The All-Payday Team: Five under-25 players who could cash in next summer
SF: Gordon Hayward, Jazz
Before the season, Hayward looked like a shoo-in for this payday quintet thanks to a laundry list of favorable conditions. An up-and-down season really hasn’t changed anything.
What exactly is working in his favor? Well, he’s the leading scorer and face of a rebuilding Utah team that would have a giant hole to fill on the wing without him. He’s one of the top performers from his 2010 draft class, a group that has already seen the likes of Wall, George, Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, Jazz forward Derrick Favors and Bucks center Larry Sanders rewarded with eight-figure-per-year contracts. His organization will be well under the salary cap next summer without any dead-weight deals on its books, putting itself in prime position to match any offer for Hayward in restricted free agency.
Team and player talked about an extension before the deadline in October, but ESPN.com reported that the Jazz were unwilling to offer Hayward a four-year, $50 million contract, which would have represented about 80 percent of a max rookie-extension deal. Utah’s refusal to go there is understandable because such a deal would have made Hayward richer than the likes of Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum ($46 million over four years) and Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari ($42 million over four years) on their first contracts after rookie deals.
The 23-year-old Hayward has delivered, but not quite delighted, this season. Much like the Jazz as a whole, his play suffered when the team’s projected starting point guard, rookie Trey Burke, missed the start of the season with a finger injury. His numbers — career highs of 17.1 points and 14.5 shots side-by-side with career lows of 41.5 percent shooting and 31.7 three-point shooting — have all the hallmarks of a player dealing with more offensive responsibility and more defensive attention than ever before. With Burke back, Hayward’s shooting numbers have started to recover, and it would be a genuine surprise if they remain this unsightly at season’s end.
The Jazz’s rough November and December served as a nice evaluation period for Hayward. A max-level star would have been more successful in handling such adversity, but Hayward nevertheless led the Jazz in scoring and was the team’s leading playmaker (4.9 assists per game) before Burke returned. He’s also logged nearly 200 more minutes than any of his teammates, ranking as Utah’s third-leading rebounder and top steals producer. That reliability and all-around production have major value, especially on a roster as young and thin as the Jazz’s.
Hayward seems to be showing that he’s fully capable of being a foundation piece, but not a go-it-alone superstar. Gallinari and Batum both fit the same bill and have eight-figure contracts to show for it; barring a major injury, there’s absolutely no reason to believe Hayward will fall short of that standard. While the Jazz will be hoping that no one makes a monster offer to Hayward, they will also enter the summer knowing he’s theirs to keep even if that worst-case scenario does unfold.
PF: Greg Monroe, Pistons
Like Hayward, his 2010 draft classmate, Monroe was a shoo-in for this list, not only because he carries a big man premium but also because he has been a full-time starter since midway through his rookie season. Those minutes — more than 8,000 of them already — have allowed Monroe to average roughly 15 points and nine rebounds for the last three years, a long track record that should appeal to any team with a frontcourt hole to fill. This equation is pretty simple: consistent production + 6-foot-11 height + no major injury red flags = payday.
That’s true even though Monroe’s fourth season, like Hayward’s, hasn’t been a smash hit. A big part of Monroe’s expected price can be attributed to a lack of supply: He was the only big from the 2010 draft class with a proven track record who wasn’t extended early, as Cousins (four years, roughly $60 million), Favors (four years, $48 million) and Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders (four years, $44 million) all cashed in last fall. Given how similar Monroe and Favors are statistically, Favors’ contract represents the floor for Monroe, and it’s possible that the restricted free agency process winds up inflating Monroe’s ceiling closer to the Cousins-like max level.
Monroe, 23, hasn’t quite justified that type of major investment, though. His bread-and-butter is his combination of size and offensive versatility. He rebounds with purpose (especially on the offensive end), scores reasonably well from the post, faces up and puts the ball on the floor, and passes well for a big man. Unfortunately, Monroe still lacks the mid-range jumper that would make him a top-flight weapon; he’s barely strayed outside the paint this season and, when he has, the result has been plenty of red on his shot chart.
