When the NBA’s 2017 free agency class is discussed, it’s often the stars who are mentioned (and understandably so). In July, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap and many other notable players can hit the market as unrestricted free agents (full list here). It remains to be seen how many of these notable players will seriously consider changing teams, but there’s no question this will be an interesting summer. Offseasons like this can drastically shift the landscape of the league.
However, today’s article will focus on some upcoming free agents who seem to be flying under the radar a bit. These players aren’t going be splashy signings when they ink new deals in July, but they have played well this season and all signs point to them being rewarded for their strong play. This list doesn’t include that next tier of talented free agents just below the stars like George Hill, Jrue Holiday and Otto Porter Jr. because it’s no secret that those individuals will each land a lucrative deal. Without further ado, let’s look at some role players who deserve some recognition ahead of free agency:
After playing very well for the Brooklyn Nets during the first two and a half seasons of his NBA career, Bogdanovic is doing even better on a Washington Wizards team that seems poised for a deep postseason run. Since joining Washington, the 27-year-old is averaging 15.5 points off of the bench while shooting a remarkable 53.6 percent from the field and 58.8 percent from three-point range (the highest percentage since the All-Star break among players attempting at least four three-pointers per game). Also, among players attempting 10 shots per game, Bogdanovic’s 71.4 percent effective field goal percentage since the break is second-best in the NBA behind only DeAndre Jordan. He seems like a perfect fit for the Wizards and if he continues to thrive during the playoffs, he’ll be in great shape entering negotiations this summer. But keep in mind, Bogdanovic will be a restricted free agent, which could complicate things. It’s worth noting that the Wizards’ other recent addition Brandon Jennings has a similar opportunity to help his stock during the playoffs. After playing relatively well with the New York Knicks and joining the Wizards, he could sign a better contract than the one-year, $5 million deal he inked with New York last summer (which came after the worst season of his career).
Before getting into how well Reed has played, it’s important to note that his teammates Dion Waiters and James Johnson have also helped themselves with their strong play this year. However, Reed is the focus here since Waiters and Johnson have been around awhile and are much more notable. After all, Waiters was the fourth overall pick in 2012 and Johnson was the 16th overall pick in 2009. All three players are having career years, but Reed gets the nod here because most NBA fans had no idea who he was entering this season. The 26-year-old dominated in the D-League and finally got his first NBA shot last year with the Brooklyn Nets, but he barely played. This past summer, he joined the Miami Heat on a minimum contract (with a player option for next year). After a strong campaign in which he’s performed well off the bench and played really well in Hassan Whiteside’s absence, the secret is out.
Reed is certain to opt out in July and test the free agency market. He should have a list of suitors since he’s a good rim protector who can also score with put-backs, lobs, improving post moves and easy buckets due to his rim running. Like Waiters and Johnson, Reed has been one of the catalysts of Miami’s recent success (the Heat have the best record in the NBA since Jan. 15). He has averaged 5.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in just 14.5 minutes per game, while shooting 55.6 percent from the field. Per 36 minutes, that translates to 12.9 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. In five games as a starter, he averaged 14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting 68.6 percent from the field. Another thing that may help Reed’s case in free agency is that he doesn’t have many NBA miles on his body. Not only did he start playing basketball later than many of his peers, he’s in just in his second season in the league and he’s playing relatively few minutes. Reed’s best basketball is still ahead of him and he could break out if put in the right situation.
One of the pleasant surprises of the new year, Williams is due for a significant raise this summer. After earning just $874,636 this season, Williams will hit restricted free agency this summer once the Phoenix Suns extend his $1,671,382 qualifying offer. Over the last 10 games, he’s averaging 11.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just 21.7 minutes per game off the bench, while shooting 57.3 percent from the field. This month, Williams’ minutes have increased to 28.3 minutes per game and he has responded by averaging 13.7 points, 13.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals while shooting 52.8 percent from the field. The sample size is small and restricted free agency is unpredictable, but teams may drool over his potential since he’s just 24 years old. If he keeps up this strong play to finish the season, he’ll be a player to watch in July.
It seems crazy to include Ilyasova on this list considering he’s been traded five times in 20 months. However, it’s worth noting that he was having a great season with the Philadelphia 76ers prior to this latest deal that sent him to the Atlanta Hawks. In Philly, the 29-year-old was averaging a career-high 14.8 points along with 5.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. As an unrestricted free agent this summer, he should do well for himself (and hopefully have some more job security moving forward). Ilyasova is a great fit for today’s NBA since teams love stretch-fours (which is another reason he’s been acquired a number of times). Now, rather than putting up strong numbers on a struggling 76ers team, he’ll have the chance to showcase his skill set during the Hawks’ playoff run. His minutes will decrease given Atlanta’s frontcourt of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, but teams know what Ilyasova can do. He’ll have the opportunity to prove his production can translate into wins (while playing for a great head coach in Mike Budenholzer, who worked alongside his former Sixers head coach Brett Brown in San Antonio).
