7 Underrated Free Agents in 2022 NBA Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2022

7 Underrated Free Agents in 2022 NBA Free Agency

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    So many people have bemoaned the lack of star power entering 2022 free agency that it's easy to overlook just how many great under-the-radar finds are staring us right in the face.

    At long last, we now have this space to acknowledge some of them.

    Handing out "underrated" labels remains an inexact science. Should they be given to effective players toiling away in relative obscurity? Entrenched glue guys who deserve more attention? Fresh faces who recently burst on to the scene in a way that implies staying power? Familiar faces who fell from grace and have quietly fought their way back from implosion?

    Yes, yes, yes and yes.

    Celebrating those who continue to go largely uncelebrated is the mission. And, fortunately, we've got noisemakers at the ready.

Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

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    Floor-spacing shot-blockers are supposed to be all the rage on the frontline. So, like, why isn't Chris Boucher's impending free agency creating more buzz?

    Perhaps it's because he wrapped the regular season shooting under 30 percent from three. That's fair. And a little misleading. Boucher canned 46 percent of his corner triples outside garbage time compared to just 22 percent of his above-the-break looks, per Cleaning the Glass. The latter clip needs to come up, but he remains a threat from the outside and, therefore, someone who can play in tandem with another big.

    Boucher has also added more dimensions to the way he goes about his business on the more glamorous side of things. He can occasionally put the ball on the floor and exploit over-aggressive closeouts, and though he's not a conventional rim-runner off screens, he has become a whiz at slipping behind defenses from the corner.

    Giving him criticism for undisciplined defense used to be fair. It isn't anymore. He cut down his per-minute foul rate this season, per Basketball Reference, in no small part because he honed the trajectory of his own perimeter closeouts—an adjustment that did little, if anything, to impact his frenetic attempts to swat jumpers. Only two players blocked more three-pointers this year, according to PBP Stats.

    Smarter closeouts and a solid presence around the rim are enough to drum up Boucher's defensive intrigue. He pushes the bill further with effective laterality. He can stick on smalls going downhill without falling behind the play or fouling and will send back shots while still moving east-west. If the Toronto Raptors aren't going to pony up to keep him, another team should.

Amir Coffey, L.A. Clippers

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    Amir Coffey may still be relatively unknown even after helping the L.A. Clippers navigate a season checkered by absences galore. But while his initial opportunity was borne out of necessity, he closed the year with real staying power, a rotation staple whose impact can scale to different situations.

    After becoming an everyday player right around Christmas, Coffey averaged 11.0 points and 2.2 assists on 55.2 percent shooting inside the arc and a 38.6 percent clip from downtown. The Clippers had him do everything from spotlighting on pick-and-rolls to attacking switches, and he did not look overextended.

    His feel in the half-court is palpable. He has the speed to get by defenders on straight-line attacks and the strength to knock down in-between attempts after light contact. Pull-up shooting is not a functional crutch, but he can dribble into mid-range opportunities against drop coverage. He put in a combined 62.2 percent of his running layups and jumpers on the year (28-of-45), per NBA.com.

    Suitors should be comparably interested in Coffey's defensive malleability. At 6'7", he can match up with positions 1 through 4—all while keeping his fouls to a minimum, if this season is any indication.

    Restricted free agency can be prohibitive for outside teams who don't want to tie up spending power in players they may not wind up signing. Coffey's situation is more inviting. The Clippers have wings to spare, and after extending Robert Covington, their priority could shift to Isaiah Hartenstein (non-Bird) and Nicolas Batum (player option).

Gary Harris, Orlando Magic

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    Gary Harris has rolled roughly 17 different NBA careers into one—and his isn't even over yet. He's gone from obscure find to potential building block to possible star to wildly disappointing to "Hey, remember when that dude could shoot?" to seemingly, and entirely, forgotten about. 

    It's only natural his value and perception shift yet again.

    Harris is coming off a quiet, if not anonymous, bounce-back season in which he averaged 11.1 points while splashing 38.4 percent of his threes and shooting 49.5 percent on drives. Equally impressive: He converted 71.4 percent of his attempts off cuts, per NBA.com, no small feat given the tight confines of the Orlando Magic's half-court operations.

    This offensive revival could be absolutely massive relative to how much value Harris still brings on defense. He continues to overcome a deficit in length to tackle some of the toughest assignments. He ranked second on the Magic in overall matchup difficulty and third in time spent guarding first options, according to BBall Index.

    Teams can't just pretend the previous two seasons didn't happen. There were long stretches from the not-so-distant past in which Harris retreated to a nonentity on offense. But his performance this season, on a team not exactly set up for him to thrive, needs to carry weight—particularly when he's still just 27.

Isaiah Hartenstein, L.A. Clippers

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    So, the Clippers did a pretty good job on the margins of their roster this season, huh?

    It remains genuinely vexing that Isaiah Hartenstein couldn't even secure a guaranteed contract entering 2021-22. This isn't a rewrite of history, with a benefit of hindsight. He showcased flashes of quality passing, rim protection and mobility to close 2020-21 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sub-20-game samples aren't everything, but his was enough to warrant an extensive look elsewhere.

    The Clippers eventually gave it to him—and they look like geniuses for it. He thrived as a member of their second unit and saw his playing time increase over the final quarter-season or so—no small victory for a big on a team that has Ivica Zubac and an inclination to deploy smaller lineups.

