Extension Candidate: Festus Ezeli

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Minnesota Timberwolves

Courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

Usually, players who sign rookie scale extensions have averaged more than five points per game at least once in their first three NBA seasons. That’s not the case for Festus Ezeli, but the Warriors apparently want to buck the trend. It’s possible that it’s a simple case of buying low, since Ezeli clearly hasn’t shown the bona fides usually required for a team to make a long-term commitment but will ostensibly have a chance to do so this season. The repeated signals from Warriors GM Bob Myers that the team is willing to do an extension are also perhaps yet another manifestation of a drastically rising salary cap, since teams will have an unprecedented capacity to spend. Golden State just won its first championship in 40 years, and beyond the positive vibes from that accomplishment is the wisdom in using the cap boom to keep a title-winning team together.

Golden State appears ready to test that wisdom to its extreme. Of course, that depends on just how much the Warriors would be on board with giving the former 30th overall pick. If, say, they want to do an unusually cheap rookie scale extension and sign him for around the value of the mid-level, the shock factor wouldn’t be nearly as profound. Indeed, the Warriors would extend his contract for the right price, as Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders wrote this week, though Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group later speculated that market price for Ezeli would be $9-11MM a year.

Ezeli’s chronic failure to corral passes from teammates has helped deflate his offensive numbers, but he’s improved his hands, as Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com noted. Indeed, he got off nearly twice as many shots per 36 minutes this past season as he did in 2012/13, his rookie year. He also converted them at a much higher rate, lifting his field goal percentage from 43.8% to 54.7%. He upped his PER from a dismal 9.3 to an above-average 16.2, showing increased efficiency, and he posted impressive averages of 11.1 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per 36 minutes last season.

All of that is encouraging, but the sample size is small. Ezeli played only 504 total minutes last season, an average of 11.0 per game across his 46 appearances. Part of that had to do with the depth of the title-winning Warriors, who had Andrew Bogut and Marreese Speights, with David Lee and even Draymond Green capable of playing small ball center at times. Lee is the only one no longer on the roster, and Bogut, the starter, is signed through 2016/17. Still, the former No. 1 overall pick turns 31 this November and has a history of injuries, so chances are he’ll fade away long before Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes do. Golden State will eventually need a center who can complement its young core.

Bogut has appeared in more regular season games during the three years of Ezeli’s career than Ezeli has. The 6’11” 25-year-old from Nigeria had surgery in June 2013 to reinforce the MCL and PCL in his right knee after he sprained the knee in the playoffs that spring. He missed all of the 2013/14 season, and a sprained left ankle kept him on the inactive list for more than a month this past season. The ankle injury was poorly timed, since he’d just come off a string of seven consecutive starts in place of Bogut. Ezeli didn’t make any more starts last season, but he did eventually return to the rotation, and he appeared in every playoff game but one.

Starting isn’t altogether unfamiliar for Ezeli, who was on the floor for the tip of 41 regular season games and three playoff games as a rookie. That was the year Golden State made its first postseason appearance with its current group. Bogut’s defense has proven key to the team’s success the past few years. Ezeli is also plus defender, according to Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus Minus, though that’s not surprising for a center. He’s the 40th-best center in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, fairly impressive for someone who saw only 11.0 minutes a night, finishing right behind vaunted defensive talent Gorgui Dieng in that metric. The Warriors were about as efficient defensively with Ezeli on the floor as they were without him this past season, as NBA.com shows. However, they scored a whopping 6.5 points more per 100 possessions when Ezeli sat, a number that reflects the drop-off from Golden State’s starters to its bench but nonetheless speaks to Ezeli’s offensive shortcomings.

An extension with salaries in the eight-figure range would signal that the Warriors believe in Ezeli as the successor to Bogut in the role of starting center. Convince him to sign for somewhat less, and he’ll shape up as a well-compensated reserve. Kosta Koufos paced the free agent the market for backup centers this summer with a deal from the Kings that will give him an average of a little more than $8MM each season. Ed Davis and Aron Baynes, two reserve centers with upside, each wound up with about $6.5MM in average annual value.

The escalation in the cap plays a role, but it would be surprising to see the Warriors pay more than what their Northern California neighbors shelled out to Koufos if they project Ezeli as a backup for the long haul. Perhaps a four-year deal that starts at Koufos-level money of around $8MM a year and goes up to a salary of around $10MM for the last couple of seasons makes the most sense. He would be paid like a premier backup at the beginning of the extension and like a fifth starter at the end of it, and if the Warriors are reasonably optimistic about his potential, that’s probably how they view him.

Do you think Ezeli deserves an extension, and if so, how much should he get? Leave a comment to tell us.

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