As human beings, we are comfortable with certainty. The unknown can be frightening, so we’re attracted to opportunities to partake in an activities or decisions where the variables are known beforehand and we can account for every possibility. That is why recent trends within our society have us confused and uneasy. Who’s to know what tomorrow will bring when so many outcomes are possible and so many important decisions await in the near future? That is the unfortunate truth of today's culture. However, the NBA’s return is on the horizon and that has brought us back into a sense of normalcy within the league calendar. Granted, all the dates for important events have been pushed back, but that is a much preferred outcome as opposed to everything being up in the air, or cancelled altogether.
As of now, the league and all involved parties are targeting a December start to the 2020-2021 season. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for playoff teams to recover from this season, but that’s a discussion for another day. You may recall also that the deadline for extension eligible players is usually directly before the beginning of the season. In prior years, that date was usually in late October. If that trend holds true this year, then we can expect the deadline for players on rookie deals to sign a multi-year extension to be sometime in late November, or early December. There is a ton of time before that deadline approaches and this season, many more games to be played as well. If this season concluded on schedule in the third week of June, players from the 2017 draft would already be able to sign their extensions. But of course, this season didn’t quite go as planned, so by the time the Finals conclude in October, it will be very near the time that the next NBA campaign usually begins. Weird Stuff.
Before we get into who this effects specifically, we should backtrack to an important ruling that the NBA and NBPA agreed on just a few weeks ago. Since the players returning to action for the league restart are facing unique circumstances that put them at higher risk of injury (and complications that contracting the virus could bring about), they pushed for an enhanced insurance plan that covers them in the event they suffer a career threatening injury finishing out the season. According to reports, this doesn’t include minor ailments like sprained ankles and strained hamstrings. It would have to be on the level of a torn achilles for the plan to even become a factor. That is fantastic news for a crop of players that will be expecting max or near max money later this year.
Suddenly, this entire story has backtracked to the principle of certainty. Insurance is one more guarantee that the players can hang their hats on in the coming months. Imagine working part-time for years with no benefits and suddenly being hired to a full-time position that covers your health, physical, and dental. It’s a revelation of immense proportions.
Enough of the arbitrary designations. Who are the beneficiaries here?
Utah used it’s late lottery pick in 2017 on a player who initially thought he didn’t’ have what it took to compete and succeed at the highest level. Donovan Mitchell believe it or not, needed to be convinced by established NBA players that he was indeed worthy to take the next step in his career. The Jazz were so convinced of his star potential, that they traded up using Trey Lyles and their 24th pick (Tyler Lydon). The investment payed off almost immediately and Utah finally had their backcourt creator they were desperately looking for in the wake of Gordon Hayward‘s departure. In his brief tenure as franchise cornerstone, Utah has not been shy about casting a large amount of responsibility on his shoulders by necessity. It’s been evident in all three seasons to this point, including ‘19-‘20. 47% of his shots this season have been of the pull up variety.
Furthermore, 62% of his shots come directly following three dribbles or more. That equates to around 12.3 field goals attempts per game. He gets so many shots up, because he dominates the ball to an incredible extent. Based on the information available from Cleaning the Glass, Mitchell has ranked in the 89th, 93rd, and 95th percentiles in usage rate for his position in each of his three seasons in the league, respectively. His eFG% isn’t too shabby, either. He’s held steady in the low 50% range every year and that’s basically average compared to what is expected from his role as a combo guard.
Many like to criticize the fact that he’s never been an overly efficient player, and that’s fair to an extent. He takes a bit too many mid range shots and his three point percentage has never been anything to write home about.
But the fact of the matter is, Utah just isn’t a very competitive team without Mitchell in the fold. He is uniquely equipped to give Utah exactly what they need on a night to night basis. The Jazz currently boast the league’s 9th best offense, which is the best mark for the team in quite some time. Mitchell is the main engine for that unit and the team has been far better at scoring when he’s on the court, as opposed to off. Cleaning the Glass has the team scoring 3.7 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. Mitchell is undoubtedly a flawed player, but the beauty in that fact lies in the reality that he is only 23 years old. He has plenty of room to grow into an efficient scorer and improved defender. His ceiling is still way out of view, which is why Utah will plan on offering him the maximum extension once the season concludes.
That will murk up their cap sheet for ’22-‘23 and beyond, since Rudy Gobert will also be up for an extension and he is eligible for a supermax contract, thanks to his Defensive Player of the Year award selections. That would catapult his already gaudy salary into the $40M+ range for five years. Add in Mitchell’s extension and they could be looking at a payout of $70M+ for two players. That figure is subject to change, since the stoppage and loss in revenue this season could reduce the cap and corresponding salaries going forward. In any case, Mitchell’s money should be safe since he the future of the franchise.