    Hartenstein's counting stats don't leap off the page. That's fine. We're allowed to move beyond them. 

    Opponents shot 47.5 percent against him at the rim—the stingiest mark among 163 players to challenge at least 150 point-blank attempts, per NBA.com. And his 19.3 assist rate ranked sixth among all centers who averaged 15 or more minutes per game. He isn't what you'd term an explosive lob threat, but he can finish tough catch-and-lay-ins above the rim and has some touch beyond point-blank range. He downed 14 of his 30 three-point attempts (46.7 percent) and found nylon on almost 59 percent of his floaters (55-of-93).

    Non-star centers are generally considered replaceable and seldom generate a ton of fanfare. But this year's big-man market is especially thin. Deandre Ayton (restricted) and Jusuf Nurkic register as the only free-agent centers decidedly better than Hartenstein—something prospective suitors should keep in mind.

Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Reserve point guards almost never make headlines—infinitely so when their primary strengths are managing offensive possessions and defending their butts off rather than microwave scoring and complicated dribbling. But the understated parts of Jones' game are also what make him so appealing.

    Praise has been heaped upon the Memphis Grizzlies for their performance during the regular season during Ja Morant's absences. Jones was vital to that success. Memphis outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions this year when he played without Morant, per Cleaning the Glass, while maintaining offensive and defensive ratings inside the 77th percentile or better.

    To be sure, Jones cannot influence the game like a star. He has neither the scoring arsenal nor instincts. But he hits enough of his threes—35.2 percent for his career; 39 percent this season—to keep defenses honest and has some in-between finesse. 

    Remember that time Tyus Jones committed a turnover? I don't, either. He never surrenders possessions. He is now the only player in league history to post an assist rate above 25 with a turnover percentage below eight in the same season, per Stathead.com.

    Better still: Despite standing just 6'0", Jones has the defensive smarts to play beside other point guards or in smaller backcourts. He knows where to stand and how to react away from the ball, and few undersized point guards are as comfortable navigating screens. 

    Scaling his game to a full-time starter's role on another team might minimize some of what Jones does best. But he's played well enough the past two seasons to warrant consideration from outside squads with vacancies at the 1.

Cody Martin, Charlotte Hornets (Restricted)

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    Caleb Martin has received more attention for his play this season than his twin brother, Cody Martin. It's understandable. Caleb was waived by the Charlotte Hornets last August and worked his way into the Miami Heat's rotation on a two-way contract (that was eventually converted to a standard NBA deal). His season is the more compelling story, and he contributed to the (much) better team.

    Still, Cody is pretty damn good—the consummate gap-filler whose style should translate to nearly every team.

    Enviable defensive range gives Cody instant appeal. Among everyone who recorded at least 1,500 minutes this season, Scottie Barnes was the only one to score higher in BBall Index's defensive role versatility. He can switch almost seamlessly and rarely appears overmatched, even when his 6'6" frame is giving up more than a few inches. His presence in passing lanes is ubiquitous, and he'll go from blitzing ball-handlers as the helper to denying entry passes to a big in nanoseconds.

    Cody's offensive utility is more niche, albeit no less versatile. He has proved himself a nifty connective passer, someone who shouldn't initiate the offense from a standstill in droves but makes quick decisions and meaningful passes off the catch, on the attack or after snaring a rebound or loose ball. According to NBA.com, no everyday rotation player from the Hornets notched a higher assist rate on drives.

    Long a stellar finisher at the rim, Cody's market will soar if teams buy his career-high 38.4 percent clip from three. They may be more inclined to treat it as a new normal if only because he's so accessible. The Hornets have match rights but already shelled out bigger deals for Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, with restricted free agency for Miles Bridges on the horizon. Even a modest offer sheet for Cody could prove prohibitive.

Gary Payton II, Golden State Warriors

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    Gary Payton II essentially began this season on the outskirts of the NBA, signing a contract with the Golden State Warriors that didn't even fully guarantee until January. And while he's received plenty of shine for cementing his place in the league, we're not talking nearly enough about just how big-time his impact has become.

    The fractured left elbow he suffered in the Western Conference semifinals against the Grizzlies should've driven that point home. Not only was he starting key playoff games for a title contender, but his absence left people scrambling to figure out how the Warriors would defend Ja Morant, the reigning Most Improved Player and top-10 MVP candidate.

    Like, what?!?

    Skeptics will default to Payton simply being a product of his environment, or a flash in the pan. That's unfair. Payton has always been able to mesmerize on defense. His style should only be described as suffocating or omnipresent. The pressure he provides on- and off-ball can irritate stars and bend an entire offense. Attempting to throw a pass after leaving your feet against him is a recipe for another turnover, and he can hold his own when switching from point-of-attack smalls to larger wings or outright bigs.

    Only Payton's offense has ever been in question. There have been nights, including with the Warriors, when he feels like a zero. But Golden State has mostly streamlined his role to perfection. He will set and slip ball screens and then beeline to the rim and duck in from the corners behind the defense—a big in miniature who just so happened to nail 35.8 percent of his 120 three-point attempts.

    Don't be surprised if Payton prices himself off the Warriors. And continue to remain unsurprised if the next contract he signs, no matter wear it comes from, ends up being a bargain anyway.

    Honorable Mentions: Nicolas Batum, L.A. Clippers (player option); Bruce Brown, Brooklyn Nets; Pat Connaughton, Milwaukee Bucks (player option); Caleb Martin, Miami Heat