January 19, 2018

You can say this about the current crop of three-year NBA veterans: they have great timing.

The rookie class of 2012-13 is in the process of cashing in on a fortuitous league-wide influx of cash.  For first round picks whose careers launched that year, this summer and fall — until October 31 — is extension hunting season, but those new deals don’t actually kick in until the 2016-17 season, right when the league’s TV partners start dropping fully loaded Brinks trucks on the NBA economy and pushing the salary cap to a projected $90 million. The season after, year two of the extensions for this crowd, the cap is expected to further balloon to $108 million.

Teams will want to use this year’s lower cap — a comparatively modest $70 million — to lock up their third-year guys so they don’t hit restricted free agency in a market where half the league will be desperately looking for ways to spend up to an $81 million minimum. That gives this group of players great leverage, and they know it. Some have already started to cash in, and more will.

But it’s an oversimplification to call this class of players merely lucky. The 2012 rookie class* has also been really solid. It’s not a class loaded with a bunch of instant stars; the class is headlined by All-NBAers Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, but three years in, nobody else has claimed All-Star status (though Bradley Beal and Draymond Green appear to be good bets).
*We’re using rookie class as opposed to draft class since the contract clock is based on when players make their debuts. That means guys like 2011 picks Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas will be part of our thinking here, along with a host of other 2012 rooks we’ll touch on.

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But if the class is (so far) lacking in All-Star strength, it actually has proved to be rather deep, at least by early returns. A number of measures say it might be the strongest rookie group to enter the NBA in recent years.

Consider this: 78 players debuted that season, fully one-third of them (26) have averaged 1,000 minutes per season since. Draft geeks will tell you that it’s extremely unlikely for one-third of any given 60-man draft class to become rotational players—and this figure actually includes undrafted players and free agents from the D-League—and yet they’ve held down steady rotation work for three years.

In fact, the average player from that group of 78 has played 2,511 NBA minutes thus far, or just three years’ worth of 10 minutes per game if they played every contest. In other words, the average 2012 rookie has found his way onto the court every night, even when including the Josh Akognons and Chris Wrights of the world, who played nine and four minutes respectively during their short stints in the world’s best basketball league. (This figure is actually close to what the 2011 and 2010 rookies averaged when you adjust for the fact that their first three years included a 16-game lockout in 2011-2012. But it still demonstrates that the class has power beyond Davis and Lillard).

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You can eyeball the list and quickly find those typical late picks who have turned into something — Draymond Green and Khris Middleton , among others — but it’s not even just about those borderline stars who somehow slipped; this is just a solid class, with plenty of rotation-quality players.

The stats bear the thesis out. The combined three-year Win Shares of the top 10 from the 2012 class trumps that of the adjusted first three-year performance of the rookie classes to hit the league just before them. But what’s more, if you make the cut at 20, 30, 40 or deeper, the ’12 rookies still set the bar for early relevance (though 2009 does tie them in the top 20 tier because of a strong 11-20 group). Go to the end of the 2012 top 40 in three-year WS and you see names of guys who have mattered to some degree: Aleksey Shved, Chris Copeland, and Andrew Nicholson. The corresponding names from the 2009-2011 rookie lists are guys like Daniel Orton, Ben Uzoh and Eugene Jeter.

Source data from bball-reference.com
Source data from basketball-reference.com

The money also bears the theory that the 2012 class is deeper. Let’s check in on the status of those 78 2012-2013 rookies to see what the market is saying about their status and worth.

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Extension Watch: First Rounders

The very first news of the free agency period, just minutes into July, was the designated player max extension for Anthony Davis. His five-year, $146 million agreement is a staggering figure; the 30 percent max criteria and his designated player status, combined with the higher-than-ever cap level, make this the richest extension ever signed. And yet the way his career is tracking, it should still look like a bargain. Barring something unforeseen happening, Davis should be a first-team All-NBA selection for the foreseeable future, so when he’s making $27 to 33 million against the backdrop of a nine-figure salary cap, that’s a check that New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson will gladly write.

Damian Lillard has the second-biggest extension to date from this group. His five-year, $122 million deal (he also got the designated player tag, but will not qualify for the 30 percent max criteria) took absolutely nobody by surprise, but Lillard does have some questions to answer. For one, we’ve still never seen him operate in an ecosystem where the usage burden is primarily on him. This coming season will be interesting in that regard as he steps out from behind LaMarcus Aldridge’s 30 percent usage rate. Most of his advanced metrics don’t yet shout “megastar,” and he’s still a negative defender by DRPM and several other defensive metrics.

My colleagues have already done a great job covering two other smaller extensions signed to date. The ink just dried on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s four-year, $52 million deal with Charlotte, and Jonas Valanciunas (an 2011 top pick but a 2012 rookie) extended at four years, $64 million with Toronto. Both are firmly within the team-friendly range given the pending cap spike.

