The 2021 postseason served primarily as the coronation of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it also represented a coming-out party for members of the 2018 NBA draft class. The brightest star in that group, Luka Doncic, averaged 35.7 points, 10.3 assists, and 7.9 rebounds per game while being guarded primarily by Kawhi freaking Leonard in a heartbreaking series that the outgunned Mavericks lost in seven games. The player traded for Doncic on draft night, Trae Young, strutted comfortably into the postseason spotlight, taking center stage as the Hawks knocked off the Knicks and 76ers before taking the Bucks to the limit in the Eastern Conference finals—with Young hobbled for the final three games by a bone bruise in his right foot. And not to be outdone, Deandre Ayton, 2018’s no. 1 pick, exploded onto the national scene as the Valley-oop finishing, rock-solid two-way backbone of the Suns, who made a stunning run to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993.
When free agency opened last month, the Mavericks and Hawks wasted no time rewarding Doncic and Young for their service, inking the rising superstars to full-freight, maximum-salaried extensions of their rookie contracts. (Doncic’s deal is worth $207 million, because he’s already made two All-NBA teams to qualify for the supermax; Young’s starts at $172 million, but could rise as high as Luka’s if he also meets the criteria.) But while a couple of other 2018 draftees have secured the bag—no. 11 pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got the five-year max to remain the cornerstone of the house Sam Presti’s building out of draft picks in Oklahoma City, and no. 27 pick Robert Williams received a four-year, $54 million re-up to man the middle in Boston—it’s been quiet for the rest of the extension-eligible cohort thus far, as teams prioritized rounding out their 2021-22 rosters over turning their eyes to the future.
Let’s take a look at three members of the ’18 class that could soon join Doncic, Young, and Gilgeous-Alexander with huge-dollar deals: the cases for and against them becoming max men right now, the circumstances surrounding their potential extensions, and what their long-term deals could wind up determining for the teams that drafted them.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
The Bahamas-born big man was one of the biggest winners of the 2021 postseason, thanks to his full-fledged commitment to that hoariest of coaching clichés: being a star in your role.
Ayton got about nine fewer frontcourt touches per game and attempted nearly six fewer shot attempts per 100 possessions during the regular season than he did in 2019-20—and saw the ball even less than that in the playoffs. That’s no small sacrifice. Touches, shots, and offensive primacy typically stand as the birthright of the no. 1 pick, and it’s not always easy for a 22-year-old to sublimate the drive to score for the greater good of the team. Ayton did just that, though, willingly slicing his usage rate and buying into what head coach Monty Williams and big-man-whispering assistant coach Mark Bryant were selling: that a version of the Suns on which he served as a screen-setting, lob-finishing, board-crashing complement to star guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul on offense, and focused primarily on continuing his already-in-progress defensive growth could win, and win big.
In Ayton’s three seasons as a pro, the Suns have improved from 29th to 17th to sixth in defensive efficiency. Other factors have contributed to the rise—the development of fellow 2018 draftee Mikal Bridges, also in line for a mammoth extension; the arrival of Paul, long in the tooth but still a defensive genius with a safecracker’s hands—but Ayton’s evolution is the largest. He’s married prototypical size, length, and athleticism with a more advanced understanding of how to play the pick-and-roll in space, protect the rim as a help-side defender, devour missed shots to clean the defensive glass, and go heads up against the very best of the best without blinking. Ayton more than held his own against Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic; weathered the devastating small-ball lineups the Clippers used to unravel Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and the Jazz; and was Phoenix’s only prayer of even slowing down Antetokounmpo in the Finals. (Ayton held Giannis to 30-for-62 shooting when they were matched up, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ tracking data; against all other Suns combined, Giannis shot 45-for-60.)
Ayton did all that while averaging nearly 16 points and 12 boards per game in the playoffs and making more than 65 percent of his shots—numbers that put him in some awfully rarefied air, historically. Add to that the prospect that this curtailed version of his offensive game barely scratches the surface of what he might be able to do with more seasoning, and Ayton seems like precisely the sort of two-way linchpin the Suns would eagerly look to lock down with a long-term extension—one in which he and his reps will surely push for the max. And yet, as training camp nears: no deal yet.
