A handful of players eligible for rookie scale extensions during the 2017 offseason signed new deals, with the Timberwolves, Sixers, Nuggets, and Suns locking up Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Gary Harris, and T.J. Warren, respectively. However, that modest, four-player group made 2017 the least eventful year for rookie scale extensions since 2003, putting most of the players who had been extension-eligible on track to become restricted free agents in 2018.
Restricted free agency can be trickier to navigate than unrestricted free agency, which allows a team to sign a player outright. A team with a restricted free agent has the ability to match any offer sheet that player signs, but that doesn’t mean retaining him is a lock — the Hawks, for instance, were unwilling to match what they viewed as an excessive offer sheet for Tim Hardaway Jr. from the Knicks this past offseason.
While restricted free agency can be a boon for certain players, such as Hardaway and Otto Porter, who received larger deals than they might have as UFAs, it can diminish the market for other players. Guys like Nerlens Noel, Alex Len, JaMychal Green, and Nikola Mirotic were on the RFA market for months this offseason and eventually either signed their qualifying offers or accepted short-term deals. Prying a restricted free agent away from another club often requires an aggressive – and perhaps overpriced – offer sheet. Sometimes, there’s just no team out there willing to make that sort of offer for an RFA, which significantly reduces his leverage.
Today, we’re taking a look at a handful of players set to reach the restricted free agent market in 2018 who shouldn’t have to worry about being stuck in limbo for months and then settling for a below-market deal. We expect free agency for these five RFAs-to-be to play out more like it did for Porter or Hardaway than for Noel or Len.
- Aaron Gordon, PF (Magic): Gordon has slowed down a little since his red-hot start to the season, but he’s still on his way to a career year, blowing away his previous career highs in several key categories, including PPG (18..6, RPG (8.4), FG% (.510), 3PG (2.3), and 3PT% (.438). Gordon’s athleticism, his expanding skill set, and his age (22) make him a tantalizing target for any team in need of a power forward. The current management group in Orlando didn’t draft Gordon, so it will be interesting to see if GM John Hammond and president of basketball ops Jeff Weltman are willing to go all-out to retain the former No. 4 overall pick next July.
- Clint Capela, C (Rockets): Capela probably isn’t the sort of player who will become a team’s primary offensive option, but he has rapidly turned into one of the more productive and efficient complementary frontcourt players in the NBA. He’s averaging a double-double (13.7 PPG, 11.3 RPG) in just 25.9 minutes per contest this season, and his .670 FG% leads the league. Capela doesn’t shoot from the outside at all, and his free-throw shooting remains a concern, but he has improved his FT% every year since entering the NBA, and has protected the rim admirably (1.7 BPG). The 23-year-old is about to get expensive.
- Jabari Parker, F (Bucks): If Parker had stayed healthy for all four of his professional seasons, he might already have a maximum salary extension in hand, like fellow top-two pick Andrew Wiggins. Instead, he’s still recovering from the second ACL tear of his young NBA career, and likely won’t get back on the court until February. As he showed last season, when he averaged 20.1 PPG in 51 games, Parker is capable of being one of the most effective young scorers in the league when he’s healthy. I’m bullish on him finishing the season strong and positioning himself for a lucrative new deal, but his injury history makes him a wild card.
- Zach LaVine, G (Bulls): LaVine’s situation is awfully similar to Parker’s. Like Parker, LaVine is coming off a career year (18.9 PPG) which was cut short just after the halfway point by a torn ACL. LaVine’s recovery is moving a little faster than Parker’s though, so we may see him make his Bulls debut this month. Chicago has high hopes for LaVine, one of the key pieces acquired in Jimmy Butler‘s blockbuster, and while the two sides didn’t work out an extension in October, there seems to be little doubt that the Bulls will lock up LaVine to a long-term contract in 2018. The size of that deal may hinge on how the 22-year-old performs upon his return.
- Jusuf Nurkic, C (Trail Blazers): After averaging a double-double during his first 20 games with the Blazers near the end of last season, Nurkic has struggled this season to get back to that level. Having recovered from a broken leg, the big man has become a focal point of Portland’s offense and is recording a solid 15.5 PPG, but his FG% has slipped to .460, and his per-minute rebounding numbers are the lowest of his career. Still, at age 23, Nurkic remains a very intriguing long-term prospect, capable of providing value on both ends of the floor, which is why he beats out potential RFAs like Julius Randle, Rodney Hood, Marcus Smart, and Elfrid Payton for this No. 5 spot.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.