Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns

Checking in on this year’s NBA rookie extensions through 20 games

As this season began, several NBA teams had to make huge decisions about offering extensions to players nearing the end of their rookie contracts. Twenty games later, how are those decisions looking?

Before this year’s Halloween deadline for NBA teams to sign players in the fourth year of rookie contracts signed in 2015 to extensions, there was a lot of buzz, as usual about the many players eligible and in discussion with their team about a deal. When the dust cleared, it wasn’t playoff teams rounding out their rotations but rebuilding squads inking their best players to long-term deals.

These deals won’t officially kick in until the 2019-20 season, but there’s no going back now. From Miami to Phoenix, several franchises tied themselves to young assets long-term by extending these players.

As we pass the quarter point in the season, now is a good time to look at the players who signed extensions this fall. In this case, we will look at each player through the lens of their value to the team going forward, taking into consideration their new salary and fit with the other young players around them.

Karl-Anthony Towns

Thinking about Towns, who signed a max five-year, $158 million deal, in a vacuum is difficult considering the extraordinary circumstances around him at the start of the season. His broken relationship with Jimmy Butler manifested in an ugly divorce that left all parties worse off — except Butler himself. Now, with Butler out of town and the team right back where it started with Towns as its north star, the pressure rises for the former No. 1 overall pick.

Towns could never improve one bit from the season he put together last year and still retire one of the greatest offensive big men of all time. He’s one of the only frontcourt players ever to threaten the vaunted 40/50/90 threshold and is just 23. The Timberwolves have been a markedly better offense whenever he steps foot on the court since his rookie season, a trend which both shows how far they have come since drafting Towns and how valuable he is to them. However, his on-off value has declined slightly during this painful start to the year.

While some of that surely has to do with Butler’s absence — he played in just 10 of 15 games while with Minnesota — as well as an injury for Jeff Teague and the absorption of Robert Covington and Dario Saric, the fact remains Towns should be the one constant the team can count on and statistically that hasn’t been true in 2018. Just 32 percent of Towns’ shots this year have come at the rim and he’s been less efficient there as well, per Cleaning the Glass, converting just 67 percent of his layups and dunks after making 70 percent last season. Though he is an elite shooter, any big man anchoring an offense needs to at least be effective when they get in close, even if it’s a smaller part of their overall diet as the league morphs.

The frustrating part about Towns not converting at the rim is how effective he is getting there against most opposing centers in the NBA. Here, the quicker Tristan Thompson poses no challenge, showing Towns’ consistent mobility advantage:

Towns has, however, improved in effort and production since the Butler trade, and it’s showing up in the way Minnesota plays as well. Towns is allowing just a 56.4 field goal percentage in the restricted area as the primary defender this year, which backs up the overall spryness he’s shown on that end this year. The guy who once was in the big man unicorn conversation with Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid is finally starting to show improvement on defense necessary to earn that title.

Covington in particular has made life easier on Towns, nuking opposing ball-handlers and unleashing Towns as a mobile free safety around the basket. With Teague also back and a rejuvenated Derrick Rose scoring like it’s 2011, Minnesota is starting to look more like a squad built to support Towns than it did when Butler was in town. The Timberwolves still need more star talent — preferably at power forward — but they are Towns’ team, and extending him was a no-brainer.

Myles Turner

The biggest question heading into the season for Turner — and perhaps the Pacers as well — was how the fourth-year big man would fit with the recently acquired Domantas Sabonis, shipped in from Oklahoma City in the Paul George trade. Fresh off a four-year, $72 million extension, that question is no closer to being answered, and if Indiana decided now, Turner’s decline might force them to favor Sabonis.

Turner is starting but playing basically the same amount as Sabonis. The two have shared the court for just 185 possessions this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, and the results have not been great. When both Turner and Sabonis play, the Pacers are 2.2 points worse per 100 possessions.

That’s mostly a result of Turner’s failure to develop on offense. He still carries a microscopic usage, very few assists and even worse shooting than last season. Despite so much riding on his shot extending beyond mid-range (both for the sake of his fit with Sabonis and the offense’s efficiency more broadly), Turner is shooting just 23.3 percent from distance, which would put him in the seventh percentile for NBA big men. More concerningly, fewer than a third of his shots come at the rim. Turner’s mid-range-heavy shot diet and near-silent impact in any other area of the offense means he is a severely limited player and not someone currently who should be paid like an above-average starter, which at $18 million per year, he is.

Watch how the Suns completely give up the 3 here in the final minute of a close game:

That’s the game plan until Turner improves, and the Pacers can far from count on him making those shots.

