This week, NBA teams began releasing their decisions on whether to guarantee their rookie-contract team options for next season, the 2020-21 season. Sometime between now and October 31, the Suns will have to make that call on the third years of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.
The Orlando Magic made the somewhat surprising move this week to guarantee former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz’s 2020-21 fourth year option for a whopping $12.3 million, even before he showed up to training camp to prove he could shoot a basketball. Color me shocked. You all know the curious case of Fultz, who came out of college as far as away the best talent in the 2016 Draft as a point guard who could do everything, including shoot from anywhere. But then by his first training camp with the Sixers, Fultz had lost the ability to shoot, developing so much pain in his shoulder that he’s only appeared in 33 of a possible 164 games so far in his career. And when he HAS played, his mind is so cluttered he can’t even play hard and looks foolish even taking free throws.
But is it possible that Fultz will have a longer NBA career than former No. 4 overall pick from that draft, Josh Jackson? It’s certainly likely the Suns would have declined to guarantee Jackson’s $8.9 million salary for 2020-21 this fall if he hadn’t been traded to the Grizzlies.
Now we get to see if the Grizzlies will pony up that guarantee, or make him play out his third NBA season as an impending restricted free agent. See that’s the consideration with the former Suns forward. Jackson’s rookie deal scales up to nearly $9 million for the 2020-21 season, and I cannot reasonably envision a season for Jackson where he could play SO well that he earns more than that on the open market in the form of a restricted free agent offer sheet.
The difference between Fultz and Jackson is that Jackson has been healthy. He’s played nearly every game in two years — it’s just that he’s played them terribly. He’s been one of the worst NBA players in the league. On the other hand, Fultz just needs to get healthy. If he could get healthy, he could more than earn a $12 million per year salary as a point guard in the league. I mean, CORY FREAKING JOSEPH got $12 million per year this past off season.
Ayton, Bridges, Okobo
When it comes to the Suns and their draft picks this fall, there are no difficult decisions to make.
After years of seeing highly picked players fizzle out and not earn their rookie-scale contracts, the Suns have a couple of fast risers to consider.
In my opinion, it’s only a formality for the Suns to guarantee the third year of both Deandre Ayton (for $10.02 million) and Mikal Bridges (for $4.36 million) for the 2020-21 season. A year from now, the Suns will again have an easy decision on their fourth season.
Bridges and Ayton form two of the Suns core pillars for the future, along with Devin Booker. Ayton will be a career-long starter and potential All-Star, while Bridges looks and wants to be an irreplaceable glue guy like Andre Iguodala or Trevor Ariza who is more than worth half the league average salary.
Elie Okobo has a team option for the 2020-21 season as well, but the terms of his contract allow the Suns more time to decide. Most non-first-round-pick contracts let a team wait until a day before free agency to make a decision. But even so, Okobo’s 2020-21 season is still scaled at league minimum for a third year player, so the decision would be fairly easy.
The only slightly interesting contract issue right now could be whether new power forward Dario Saric wants an extension that kicks in a year from now.
The former first round pick, acquired this summer from the Timberwolves, will be playing out his fourth NBA season this year and will be a restricted free agent next summer. The Suns will still have the right to match and contract offer to Saric, just like they had with Kelly Oubre Jr. this past summer, but could decide right now to extend Saric’s contract if the two sides can agree to a deal.
It’s tough to judge Saric’s market value a year from now. On the high end, he could project as a starting quality power forward who can rebound and stretch the defense, in a league increasingly thin on that front. Nikola Mirotic would be a similar player profile on the high end for Saric, and Mirotic was looking at probably $15 million per year in the NBA before he decided to sign in Europe for a similar amount. Ryan Anderson was an earlier version of this player and earned a contract for $20 million per season before becoming obsolete due to his cement shoes.
Yet, on the downside, Saric could also play like today’s Ryno this season — replete with the cement shoes that keep him off the floor too much for a starting job — and could end up with no big offers on the market next summer.
So, the Suns have a dilemma. Offer the 25 year old a reasonable middle-deal extension right now (say, $8-10 million per year), or wait out the season and test the market next summer?
Another consideration is Saric’s mind-set. His best year was with Philadelphia in 2017-18. Free of contract concerns or expectations, Saric balled out and looked to be one of the best young players in the game as a “glue” guy who made 39 percent of his threes, rebounded well, and played good team defense (translation: not a good defender in isolation, but smart and instinctive enough to help a total defense succeed).
On the downside, a disgruntled version of Saric reared its head after being traded to the Wolves. That Saric slogged through a disappointing season before being traded again, despite the Wolves not having a clear starting quality power forward to replace him.
Which Saric will the Suns get this year? A focused one with a coach he likes (he was excited about the trade to the Suns when it happened), or a disgruntled one who’s worried about the wrong things when the Suns need him dialed in.
Watch out for any news of extension talks, but my guess with this Suns front office is that they will decline to discuss a contract extension with Saric this fall, preferring to wait out the market next summer. GM James Jones managed to keep Oubre engaged despite the unknowns of restricted free agency this past summer, so I’m guessing Jones believes he can do that again with Saric next year.
The unknown is how Saric will handle that.