During the NBA calendar, we’ve seen free agency in the offseason and the buyout market after the trade deadline, but a notable wave of free agency with European imports has emerged just over a month before the end of the regular season.
In that span, we saw four players make the jump from the EuroLeague to the NBA: Gabriel Deck, Mike James, Luca Vildoza, and Elijah Bryant.
HoopsHype polled eight executives, three scouts, a EuroLeague executive, and an agent who negotiated a deal for a EuroLeague player who made the jump to the NBA. The reviews were mixed as to whether EuroLeague talent bolting for the NBA at the end of the season will become a long-term trend based on several factors, including the NBA’s current schedule. However, there was a strong consensus that a EuroLeague star such as Nikola Mirotic or someone on his level won’t make the NBA jump mid-season. Below is a look at the feedback from those polled.
Is it a trend?
The talent evaluators used phrases such as “could be” or “maybe” predominantly and only a handful of evaluators thought it’s a viable option past this season.
“If you ask a front office exec and they say this is a trend, I think they’re being stupid, or they’re not thinking of all the various possibilities,” one NBA executive told HoopsHype.
The same executive recalled the selection of Josh Huestis with the 29th pick of the 2014 draft. At the time, some around the league questioned if it was going to become a new trend to draft a guy in the first round and have him play predominantly in the G League and if Oklahoma City was ahead of the curve? The selection neither turned out to be the way to go for other teams nor a good fit for the Thunder.
Other front office members believe it depends on how the players who recently signed perform in the years to come and where teams are in terms of their salary cap positioning in upcoming seasons.
“If any of those guys succeed, then sure,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype. “Part of why it is becoming a trend is that two-way contracts have diluted the G League pool so much.”
The concept of using cap space and signing a player to more guaranteed money for the rest of a season and multiple seasons afterward on non-guaranteed or team options has been done with two-way players. Doing so with EuroLeague players could be the next tweak to the ideology.
If teams have room or exceptions late in the season, it’s an advantage to get players to sign now rather than in the summer because they can offer more money. The signings of Deck with the Thunder and Vildoza with the Knicks put both teams above the salary floor, for example. Both teams used their salary cap space to sign those players to multi-year deals. If they turn out to be valuable rotation players, the teams got them at a good value. If they don’t, they don’t lose anything and can cut ties without long-term guaranteed salary against the cap.
“I think it could be common for the right players,” another executive told HoopsHype. “Teams have signed G League guys to end of year deals before this. It just has to be a player that is interested and can get out of his deal overseas.”
Why is it happening now?
According to nearly everyone polled, the NBA schedule was the biggest factor to determine whether EuroLeague players signing at the end of the season will become a trend or was a one-year wonder due to Covid.
“I think this trend is more of a result of the disparity in calendars between the European season and NBA free agency,” Octagon agent Alex Saratsis, who negotiated Vildoza’s four-year, $13.6 million deal with the Knicks, told HoopsHype. “Under normal circumstances, the NBA season would end April 15th, which would make it almost impossible for European free agents to buy themselves out of their contracts in March when there, in many instances, are still four months left in their season. It’s a combination of events because free agency won’t start until the beginning of August, so teams in Europe who are now at the end of their seasons look at their players and see an opportunity for an influx of cash in a year where cash flow for most teams is a major issue.”
“It’s more of a timing thing than a real trend,” Saratsis said. “I do believe that some guys are going to sign until the end of the season, but part of the reason why it hasn’t happened for so long is that people can’t get out of their deals in March or April and the financial implications of losing a player for nothing can be catastrophic. Now, you’re in May when there’s a few games left in the regular season and teams are saying it’s been Covid, players will sign elsewhere in the summer for free and we need money now.”
One EuroLeague executive believes it makes good business sense for both NBA and European teams.
“For the NBA teams it makes sense because they have a good opportunity to spend the money and the options they have with cap space,” ALBA Berlin sports director, Himar Ojeda, told HoopsHype. “They don’t need to wait until the summer to compete against others. They can try the guys now before the season is finished for a certain time. I think it’s a move that makes all the sense for them. I think here in Europe, certain teams will see the benefit of selling a guy at this time even though it’ll harm the possibilities in the domestic leagues that they’re still playing in.”
Stars like Nikola Mirotic won’t go to NBA at the end of the season
The elite EuroLeague stars aren’t expected to change teams in-season, according to all the NBA talent evaluators polled.
“Vildoza and Deck I think are special cases as both teams were under the salary floor,” one NBA executive told HoopsHype. “No needle mover like Mirotic would jump mid-season. Those types of players have massive buyouts to prevent such things from happening.”
While starting-caliber NBA players such as Mirotic are unlikely to leave the EuroLeague, the additions of Deck, Vildoza, and Bryant signal a wave of players in their mid-20s who can become role players on NBA rosters.
“We are seeing second-tier guys come over right now,” an NBA executive said. “They’re very good players with really good resumes overseas, but not the top guys who are earning huge numbers.”
Will EuroLeague teams take measures to combat the NBA from signing players?
Should the NBA retain the current schedule going forward, some league executives believe the EuroLeague teams will try to negotiate and adjust the buyout dates to make it more difficult for agents to sign their overseas clients to deals with NBA teams.
“It’s happening because of the pandemic and teams overseas are short on cash,” one NBA international scout told HoopsHype. “Nobody makes money from TV deals over here. Ticket sales are pretty much it. They’ve played the entire season so far with no fans. Hence, there’s a willingness to let their players go.”
With Covid vaccines readily available in the United States, it’s unclear if the NBA will return to a more normal schedule or not and what impact vaccines will have on overseas attendance for fans months from now.
“Teams are definitely more open to it (signing EuroLeague players at the end of the regular season), but almost more importantly, players are more open to it given the market overseas right now,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype.
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto