While the destinies of LeBron James, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard will define this NBA offseason, the moves that won’t break Twitter can’t be discounted. Rosters aren’t composed entirely of superstars. Depth matters, especially in the playoffs, when rotations get trimmed and it becomes critical to have the right specialists to complement cornerstone players.
Shaun Livingston had played for eight teams over 10 seasons when the Warriors signed him in 2014, and he’s gone on to play a central reserve role for three championship teams. Why? Because he fits perfectly. Important rotation players are often those who were previously considered damaged goods, overlooked for one reason or another, or have yet to reach their upside. But then, in their new situation, they shine.
The 2018 free-agent class is relatively thin, but it does feature stars (James and George), several known commodities (Derrick Favors and Trevor Ariza), and impressive restricted free agents (Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle). Looking even deeper and you’ll find more talent just waiting to find the right situation. Here are eight players (all unrestricted, unless otherwise noted) to keep an eye on as we approach July.
Jabari Parker, Bucks
There was a time when saying “Parker is the next Carmelo Anthony” didn’t have such a negative connotation. But here we are: It’s 2018, and Melo is washed. Parker certainly does play like Melo Jr. with his porous defense and uninspiring passing. But I won’t quit Parker, a restricted free agent this summer who tore the ACL in his left knee twice in a span of 25 months. Parker hasn’t put it all together because he hasn’t been able to. There have been injuries. There’s the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo. There’s the fact the only two coaches he’s played for are Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty.
Parker could help matters by trying harder on defense. But, man, there’s no denying his scoring upside. It’s what made him an elite high school recruit and the no. 2 pick in the 2014 draft. He turned 23 in March, and 6-foot-8, 250-pound dudes who move on offense with the fluidity and grace of a ballerina don’t come around often. I can’t let go after watching games when he dropped 28 on the Rockets in 2017, or 35 on the Nuggets this past April.
Parker is an effective shooter off the catch (38.7 percent from 3 over the past two seasons). He’s a force when attacking closeouts. He’s explosive finishing inside. And he’s a solid option at the end of the clock. Parker’s defense and passing need to come a long way, but I’d love to see what a creative coach on a team with strong chemistry could mold Parker into. Maybe in the right situation, Parker could channel the positive sides of Carmelo, while minimizing all of his negative traits.
Seth Curry, Mavericks
In The Ringer’s 2018 NBA Draft Guide, we wrote that Hawks rookie point guard Trae Young “can look like either Steph Curry or Seth Curry.” That wasn’t intended to be an insult toward Seth, who was quite good during the 2016–17 season for the Mavs but sat out all of last season with a stress fracture in his lower left leg.
Curry has resumed basketball activities, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported. As long as his health checks out, he should be able to get back on track. In one season with the Mavs, he shot 42.5 percent from 3 while averaging 12.8 points. Curry, like his brother, drained 3s off the catch and coming off screens. He also hit 44.9 percent of his 3s off the dribble. He was especially potent in the pick-and-roll.
Seth isn’t Steph, but the younger Curry brother was coming into his own with the Mavericks. Teams in need of a scoring guard with the ability to go off at a moment’s notice should take a look.
Joe Harris, Nets
Watching losing teams is usually painful, but the Nets were surprisingly enjoyable this past season. One of the reasons? Joe Harris, who was one of the NBA’s most efficient players. Seriously! Harris scored 1.12 points per possession, per Synergy Sports. He flourished by running through screens and handoffs in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s offense like he was Kyle Korver. The 26-year-old wing shot 41.9 percent from 3 despite taking a ton of looks on the move.
Harris can stroke from 3, and he’s also developed into a competent driver who can comfortably dribble into pull-ups and get all the way to the rim.
There’s not much resistance from the Knicks on this drive, but Harris’s quirky finish has become a trademark. Though he lacks elite athleticism, Harris has learned how to score creatively at the rim while off-balance, which has rounded out his offensive game. Now he can finish inside, stroke 3s, and make smart passes. He’s not a lockdown defender, but he battles regardless of the matchup. What more can a team ask for in a reserve?
Wayne Ellington, Heat
Ellington finished fifth in Sixth Man of the Year voting for good reason — he hit 39.2 percent of his 7.5 3-point attempts per game. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra unleashed Ellington by racing him through screens and giving him the green light to shoot at will, even with defenders draped all over him. Ellington has played for seven teams in nine seasons because of his limited offensive game and inconsistent defense, but he plays hard and his best skill—shooting—is what every team is looking for in today’s NBA.
Nerlens Noel, Mavericks
Noel’s 2017–18 season will be best remembered for when he ate hot dogs during a halftime break from Rick Carlisle’s doghouse. But prior to Noel’s disastrous season-plus in Dallas, the 24-year-old was one of the NBA’s more promising defensive centers in Philadelphia. Noel had the length, mobility, and athleticism to be a dangerous rim protector who could step out onto guards and create chaos in the passing lanes. Those skills are only dormant.
Proven rim-running bigs like Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan will fetch deals in the $20 million range annually. But Noel will come cheap. Teams with a good point guard and a winning culture to keep Noel motivated — two things he has never had in his career — may provide him with the situation necessary to get back on track.
Marcus Georges-Hunt, Timberwolves
I’m a sucker for three things in life: coming-of-age movies (like The Perks of Being a Wallflower), female vocalists who play a smooth guitar (Lianne La Havas), and undrafted basketball players who grind on defense (Georges-Hunt). Though Georges-Hunt played sparingly for the Timberwolves last season, he impressed in his few opportunities. At 6-foot-5 with a beefy frame and long arms, Georges-Hunt is physically equipped to defend multiple positions.
Athleticism doesn’t mean much without effort, but Georges-Hunt always plays hard. The 24-year-old will take charges, dive for loose balls, and chase down rebounds. But Georges-Hunt needs to start draining 3s as well as he does in the G League (39.4 percent) to stick around in the NBA. He’s a solid free throw shooter, so more consistent minutes might be all he needs. Wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t give Georges-Hunt regular minutes to find out, but maybe another team will.
Jerami Grant, Thunder
The “five-position defender” cliché is tossed around too freely, but it legitimately applies to Grant, who was used last season by Thunder head coach Billy Donovan as a small-ball center, a floor-spacing forward, and as a man-to-man defender against guards. Grant isn’t an elite defender, but he’s effective.
Factor in Grant’s versatility on offense — he’s a below-average 3-point shooter (30.1 percent career from 3), a ball handler who can attack closeouts, and an explosive finisher inside — then suddenly he becomes an intriguing piece in the age of positionless basketball.
Dante Exum, Jazz
I ranked Exum third in the 2014 draft — just ahead of Andrew Wiggins, Aaron Gordon, and Dario Saric — which seems silly in hindsight. Exum has played 162 games in four seasons and has yet to pop offensively like many expected the Australian to do when he entered the league as a teenager. But two major injuries (a torn ACL at the end of his rookie season, then a shoulder injury at the start of the 2017–18 season) have derailed Exum’s career thus far and set back his development. Exum will be only 23 next season, so hopefully his best years are ahead of him. His gritty defensive performance against James Harden in the West semifinals could be a sign of what’s to come.
Exum defended Harden about as well as any guard can. At 6-foot-6 with long arms and quick feet, he can defend both smaller and larger wings, too. Exum’s scoring is still a work in progress, but he’s a solid passer who shows flashes in the pick-and-roll. Exum, a restricted free agent, may never meet expectations, but I’d love to be the team that bets on him with his next contract.