The Lakers’ increased focus on the draft in the past few years has also ignited some interest in a previously obscure area of NBA talent to mine: undrafted free agents. Robert Upshaw was perhaps the most highly touted recent example, a lottery talent who fell due to health and character issues and ultimately found himself out of the league as a result.
But this focus has largely been a result of the need to restock the Lakers’ cupboard of talent with any resource they have and now they have a new one courtesy of last year’s CBA agreement in the form of two-way contracts.
In short, two-way contracts give a team two additional roster spots to use on players with fewer than four years of NBA experience who can then flex up to the NBA from the G-League for 45 days while receiving a pay bump for their time.
This grants teams a big carrot with which to offer premium undrafted free agents since it amounts to a significant pay bump over what is otherwise a dismal G-League salary ($75,000). How the Lakers will use two-way contracts, as they have to fill the newly opened 16th and 17th spots on the roster with someone, will be a storyline to watch after the draft, when you should still be tuned in since teams will rapidly snap up the top undrafted free agents.
With this in mind, I have conducted another extended conversation with Jerry Khachoyan of Lakers Outsiders to discuss the subject of two-way contracts and our top undrafted free agents of choice. Without further ado:
Ben: In past years, Jerry, most of our Lakers draft conversation has been focused on the top-two picks along with the team's selections around the first round bubble. There perhaps would be an occasional nod to possible undrafted free agent selections, but we were limited here in our ability to make meaningful prognostications because of the vastness of the field of possible undrafted selections. In addition, there simply is greater uncertainty associated with which prospects make it out of the second round, a dicey proposition given how frequently late picks trade hands and how teams burn these picks in idiosyncratic ways.
Perhaps more importantly, these undrafted types were more often than not just subjects of note for whether they will end up on the Lakers' D-League (now G-League) affiliate in the long-term. No undrafted free agent since Elias Harris has managed to make the Lakers' roster outright, going through both summer league and training camp, and Harris probably only made it because of how utterly bereft the roster was of any sort of talent after Dwight Howard left.
What’s changed now is the introduction of two-way contracts, which in short grant the Lakers two additional roster spots to utilize on players who can shuffle between the G-League and the parent team, receiving appropriate pay bumps for games played on the latter.
This creates an interesting carrot for undrafted free agents (and late second round picks should the Lakers deign to buy one) in that they could receive a significant pay bump that could make staying in the USA much more palatable rather than decamping for Europe or China in search of a livable wage (seriously, G-League salaries are still awful).
The Lakers have stepped up their usage of the G-League in past years, no doubt in part driven by necessity due to the aforementioned lack of talent, and basically every non-lottery pick the Lakers have had in the past few years has spent at least some time honing their craft down there.
This has also to a certain extent been done in reverse, as the D-Fenders, now the South Bay Lakers, have fed prospects to the parent team, the most recent (and probably most likely to stick in the long-term) being David Nwaba, so there is a reasonable expectation that the Lakers will try to maximize whatever returns they could get from utilizing two-way contracts.
At any rate, I thought that a discussion of how the Lakers would go about approaching two-way contracts would be beneficial and an interesting way of approaching what is more often than not a meandering discussion concerning the prospects on the second round bubble that we happen to like. The Lakers in particular seemingly have an edge here over other teams in that the fact that they have a significantly less established roster is likely a draw to potential two-way contract targets who can be reasonably assured that they will spend at least some time with the parent team and not be stiffed by a year-long G-League stay and the lack of a corresponding pay bump.
I know you mentioned in our previous back-and-forth utilizing two-way contracts as a means of going after shooting bigs and I agree that there are a number of options available, but I wonder if we might be better served by treating this as simply an extension of the draft process in which the same principles generally apply.
Indeed, best player available (BPA) takes on an interesting meaning here in that with there being no critical need to pay attention to rotation issues given that the two-way contract target will spend a good portion of his time in the G-League, we can apply a purer BPA analysis than we would with say the late first, where a pick gets a guaranteed contract and probably needs to eke out a role early to maximize his utility.
This is supported by there just flat out not being that many good two-way targets relative to the number of spots available in the league (60), so nabbing someone, anyone, who has a chance to stick and is willing to come to LA is the appropriate stance to take. That being said, examining who we'd go after with the luxury of the draft having not occurred yet allows us to break down an idealized approach we'd use and particular targets we would like to go after.