There could be a few reasons why. As David Kevin of The Four Point Play suggests, Suns general manager James Jones may have an eye on keeping the books balanced, aiming to maintain the flexibility to add another playoff-rotation-caliber piece before spring and avoid dipping into the luxury tax now, with an expectation that existing deals for Booker and Paul plus lucrative re-ups for Ayton and Bridges will push Phoenix well over the tax line in the years ahead. (On the bright side, Suns owner Robert Sarver, whose checkered reputation as a boss has included numerous instances of penny-pinching over the years, sounds like he’s on board with paying up for a real contender: “That’s gonna come with the territory here. … We know it’s coming. We see ourselves as a taxpayer, and that’s just part of what it’s gonna take to bring home a championship.”)
Maybe there’s some slight reluctance to give Ayton the full-boat, 25-percent-of-the-cap post-rookie max, a deal that only a handful of other big men have gotten coming off of their rookie deals over the last half-dozen years. (ESPN’s Bobby Marks floated the possibility of a four-year, $112 million contract with a player option for the final season, which would allow Ayton to enter unrestricted free agency in 2025 at age 27 after accruing seven years of service time, which would make him eligible for a max starting at 30 percent of the cap.) Maybe it’s a question of whether to grant Ayton a player option for the fifth season—a feather-in-the-cap level of flexibility that Doncic, Young, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell got, but that Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox didn’t. (Nor, for that matter, did Booker when the Suns maxed him out in 2018.) Maybe it’s about haggling over the finer points of the achievement-based financial escalators, like when the Pacers and Paul George agreed to a contract that would bump George’s salary to 27 percent of the cap in the event he made an All-NBA team, rather than the default 30 percent (George was given an opt-out clause in exchange).
Whatever the reason, I’d bet on the Suns and Ayton reaching a max-level deal before the season. With Paul back in the fold and Booker coming off a brilliant postseason debut, Phoenix has every reason to keep the good vibes rolling and aim for another deep playoff push—and no reason to potentially alienate a 23-year-old with star upside who’s already proved himself on the biggest stage in the sport.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Porter’s offensive skills are indisputable. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan, electric athleticism, a high release point, and a velvet touch, the former national high school player of the year can fill it up from damn near anywhere inside half court. He averaged 19 points per game as a sophomore, breaking out as a true three-level scorer who shot 77.5 percent on attempts at the rim, 48.3 percent from midrange, and 44.5 percent from 3-point land on more than six attempts per game. That’s a rare brand of efficiency: Porter averaged 1.33 points per shot attempt last season, ranking him in the 96th percentile of all NBA forwards, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The caveat that much of Porter’s efficiency came courtesy of his being a lower-tier option in Denver lineups built on the foundation of the Nikola Jokic–Jamal Murray two-man game fell by the wayside late last season, too. After Murray’s disastrous season-ending ACL tear, Porter stepped into a more central role and shined, averaging 23.2 points per game on obscene 55/44/85 shooting splits despite shouldering a significantly larger share of the Nuggets’ offensive workload. And his gift for igniting in a hurry was on full display in Game 6 against Portland in the first round of the playoffs, when Porter dropped 22 points on the Blazers’ heads in the first 12 minutes:
Whatever other concerns you might raise about Porter’s on-court work—and, for what it’s worth, he seemed to make significant strides on strengthening his defensive weaknesses last season—this dude was essentially built in a lab to put the ball in the basket. And in a game that, as the prophets have told us, has always been and always will be about buckets, that is a skill that gets you paid.
Basketball-Reference’s database lists 14 players besides Porter who have averaged at least 18 points per game with a true shooting percentage of .600 or higher before age 22. Four (Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Adrian Dantley) are Hall of Famers. Three more (Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard) will join them; a fourth (Amar’e Stoudemire) one day could. The ranks of current not-quite-yet-immortal players on the list include Porter’s teammate Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, all of whom are currently on max deals; Zion Williamson, a virtual lock to get one the millisecond he’s eligible; and John Collins, who came up short of the max, but still scored a cool $125 million in restricted free agency. (This leaves Bill Cartwright as an outlier. Sorry, Bill.)
