In the NBA, where strict salary caps are in place, it’s common to hear about players signing for so-called “max money.” This basically means that they’re being paid as much as their teams are allowed to pay them based on strict rules that are in place depending on how long the player’s been in the league, whether he’s going to a new team, and other factors. NBC Sports outlined the different max values that are appropriate for different players pretty effectively, and you can see those specifics here. But basically, if a player is completely indispensable and/or known as an All-Star caliber talent, chances are he’ll be in line for a max contract.
In the coming years with the salary cap expected to go up significantly, a max deal will be worth even more than it is today, which means such deals may become a little less common. But chances are the market will even out and before too long we’ll see deserving players making as much as they possibly can again. That means this year’s rookies could be lined up quite nicely to secure some of the biggest contracts in league history in a few years’ time when their rookie deals expire. But which ones might be deserving?
Karl-Anthony Towns – F, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns was the number one pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and so far he’s lived up to the expectations that come with that position. Going by the projections at Betfair Sports, the talented Minnesota forward is alone at the top on the list of players with the best odds to win Rookie of the Year, and he certainly looks like the type of player the Timberwolves can build their franchise around. The big man’s stats (16.6 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 22.69 PER) suggest he’s already worth something close to the max, so it would be a shock if he doesn’t get there in a few years.
Jahlil Okafor – C, Philadelphia 76ers
Frankly, Okafor is a tricky player to project given that he’s playing for a team that’s deliberately playing with a poor roster. Furthermore it’s no secret that Okafor needs to improve his defense and rebounding if he’s to become the elite center he was once projected to be. Even with these concerns and the fact that he’s hardly had a professional caliber guard to play with on offense, Okafor is averaging 17.3 PPG and 7.2 RPG with a 16.83 PER—at age 20. It stands to reason he’ll only get better from here, and improvement on this kind of a start should result in a max deal down the line.
Kristaps Porzingis – F, New York Knicks
The Latvian forward who some have described as a “stretch 5″ is about as unique a player as there is in the league already. He’s 7’3” and capable of playing inside or pulling up for a three-pointer, and his defense has probably been better than advertised so far. Like Towns and potentially Okafor, he could be a franchise cornerstone moving forward. And most importantly for his own financial aspirations, he plays for the Knicks—New York sports teams pay their stars.
Justise Winslow – G/F, Miami Heat
Frankly, the three players listed above look like the only options who are close to sure bets for max contracts. No other rookies are producing anything like the numbers of Towns, Okafor and Porzingis. But Justise Winslow has been singled out by just about every knowledgeable basketball analyst out there as one of the most impressive rookies, and already one of the best wing defenders in the Eastern Conference. This recent article in a Miami sports blog compared Winslow’s early status in the league to that of players like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Draymond Green. They’re all hard-nosed hustle players who thrived early on defense but had to learn how to find offensive production in the league. If those three indeed prove to be accurate comparisons, Winslow will land a max deal soon enough.
Really, the fun thing about the development of young NBA players is that we never quite know who will turn into a star. But in the early going, these look like the four names that will define the 2015 class, both on the court and in the financial books.