The very next pick in that draft ended up being Bam Adebayo, who Miami selected at 14. Quite a steal at that selection, to be sure. Unlike Mitchell however, he firmly believed he belonged in the league since day one and that confidence has carried him to heights that almost no one saw coming. At the beginning of his run with the Heat, he was simply an insurance policy behind Hassan Whiteside. The physical gifts were apparent, but he was seen as a long term project that had a long way to go to tap into those immense traits, such as great hands, quick leaps off the ground, and impressive agility for his size.
What Adebayo did next to jump start his career seems like a very smart decision. He knew he didn’t have the ridiculous size Whiteside possessed, or the all-around skills to get people thinking he’s the second coming of former Heat player Chris Bosh. He imminently fell back on what made him such a valuable player in college at Kentucky: Hustle and heart. He played a very modest 20 minutes per game, but his drive and intensity were clear from the start. Three years later, he’s taken on a pivotal role as Miami’s interior anchor and expanded his offensive game to become one of the best frontcourt playmakers in the entire league.
Bam can be a key contributor at the four or five position, because of his incredible vision. He ranks 31st overall in the league in assists per game, which doesn’t sound great at first, but the only frontcourt players that average more assists per game are Demar DeRozan, Giannis, Jokic, Joe Ingles, and Jimmy Butler. He’s in an elite class in that regard. You could include LeBron too, but basketball reference classifies him as a PG. The last two clips above give a glimpse into his knack for threading the needle to cutters, and kicking out to shooters in the midst of heavy pressure. Oh and of course, he can simply send shots back when the perimeter defense breaks down. The big flaw with Bam is his inability, or maybe just his refusal to shoot outside shots (0.2 threes per game this season). That’s not a big deal right now. The key for him though as he enters his prime is diversifying his offensive arsenal. Keen defensive teams have already starting playing him for the pass and forcing him to take matters into his own hands. He will need to become a better post scorer and at least a passable outside shooter to make that magical rise to the elite class of big men.
So what’s next? Well, he has one more year on his rookie deal worth $5.1M for next season, but he will almost certain join Mitchell in cashing out on a max extension beginning the season after. Miami’s cap sheet will be much cleaner than Utah’s so there are fewer future roster considerations at this point in time. There is minimal risk in extending Bam, as he has shown the desire to work extremely hard and comes back better every season. Every time Spoelstra gifts him with more minutes and responsibility, he responds with stellar play. Also, he rarely gets hurt. He was one of a few players to reach 82 games played last season and he has played 65 out of 65 this season. Whatever the final agreement turns out to be, Miami should feel good about putting the future of South Beach in Bam’s capable hands.
In the case of Jayson Tatum, he wasn’t so much as a draft steal as he was a validation for GM Danny Ainge. Everybody that had even a shred of invested interest in the draft process knew that he has the makings of a special scorer like Carmelo Anthony, or Kevin Durant. That’s why leading up to draft night, there was talk that he could be snatched up at #1 overall. But Ainge had a feeling he’d still be able to get Tatum at #3, so he willingly gave up the top pick, but got an additional 1st rounder on top in the deal. Now the passage of time has proven Tatum’s ability to be a premier scorer and one of the biggest rising stars in the league. Since the beginning of January, Tatum has been on a scoring rampage, posting an average of 26 ppg on 47/43/78 shooting splits. Thanks to his 6’8” frame and long wingspan, getting a shot off is a piece of cake the majority of the time.
He has shown improvement on the other side of the ball as well. He has cut down on his defensive fouls per game, and his steal percentage has gone up each season. His Defensive Real Box-Plus minus mark per ESPN has also risen all the way to 1.52, which is 6th among Power Forwards and just behind DPOY candidates like Jonathan Isaac, Giannis, and the aforementioned Bam Adebayo. Speaking of ESPN, their top notch writer and reporter Zach Lowe sums up Tatum’s growth quite well, noting his craftiness navigating pick & rolls, smooth pull up jumper, and even signs of playmaking advancements. He’s not a one trick pony after all, ladies and gentlemen.
His future might be as promising as any 2017 draftee. His feel for the game is rising by the day and he has already achieved All-Star status at age 21. The only real barrier that is standing between him and true superstardom is finishing around the basket. After hitting 63% of his shots at the rim last season, he has dipped back to 59%, which is the same mark he had his rookie year, according to CTG. That puts him in the 31st percentile. Not ideal for what one day could be a 30 ppg scorer and the best player on a contender.
