Sports

The Suns Drop a Mixed Bag, Plus More Rookie Contract Extension Takeaways

The deadline for first-round picks from the 2018 NBA draft to extend their rookie contracts passed on Monday, with a league-record 11 members of the class of ’18 agreeing to new multiyear deals totaling more than $1 billion. A handful—supermax-level extensions for Luka Doncic and Trae Young, max re-ups for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr., and a four-year deal for Celtics center Robert Williams III—got taken care of ahead of time. Others, though, went right down to deadline day … and one awfully notable one didn’t get done at all.

Let’s take a look at some of the deals that came down in the run-up to Monday’s 6 p.m. ET deadline, starting with a fascinating set of decisions in Arizona:

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Deandre Ayton, Suns: No extension
Mikal Bridges, Suns: Four years, $90 million
Landry Shamet, Suns: Four years, $43 million

Phoenix entered the 2021 offseason with two key players eligible for rookie extensions; it enters the 2021-22 season having handed out two rookie-scale extensions. It’s just—and this is the thing—they managed to do that math without locking up the friggin’ former no. 1 pick.

The Suns opened deadline day by inking rising swingman Mikal Bridges to a four-year, $90 million extension—fully guaranteed, no player or team options—that will pay 2018’s no. 10 pick like a top-10 small forward. They concluded deadline day with a four-year, $43 million extension for Landry Shamet, who has yet to play a game for the franchise since coming over from the Nets this summer.

Somewhere in the middle, they decided to break off talks with Deandre Ayton—the first selection in 2018, the prospect picked to be Phoenix’s standard-bearer, who blossomed last season into a two-way interior linchpin for a conference champion—without ever making a formal offer, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.

Roughly mid-level exception money seems like a pretty penny for Shamet, a serviceable guard now on his fourth team in four seasons who can shoot it (39.7 percent from deep for his career) but whose defensive shortcomings have reduced his postseason utility. Reports that the third year is non-guaranteed and that the fourth season is a team option, though, mitigate some of the downside risk, and if Shamet’s able to reward the faith of coach Monty Williams—who was an assistant coach on the 76ers when they drafted Shamet—by showing growth as an off-the-dribble playmaker and positional defender, he could be a quality rotation piece for the Suns, whose sights are set on another deep playoff run.

Bridges, meanwhile, has developed into the sort of 3-and-D perimeter prospect that every team in the NBA is clamoring for, shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point land last season while guarding the opposition’s most dangerous offensive weapon at All-Defensive-team levels. His five most frequent defensive matchups during Phoenix’s playoff run were LeBron James, Paul George, Khris Middleton, Michael Porter Jr., and Jrue Holiday; when you need someone to slow down $750 million worth of megawatt offensive talent, Bridges is the dude you call.

When that dude’s also a catch-and-shoot marksman, he’s going to get paid—if not by you, then by any of a number of interested teams in free agency. Getting his deal done now, then, makes perfect sense, as both a potential cost-saving measure and a means of keeping the good vibes from last season’s Finals run rolling. Not getting Ayton’s done, though, seems like a head-scratcher.

I expected Ayton to get the max. Maybe there would be some hardball negotiating about supermax escalators—the ones Doncic and Young got, which would tack on an extra $35 million if Ayton met certain criteria—or whether to include a player option in the final season. And yes, a huge new deal for Ayton would push Phoenix well over the luxury tax line for the first time since 2009. But Suns owner Robert Sarver, in spite of his penchant for penny-pinching over the years, said earlier this summer that he was prepared to pay the tax to contend. Given that, and the postseason that Ayton just put together, and the team clearly being in run-it-back mode after re-signing Chris Paul and Cameron Payne, I figured the Suns would err on the side of keeping a good thing going, and ponying up to pay Ayton in preparation for a renewed pursuit of the first championship in franchise history.

Ayton did, too. And, from the sound of it, so did a heck of a lot of folks around the NBA, who reportedly registered “surprise” with what Woj and Windhorst described as the “value assessment” of Phoenix brass: that “the organization didn’t believe Ayton was a max player.”

That would seem to depend on how you define the term. If your idea of a max player is one who can be the offense-generating, do-everything centerpiece of a championship-caliber team—like LeBron, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, or, in this class, Luka and Trae—then no, Ayton’s not that.

Ayton has been, to this point, a context-dependent offensive player, reliant on the service of his table-setters. This is not a knock—it’s true of nearly every young big man—but if what you’re looking for from your maximum-salaried superstar is the kind of offensive production that, say, Devin Booker provides, then, in a vacuum, you can understand some reluctance to pay top dollar to a player unlikely to provide it. Phoenix isn’t operating in a vacuum, though.

The Suns just got within two wins of a championship, and already have Booker and Paul under contract to shoulder a championship-level creative load through at least the next three seasons. The Suns need an elite complementary piece who can check the boxes their backcourt doesn’t: commanding the back line of a defense, controlling the boards, protecting the rim, setting brick-wall screens, and running the floor like a bat out of hell. Ayton just did all of that, willingly sacrificing fewer touches and shot attempts while focusing primarily on continuing the defensive growth that began during his second season … and his reward is being told to sit tight until next summer, because ownership doesn’t really think he’s that valuable.

