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The Five Most Interesting Under-the-Radar Free Agents

Not every NBA team can land a ready-made superstar this summer. Here are five players (plus six more) who can make a big difference for a relative bargain.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA free agency kicks off on Sunday, and, if you’re reading this, it’s a good bet that you’re already very familiar with the most sought-after items on teams’ shopping lists. But you need more than a superstar or two to succeed in this league; just ask the Raptors, who a scant two weeks ago hoisted the Larry O’B powered by one true blue-chipper and a bunch of carefully chosen complementary pieces. Every team would love to add a Kawhi Leonard, a healthy Kevin Durant, or Kyrie Irving (or his talent, anyway). The difference between winning and losing, though, so often exists in the margins, and in the magic smart teams can make within them.

As we get set for this weekend’s feeding frenzy, let’s take a look at some below-the-fold types whom smart teams should be targeting, starting with low-key difference-makers in Indiana ...

Thaddeus Young

Power forward | Unrestricted free agent | Age: 31

OK, OK: I’m aware that focusing on a fill-in-the-blanks power forward on the wrong side of 30 who’s averaged 15 points per game only three times in 12 pro seasons removes all doubt about how thoroughly washed I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong! Young is good, and probably better than you think.

The 6-foot-8, 221-pound forward is about as reliable as it gets. He has missed two games in the past two seasons and played in 73 or more in each of the past seven. He’s a dependable, versatile defender with the quickness to slide with guards and swingmen in space and the bulk to bang down low; save for Leonard’s work in the Eastern Conference finals, nobody’s done a better job of checking newly minted MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the past few years than Young.

Young makes his mark in the areas we often overlook. He keeps plays alive and ranks 10th among big-minute forwards in offensive rebound rate since coming into the league in 2007. He uses his length and quick hands to disrupt opposing offenses, ranking fifth in that group in steal percentage over that same period and finishing third in the league in deflections last season. He’s not an elite scorer, but he can bull his way to the basket and get you a bucket in the post. He’s not a playmaking stretch-4, but he can make the extra pass and hit a 3 off the catch. He’s a valued locker-room leader who has, just about every season, made his team better whenever he’s on the floor. Teams with a hole at the 4 could do a hell of a lot worse than looking to fill it with Young, a plug-and-play starter who does just about everything at a B or B-plus level.

Friendly suggestion: Jazz (if they move on from Derrick Favors), Celtics (if Al Horford’s out the door), Nuggets (if they decline Paul Millsap’s $30 million option)

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers - Game Four
Bojan Bogdanovic
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Bojan Bogdanovic

Small forward | UFA | Age: 30

The Croatian forward opened a lot of eyes in the second half of last season while shouldering the burden of being Indiana’s no. 1 offensive option following Victor Oladipo’s season-ending quadriceps injury. He also helped the Pacers stay in the mix for home-court advantage in Round 1 until the dying embers of the regular season. After Oladipo went down, Bogdanovic averaged 20.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game, and posted a sterling true shooting percentage of 61.3 percent despite finishing more than a quarter of the Pacers’ offensive possessions. Only five players produced that combination of usage and shooting efficiency over the full 2018-19 season—four league MVPs and one of the most gifted big men in the sport.

Now, no one is saying that the 6-foot-8, 216-pound forward is about to join Giannis, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Karl-Anthony Towns in the ranks of the league’s elite offensive talents. But his ability to stroke the 3 and work off screens, threaten defenses both off the bounce as an emerging pick-and-roll operator and off the ball as a weak-side cutter, and credibly defend both frontcourt spots makes him an intriguing option for teams in need of firepower that lack the scratch to shop at the top of the free-agent market.

Bogdanovic will likely command a significant raise over the $10.5 million he earned last year in Indiana. (In a possibly related story, the Pacers traded for a new offense-first combo forward in T.J. Warren.) But for a team looking for a secondary creator with the juice to do more when called upon, Bogdanovic could be well worth the price.

Friendly suggestion: Spurs (if they can make a couple of moves), Lakers

Patrick Beverley

Point guard | UFA | Age: 30

Beverley is an attractive free-agent target because he can fit into a ton of different roster constructions. Just about every team could use an excellent on-ball defender at the point of attack, a player who can initiate offense, cede control of the action to a more dominant scoring force, and finish a play with a spot-up triple or a drive past a closeout.

He’d make sense grinding alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers, or back with the Clippers as part of an evolved roster possibly built around a certain Finals MVP. He’d make sense for rebuilding teams with high-usage pieces already in place—say, next to Luka Doncic in Dallas, or Devin Booker in Phoenix, or the burbling young core in his native Chicago. It remains to be seen how long teams will be willing to commit to a hard-charging type with a lengthy injury history—Beverley has played more than 65 games just three times in seven NBA seasons (and he turns 31 on July 12). And it’ll be interesting to see whether Beverley, who has never made more than $6.5 million in a season, will prioritize title contention or making the top dollar in what could be his last chance to secure the bag.

