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2022 NBA Free Agents Who Could Blow Up on New Teams Next Season

Dan Favale

Superstar movement is not going to define the 2022 NBA free-agency class.

Apologies to anyone who didn't already know, but there's no way around it. Very few All-Stars are set to hit the open market in the first place, and only five teams project to have appreciably more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception to spend. 

Don't confuse this to mean free agency will be inconsequential. It won't be. Plenty of middle-tier names are available, and within this rock-solid subset of players, there are a handful of hoopers who could really go kaboom if they switch teams.

Just so we're clear: Inclusion on this list is neither predictive nor instructive. This isn't me saying each player will or must leave their current digs.

Rather, it's an acknowledgment that a shift in opportunity could result in the biggest, splashiest breakout of their career.

Jalen Brunson

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Jalen Brunson just about went mainstream during a breakout regular season in which he averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists while knocking down 54.5 percent of his twos and 37.3 percent of his threes. And if his performance to open the playoffs is any indication, he might be a full-fledged household name by the time he reaches free agency.

Granted, he doesn't need to leave the Dallas Mavericks to glitz up his career arc. Sharing the spotlight with Luka Doncic is, in many ways, a fitting gig. Brunson isn't saddled with the primary creator's role when they play together, and the lineups he does captain typically come against bench-heavy units.

Alternatively, though, partnering with Doncic can be functionally repressive. Operating as the sidekick to such a heliocentric star is more like serving as the No. 2.5. Brunson gets plenty of time away from Luka during the regular season—15-plus minutes per game, in fact—but there's a severe drop-off in his usage when they're running together. He averaged 30.6 shot attempts and 10.8 assists per 100 possessions playing on his own this year versus 20.4 and 4.8, respectively, during their simultaneous stints.

Would Brunson's efficiency hold up if he pilots his own team, or if he transitions into the role of a more heavily featured No. 2? It's tough to say. His three-point percentage plunged without Doncic on the court this year, but his finishing inside the line largely held up. The pressure he puts on defenses will translate beyond Dallas, that's for sure.

Among 53 players who averaged at least 10 drives per game during the regular season, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Chris Paul shot the ball at a higher clip. Even in a cash-strapped market such as this summer's free-agency landscape, Brunson will have suitors galore. And while the Mavs are not limited in what they can offer him relative to outside admirers, they cannot promise him an offensive role more central than the one he has now.

Potential Suitors: Dallas, New York, Indiana

Nicolas Claxton

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Injuries and illnesses have capped Nicolas Claxton's court time through his first three years to just 94 regular-season appearances, but his stretches of availability continue to tantalize. 

Especially on defense.

Bigs who don't space the floor, capably put the ball on the deck and aren't Rudy Gobert typically get lumped under the dime-a-dozen umbrella. Claxton is an exception. His switchability on defense renders him matchup-proof. He can do everything from rotating around the rim to guard superstar ball-handlers, on an island, beyond the three-point line.

Out of 82 players standing 6'10" or taller who logged at least 100 minutes this season, just Franz Wagner spent a larger share of his defensive possessions on point guards, according to BBall Index. Last year, Claxton finished No. 2 among 85 players meeting the same criteria, trailing only Ben Simmons.

Positional malleability isn't always a measure of effectiveness. The Brooklyn Nets have largely, if not entirely, switched a bunch out of necessity. In Claxton's case, though, his versatility on the perimeter is a telltale gauge of his value. And this season, he maintained that flexibility while holding opponents to 49.7 percent shooting at the rim—a top-four mark out of 163 players to contest 150 or more attempts around the hoop.

Staying in Brooklyn wouldn't technically cap Claxton's value. Another team might further explore his decision-making as a rim-roller and let him bust out one-dribble finishes or hook shots a bit more, but he's very much a specialty talent. 

Changing his scenery would be more about consistency of opportunity. The Nets cannot afford him much of a learning curve when they're prowling for titles, and having both Bruce Brown (unrestricted) and, inevitably, Ben Simmons lays the groundwork for geographical overlap on offense that jeopardizes Claxton's viability in certain lineups.