Fortunately, Turner’s defense is impressive. He allows just a 51.4 defensive field goal percentage in the restricted area and is in the very top percentile as a shot-blocker, per Cleaning the Glass. Combine that with his elite length and mobility as a defensive center, and Turner can be a game-changing defensive force if he becomes playable offensively. The reality right now for Indiana is the younger Sabonis is more effective and versatile than Turner. The two can’t play together, and Sabonis’ skills help the middling offense far more without hurting the defense much at all.

Devin Booker

For the first time in his career, Booker’s on-off value is rearing its head for Phoenix. Over the past eight games (since a 20-point home blowout over the Spurs), the Suns have been 12.1 points worse per 100 possessions when Booker sits. Looking at ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which estimates a player’s overall impact based on box score statistics, Booker is in the positive and ranks 73rd overall, by far a career high in that metric, which has historically not valued his scoring and playmaking on lottery teams.

The newly maxed-out former SEC Sixth Man of the Year will get the first paycheck of his five-year, $158 million deal next summer, but the team around him is already adapting to his quick development. Coach Igor Kokoskov has made Booker his full-time point guard, and the long, rangy wing rotation the Suns built this summer is making life on Booker easier, especially on defense.

Add to that Booker’s clutch shot-making like the back-to-back jumpers to put Memphis away earlier this month:

It’s clear Booker’s leadership over this franchise is coming into full view. As the crown jewel of Phoenix’s rebuild, Booker was a lock to get extended, and for the first time, he’s showing why he is worthy of that type of investment from the franchise that found him in the middle of the first round.

Justise Winslow

If there’s any solace the Heat can take in Winslow’s three-year, $39 million extension, despite regressing in nearly every category this year in a larger role, it’s that the fully realized version of Winslow is much more in line with the modern NBA than some of their other big investments the past few years. Rather than an interior behemoth like Hassan Whiteside or a small playmaker like Tyler Johnson, a Heat team in the image of Winslow have the chance to be an unpredictable offense and a versatile defense.

Winslow’s assist percentage skyrocketed early this season to an elite 18.7 percent as he carries on a high-volume playmaking role behind Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson (who recently took Winslow’s spot in the starting lineup) at the forward spot. His ability to invert the defense with a strong handle turns him into a wrecking ball going at the basket to set up teammates:

Yet Winslow is finishing just 45 percent of shots at the rim himself, per Cleaning the Glass, a number Miami can’t stomach. He favors the mid-range but is even less efficient there, and that’s a shot that helps no one on a Miami roster full of shooters and finishers. Because of Winslow’s playmaking, the Heat halfcourt offense is 5.2 points better per 100 possessions when he plays, but he can’t simply be a 6-foot-7 ball-mover and succeed in the NBA, especially not at his new price tag.

For Miami to reach the next level and truly reap the benefits of landing several young, modern players in the draft, Winslow is a key. The 22-year-old made 38 percent of his 3s last year on a decent volume but has not looked like that guy so far this year. His defense hasn’t dropped off much at all, but his growth as a scorer would be the difference between a defense-only impact and a real two-way player in the league.

Larry Nance Jr.

Nance is another guy who, like Winslow, suffers from the distinct difference between interesting piece and valuable player. Ironically, Nance now looks even more like a guy who would have benefitted from playing next to LeBron James, five months removed from James’ departure. But on a lottery-bound team, it’s tough for what Nance does to matter.

He boasts an incredible 18.1 percent assist rate as well as an elite 2.3 percent steal percentage, a rare combination for a bouncy big man. Nance plays hard, constantly moves around and reads the game and is generally in the right spots on both ends. What he suffers from is the 2010s curse of big men who can neither stretch the floor nor defend at an elite level being relegated to the bench in key moments. It’s why he barely played in last year’s playoffs and why his impact is minimal with lesser talent this season.

However, opponents are putting up 3.5 percent fewer shots at the rim this year when Nance is in the game, a testament to his rim-protection compared with that of starter Tristan Thompson. The bunny-hops of Nance are something to game plan around when you play the Cavs, but are they a real threat when Nance enters his prime?

Cleveland bet $44.8 million over four years, high-level backup big man money, that Nance will figure it out. And even if that process is slow, it’s a ton of fun to watch play out. Nance is partners with Josh Jackson in a club celebrating the highest leaps for dunks that fall short, having missed five of 20 jams already this year. But after raising his 3-point percentage and being elevated to the starting lineup, Nance can feel out his expanded game in a competitive environment. Taking more 3s and playing more conservative defense would make Nance more of a positive for the rebuilding Cavs.

Next: Add passing to the list of required skills for NBA big men

It’s not ideal to reenact the Spider-Man meme on an NBA court with Thompson and Nance starting together, but it could be a net positive if it forces Nance to rely even further on his passing and shooting to manufacture space on offense. Tanking is the NBA breeding ground for experimentation, and here’s hoping interim coach Larry Drew and his staff’s attempts to maximize the roster for this year also help the development of Nance, one of the more interesting young pieces in the organization.

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