Whichever route he goes, dudes who know their roles, never stop playing them, and hold their teammates accountable for doing likewise are worth their weight in gold—especially when they can stand toe-to-toe with immortals in the crucible of the postseason without blinking or backing down.

Friendly suggestion: Lakers, Suns, Mavericks, Bulls, Clippers, Celtics

Charlotte Hornets v Indiana Pacers
Jeremy Lamb
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Jeremy Lamb

Shooting guard | UFA | Age: 27

It went largely unremarked upon, because nobody really paid too much attention to the non–Kemba Walker Hornets last season, but Lamb just had himself a career year. Away from the prying eyes of the basketball-watching public, Lamb has become a versatile and vital complementary wing; the UConn product was one of only 21 players in the league last season to average 15 points, five rebounds, two assists, and a steal per game—a group full of All-Stars and highly touted youngsters headed that way.

At 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Lamb can check a bunch of boxes for teams in need of a multifaceted solution at the swing spots. He’s not necessarily a lockdown artist, but he can reasonably defend multiple perimeter positions. He’s a legitimate threat spotting up off the ball, and shot 38.5 percent from 3 on catch-and-shoot tries in each of the past two campaigns. His shot accuracy on corner 3s last season ranked in the 99th percentile in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s also a viable secondary creator who can run some two-man game; Lamb finished in the 73rd percentile or better as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll in each of the past four seasons on a sample of more than 1,000 such plays, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s charting.

The Hornets obviously have bigger fish to fry in free agency. Charlotte already has nearly $98 million in guaranteed salary on the books before any potential new deal for Walker; if Michael Jordan backs up the Brink’s truck to bring Kemba back, the Hornets will be deep into luxury tax territory, and could have a hard time justifying the extra expenditure to keep Lamb in the fold. Food for thought for teams that might not be able to afford someone like Khris Middleton or Malcolm Brogdon, but could still use some help on the wing.

Friendly suggestion: Lakers, Pacers, Magic, 76ers (if they lose their max guys)

Tomas Satoransky

Point guard | Restricted free agent | Age: 27

Trying to sign another team’s restricted free agent is always a dicey proposition. Having your cap space tied up for two days while the incumbent team decides how to play things can mean missing out on other opportunities to improve your team, and if that team decides to match your offer sheet, you wind up with bupkis to show for it beyond maybe building some goodwill with an agent. If you’re going to target a restricted type to poach, though, it makes sense to go after a guard on a team that has already maxed out two of them. Washington will pay $65.2 million for John Wall and Bradley Beal next year, despite only one of them being able to play, and that number will only go up in the years to come. As a result, a Wizards front office still without a long-term GM might blanch at the idea of flirting with the luxury tax to lock in a third guard.

Despite that third-guard billing, Satoransky has proved capable of handling a lead role in the NBA. He made 84 starts in place of an injured Wall during the past two seasons and put up strong numbers in his stead, averaging 10.6 points, 6.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.1 steals in 31.8 minutes per game, with 50/44/83 shooting splits. He’s not a top-shelf individual shot creator and is much more likely to shoot off the catch than off a live dribble, which can limit the amount of pressure he puts on a defense in the half court. But he’s a steady hand with good vision who makes smart decisions with the ball. He tied for 12th in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio in 2018-19, and is a bona fide glue guy who knows how to run a team unselfishly. (Never forget: #EverybodyEats.) At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, he’s got the size to help plug gaps defensively at either guard spot, and the smarts to be in the right spot in the team scheme more often than not.

Satoransky’s no star, but he’s solid, and at a position as critical as the point, that matters. Maybe, with Wall out of the picture for the foreseeable future and few other bankable ball handlers and movers in the mix, Washington can’t afford to lose him. But with the tax looming, an offer sheet with some teeth could force the Wiz to swallow hard and part ways with a high-floor table-setter who can also do damage spotting up.

Friendly suggestion: Pacers, Suns, Magic

Some Honorable Mentions

Julius Randle, PF, UFA

I’ll be honest: I still don’t know exactly what to make of Randle. There’s so much to like on the offensive end of the floor. Last season, he turned in a career year in New Orleans: 21.4 points and 3.1 assists in 30.6 minutes per game, a surprising 34.4 percent mark from 3-point range on almost three tries a night, looking for stretches like an unguardable Juggernaut rampaging in the open court to the basket. And then, well, there’s the other end.

ESPN’s real plus-minus graded Randle as one of the least helpful big men in the league last season; opponents shot 64.7 percent at the rim with Randle contesting, which landed him 40th out of 48 bigs to defend at least four up-close tries a game. Even so, he had a positive on-court/off-court differential last season for the first time in his career, and at just 24 years old, with his résumé as a scorer and rebounder, someone’s going to pay to find out whether he can put it all together and become a star. It just might not be a very good team.

