Last week, we looked at the extensions that were signed by players entering the fourth and final years of their rookie contracts, as well as the projected value for those deals. Now let's flip the question around and consider some of the notable players who did not sign extensions and will become restricted free agents next summer.
Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee (Projected first-year salary: $12.7 million)
For a player as accomplished as Jennings during his first three seasons not to get an extension is relatively rare. Including Jennings, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and James Harden this season, 20 players have totaled at least 20 WARP during their first three seasons since the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement went into effect. Of them, 17 signed extensions. Besides Jennings, the exceptions were Andre Iguodala and Josh Smith, both of whom ended up signing long-term deals with their teams in restricted free agency.
Of course, WARP tends to take an especially optimistic view of Jennings because his high rate of three attempts marks him as more of a floor spacer than his accuracy would indicate. But Basketball-Reference.com's Win Shares still put him fifth in the class and tops among players who were not extended. Jennings' per-game averages are also robust.
With the other top point guards from the 2009 first round agreeing to extensions, Jennings will be the best restricted free agent available next summer and maybe the top young player on the market. Yet the Bucks still had good reason to wait on Jennings. Milwaukee is staring at more than $20 million of cap space if Monta Ellis exercises his early termination option to become a free agent. Jennings' cap hold ($8.0 million) could allow the Bucks to make a big offer while still retaining him on a new contract.
We also don't know what Jennings' demands were. He may not have been willing to settle for anything less than a four-year max deal, which would be perfectly fair but would also leave Milwaukee without any incentive to agree to an extension rather than letting the season play out and matching any offer made to Jennings as a restricted free agent--the same strategy used by Indiana with Roy Hibbert and New Orleans with Eric Gordon last summer.
Whether such an offer is forthcoming will depend in large part on how Jennings plays this year. Improving his efficiency and demonstrating increased willingness to set up teammates first and score later would make Jennings a coveted player. So far, so good. While Jennings hasn't shot the ball especially well through two games, he's handed out an impressive 26 assists and delivered the game-winning three to help the Bucks start 2-0. If Jennings keeps playing like that, he'll get his money, most likely from Milwaukee.
Tyreke Evans, Sacramento (Projected first-year salary: $7.4 million)
If I had to guess, I would choose Evans as the 2009 first-rounder whose extension talks most divided player and team. Evans' camp surely sees him as a max-type player based on his Rookie of the Year campaign and obvious talent. Based on his regression over the last two seasons, the Kings surely regarded Evans' value more warily and the two sides never got far, per the Sacramento Bee.
The extension formula more or less splits the difference, projecting a first-year value that would translate into a four-year contract for about $33 million. That figure could change dramatically between now and next July based on Evans' play. There's a statue of limitation on potential. If Evans can't get back where he was as a rookie some three years later, it's time to start viewing that effort as something of a fluke. Besides dealing with foot problems that have rendered him somewhat less explosive, Evans still has yet to improve on his weaknesses in terms of decision-making and outside shooting. Those shortcomings, excusable when Evans was 20, become more problematic with each passing year.
Since an impressive opening outing, Evans has made just nine of his 38 shot attempts (23.7 percent) over his last four games and watched the conclusion of Monday's win over Golden State from the bench. If Evans continues to struggle, I could see him playing next season in Sacramento for the qualifying offer ($6.9 million) while both sides try to figure out his place in the league.
Jeff Teague, Atlanta (Projected first-year salary: $5.6 million)
Like the Jennings decision, this is all about money. The Hawks have the flexibility to potentially sign two max players if they renounce Smith's rights. Most likely, whatever moves Atlanta makes won't be so drastic, but keeping Teague at his cap figure ($6.0 million) and maintaining the option of moving him in a sign-and-trade gives them maximum flexibility, especially if they make a play for a point guard like Chris Paul.
The risk is Teague increasing his value with a strong season as the starter on a team that could surprise in the East. At the same time, there's a chance that veteran Devin Harris will finish games at the point ahead of Teague, as he did during Sunday's win at Oklahoma City. So both team and player are sharing the uncertainty about his value right now, though team is more OK with it than player. Teague told Hoopsworld.com's Lang Greene "it's a little more motivation to go out there and try to prove to them that I deserve the things I was looking for and try to make the best of it."
Every once in a while, a lesser player will quietly sign an extension for limited money. Think Kosta Koufos last season, or role players like Thabo Sefolosha and Jared Dudley in the past. There weren't a lot of great candidates this season. Dallas is trying to maximize cap space, so extending Darren Collison was a non-starter even though Collison could break out in the Mavericks' point guard-friendly system. One player I thought might have made sense was James Johnson in Sacramento. If the Kings could have locked up Johnson for something like $10-15 million over three years, that might have made sense for both sides since it wouldn't have cost Sacramento much more than Johnson's qualifying offer and would have offered him some security entering his first year with the Kings.
The other candidate I saw was Charlotte's Byron Mullens, who would fall under a similar category to Koufos as a player who could increase his value rapidly with a solid season. Mullens, who is starting at power forward for new coach Mike Dunlap, has added a three-point dimension to his game this season. The early returns are mixed; after a strong preseason from beyond the arc, Mullens has made two of 14 three-point attempts over the season's first two games. So we'll see whether a breakthrough season is in the offing.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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