Potential Suitors: Charlotte, Dallas, Portland

Malik Monk

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Malik Monk basically blew up for the Los Angeles Lakers this year—not in the sense of how the rest of their roster and season and title and playoff and play-in hopes blew up, but in the good way that you blow up. From Christmas onward, the 24-year-old averaged 16.2 points and 3.3 assists while downing 56.7 percent of his twos and 40.5 percent of his triples.

Given that almost two-thirds of his buckets came off assists and how often he trafficked in spot-up opportunities, suggesting he might make the leap by leaving the team on which he had the best season of his career could sound counterintuitive. And it just may be. But he wasn't exclusively an accessory.

Monk has real burst and dexterity off the dribble and isn't as inclined to suffer from tunnel vision. Among the 65 players who finished 500 or more drives this year, only six notched a higher assist percentage on those touches: Tyrese Haliburton, Ish Smith, Davion Mitchell, Dejounte Murray, Chris Paul and Fred VanVleet.

This isn't to suggest Monk should run his own team. His playmaking noticeably trails that of Jalen Brunson. But Monk is the rare speedster guard who can wear rim-pressure, floor-spacer and secondary-passer hats all at once. (His ability to be on the receiving end of alley-oops, at 6'3", is also an anomaly.)

Pretty much every team that doesn't have LeBron James, Luka Doncic, James Harden or Trae Young could sell Monk on a more prominent role. His future with the Lakers, specifically, is clouded by their cap situation. They don't have his Bird rights, so as of now, the most they can offer him is the $6.4 million mini mid-level exception—making this an instance in which both the money and opportunity may be better elsewhere.

Potential Suitors: Detroit, Toronto, Washington

Mitchell Robinson

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Mitchell Robinson is far from the Diet Rudy Gobert option New York Knicks followers hoped he'd become a couple of years ago.

To saddle him with putting the ball on the floor or making any type of offensive decision below the rim is to ask too much. That type of player will always be up against an artificial ceiling—infinitely so when they're equal parts enchantingly dominant and maddeningly inconsistent on the defensive end. 

Not to say that Robinson is a lost cause or distressed asset. The "Why pay Mitch when you can draft a Jericho Sims at No. 58?" slant understates the former's defensive ability.

Robinson can cover serious defensive ground when he's locked in. And his brand of offense will be inherently more useful to a team that doesn't tether him to lineups with finite spacing, boycott transition opportunities or, uh, house this past year's version of Julius Randle.

Any teams in the market for a potential defensive anchor on the cheap who will forever fail to grab enough rebounds should have circled Robinson's name. His market has deflated enough that mid-level-exception money could earn you a seat at the table.

Potential Suitors: Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Portland

Lonnie Walker IV (Restricted)

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Manu Ginobili apparently took Lonnie Walker IV under his wing this season—and it showed. His counting stats don't look much different compared to last year, but he closed the 2021-22 campaign on a tear just after the trade deadline, averaging 15.7 points while converting 54 percent of his twos and 36 percent of his threes over his final 19 games.

Quarter-season samplings aren't necessarily telltale of reinvention—particularly toward the end of the schedule. Walker can still be the same offensive roller-coaster ride he's always been, a player with disarming scoring ability who has the shot selection to match but neither the consistency nor visceral confidence to warrant unconditional benefit of the doubt.

He is also still just 23 years old. More than that, his close to this season just felt different. It included everything from difficult jumpers to reliable circus finishing. He canned 46.4 percent of his pull-up treys and shot over 73 percent inside the restricted area, the latter of which was fueled by getting more ball screens as a creator off the bench.

Sticking with the San Antonio Spurs may yet be the right move for Walker. They aren't definitively rebuilding, but they are building

They also just so happen to have a slew of guard-wing-swingman types in Dejounte Murray, Devin Vassell, Tre Jones, Josh Primo and Josh Richardson. Even if it's not an issue of money, teams desperate for offensive spark plugs or bodies at the 2-3 can probably guarantee Walker a bigger chunk of minutes and more agency over the offense.

Potential Suitors: Detroit, Miami, Washington

       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass . Salary information via Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.

   

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