With all of this in mind, what type of prospect would you go after with a two-way contract? Do you agree with my BPA analysis and do you think it's compatible with still trying to go after areas of need such as a shooting big? And in an ideal situation, would you prefer a project pick here or a guy reasonably ready to contribute with a little seasoning?
Jerry: One thing I'd add to your two-way contract commentary is that we have no idea how this will play out, since this is the first year this is going to be allowed. Will the top undrafted prospects take the actual two-way deals or will they want to remain "free-agents" so that way they are not stuck to just one team being able to call them up? I think most will gravitate to the fact that they can make more money playing here in the states, but honestly, we won't know, maybe for a couple of years of as to how this will play out.
But having said that, let's get back into what type of strategy I think Lakers should implement. While you are right, that BPA should reign king, given how hard it is to find an undrafted free agent that could stick, however, I think there is some faulty thinking to that. Like, who cares if you find the next Robert Sacre (sorry, Robert!)? Sacre was clearly good enough to be the 3rd center on your parent roster, but what use is that?
Those type of guys are a dime-a-dozen. Or say, you find a third PG, like a Tim Frazier? What does that do to your team? Not much really. So I do think, unless you think there is some more potential to mine there than the player has shown (be it in college or in workouts), that the Lakers should go for BPA in positions of premium value: Wings who can provide perimeter defense plus shooting, defensively competent bigs that can preferably space the floor, or guards who can provide something more than just ball handling and basic PG duties.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Most of those guys are already drafted and very likely don't exist in the undrafted sphere. BUT you never know who you can find. I'd rather spend the equity trying to find a Robert Covington, a Wesley Matthews, a Jeremy Lin, or a Udonis Haslem than trying to find a guy who can stick.
Particularly, I think trying to maximize the chances at finding that three-and-D wing would be the way to go. For instance, take Dorian Finney-Smith, who I liked going into last year's draft. While it's far from a foregone conclusion if he is going to stick in the NBA (his shooting hasn't translated, but his defense has), but if he does, the Mavs just stole a guy at a premium position. So I think looking at wings, even if that means a lower chance of that person sticking, that is the way to go.
I would be okay with a project pick as well, but in all likelihood, those guys are not there. If they are an international project, they likely get taken in the second round by teams with multiple picks and/or no roster spots. If they are freshman, they are likely drafted (although there is a chance that Kobe Simmons slips, who is the only notable freshman ranked by Draftexpress outside their top-60).
So that leaves you with mostly upperclassmen to pick from. Although I'd note that there are some sophmores in the draft that I could see having some upside and be worth developing for a couple of years (like Tyler Dorsey, Dwayne Bacon, Antonio Blakeney, and Isaac Humphries).
But before I go into my favorite potential UDFA targets that we can maybe lock up on two-way contracts, do you think my line of reasoning is sound? Essentially, go for the highest reward possible, even if that means failing multiple years in a row?
Basically, I want to use these extra roster spots to buy lottery tickets. I mean, after taking account into who should be back next year (even with Tarik included and the two first round picks), Lakers still have 2 parent roster spots open. So why not use the extra spots to go all out?
Ben: We can definitely say with a fairy amount of certainty that failure will be the order of the game with most of these two-way contracts. These are the same guys given camp invites and then designated as affiliate players to go down to the D-League, only to be never heard of again despite initial optimism on our part (Michael Frazier, Robert Upshaw, Malcolm Thomas, and more come to mind), but I'm not necessarily sure that there's a meaningful distinction between trying to find gems and guys who will stick since it tends to go hand-in-hand.
Ultimately, we're looking for flashes of skills that can translate to the NBA and since these are more marginal prospects, these guys are likely only going to do so by eking out a very specific role in the league, whether that's as a backup point guard, a 3-and-D wing, a stretch four, and so forth. Indeed, I'm fairly sure that this is all that early prognosticators on the success stories you mentioned above thought of those guys, and although they managed to build upon that initial role and expand their games, the critical thing is that they were able to grab the attention of NBA talent evaluators by showing sufficient aptitude to stick in the league and then possibly progress from that point.
I will agree, however, that we should pursue as much upside as is humanely possible in this process and chase lottery tickets whenever they are available, but I'm not sure that those things will be that clear cut in this range. As with regular draft selections, athleticism and physical measurements are the easiest things to take a shot on, although as you said they're hard to come by in this range: the athletic choices are more often than not extremely raw and the options with plus length are invariably taken before we get to the undrafted stage.