So, why haven’t we already seen Porter put pen to paper on his own nine-figure check? Porter’s medical history might have something to do with it. Recall that Porter suffered a back injury that required a microdiscectomy procedure on the L-3- L-4 discs in his spine, limiting him to just 53 minutes during his lone collegiate season at Missouri, prompting his slide to the 14th pick in the 2018 draft, and leading Denver to essentially give him a medical redshirt for what would have been his rookie season.
Those woes haven’t reared their ugly head over the past two seasons—the most time Porter’s spent on the shelf was a 10-game stint in January from a positive COVID-19 test—but given how serious they were at the outset of his career and how notoriously tricky back issues can be, you could understand at least some trepidation about forking over $172 million to someone who’s logged just 3,598 minutes of total floor time since his draft. Especially considering that would be far from the only hefty contract on the Nuggets’ books.
Jokic, fresh off winning MVP, is eligible for a supermax extension. Murray’s already on the books for nearly $131 million through 2025. Aaron Gordon, whom Denver imported at the 2021 trade deadline and who looked like the missing piece that could turn the Nuggets into a championship contender before Murray went down, is eligible for a contract extension of his own this summer that could pay him as much as $88 million over a four-year span; there’s “mutual optimism” between player and team that they’ll reach a deal before camp, according to Mike Singer of The Denver Post.
A Gordon extension that starts in the $19 million range, added to existing contracts for rotation pieces like Will Barton, Monte Morris, JaMychal Green, and Jeff Green, and rookie-scale deals for recent draftees, puts Denver’s total salary commitment for the 2022-23 season north of $125 million … and that’s before you add whatever Porter’s next deal will look like. Come ’23-24, the Nuggets could be locked into nearly $130 million just for Jokic, Murray, Porter, and Gordon. As much as Nuggets president Tim Connelly wants to “reward” Porter’s work ethic and production, might ownership blanch a bit at that projected balance sheet, and decide that’s just too rich an overall commitment—even for an MVP-led roster that, with a healthy Murray, really might have a shot to win it all?
You’d certainly hope not; winning it all is what the whole thing’s about, after all. With Jokic in place as a generational superstar, the Nuggets should be willing to go as far as is necessary to provide him everything he needs to propel the organization to unprecedented heights. And for what it’s worth, Connelly projected certainty on this point back in June: “We have no financial restraints in terms of trying to further develop a championship-level roster.” The big question, then, is whether Porter would be willing to accept a max deal with certain injury protections and/or minutes and games played incentives (like the deal that Joel Embiid signed four years ago) or a contract that came in slightly below the max but still guaranteed Porter nine figures (like the ones that players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jaylen Brown, and John Collins inked coming off their rookie deals), or if he’s willing to hold fast and firm that he deserves the full max, no ifs, ands, buts, or restrictions appended.
I’d bet on the former; $100-plus million is a lot of money to turn down, especially when you’ve already had basketball taken away from you for an extended period of time. Then again, if Connelly and Co. played hardball on the specific points of the deal, it wouldn’t exactly be shocking for a player as confident and self-possessed as Porter to decide to bet on himself and look to strike it rich in restricted free agency next summer.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Near the end of the 2019-20 season, Jackson profiled as a prototypical “unicorn.” He was capable of both stretching the floor (38.4 percent from 3-point range on more than 500 attempts through his first two seasons) and protecting the rim; Jackson’s one of only two players ever to tally more than 150 made triples and 150 blocked shots by his age-20 season, joining the late Eddie Griffin. When the NBA restarted its suspended season in the Walt Disney World bubble, Jackson came out firing, drilling six long balls—on 15 attempts—and hanging 33 points on the Blazers as Memphis pushed for a spot in the inaugural play-in tournament:
And then: disaster. Jackson tore the meniscus in his left knee, putting him on the shelf for nearly nine months. He returned in time to help the Grizzlies make the 2021 playoffs, but shot just 28.3 percent from 3 and struggled to avoid fouls on the defensive end—a career-long problem—as he tried to get back up to speed. A five-game ouster at the hands of the no. 1-seeded Jazz sent Jackson into the summer eligible for an extension … but with plenty of questions about what sort of deal he might find.