Tabling contract talks doesn’t necessarily mean Ayton’s days in the desert are numbered. The Suns can still offer him a max after this season, if another year of excellent play changes their mind—like the Bulls did with Jimmy Butler in 2015. They’ll also retain the right to match any offer sheet he receives in restricted free agency. Ayton could sidestep RFA by signing his $16.4 million qualifying offer for the 2022-23 season, allowing him to enter the unrestricted market in 2023, but that’s considered highly unlikely; he’d be the first no. 1 pick since the advent of the rookie wage scale to pass on the possibility of locking in a significantly more lucrative long-term deal now in favor of controlling his own destiny later.

But Ayton will walk into a shaky 2022 free-agent class as the top center available, and matching the sheet would mean matching its terms exactly, which is where things could get dicey for the Suns. A suitor could offer Ayton a shorter-term deal that front-loads his money and allows him to opt out early, which would force Phoenix to pay through the nose to keep him for the next couple of seasons and then have to re-up on an even more expensive deal, just as the price tags for Booker and Bridges begin to balloon. Forcing Ayton to get his market value on a shorter offer sheet elsewhere also puts him in line to hit the free market a year earlier—and could make him more inclined to leave once he gets there, like Gordon Hayward did when he exited Utah three years after signing a max offer from the Hornets. By passing on a deal now, the Suns opened the door to those sorts of offers, and to the difficult roster-management decisions that can come with them.

The Suns may well be right about how much Ayton is worth in terms of pure on-court production outside the context of his playoff run, and you can understand wanting to pay players based not on who they’ve already been, but on who you think they’ll become. But Ayton’s spent the past three seasons proving he’s capable of becoming something many doubted: the backbone of a championship-caliber defense, and a player who can help a team win without needing to dominate the ball. Deciding it’s not worth paying up for what Ayton already is and the prospect of more growth feels like the definition of penny-wise but pound-foolish. Sarver might wind up saving himself a boatload of money on Ayton’s next deal. But if talks stalling out winds up derailing what looks like something special being built in Phoenix, Suns fans might wind up rueing what was lost in the process.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies: Four years, $105 million

Jackson’s new deal comes in well below the max pacts lavished on some of the starrier names in his draft class, but it’s still a hefty sum … and, in fairness, kind of an eye-popping one for a player toting modest career averages of 15.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.2 assists per game, and who shot just 28 percent from long distance after returning from meniscus surgery last season, and who’s missed 101 games due to injury in three seasons. It’s in line with the five-year, $125 million contract that Atlanta gave fellow inside-out 4/5 type John Collins this summer and, seemingly, a gamble that Jackson will in time provide both the offensive production and grit that Collins turned in for the Hawks in his maiden postseason voyage.

Memphis is betting that, with better health and more repetitions, Jackson will reach his promise as a futuristic stretch 5 capable of pulling opposing centers out of the paint to create more room for Ja Morant’s marauding, switching out to track point guards on the perimeter, and recovering to patrol the paint. Jackson has already proved himself as a floor-spacing shooter (38.4 percent from 3-point range on more than 500 attempts through his first two seasons), but the defensive half of that equation skews more toward projection than production at this point. Jackson has rejected 5.1 percent of opponents’ 2-point shot attempts throughout his career, but he hasn’t shown he’s strong enough to stand his ground against burlier opponents on the block, savvy enough to reliably defend without hacking, or seasoned enough to captain the back line. It takes time to learn the dark arts of interior defense, and if Jackson can, it would open the door to the kind of lineups that can distort and bombard opposing defenses.

According to Bobby Marks of ESPN, Jackson’s deal will start near the maximum salary for a player with his level of service time in 2022-23 before declining over the next three seasons. That ensures Jackson will take up a smaller percentage of Memphis’s balance sheet as the years wear on and the salary cap rises, affording the Grizzlies more financial flexibility as they work to build a championship-caliber roster around Morant, who’s all but certain to receive his own max (and possibly supermax) extension as soon as he becomes eligible next summer.

It seems like a solid compromise, all things considered: one that gives Jackson peace of mind as he tries to put together a healthy breakout campaign, that lets Morant know Memphis’s ownership and front office are willing to spend in pursuit of meaningful contention, and that gives head coach Taylor Jenkins a stable foundation on which to build. All that’s left, then, is for Jackson—who looked good in preseason, averaging 18 points and 7.3 rebounds in 27 minutes per game while making 14 of his 29 triple tries—to earn his money and help Memphis continue its upward trajectory.

Kevin Huerter, Hawks: Four years, $65 million

After its stellar run to the Eastern Conference finals, Atlanta capped an offseason full of big new deals—a five-year max for Young that could be worth $207 million, rich new extensions for Collins (five years, $125 million) and Clint Capela (two years, $46 million)—by locking up Huerter on a deal that seems … just about perfect?