On the flip side of things, the upperclassmen that have decent production tend to have debilitating flaws insofar as carving out a NBA role, whether it's being stuck between positions, lacking a critical skill that limits their ability to translate the rest of their skill set, or simply not possessing sufficient athleticism or measurements to pass muster at the NBA level.
I like that you brought up Kobi Simmons since he and his Arizona teammate Kadeem Allen provide a helpful illustration of this calculus. Simmons is a rare instance of upside in this range, a 19-year-old with solid hops and quickness who simply didn't put things together at Arizona because his game needs an awful lot of work in nearly every respect.
While on the one hand two-way contracts were basically made for projects like Simmons, he's such a long-term bid that it casts doubt on whether it's worthwhile to invest in him since it may take several years before he has even close to the instincts necessary to run sets in a NBA offense.
Allen, on the other hand, is virtually the opposite of Simmons: an ancient 24-year-old senior with a clearly defined three-and-D skill set. Long for either guard position with a 6'9'' wingspan, Allen projects as a multi-positional defender thanks to his quickness and instincts, especially against the point of attack. He's also improved his 3-point shooting and is not an incapable dribbler, capable of making some passes on the move and making rudimentary reads.
But at this point, he's so old for a senior that if any part of this package falls through, he's basically out of the league unless his defense is truly extraordinary, so he's a two-way contract who would have to prove quickly in a G-League setting that he's capable of translating all of this to the next level.
As such, the projects need to have a path toward applying their athleticism in the short-term such that they can find a way to stick while growing the rest of their game, and the older prospects need to have relatively decent assurances that a good portion of their skill set will survive the transition to the next level. This tempers our BPA analysis in that with the vast majority of these guys flaming out, the success story is the guy who managed to make it to the league; if he ends up being a marginal prospect as in your Sacre example, then just cut him and move on but you won't even get that shot if he dithers in the G-League because he's too far away from catching the notice of the parent team.
Where I think we can find common ground in this analysis is the aforementioned discussion of particular roles, which we can prioritize and find concordance with a BPA approach since certain player archetypes are simply more valuable than others. So options along the lines of a stretch-five (Luke Kornet), three-and-D wing (Davon Reed), POA guard defender (Allen), wing slasher (Bacon), and small-ball five (Deonte Burton) probably should get more weight than others in this consideration.
Of these roles, which would you value the most if you had the chance when choosing two-way contract targets? Is there a particular guy we've discussed that you think stands out and who should we be adding to this discussion? I'm especially fond of Allen as an option, but what do you think of a guy who fills none of the roles we previously mentioned yet is probably an AAAA player who has a reasonably solid shot of sticking for a long career in Nigel Williams-Goss?
Jerry: I'm still pretty sold on looking for prospects at premium positions. So I'm all for finding those three-and-D wings or rim protecting stretch bigs. Finding someone who can provide a sorely needed skillset, and investing in him hoping that other parts of his game grows might be the way to go. Given that we still don't know the reality when it comes to these two-way contracts, it might be best to bet on guys that can provide you with something extraordinary (on a relative basis, of course), rather than a little bit of everything.
Let's go back to your Kobi Simmons and Kadeem Allen examples. Kobi is the exact prospect you invest in and hope he turns out. But as you said, even if you were to lock him up in a two-year deal, says he catches an eye on a European team and they offer him big bucks to go over and play? Now you have to make a decision to "match" the deal and put him on your parent roster (when he may still not be ready). But the flip side is exactly that as well. Say his development curve is just crazy and now he looks like a legit NBA guard? Then now you have that gem. Problem with that is the incredibly low odds of that happening. But that would be one way to go, and I would definitely would not be mad about that at all.
Now Kadeem Allen would be the opposite. He'd come in, show that he can kill it in the D-League (similarly to Nwaba), and get called up half-way through the season. If he translates, then great. If he doesn't, now you know he probably can't make the NBA (given his age) and you can move on. So it's definitely a game teams will have to play these next few years before we get a handle on how things will work with these two-way guys.
So prior to the Russell trade, I was pretty out on any potential point guards as prospects. There was no playing time and frankly very little need. But now? Even with Lonzo Ball in the fold, we need someone to step in and let him play off the ball at times. Nigel Williams-Goss is certainly one of that mold. He had a fairly successful career in college and isn't super old for a senior like Allen is. I do worry a bit about his athleticism and it being a limiting factor for him, but he is someone that would be an ideal candidate.