Prior to this year’s trade deadline, a lot of teams showed interest in Tucker. Expect the same thing to play out this summer when he’s an unrestricted free agent. His best attribute is his perimeter defense; in fact, reports have indicated that one reason the Toronto Raptors acquired him is because they felt he could contain LeBron James in a potential playoff series. His numbers (6.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals) don’t jump off of the page, but he’s one of those players whose contributions don’t always show up on the stat sheet.
Consider this: Since joining the Raptors, their defense allows just 100.2 points-per-100-possessions when he’s on the court versus 113.1 points-per-100-possessions when he’s on the bench. When Tucker is playing, teams’ shooting percentages drop from the field (from 48.5 percent to 39.2 percent) and three-point range (38 percent to 28 percent). There’s no question that he has an enormous impact on that end of the court. Tucker is 31 years old, but contenders and up-and-coming teams looking to make the leap into the playoff picture will show interest in the swingman in July. And if he plays really well for Toronto in the postseason and does indeed lock down LeBron? That’s when the PJ Tucker sweepstakes could get crazy.
Williams is no longer the kind of player who can land a long-term, lucrative contract, but he has played well this season and could be a highly-coveted reserve this summer. In 40 games with the Dallas Mavericks, he averaged 13.1 points, 6.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds. Those are respectable numbers, which is why the Cleveland Cavaliers jumped at the opportunity to add him when he hit the free agency market after the trade deadline. If Williams can turn back the clock and perform well off Cleveland’s bench during what could be an NBA Finals run, he can really help his stock. The 32-year-old could have the chance to perform on basketball’s biggest stage amidst a strong bounce-back campaign. That’s the dream scenario for every upcoming free agent.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Recently, a former teammate of Tim Hardaway Jr. texted me to ask why the Atlanta Hawks swingman hasn’t gotten more attention for his strong season. It’s a good question, so let’s show Hardaway Jr. some love right now. Coming off the Hawks’ bench, Hardaway Jr. is averaging career-highs in points (13.6), rebounds (2.6), assists (2.1), steals (0.7) and field goal percentage (45.2 percent). In 17 games as a starter, he has averaged 17.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Advanced stats show Hardaway Jr.’s importance to Atlanta as well. The Hawks score 108.5 points-per-100-possessions with him on the floor versus 97.3 points-per-100-possessions when he’s on the bench. Also, Atlanta sees an increase in field goal percentage (44 percent to 47.1 percent) and three-point percentage (31 percent to 36.8 percent) when Hardaway Jr. is in the game. After last year’s forgettable season with the Hawks, many people wrote off Hardaway Jr., but there’s no denying that he’s been very good this year. The one issue he may run into this summer is that he’s a restricted free agent. However, with his strong play, the fact that he’s only 24 years old and considering the Hawks made a huge financial commitment to Kent Bazemore last July, perhaps a team will throw a large offer sheet his way in hopes Atlanta won’t match.
Like Tucker, Roberson will draw interest from plenty of teams because of his perimeter defense. He’s one of the best wing defenders in the NBA and he’s still just 25 years old. Ben Dowsett of Basketball Insiders recently wrote about Roberson’s incredible defensive impact on the Oklahoma City Thunder. “Oklahoma City is nearly seven points per-100-possessions worse defensively when Roberson hits the bench compared to when he plays, per NBA.com, the same gap found between one of the league’s five best defenses and one of its five worst,” Dowsett writes. “[Players’] percentages on shots within 10 feet of the hoop drop a full 7.5 percentage points when Roberson is checking them, one of the best rates in the league for wing defenders.” Roberson will be restricted and his offense leaves a lot to be desired, so it’s difficult to predict how his free agency process will play out. But he should be rewarded for his lock-down defense and make more than the $2,183,072 salary he’s earning this season.
Beasley didn’t live up to the expectations that come with being a No. 2 pick, but he has carved out a nice career for himself. He can bring instant offense, as evidenced by his stints with the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks. There are only three forwards in the NBA with a usage rating above 24 percent and an effective field goal percentage above 56 percent: Kevin Durant (27.8 USG% and 59.4 eFG%), LeBron James (29.7 USG% and 58.9 eFG%) and Beasley (24.9 USG% and 56.6 eFG%). In other words, Beasley has no problem scoring the ball.
However, what’s improved recently is his efficiency and versatility. This season, he’s averaging 9.7 points in 17.1 minutes per game while shooting career-highs from the field (54.2 percent) and three-point range (42.1 percent). He has also spent time at both forward positions, notably filling in at power forward when Jabari Parker went down for the season. In his five games as a starter, he averaged 15.4 points and 4 rebounds while shooting 63 percent from the field. At 28 years old, it seems that Beasley’s immaturity issues are behind him and his shot selection has significantly improved. He’s also open to coming off of the bench and accepting a limited role, which is important. This year, Beasley is earning just $1,403,611 for Milwaukee, but he could be poised for a raise this summer. He won’t get a big payday, but a higher salary seems likely.
Who are some other role players who have helped their stock heading into free agency this summer? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.
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