shoot more threes," Beal told NBC Sports Washington's Chase Hughes in August. "You know I need to shoot more threes."
Last season, Beal's 6.2 three-point attempts per game ranked 50th in the league. And he still averaged 31.3 points per game. Replacing one or two makes inside the line with threes gives him even more cushion for this prediction.
1. James Harden (Player Option) Will Lead the League in Assists Per Game
James Harden already has three scoring titles. Michael Jordan (10), Wilt Chamberlain (seven), Kevin Durant (four), George Gervin (four) and Allen Iverson (four) are the only players with more.
And of course, none of those five can claim a single assist title, something Harden achieved in 2016-17 when he averaged 11.2 dimes per game. This season, he'll separate himself a bit further with another assist crown.
Last season's winner, Russell Westbrook, will almost certainly have his numbers subdued by playing alongside LeBron James. And while he'll likely get some competition from Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Chris Paul, none of them topped 10 per game in 2020-21.
Harden, who averaged 10.8 assists per game for the Houston Rockets and Nets, has significantly more firepower to set up than any of the above. On top of KD and Irving, two of the best scorers of all time, Harden is playing with Joe Harris, one of the league's top floor spacers. Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills and others will certainly get their share of looks from Harden too.
With head coach Steve Nash, a five-time assist champ, at the controls, expect Harden to continue to go out of his way to get teammates involved.