He’s also far from a stopper on the defensive end, and Detroit is once again lacking in that capacity this season, despite the addition of Josh Smith. Even though Monroe hasn’t missed a game this season, he has blocked only 19 shots, a tally surpassed by the likes of 6-5 Victor Oladipo, 6-6 Danny Green, 6-7 Wesley Johnson and more than a dozen other players listed at 6-8 or shorter.
Those shortcomings aren’t likely to stop someone from making Monroe a big offer. Detroit remains in the driver’s seat because big-dollar deals for Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey expire at the end of this season and because center Andre Drummond is on a cheap rookie deal. Being able to keep the jumbo front line of Smith, Monroe and Drummond intact doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea, though, which explains months of rumors surrounding Monroe that are certain to pick up again as the trade deadline approaches.
Bottom line: Unless Bosh decides to leave Miami (or is forced out for luxury-tax reasons), Monroe will likely enter the summer as the No. 1 “available” free-agent big man target. That will almost certainly lead some team to talk itself into extending an overly generous offer sheet, forcing Detroit to make a tough choice. A losing record, a below-average offense and defense and a subpar year from Monroe in the new frontcourt configuration are all indications that perhaps Detroit shouldn’t stick too tightly to this core. There must be a better fit for Monroe than being squeezed between Drummond and Smith, right?
C: Nikola Vucevic, Magic
Just as the contracts for Cousins, Favors and Sanders established benchmarks for Monroe, those early deals set a possible decision-making precedent for the Magic with Vucevic, one of the few extension-eligible low-post players from the 2011 class who can be expected to command a significant contract. (Vucevic, who is under contract for $2.8 million in 2014-15, is eligible to sign a rookie-scale extension beginning July 1 and ending Oct. 31. The deal would kick in for the 2015-16 season.)
The 23-year-old Vucevic represents an answer for an Orlando roster that is full of questions at virtually every other position. The Magic must sort out how best to use 2013 lottery pick Oladipo, decide whether to sell high on Arron Afflalo, figure out a replacement for point guard Jameer Nelson and hope that the best is still yet to come for Tobias Harris.
Vucevic, however, has already established himself as a steady backbone. His production has been comically consistent since he arrived from the Sixers in the four-way deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers. It’s a little bit eerie how bankable Vucevic has been: He averaged 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds while shooting 52 percent in 2012-13, and he’s averaging 13 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 51 percent in 2013-14. Similarly, his PER has changed by only a fraction from year to year and all of his other major numbers — assists, blocks, steals and even fouls — have barely moved.
The ex-No. 16 pick might not be the franchise’s heir apparent to former No. 1 selections Shaquille O’Neal and Howard, but Vucevic is a reliable double-double guy who doesn’t need the ball to be effective and has proved capable of ranking among the league’s rebounding leaders. He has range on his jumper and he finishes at a slightly above-average rate at the rim. He certainly doesn’t have Cousins’ explosive offensive ability, but there’s room to grow.
Of the three early-extending big men from the 2010 draft, Favors is probably the best comparison, as Vucevic lacks Cousins’ star potential and Sanders’ red flags. Favors’ and Vucevic’s third-year per-minute numbers are very similar, and the rebuilding Magic figure to be in roughly the same spot in the growth cycle next summer as the Jazz were last summer. At some point, you have to identify a core. After parting with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Utah started that process with Favors, and Vucevic will be the first of the Magic’s younger producers who can be locked up.
It’s still early to talk numbers on a rookie extension, which wouldn’t need to be completed until the start of the 2014-15 season, but Favors’ four-year, $48 million deal is an intriguing starting point for the discussion. Perhaps Favors’ advantage in upside over Vucevic allows Orlando to find some savings, but, like Monroe, a payday is coming to Vucevic one way or another thanks to his established track record. The Magic would therefore be wise to get their work done early on Vucevic, cutting off the possibility of an inflation generated by restricted free agency. That would allow them to turn their attention to sifting through the rest of the young talent on hand (and coming around the corner in the 2014 draft).