Reggie Bullock, SF/SG, UFA

Everybody needs big wings who can shoot, and over the past four seasons, only 14 players who have attempted at least 500 3-pointers have shot ’em more accurately than Bullock. Things didn’t go so hot for him after he joined the Lakers at the trade deadline, but you’d be hard-pressed to pin that clusterfuck on him. Granted a stable role playing alongside facilitators who’ll know when, where, and how to get him the ball, Bullock, 28, seems a good bet to return to being one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot marksmen. And while he’s far from a shutdown defender, he’s got size (6-foot-7, 6-foot-9 wingspan) and enough athleticism to at least compete enough on that end to stay on the floor. He may yet be a central-casting shooter alongside LeBron in L.A.; the Lakers have his Bird rights, so they could go over the cap to re-sign him after making more moves to round out their roster. If he chooses to look elsewhere, though, he’d likely draw interest; he’d be helpful just about everywhere.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics
Terrence Ross
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Terrence Ross, SF/SG, UFA

Once again: Everybody needs big wings who can shoot, and no bench player made more triples last season than Ross’s 217, a career high and the 10th-best mark in the entire NBA. In his seventh season, the 6-foot-7 former Raptor settled comfortably into a role as Orlando’s designated microwave, an inveterate gunner who started firing as soon as he checked in and didn’t stop until he checked out; only Harden, Steph, Eric Gordon, and kindred spirit Gerald Green jacked more 3s per 100 possessions. Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman has said that keeping Ross and All-Star center Nikola Vucevic will be the team’s top priority this summer, but if Ross, 28, is cool with staying in that Human Torch role off the bench, he could be the sort of carry-the-offense-for-a-few-minutes option another playoff hopeful would love to have around.

Ricky Rubio, PG, UFA

Rubio’s time as the starting point guard in Utah ended as soon as the Jazz swung their deal for Mike Conley, a similarly heady playmaker who packs the 3-point shooting punch that Rubio has just never been able to consistently provide. His defensive aptitude, genius court vision, and passing flair still have value, though, especially for teams that could benefit by upgrading from underwhelming to simply solid at the point. Our Kevin O’Connor has reported that the Pacers, who leaned hard on Darren Collison and Cory Joseph last season, are interested in the 28-year-old Spaniard.

JaMychal Green, PF, UFA

The ex-Grizzlies big man made a seamless transition into the Clippers’ playoff rotation after joining the team at February’s trade deadline. That’s thanks in large part to the work he’s put into becoming a rare combination of floor-spacing and glass-cleaning; the 6-foot-9 forward last season became one of just six players in Basketball-Reference’s database to shoot at least 40 percent from 3-point range on 150-plus attempts and have a defensive rebounding rate north of 24 percent. Green’s also a smart veteran frontcourt defender who can moonlight as a small-ball 5 in a pinch—the Clips outscored Golden State by 15 points in 89 Green-at-center minutes in their first-round playoff series, which could make him more attractive to teams looking to add more two-way versatility in the frontcourt.

And One Not-Quite-Free Agent: Derrick Favors

Derrick Favors started 70 games for the Jazz last season, and helped Utah make its third consecutive trip to the playoffs with his bruising work as a screener, interior scorer, and paint-patrolling defender. A team built on its defense has maintained confidence in the viability of a Favors–Rudy Gobert frontcourt, despite the lack of 3-point shooting and floor spacing that combo provides and the challenges that can create in the playoffs. Favors also eats up center minutes when Gobert leaves the floor, ensuring that the Jazz have an elite interior menace on the court at virtually all times. He probably isn’t going anywhere.

And yet: It’s possible that the Jazz, seeing an opportunity to break all the way through to the top of the West given the chaos in Golden State and the addition of Conley, could explore options for more big-game hunting this summer. (Especially considering Utah traded Jae Crowder, its only real stretch-4 and a linchpin of its best lineups during the past two seasons, in the Conley deal.) One quick path to creating significant salary cap space to do so is waiving Favors before July 6, thus striking his non-guaranteed $16.9 million contract from the books. Of note: Tony Jones of The Athletic tweeted Monday that, while the Jazz love Favors, “he’s not a lock to come back” should Utah work its way into something interesting over the next few days.

If Favors shakes loose, expect a bunch of good teams to be in on him. The only reason Gobert’s defensive on-court/off-court numbers weren’t eye-popping during his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year campaign is because Favors was so friggin’ good backing him up. Opponents shot just 50.1 percent at the basket with Favors defending, the no. 1 mark among 107 big men to face at least three such shots per game last season. He’s mobile enough to defend in space, too, while remaining an efficient pick-and-roll finisher, a mauling back-to-the-basket scorer, and an excellent rebounder on both ends. And he’ll turn just 28 on July 15, meaning you’ll still be getting prime years on his next contract.

Favors will probably remain a foundational piece of the Jazz roster as they try to get past the second round for the first time since 2007, and to make it out of the West for the first time since the heyday of Stockton-to-Malone. Just something to keep an eye on as things start to get wild.