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Suns using two-ways like another roster spot

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New league rules make the two-way slot more of a regular roster spot than a development player

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Washington Wizards POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

When the Suns signed 25-year old, three-year NBA veteran Chandler Hutchison to a two-way contract this week, Suns fans familiar with two-way contracts shook their heads in confusion.

Why someone so old? Why not a rookie who’s trying to make it in the league? Why Hutchison over keeping last year’s two-way man Ty-Shon Alexander?

Because the rules around the two-way contract have changed. That’s why.

Two-way contracts allow NBA teams to carry two extra players in addition to the 15 on their regular season roster. These players generally bounce back and forth between the NBA and G League, but remain under team control and can’t be poached by rival franchises.

Traditionally, two-way contracts are reserved for young, undrafted players who might some day develop into a real NBA player with some seasoning in the G-League mixed with a dash of NBA play. In the original model, a two-way player could spend no more than 45 days with the big club a year, which is 45 out of roughly 120 possible, or 30% of the season. The other 70% of the season would be spent in the G-League or... anywhere but the NBA roster. Oh, and the pay was be a fraction of the league minimum for that reason.

Two years ago, under that original model, the Phoenix Suns used their two-way contracts on undrafted rookies Jared Harper and Tariq Owens. They were two of the five rookies to play in at least one Suns game that year, behind Cameron Johnson, Ty Jerome and Jalen Lecque. Harper and Owens tallied 3 games each, behind the teenager with the 15th-roster spot Lecque (5), the oldish rookie point guard Jerome (31 games) and civil war veteran Cam J (57 games).

Those five rookies were among a shocking 13 players who took the floor in at least one game that season aged 24 or younger. Somehow, rookie head coach Monty Williams coaxed a 34-39 record out of that ultra-young roster anyway.

General Manager James Jones was not satisfied, though. Coming into the just-concluded 2020-21 season he decided to shift his roster-building focus to the guys ready to play minutes now instead of trotting out a future full of maybes. He dumped four of those five rookies that offseason and, after another off-season, cut his number of rookies by 60% this past year.

Out of four potential rookie slots in 2020-21 (two Draft rounds plus a pair of two-way slots), Jones brought in only two: Jalen Smith and Ty-Shon Alexander. Yet as the Suns competed for the top spot in the West all season, even those two hardly played. Smith tallied just 27 appearances while Alexander got 15.

While James Jones is definitely focusing on using a young roster — including 3 of 25 starters on the Finals team being 24 or younger — he wants to limit the sheer number of those kind of players on the bench. Especially those untested, unpredictable rookies.

Games played by rookies, last five years —

Of course experience and wins are not directly related. Old or middle-aged teams in the NBA are sometimes the most underwhelming and frustrating. But the graph here is helpful in showing that James Jones has achieved success amid this movement away from rookies.

Now two years later, the Suns have divested themselves from their G-League franchise, traded out of the 2021 Draft entirely, and have only three players on the league’s 7th oldest roster who will check in under 25 years old by New Year.

And now the Suns are even using a two-way slot in a brand new way. The NBA has carried over some rule changes for two-way deals that were first introduced during the 2020/21 season, aimed to allow teams a deeper roster in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Rather than being limited to 45 days with their NBA teams, two-way players are eligible to be active for up to 50 of their team’s 82 regular season games and the days with the big club are unlimited.

So instead of being mostly a G-league player who moonlights with the big club, these days a two-way player is just simply more like the 16th or 17th roster spot. Under the new rule, instead of having their salaries determined by how many days they spend in the NBA, they receive flat salaries of $462,629, half of the rookie minimum.

The Spurs still owe Hutchison his entire guaranteed 2021-22 salary of $4 million after being released last week. And thanks to this signing, Hutchison will now make an additional $462K this year if he sticks with the Suns the whole year whether he plays much or not. Remember, Ty-Shon got 15 games of action last year. Good work if you can get it!