Huerter’s new contract comes in below recent deals for solid complementary starters on the wing—players like Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Joe Harris, Tim Hardaway Jr., and the player he’s backing up, Bogdan Bogdanovic. At an average annual value of $16.25 million, Huerter slots in between Gary Trent Jr. and Malik Beasley as the 23rd-highest-paid shooting guard in the NBA—good money for a reliable spot starter/sixth man and seemingly pretty good value for the Hawks, who have come to rely on Huerter’s complementary ballhandling and shot creation alongside any combination of his talented teammates.

Huerter can play on the ball, getting to his spots inside the arc to knock down midrange pull-up jumpers (51.6 percent in 2020-21) or set up teammates (4.1 assists per 36 minutes for his career), and he can play off of it, spotting up to drill catch-and-shoot 3s (39.5 percent for his career). He’s not a plus defender, but he’s a useful one, with a 6-foot-7 frame that allows him to slide across every perimeter position as needed. He can contribute without being cast in a central role, but when the opportunity to enter one presents itself, he’s got the game to capitalize—as he did in Game 7 of Atlanta’s second-round victory over the 76ers, when he torched Seth Curry and Co. for 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting.

You probably can’t expect that from Huerter night in and night out, but at this number and with that roster, the Hawks don’t have to. Extending him at this price solidifies Atlanta’s perimeter depth without threatening to upset any sort of established hierarchy right now, since the starters who have come up for paydays are all making more. It also provides a backup plan at the 2 if Bogdanovic decides to opt out in the summer of 2023, and puts a pretty valuable player on a pretty tradable contract should Hawks GM Travis Schlenk decide he needs to deal from his stockpile of wings to reload elsewhere. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are both extension eligible next summer, which means Atlanta will face more decisions soon. But for now, Schlenk gets flexibility before the roster he’s paying explodes into luxury tax territory; Nate McMillan gets to bring back the full squad he coached to within two wins of the Finals; and Huerter gets paid. Wins all around.


Wendell Carter Jr., Magic: Four years, $50 million

If you feel like you’ve got a good bead on what kind of player Carter can become after four head coaches in three seasons on two rebuilding teams, and after missing 78 games due to a variety of injuries and a pandemic sprinkled in, then you’re a more confident analyst than I am. I’m not sure the Magic front office knows, either, but $50 million (with the annual value reportedly declining for four straight years) seems like a worthwhile gamble to find out, especially for a franchise that’s closer to the start of a rebuild than the end of one, and that knows it probably won’t be making many free agency splashes any time soon.

After coming to Central Florida in the deal that sent Nikola Vucevic to Chicago, Carter averaged 11.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 26.5 minutes per game, shooting 49 percent from the field. The Magic were awful in his minutes, getting outscored by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions, but they were even worse without him, offering both an indication of how dismal things were in Orlando last season after the trade deadline and hope that things could start to trend upward with more reps, better health, and more talent on hand.

We might not see that trajectory early on in Orlando, with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz still working their way back from injuries and rookie Jalen Suggs likely to need some time to get up to NBA speed. But if Carter can stay healthy and build on a preseason that saw him shoot 64.3 percent from the floor and knock down four of his nine 3-point tries, he stands a good chance at establishing himself as a roughly league-average starting center, albeit one who cedes a decent share of minutes to veteran Robin Lopez and fellow ’18 draftee Mo Bamba (who wasn’t extended).

Admittedly, “roughly league average” is a long way from the sort of All-Star production that Vucevic provided for much of his tenure with the Magic. But for a 22-year-old who’s seen nothing but starts and stops in his career thus far, and a team that’s been searching for something worth getting excited about ever since Dwight Howard left town, average with a pathway to more is something.

Grayson Allen, Bucks: Two years, $20 million

Allen essentially got the same deal as Shamet—$10 million a year (a little less, actually, before incentives) to be a combo-guard shooter off the bench on a championship-level team.

The former Duke star came into his own last season in Memphis, averaging 10.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 25.2 minutes per game while shooting 39.1 percent from deep and making 38 starts for a Grizzlies team that won the play-in tournament to earn the eighth seed. Once the postseason rolled around, though, Allen struggled to hold up against Utah’s elite offensive attack, laying bare his limitations as a playoff performer … which makes his fit on the Bucks kind of interesting.

The glass-half-full view of the Bucks’ trade and subsequent extension of Allen: Surrounded by better defensive talent in a scheme under Mike Budenholzer that consistently produces top-flight units, the 26-year-old can improve on that end of the floor while also helping stretch the floor for a Milwaukee team that could barely buy a long ball for extended stretches of its run to a title. The more pessimistic view: Allen just replaces Bryn Forbes, a designated-hitter type who can provide good minutes during the regular season but will be forced by the hunting of opposing offenses out of the postseason rotation. That latter scenario wouldn’t seem like particularly strong value for a $20 million deal, especially for a capped-out Bucks team whose luxury tax bill inflates with every dollar spent. But if Allen—bigger than Forbes, with a bit of a mean streak to boot—can improve on the defensive end and knock down a few 3s when it counts on the way to a title defense, it’ll feel like money well spent.


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