Jackson looks the part of the futuristic floor-spacer whose ability to rain fire from beyond the arc can contort an opposing defense. The Grizzlies scored 115.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Jackson and Ja Morant sharing the court last season after Jackson’s return, according to Cleaning the Glass—which would’ve been a top-10 offense over the course of a full season—and a scorching and league-best-equivalent 122.4 points-per-100 when Jackson was playing the 5 (in an admittedly extremely small sample). It’s a stark contrast to Grizzlies history, but that seems to be the blueprint Memphis is following: ride JJJ’s shooting and Ja’s penetrating pick-and-roll play to keep pace in a league producing points at unprecedented levels.
The issues, though, come on the other end. For all his burgeoning skill as an interior deterrent—opponents have shot 54 percent at the basket when Jackson’s defending the attempt during his three-year career, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ tracking data, which is about what newly minted $100 million man Jarrett Allen managed this past season—he’s yet to show the physical strength to keep burlier opponents from bull-rushing him inside or, perhaps even more critically, the court sense to consistently defend without hacking. Since he entered the league, no player has committed more personal fouls per 100 possessions than Jackson—a glaring flaw that greatly mitigates his effectiveness as the hoped-for linchpin of the Grizzlies’ defense.
Those concerns have become exacerbated when Jackson rides solo on the back line without a stabilizing bruiser like Jonas Valanciunas or Marc Gasol: Memphis’s defense has been worse, and sometimes dramatically so, when Jackson has lined up at center than when he’s slotted in at the 4 in each of his three pro seasons. That, presumably, is why Steven Adams is sticking around for the time being; while Memphis hopes that the Jackson of the future will be able to assume the primary responsibility of manning the middle, the Grizz haven’t seen enough evidence to suggest that the present-day model can handle the job. (Another data point to support that argument: The only player 6-foot-10 or taller who averaged fewer rebounds per possession than JJJ over the past three seasons was Davis Bertans, who essentially never gets inside the 3-point arc if he can help it.)
The Grizzlies clearly believe in Jackson. In August, Zach Kleiman described him as “a cornerstone of this franchise,” one the organization expects to “take on an even more of a sizable offensive role” this season.
“I think we’re going to be our best selves over time with Jaren,” Kleiman told reporters. “Spacing the floor, attacking, creating, defensively taking advantage of the versatility he brings to the table.”
But in a league governed by a salary cap, believing in Jackson—still just 21 years old, with time to add strength and savvy, and already teeming with skills you can’t teach—doesn’t necessarily make it smart for Memphis to just go ahead and max him out. Add the possibility that he’s less a franchise center and more of a (gasp) “tweener” to the durability concerns that necessarily come with a big man who has missed 101 games in three seasons due to a series of leg injuries, and you can understand why Memphis not only hasn’t rushed to give Jackson a max deal, but also why there might be some trepidation on tendering any big-money contract right now.
He’s far from the first big man to come down the pike who has shown he can shoot and put up offensive numbers, but hasn’t yet established himself as a dependable centerpiece on a team of consequence. One such player, John Collins, just got $125 million—but only after both being historically productive through his first four seasons and proving himself in the crucible of the postseason. Lauri Markkanen, another stretch big who’s been less productive and less stout on worse teams, got about half that amount guaranteed to hash it out in Cleveland for a few years. And neither of them had quite the same injury issues that travel with Jackson to the negotiating table.
Maybe player and team can find a compromise somewhere in the middle—say, something on the order of the four-year extension that the Magic gave Jonathan Isaac after he tore his left ACL, one with certain injury protections built in but that could tack an extra $10 million or $15 million onto the total if he meets some games-played incentives. Would Jackson, the no. 4 pick in the draft just three years ago, balk at such a conditional payday, preferring to bet on himself, try to ball out this season, and hit next summer as a stronger max candidate in restricted free agency? Or will a player who’s missed nearly half of his games to date opt for the security of a long-term but less lucrative guarantee right now?
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