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Andre Drummond is certainly extension-worthy, and Detroit has already all but conceded that he’ll get a max deal. But they may ask him to miss the October extension deadline and instead sign the same deal as a new contract next summer in order to increase their cap flexibility in free agency. The strategy worked for San Antonio with Kawhi Leonard, but the Spurs and their burgeoning star forward are rare breeds, so who knows if such a gentleman’s pact would work for Detroit and Drummond.

Bradley Beal is very likely to get an extension and is reportedly expecting a max deal himself, though his would include neither the higher max nor the designated player tag (which Washington smartly already used on John Wall). Terrence Ross has had talks with Toronto about an extension which would certainly fall somewhere south of the max, and Milwaukee’s John Henson is thought to be “on course” for a deal starting in eight-figures.

Other guys are certainly extension-worthy, but deals may not get done in a funky market unless players sacrifice some theoretical Benjamins in the name of long-term security (think Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, Perry Jones and Jared Sullinger). It wouldn’t even be a shock for the teams of Meyers Leonard or Festus Ezeli to make a long-term bet. Regardless of how many of those deals wind up on the 2012 class’ scorecard, it speaks highly of the group that so many are realistic extension candidates.

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Second Rounders on Second Contracts

Another measure of this rookie class’ strength is the amount of second round picks who have also found their way to a nice payday. Remember, rookie contract extensions are only available to first round picks, but look deeper down the 2-12 class and you’ll find more monetary evidence of the group’s quality.

Green and Middleton headline that group. The former just agreed to five-year, $82M from the champion Golden State Warriors, and Middleton got five years, $70 million after establishing himself as one of the game’s premier two-way wings. The numbers aren’t as eye-popping as the ones above, partially because these deals were cut under the 2015 pre-jump salary cap. Having said that, both players took discounts off the max deals, which would have been close to $95 million on a five-year deal, or $73 million over four. That makes both deals absolute boons for their teams, who lock in vital pieces at today’s market rates. In just two years, both guys will be playing at a figure that is around one-sixth of the new cap.

They’re not the only ones second rounders to find considerable cash in free agency. Jae Crowder, another unheralded two-way perimeter guy, agreed to a 5-year, $35 million contract with the Boston Celtics. Patrick Beverley signed for four years, $25 million and Kyle Singler got five years at $25 million. Kyle O’Quinn was a 49th pick but still earned a contract worth four years, $16 million, and Will Barton and Mike Scott each got three-year deals worth eight figures in total. Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Robert Sacre (the last pick of the ’12 draft) each secured their NBA future with multiyear deals at or near the minimum.

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Undrafted Players Who Stuck

2012 also featured an impressive crop of undrafted rookies who have already made it to their second contracts.

Aron Baynes is the richest of that group after getting overpaid by Detroit. Baynes was undrafted in 2009, came to the NBA in 2012 via San Antonio, cashing in on the “genius by association” halo effect to the tune of three years, $18 million.

Sharp-shooting big man Mirza Teletovic went the one-year route on his $5.5 million deal with Phoenix, and will reenter free agency next summer. Brian Roberts is a rotation-caliber point guard who got two years at $5.5 million last summer. Likewise, Kent Bazemore’s 3-and-D profile earned him two years, $4 million in the 2014 free agent market.

Chris Copeland is already on his third contract. His standout play for New York earned him two years, $6 million from the Pacers, and he just tacked on another $1 million deal with Milwaukee.

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Still Waiting / Didn’t Make It

An injury slowed former lottery pick Kendall Marshall’s progress, so he’s currently waiting to see if someone will sign him as he comes back from an ACL tear. Bernard James is also waiting by the phone after playing portions of last season, and Jared Cunningham signed a camp contract but will have to earn his meal ticket.

Aleksey Shved, Jeffery Taylor, Justin Hamilton and Joel Freeland made it to three years in the league, but just jumped the pond to sign in Europe: Aleksey Shved, Jeffery Taylor, Justin Hamilton and Joel Freeland.

Of course, as with any rookie class, a number of guys who started in 2012-13 didn’t make it to year three. But, in a further testament to the strength of this rookie group, not a lot of those sob stories came from first round picks. Fab Melo lasted just six games as a rookie but is attempting a comeback, while Arnett Moultrie and Marquis Teague were both traded and subsequently waived before their third seasons began. Victor Claver (a 2009 late first rounder who joined this class in 2012) was in the middle of his third season when he met a similar fate.

All told, this group of 78 players has made a meaningful impact, contributing both minutes and wins at a rate that is ahead of preceding classes. It’s early, but it’s already looking like history will consider 2012 an usually deep and meaningful rookie class.

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Dan Clayton

Dan covered the Utah Jazz for a decade for a number of Spanish-language media outfits, most recently as the team's Spanish radio analyst for game broadcasts. In 2014, Dan moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn and had to hang up the micrófono, but stays involved in the conversation by contributing regularly to Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering Jazz basketball.

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