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2023 NBA Free Agents Who Deserve More Love

The NBA world shifts its attention faster than the city of Toronto shifts its weather patterns. It feels like the NBA Finals was eons ago even though it was only two weeks ago that the Nuggets were hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. The NBA draft came and went and now, a bright new shiny toy for NBA fans to be captivated by: free agency.

It’s an annual tradition unlike any other. Fans around the world stay glued to their phone, watching for Woj bombs, Shams bombs, Haynes bombs, and really any kind of notification that could imply there is an incoming news alert coming.

League and team media are busy working away on their respective free agency primers, the whos, and whats of what may go down.

Quite frankly, all angles of free agency coverage have been exhausted.

In an attempt to be a little bit more creative with how to approach this upcoming free agency, I’ve decided to do something more ambiguous.

We know that Fred VanVleet, Brook Lopez, James Harden, and others will dominate the discussion on Friday, June 30th when teams can officially start signing players.

But who are the free agents this summer that deserve more love? And if so, where could they go in order to receive said love?

Let’s get into our names.

Lonnie Walker IV

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This is Walker’s second year hitting free agency after signing a 1-year ‘bet on myself’ type of deal in Los Angeles with the Lakers. That bet went rather swimmingly. Walker was a big part of the Lakers rotation for the first half of the season, averaging over 11 points and shooting a career-best 36% from behind the arc on 4 attempts a game. As the team went through an overhaul and as Austin Reaves began to emerge as the team’s defacto point guard, Walker saw his minutes dwindle, only to become an integral part of their rotation once again during the 2023 Playoffs. Walker was pivotal in helping the Lakers beat the Warriors in Round 2, putting up double-digit performances in 3 games, including a magnificent 4th quarter in Game 4.

Undoubtedly, Walker has earned himself a bit of a pay bump from his current $6.5M AAV because of his season. He probably doesn’t get the full MLE but I think some team will dedicate a portion of it to him again. Despite having an up-and-down first 5 seasons in the league — his combination of athleticism and shooting makes for a unique type of combo guard that could serve well on multiple teams. Similar to how Malik Monk left this Lakers team to join Sacramento, Walker could go somewhere that could offer him a larger and more consistent role and take another leap in his career.

Possible destinations: Raptors, Timberwolves, Spurs, Cavaliers, Grizzlies

Trey Lyles

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

You probably won’t find a bigger Trey Lyles appreciator than me. The 8-year veteran has bounced around the league quite a bit but he absolutely found his footing in Sacramento last season. The numbers don’t pop at all. He averaged less than 10 points, only averaged 17 minutes a night, and box score-wise doesn’t have anything that wows you. But he was a positive player for the Kings, who were +1.1 points per 100 possessions better when the Canadian was on the floor.

He was especially impactful in the Kings’ first-round series against the Warriors, where they were +10.1 with him on the floor and -7.2 without him. His combination of size, standing at 6-foot-9, and shooting (he knocked down 37% of his threes on just under 4 attempts) is tantalizing for any team to bring off the bench and incorporate into their rotation. Sacramento, in all likelihood, should try their darndest to re-sign him. That’s how impactful he was.

But I am extremely confident that he can be the 7th or 8th man on a championship-level team next season. I’m not sure if a team throws the full MLE at him (he’s not better than Naz Reid, for example) but I can see a team using a good chunk of their MLE to acquire his talents.

Possible Destinations: Kings, Thunder, Pacers, Pistons, Hawks, Cavs, Grizzlies, Mavericks

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Speaking of Canadians, NAW is one that I refuse to give up on. The 24-year-old guard/wing is going to be an RFA this summer so in all likelihood, he stays put in Minnesota. But the Timberwolves are going to get expensive really quickly and if there’s a team that even semi-believes in NAW’s unique blend of size, defense, and tertiary playmaking — then he should be a target.

You might remember NAW from the Timberwolves’ first-round series versus the Nuggets where he was tasked with guarding Jamal Murray… and did a pretty damn good job. Some may point to the lack of shooting as an issue with him moving forward, but I believe the jump shot can get to a respectable level (he shot 36% and 40% the past 2 seasons from behind the arc, albeit on a low volume), that can help him stay on the floor.

If you’re buying low on NAW right now, it’s banking on his upside as a tertiary player next to stars that can be a part of your rotation. But there’s always that hope, that glimmer of a chance that he can potentially become more than that.

Possible Destinations: Spurs, Timberwolves, Lakers, Grizzlies, Bulls, Bucks, Sixers

Dennis Smith Jr

(AP Photo/Matt Kelley)

It’s time to talk about defensive stopper, Dennis Smith Jr. It’s crazy how many twists and turns his career has taken but DSJ has clawed his way back into the league, and rightfully so. While the Hornets weren’t at the top of anyone’s league pass viewing last season, DSJ turned heads that cared enough to watch with his ferocious point-of-attack defense, absolutely hounding ballhandlers, forcing turnovers, and getting out and running.

The Hornets had a 108 defensive rating with him on the floor and a 119.7 defensive rating when he sat. To put it into context, that would be the best defense in the NBA versus the worst. That’s how seismic of a difference he made defensively for a team that was dying for anyone to try and stop the ball.

He’s still working to get back to where he once was pre-injuries on offense but if he ever does get back to being that, it’ll have to be somewhere where he can experiment and explore his game, all while providing a nice punch defensively.

Possible Destinations: Hornets, Spurs, Raptors, Blazers, Sixers, Jazz

Yuta Watanabe

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In the same way that Lyles showed that he can be a rotation-level player of a contending team, I truly think Watanabe has the shot to do that as well. He’s turned himself into an elite (open) shooter, who is always in the right place at the right time. He’s sound technically, and defensively, because of it and rarely misses a rotation or shy’s away from getting dunked on (hello Ant Edwards).

Next to Durant and Irving to start the season, Yuta became one of the Nets’ more important rotation players. Once Durant and Irving bolted for greener pastures and Brooklyn brought in a billion forwards to replace them, Watanabe saw his playing time dwindle.

But there is a good rotation player for a championship team in there. I believe it. And he probably will only cost a part of the MLE. Regardless, Watanabe has helped keep his NBA career alive and I think he has even more to provide if given a consistent role.

Possible Destinations: Suns, Lakers, Mavericks, Sixers, Nuggets

Jaylen Nowell

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Imagine Lonnie Walker IV but before he signed on with the Lakers. Nowell didn’t get consistent run with the Timberwolves last year. He isn’t necessarily the best defender and it forced Chris Finch to opt to play other guards ahead of him.

There’s a chance, though, if given a consistent role, he can have a ‘bet on myself’ type of year as Lonnie did in LA and Monk before him. It’ll probably be a rebuilding team that needs some guard depth or a playoff team with tight finances that needs to swing for the fences with whatever money they have left that will try to get Nowell because he’s not at a high point value-wise.

But he’s shown flashes of being a score-first combo guard that can handle playmaking duties in spurts and if there’s a team that’s missing that, they could bet on Nowell.

Possible Destinations: Raptors, Spurs, Celtics, Bucks

Where do these players go? Who knows! But do they deserve more love? Absolutely.

Whoever ends up signing them will probably be pleasantly surprised that they’ve found a diamond in the rough.