With potential lead-guards, I think a telling statistic we can look to in order to find a gem is unassisted makes at the rim (via Hoop-math.com). These tend to be guys who can create and score. We want to see guys who get there often and score unassisted.
This is something Jordan Clarkson excelled at in Missouri. But preferably, we would want someone who can also play-make without having tunnel vision as well. For comparison's sake, here are Clarkson's numbers: 43 percent of his shots came at the rim where he made 60 percent of those. And of those shots at the rim, only 11 percent were assisted. That's an insane outlier combo.
So fringe guards that rate well with this type of criteria are: Nigel Williams-Goss, Frank Mason, Troy Caupain (who also happens to be the youngest senior in the draft), Lorenzo Bonam and Marcus Keene.
Out of all those guys, Lorenzo Bonam interests me the most, as his numbers were the closest to Clarkson's: 52 percent of his shots were at the rim, where he made an insane 78 percent of them while 24 percent of it was assisted. He seems like a capable ball-handler/play-maker, a passable defender and shooter, and the advanced metrics like him as well. I would definitely look to target someone like him.
Other guys of interest include: Luke Kornet (potential unicorn rim protecting stretch 5...even in a limited basis), Sterling Brown (if the tragedy of him going undrafted happens), Nigel Hayes (if we happen to move any of our guys that play the 4 spot), Derek Willis (stretch-big), and internationals George De Paula and Alpha Kaba.
So, it seems like we are in agreement here. A project would be nice, but probably won't pay dividends. Seems like it would be wise to bet on a guy that has a singular skill that he can bank on while expanding other parts of his game. Do any of the guys I mentioned stand out? Is there someone you'd like Lakers to target if he went undrafted?
Ben: With the rather devastating news of Russell getting shipped out to ponder, this definitely has upended our calculus here and elsewhere in the draft to a certain degree since it’s created an entirely new need at lead guard. This makes Ball a dicier selection (albeit still the probable one) and pushes the likes of Jawun Evans and Derrick White to the front of the line if the Lakers keep one of their late first rounders, as Ball really could benefit from someone to play off.
Nigel Williams-Goss is one of my favorite guys in this respect in the undrafted area, as a guy who’s figured out how to leverage his length and skill set into production despite an athleticism gap. He looks like an especially good fit with Ball since they can cross-match as appropriate and Williams-Goss has enough in the tool shed (pick-and-roll operator, capable in-between game especially with floaters, capable floor general) to be able to work on and off ball with him.
But with the list of guard finishers you provided, Bonam looks intriguing because like Williams-Goss, he can cross-match with Ball defensively and brings some penetration chops to bear without throwing in caveats about whether that necessarily will translate (as is the case with Mason and Keene, both diminutive guards). Caupain’s lack of efficiency his junior and senior years is a little too worrying for me to burn a two-way contract on him (although I’d be fine giving him a summer league invite), even if he has interesting tools defensively.
Of the remaining bunch, I remain pretty sanguine on taking a shot on Kadeem Allen, whose defense seems like a premium asset to pick up in an undrafted prospect. He’s perhaps not quite as great of a choice as he was a few days ago since he’s merely a ball mover and not a distributor, something critical for Ball, but his ability to take the tougher backcourt assignment away from Ball is probably peerless among the undrafted crop.
Luke Kornet is the other name that stands out since he shot threes and defended the rim, even if we can drive a train through all of the faults in both of those assumptions. His shooting was erratic year-to-year at Vanderbilt and he’s rather immobile on defense, necessitating a drop back style against the pick-and-roll, along with being a highly mediocre rebounder. Still, the combination of the first two skills is super important, so he’s definitely worth a shot.
I’ll end here before we start to go through every second round bubble prospect under the sun since it’s hard to otherwise limit the field of options available, but I will bring up Kobi Simmons one last time to illustrate the risks as you noted of investing time into a pure project and having him bail.
Sam Vecenie at Vice Sports has noted that agents are adverse to having their clients signing two-year two-way contracts so they can maximize their earning ability after one year, so it emphasizes the possible peril you put yourself into after one year if you develop Simmons only to see him bail.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Simmons shouldn’t be an option, as after all there are probably fewer solid undrafted guys than there are two-way contract spots, but it perhaps tilts the scale more toward players who are capable of sticking more quickly and then developing their game from there. Although our faith in the front office has taken a huge hit in recent days, the scouting staff is still there, so observing how they operate with newfangled tools at their disposal in two-way contracts along with the rest of the draft will be something to watch.
Who would be your top undrafted free agent target with a two-way contract?
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