With every declined option or rescinded qualifying offer, there’s a potential comeback story. For young, middling players without the résumé to command a beefy contract, signing a cheap, short-term deal is essentially agreeing to a tryout. And for a player who is essentially on a prove it contract, landing in the right situation is crucial. Here are three players who could be in the perfect spot to make a leap:
Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans
Entering the 2017-18 season, Randle seemed like the one player the Lakers front office didn’t see in the team’s future. Brandon Ingram, yes, Lonzo Ball, yes, but not Randle, who didn’t get a contract extension that fall, and started the season coming off the bench. Randle answered with career highs, averaging 16 points on 55.8 percent shooting. Eventually, that starting spot was his once again, and at times, he was the best Laker on the floor.
Yet Randle still wound up leaving L.A. After Randle reportedly requested that the Lakers renounce his rights because he anticipated playing a reduced role, Randle finally found himself wanted—really, really wanted—by someone else. The Pelicans went after the 23-year-old aggressively, to the point where Anthony Davis called him three times to make sure he was coming to New Orleans. (And you can’t even get a text back!) Randle has the chance to flourish next to Davis, who will be far and away the best player he’s had as a teammate in his young career. (Yes, I know that in 2015-16, Randle played with Kobe. Kobe was 37.)
Davis’s skill set is as long as his wingspan, and he gives frontcourt mates room to play their most effective basketball. Plus, Randle’s hugely improved defense should repay the favor on the other end. Even without a single defensive drill, Randle has transformed into someone able to guard multiple positions, and is trustworthy when switched onto guards. And for the Pelicans, Randle was a bargain get: A two-year, $18 million contract makes Randle the latest in a recent hot streak for the budgeting Pelicans brass.
Mario Hezonja, New York Knicks
The best chance the 23-year-old Hezonja has gotten to show what he can do came out of desperation. Orlando’s injured list—which at times included Jonathon Simmons, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac, and Terrence Ross—was so stacked it probably could’ve beaten some of the Magic’s starting fives. After two seasons of inconsistent opportunity—nothing like a coaching change to pile onto growing pains—Hezonja played substantial minutes in 2017-18, and littered his stats with career highs. But that all came after Orlando declined his 2018-19 team option.
Hezonja received multiple offers this summer, but opted for a one-year, $6.5 million tryout with the Knicks because of his connections there—people who he probably feels, after 2.5 stagnant seasons, can help him grow. Knicks GM Scott Perry was an Orlando executive when the franchise drafted Hezonja fifth overall in 2015, and coach David Fizdale, then a Miami assistant, had interviewed him. Fizdale is well-known for his ability to develop and transform players, which Hezonja had a taste of last season when Frank Vogel moved him from small forward to power forward. In an introductory press conference, Hezonja expressed interest in staying at the four. “I have [my] major, best minutes at the point forward,” he said, “or what the new NBA calls it. I really like Frank Vogel’s decision to put me there.”
Describing Hezonja as having “lots of potential” is fair only if it’s followed with “and lots of flaws.” The hyped-up 3-point shot he had entering the draft keeled over in the NBA; his career high in a season is 34.9 percent. Defense seems, no pun intended, foreign. But Hezonja is only 23. Now, he’s in the hands of a forward whisperer, on a roster without forward depth.
Shabazz Napier, Brooklyn Nets
Portland was good to Napier. By the end of a two-year tenure, he was Damian Lillard’s reliable backup, and had solidified his place in the league after a bumpy start. He finished last season checking career highs in nearly every box: points (8.7), field goal percentage (42 percent), 3-point percentage (37.6 percent), rebounds (2.3), steals (1.1), and trips to the line (1.9).
At 27, we know what Napier can be: a crafty ball handler with a nice jumper and solid instincts. The ceiling doesn’t rise too high for a player who is only 6-foot-1, but plugged into Kenny Atkinson’s modern pace-and-space system, Napier could have a larger role with the Nets than he would ever have with the Blazers. He’ll be behind D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie in the backcourt, but Jeremy Lin and Isaiah Whitehead are no longer there to pad the bench. (Not to mention the time Russell has missed over the past two years due to knee injuries.) Napier is the catch-and-shoot dream Atkinson built last season without equipment: Brooklyn took the second-most 3s in the league, and shot them at the 11th-worst rate.