Free Agent Stock Watch: Brandon Knight

The Suns have plenty invested in Brandon Knight, having relinquished a potential lottery pick from the Lakers as well as Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis, both of whom have shown promise and are on rookie scale contracts. Knight is also on a rookie scale contract, but unlike Plumlee and Ennis, his deal expires this summer, when the Suns figure to have to shell out eight-figure salaries to keep him. Several GMs told Michael Scotto of SheridanHoops earlier this spring that they believe Knight is worth $12MM a year. Suns GM Ryan McDonough referred to Knight as the best player in the trade, though it’s unclear if he was merely referring to the Knight trade itself or the series of moves the Suns made on deadline day, when they shipped Goran Dragic to Miami in a separate trade. It’s nonetheless clear that McDonough thinks highly of Knight, a former eighth overall pick, having referred to him as a “23-year-old who is a borderline All-Star in the East.”

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando MagicMcDonough and president of basketball operations Lon Babby will have to go chiefly by what Knight did while he was in the East with the Bucks as they wade through his restricted free agency, since a heel injury has ended the season for Knight after he played only 11 games as a Sun. The point guard took just 4.6 shots per game during that small sample size, a figure that would be a career low if extrapolated over a full season. He looked every bit the part of the budding All-Star that McDonough envisions in a 28-point performance against the Magic, but that was less than a week after a one-point, 0-for-6 clunker against the Spurs.

Knight has struggled over the course of his NBA career to become a true point guard, though he’s expressed a desire to embrace the role. The Suns don’t have to worry too much about that with Eric Bledsoe around. He and Bledsoe fit the mold of the small backcourt that’s marked McDonough’s Suns teams, and Bledsoe’s presence also takes pressure off Knight to improve defensively. Bledsoe is second among point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus this season, while Knight languishes at No. 50, well into the minus side of the ledger. Knight has been a minus defender in all four of his NBA seasons, according to Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus.

There’s still potential for growth on that end of the floor, since he’s only 23, as McDonough notes. He certainly wouldn’t be the only one-way player making $12MM a year if that’s what he ends up with, and he helps in other areas. He averaged 5.2 rebounds per game this season, the 12th most among any player 6’3″ or shorter who saw at least 500 minutes, as Basketball-Reference shows. Bledsoe is third on that list. Knight also bumped his three-point shooting to a career-high 38.9% this season after last year’s regression to 32.5%, and he was at 40.9% in that category this year before his disjointed 11 games with the Suns. His PER was 18.5 with Milwaukee, and though that shrunk to 17.2 thanks to his brief time playing with Phoenix, it’s still a career high.

The Arn Tellem client has validated his draft position, and while he doesn’t seem the sort who’ll ever be one of the top two players on a contender, he could certainly be the third. Bledsoe’s ceiling is beginning to emerge as a No. 2 on that kind of team. So, the Suns have the groundwork for a contending core, but they lack the superstar piece that’s almost always the hardest to obtain.

A new deal for Knight would essentially put the Suns out of the running to acquire a superstar in free agency this summer, since Phoenix already has about $41MM on the books. It wouldn’t be much of a setback for the franchise if it comes up empty in its star search this summer, since the top five players in the Hoops Rumors Free Agent Power Rankings all seem likely to stay put. It’s the summer of 2016 when the Suns appear positioned to make their move, as they only have about $28MM committed, and even with an eight-figure salary for Knight, they should have no shortage of flexibility with the cap set to catapult to around $90MM. The Valley of the Sun looms as an attractive destination for top free agents as long as the roster infrastructure is there for a superstar to contend immediately upon joining the team, and Knight’s presence helps the Suns toward that roster prerequisite.

Phoenix also has its share of trade assets, with the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick perhaps the juiciest. The Suns took a step back at the deadline this season, as Babby has acknowledged, with the long term in mind, and that’s why keeping Knight is more or less imperative. There’s been chatter connecting the Lakers to Knight, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see some team with aspirations of contending in the West in the near future pitch an outsized offer sheet to Knight this summer, just to force the Suns to pay a premium. That would carry risk for a team like the Lakers, since it would be difficult for any team to end up paying a defensive minus a salary approaching the max in case Phoenix doesn’t match, but it’s a distinct possibility nonetheless, given the consequences for the Suns if they let Knight walk.

Knight might not be the best player involved in Phoenix’s deadline trades, but he’s the best the Suns have to show from a pivot point in their rebuilding. Phoenix, which still hasn’t made the playoffs since Steve Nash left town, can’t afford to take a step back in both the short and the long term, so expect Knight’s Suns tenure to last a lot longer than 11 games.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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