Boston will most likely be a tax team for many seasons, which is fine, since they’re so close to being a true contender in the NBA. Jaylen Brown‘s extension kicks in next season and Kemba is in the 1st year of his massive deal. Adding on a max deal for Tatum could put the Celtics near $100M in salary for just three players. Such is the price to pay for sustained success. Those three could easily carry Boston to 50+ win seasons for several years. Amidst all of the variables and questions that will hit Boston over the next several months, Tatum’s rise should be a constant that they can feel comfortable in locking in hopes that he completes his evolution into an all-time great.
Even Sleepers Bring Security
Big names deserve big money, that’s only fair. It would be a shame though, to forget about all of the less heralded draft picks that have also made a splash in a relatively short time. This exercise into optimism will conclude with a quick glance at some late 1st round and 2nd round picks who won’t be considered for maximum extensions, but should still be able to find a decent new deal from their current team, or another that comes calling soon.
Jarrett Allen: Allen came in with the 22nd pick for Brooklyn when they were in dire need of foundational players that they could rely on long-term. Allen came in and immediately made a mark with his timing when contesting shots and serving as an attractive lob target for the plethora of guards that have seen action for Brooklyn in the last few years.
Facts to consider: He is not at all afraid of getting posterized by opponents that try him at the rim. In fact, he has prided himself on making life tremendously difficult for even the best paint finishers. He has blocked LeBron, Giannis, and Blake Griffin at the point of attack and will surely add to the impressive catalogue before too long. His Defensive Box Plus Minus has also stayed positive every season so far. His lowest mark came during his rookie year, at +0.1. He's still only 22 years old, but has picked up on the finer points of defense very quickly. Some players never figure it out, so it gives him something to fall back on. It's a good thing too, because he has not yet grasped how to get the defense to respect him anywhere outside the restricted area. His short mid range mark was only 32% this season and even worse the farther he strayed from the basket. He won't be getting huge offers in free agency, but the fact that he can operate as a fairly mobile center with elite defensive instincts and attack the rim well after pick & rolls should work in his favor. (Fun fact, he leads the 2017 draft class in total rebounds with 1,665, beating out Bam Adebayo by just FOUR boards.)
OG Anunoby: Expectations were understably low for Anunoby when he began his NBA career just several months after an ACL tear cost him the 2nd half of his sophomore season at Indiana. That injury cost him a few spots, but allowed Toronto to grab him with their 23rd pick. He recovered faster than expected and turned out to be just the stable wing player that Toronto had been searching for.
Facts to consider: He has remained true to his calling as a three and D specialist through his first three years, but is slowly evolving into something more. Joining a team like Toronto that is already established and has at least adequate offensive players at every position allowed him to start slow and focus on what he does best. He barely scratched a 11% usage rate his rookie year, but he did shoot 37% from three on decent volume (2.7 per game). Kawhi entered the fold in '18-'19, which hurt his numbers and limited his opportunities, but he has bounced back in his third year and focused on becoming more than just a shooter. In year one, he took 53% of his shots from behind the arc and 43% at the rim. This season, his aggression has spiked leading to 39% frequency from deep and 53% at the rim. He shoots above average in each area, leading potential suitors to believe he is worth a modest investment long-term. Now that Kawhi has departed and their core is aging, it will most likely be the Raptors that give him the cash he's looking for.
Monte Morris: The 2nd round was also kind to a few teams looking for value in the 2017 draft. Morris built a reputation as a reliable lead guard during his college career at Iowa State. He became the all-time leader in the NCAA for assist-to-turnover ratio, averaging 4.65 over four years. He has carried that habit of taking care of the ball to the NBA, where he currently ranks second, just behind Tyus Jones. With the erratic Jamal Murray leading the charge every night for Denver, Monte brings a steady hand to the backcourt of one of the league's best units.
Facts to consider: After spending the majority of his rookie season on the bench, Morris finally got to show Denver how reliable of a presence he can be on the court. The Nuggets are still a loaded team, so he isn't needed more than 20 or so minutes a game. The reason why Morris' is such a perfect backup is because he impact is subtle and doesn't sway wildly based on his minutes like typical counting stats do. He is simply a smart player that takes and hits good shots (37.5 3PT%) and never turns the ball over (7.6 TOV%). During the course of the game, he is capable of making smart reads within the flow of the offense and using a sharp handle to get to where he needs to go. Think of him like a Toyota vehicle. He will never win any big time awards or make a ton of highlight reels, but you will know exactly what to expect from him every night. He is already 25 years old, so he might prioritize security over potential payout, which is a nice break for Denver, who have a lot of money to shell out to the roster in the near future.
The majority of the 2017 draft class has made a positive impact on the league and these select few have at least a couple elite skills that they can market in order to get a nice pay bump this Fall and their teams can breathe a sigh of relief for once when it comes time to put pen to paper. Risks are sometimes necessary, but it's nice to be able to avoid it every once in awhile.