NBA players with a high likelihood of making a leap often don’t reach free agency in the first place. Their teams lock them up with early extensions or at least broadcast that no offer sheet from another squad will be too big to match in restricted free agency.
Sometimes, though, circumstances make it much harder for teams to retain talent. Roster crunches, financial constraints and several other factors can allow promising players to hit the market. When that happens, other franchises have a chance to pounce.
The players featured here have all flashed high-end individual skill, made an impact on winning or both. Their teams should certainly have an interest in keeping them around, but for a number of reasons that’ll be easier said than done.
Any organization in search of free-agent acquisitions with major upside should target these guys, all of whom could level up on a new team.
The Minnesota Timberwolves could tender a $7 million qualifying offer to make Nickeil Alexander-Walker a restricted free agent, reducing his chances of landing with a new team.
However, the Wolves could also get squeamish about committing that much cash to a mostly unproven talent playing for his third team in four years when they have much costlier commitments to make to Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, both of whom are eligible for huge extensions.
If NAW springs free, he could easily slide into a rotation role as a three-and-D weapon elsewhere—and that might only be his floor.
This past season, the 24-year-old reined in his gunslinging ways, posting the lowest usage rate of his career. He sacrificed quantity for quality, easily setting career highs in field-goal percentage (44.4 percent) and three-point percentage (38.4 percent). He did all that while showing conspicuous flashes of shutdown defense against some of the league’s top threats.
Ask Jamal Murray how much fun it is to be hounded by an unscreenable pest down the stretch.
And then verify that report with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who got full-court coverage from a seemingly tireless Alexander-Walker.
It’s not too late for Alexander-Walker to reintroduce some of the individual shot-creation and distribution that defined him as a prospect. If he can marry those skills with the defense and spot-up shooting he showed in 2022-23 (without forcing too many tough attempts like he did earlier in his career), pre-draft comps to Caris LeVert might actually look conservative.
These are all reasons the Wolves shouldn’t let him walk, but the cash crunch in Minnesota could trigger NAW’s breakout elsewhere.
Bruce Brown Jr. has probably priced himself right out of the Denver Nuggets’ range, which maxes out at a starting salary of just $7.8 million next season unless the Western Conference champs gut the roster to clear cap space.
A star in his role for Denver, the 26-year-old’s winding path to free agency (which he’ll hit by making the no-brainer decision to decline his $6.8 million player option for 2023-24) prepared him for an ascent that could take several forms. By turns a point guard, slashing 2, rim-rolling 4, three-and-D wing and just about everything in between, he is as plug-and-play as it gets.
Whatever an interested team needs, he can provide.
Most encouraging—and most lucrative for Brown—is his under-the-radar improvement as a self-sufficient scorer.
This year with the Nuggets, the Miami product drove the ball 6.6 times per contest, considerably more than the 2.6 he averaged in only four fewer minutes per game with Brooklyn last season. He also logged his highest percentage of unassisted baskets since the Detroit Pistons used him primarily as a point guard in 2019-20.
It wouldn’t be right to say Brown is now suddenly a first-option threat, but he’s added some of those elements to a game that already features ridiculous diversity.
Considering the way he has excelled while shifting between so many roles over the course of his career, it’d be a mistake to assume he can’t succeed as a higher-end scoring threat.
If he winds up with a team where he can tap into all of his various skills, Brown could break out in a half-dozen different ways.
The boldest route the Los Angeles Lakers could take this offseason would see them renounce their rights to virtually every free agent on the roster, clearing cap space to pursue a third star.
Submitted in the interest of roster-building risk management: The Lakers already have one of those. His name is Austin Reaves, and his age-24 season featured a 68.7 true shooting percentage along with a 91st percentile ranking among wings in assist-to-usage ratio and a 100th percentile rank at his position in percentage of field-goal attempts on which he drew a shooting foul.
As a starter, Reaves averaged 15.1 points, 4.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds, but those numbers came on an exceptionally low 16.5 percent usage rate—the result of playing with superstars who got the bulk of offensive touches. Typically, efficiency declines when players take on more responsibility. But Reaves could see his conversion rates from the field dive significantly and still grade out as one of the best bang-for-buck offensive producers in the league.
The Lakers can offer Reaves a maximum of $51 million over four years and have the ability to match any offer sheet he signs as a restricted free agent. The most another team can offer is a four-year deal worth $98 million, a number that might still make the two-year vet a bargain.
If Reaves returns to Los Angeles, he’ll likely pick up where he left off as a high-end starter, albeit one confined to nothing more than a third-option role. But if he departs and takes on a larger share of offensive responsibility for another team, All-Star consideration is totally realistic.
It doesn’t augur well for the Timberwolves that Naz Reid is the second potential breakout free agent they could lose this summer.
However, with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns gobbling up $77 million in center salary next year and Kyle Anderson the team’s best option at the 4, Minnesota can’t justify paying market rates to keep Reid around.
Their loss will be another team’s gain, as the 23-year-old was one of just five players in 2022-23 to log over 50 games while averaging at least 2.0 made triples and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes. The other four were Brook Lopez, Kristaps Porziņģis, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Christian Wood, and Reid’s effective field-goal percentage was higher than all but Lopez in that group.
Role expansion comes with challenges. Reid got a lot of reps against reserves in Minnesota and graded out as a mild negative on defense, according to Dunks and Threes’ Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus. But he’s still young and should be expected to improve.
Case in point: Reid’s counting stats and efficiency trended up after the All-Star game. Prior to the break, he posted 10.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.0 assist per game on 60.6 percent true shooting. Afterward, he put up 16.1 points, 5.5 boards and 1.5 assists with a 64.2 true shooting percentage.
Those post-break stats came in only 20.8 minutes per game. Toting the floor-stretching/shot-blocking skill combo so many teams covet in big men, Reid should crush those averages with more playing time.
Coby White’s failure to meet expectations as the No. 7 overall pick from 2019 is at least partly due to a tough situation. The restricted free agent found himself in a high-usage on-ball role as a teenaged rookie, and the growing pains were predictably pronounced.
As the Bulls acquired more experienced (and expensive) guards, his responsibilities diminished. That reduced role obscured his steady year-over-year improvement. Quietly, his true shooting percentage hit a career-high 57.2 percent in 2022-23, and he joined Alperen Sengün as the only other 22-year-old to log at least 70 games while averaging over 14.0 points, 4.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds per 36 minutes with that level of scoring efficiency.
That’s some admittedly thin-sliced data, but a zoomed-out perspective makes just as compelling of a case for White as a breakout candidate. He’s heading into his age-23 season with four years of experience and consistently climbing catch-all metrics. Both his Estimated Plus/Minus and Box Plus/Minus have improved every season, and he broke into positive territory in the latter for the first time in 2022-23.
White has excellent positional size at 6’5″, reps as a primary ball-handler and secondary scorer, an 85.4 percent career free-throw percentage that suggests his 36.7 percent hit rate from deep will climb and promising per-minute numbers for his age.
The only thing he needs to bust out is a chance to play someplace that doesn’t have well-compensated All-Stars and All-Defensive team members ahead of him in the pecking order.