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November 5, 2012
Transaction Analysis
Rookie Options

by Kevin Pelton

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Halloween is the annual deadline for two sets of key decisions in the NBA, but one gets substantially more attention than the other. Last week, I focused on the extensions to rookie contracts that players are eligible to receive the year before hitting restricted free agency. To get to that point, however, players must have both option years on their standard four-year rookie deals picked up, and those calls must also be made by Halloween. It's easy for the declined options to slip through the cracks since in one sense they're a case of nothing happening, but there were some notable players whose fourth years were not picked up. Let's take a look at the 2010 first round:

Pk   Team  Player              WARP   Opt
-----------------------------------------
 1   WAS   John Wall            9.8   Y
 2   PHI   Evan Turner         -2.6   Y
 3   NJN   Derrick Favors       5.1   Y
 4   MIN   Wesley Johnson      -2.3   N
 5   SAC   DeMarcus Cousins    10.6   Y
 6   GSW   Ekpe Udoh           -0.2   Y
 7   DET   Greg Monroe         18.9   Y
 8   LAC   Al-Farouq Aminu     -0.8   N
 9   UTA   Gordon Hayward       3.6   Y
10   IND   Paul George          9.8   Y

Pk   Team  Player              WARP   Opt
-----------------------------------------
11   OKC   Cole Aldrich         0.5   N
12   MEM   Xavier Henry        -3.5   N
13   TOR   Ed Davis             5.7   Y
14   HOU   Patrick Patterson   -1.1   Y
15   MIL   Larry Sanders        0.7   Y
16   POR   Luke Babbitt        -0.2   N
17   WAS   Kevin Seraphin       0.6   Y
18   LAC   Eric Bledsoe         0.2   Y
19   BOS   Avery Bradley       -2.4   Y
20   SAS   James Anderson      -1.2   N3

Pk   Team  Player              WARP   Opt
-----------------------------------------
21   NOH   Craig Brackins      -0.5   N3
22   POR   Elliot Williams      0.5   N
23   WAS   Trevor Booker        3.8   Y
24   NJN   Damion James        -1.1   N3
25   DAL   Dominique Jones     -0.2   N
26   NOH   Quincy Pondexter    -1.9   Y
27   ATL   Jordan Crawford      0.7   Y
28   MEM   Greivis Vasquez      2.2   Y
29   ORL   Daniel Orton         0.1   N3
30   MIN   Lazar Hayward       -0.6   N (waived)

Including Lazar Hayward, who was waived by the Houston Rockets after being included in the James Harden trade, a stunning eight members of the 2010 Draft class will become unrestricted free agents next summer after their options weren't picked up. Add in the four players who failed to make it to the third year of their rookie contracts (James Anderson, Craig Brackins, Damion James and Daniel Orton, of whom only Orton is now on a roster) and just 18 of the 30 first-round picks will last their entire rookie contracts.

While I don't have complete data, that appears to be a record number. It's certainly more than recent years. Of the 29 eligible players from the 2009 Draft (Ricky Rubio is still a year behind because he came over so late), 22 played out their rookie contracts. The number is even higher for 2008--27 out of 30.

It's too early to call this a trend. Let's wait until we see what happens next season with members of the 2011 Draft--more on them later--to declare that teams are getting more conservative with team options. For now, what stands out is that there were a number of exceptionally difficult calls this year. As team-friendly as rookie contracts are in general, salaries escalate dramatically for the fourth season, making some of these options quite pricey.

Money was clearly the driving factor in the case of the highest-profile player whose option was declined, No. 4 overall pick Wesley Johnson. The Phoenix Suns, who acquired Johnson from Minnesota over the summer, suggested they would like to keep Johnson around on a new contract for less than his $5.4 option. Players whose options are declined become unrestricted, but teams still have their usual Bird rights to re-sign them for any amount. (In Phoenix's case, the Suns will be far under the cap, one reason to decline Johnson's option and maintain maximum flexibility.)

Of course, Johnson's performance is still an issue. He's rated below replacement level so far during his career, as have six of the nine players whose options were declined. The other three accumulated less than one WARP, largely during garbage time.

For Portland's Elliot Williams, the decision fundamentally came down to health. Williams is out for the season after rupturing his Achilles during a summer workout--the third season-ending injury Williams has suffered in as many years in the league. When he's gotten on the court, Williams has shown promise, but it's unlikely that he will draw much interest in free agency without having any opportunity to prove himself over an extended period at the NBA level. The Blazers may be able to bring back Williams without having to guarantee him as much money, and they buy another eight months to monitor his rehabilitation process. Portland also turned down the option for Luke Babbitt, who has proven he has one NBA skill (shooting) but not that he can successfully defend either forward position for regular minutes.

The most interesting free agent of the group might be New Orleans' Al-Farouq Aminu. The Hornets picked up just one of their three options on fourth-year players (Greivis Vasquez), sending Aminu and Xavier Henry to free agency. That move was unsurprising for Henry, who has logged just 11 minutes through the team's first three games and has accumulated more negative WARP than any other player from the 2010 first round. Aminu, by contrast, is starting at small forward and has averaged 13.3 points and 7.0 rebounds thus far. At 22, Aminu might be getting it after his lack of shooting held him back during his first two NBA seasons.

Aminu, Henry and Johnson are three of the four lottery picks that had options declined--actually fewer than 2009 (five, including No. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet and No. 6 pick Jonny Flynn, who is now playing in Australia), but still a significant number. The last was No. 11 pick Cole Aldrich. The Rockets had to decide whether to guarantee Aldrich's fourth year just days after acquiring him in the Harden trade, and they had little NBA track record to go buy. Just three 2010 first-round picks--Brackins, Orton and Williams--have played fewer minutes than Aldrich, who spent his first two seasons watching from the bench in Oklahoma City. Aldrich is one of the biggest outliers in the surprisingly consistent relationship between draft spot and playing time, as this chart with both MPG and WARP for the 2010 first round shows:

(The other outlier, by the way, is Washington's Jordan Crawford, whose average of 26.2 minutes per game ranks fourth in the class as the No. 27 overall selection.)

THE 2011 DRAFT

If getting a fourth-year option declined is disappointing, being cut loose after just two seasons is an indictment. Two 2011 first-round picks suffered that fate this season--Portland's Nolan Smith, the No. 21 pick, and No. 27 pick JaJuan Johnson, who was waived by Houston and subsequently taken first overall in the D-League Draft. My research shows that over the seven drafts since the league instituted the third-year option in the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement, 16 players (about two per year) have failed to make it to year three.

Because salaries are generally still low and one year is early to make a call on a player's potential, teams typically pick up the third season. Johnson was largely a victim of the numbers game with the Rockets, while Smith played so poorly in training camp as to put his roster spot in some minor jeopardy. This is a bad sign for both players, though not necessarily a death sentence. Shannon Brown and Earl Clark have both been able to stay in the league after having their third-year options turned down.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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