We still might see a few signings to round out rosters as NBA teams load up for the 2022-23 season. An Eric Bledsoe or Jeremy Lamb here, a Tony Snell or Hassan Whiteside there, you never know. But, for the most part, this summer’s free agency period has concluded. One might wonder who might be the best young players to watch out for this season.
NBA front offices never stop looking ahead, though. The league has projected the 2023-24 salary cap at $133 million. You can bet they’re already mapping out contingency plans for next summer’s market.
The quality of the 2023 free agent class dipped as soon as LeBron James chose to extend his contract on Wednesday. Whether it declines further will depend largely on the decisions of several All-Stars: namely, whether James Harden, Draymond Green, and Khris Middleton pick up their 2023-24 player options or work out new long-term deals, and whatever the hell winds up happening with Kyrie Irving – in Brooklyn or elsewhere.
Even if there doesn’t wind up being a ton of star power at the top of the market, though, next summer’s class is poised to feature a few intriguing players who are in position to play big roles—and potentially earn even bigger bags – in the final season of their current contracts.
Let’s take a look at some of the most compelling names in the 2023 class to keep an eye on this season, starting with a Grit and Grind throwback on the next-gen Grizz:
Also read: Major NBA Contracts of the 2022 Offseason.
Dillon Brooks: Memphis Grizzlies
Thanks to a little thing called recency bias, there’s an excellent chance that the sight of Brooks’s name caused you summon two memories: him clobbering and subsequently injuring Gary Payton II on a breakaway dunk in the Western Conference semifinals, and him bricking jumper after jumper during Memphis’s six-game loss to the eventual champion Warriors.
Zoom out from those ugly specifics to consider Brooks’s game and standing in its broader context, though, and a sunnier picture begins to emerge—one that, if Middleton stays put and Andrew Wiggins extends his contract in Golden State, might make the 26-year-old the best two-way wing available next summer.
The Mississauga product plays like a mauling mid-century middleweight, forever leading with his chin to get into opponents’ personal space. That predilection toward physicality can get Brooks in trouble—he’s averaged 5.7 personal fouls per 100 possessions over five pro seasons—and it doesn’t exactly endear him to fans of the teams Memphis faces. It’s helped give the new-look Grizzlies an attitude and edge befitting their franchise forebears, though, and has proven quite handy for Taylor Jenkins’s defense.
It’s possible that Brooks, who’s now eligible for an extension of the three-year deal he signed back in 2020, won’t reach unrestricted free agency. But if he decides that the maximum re-up Memphis can offer him—four years, $61.3 million—doesn’t quite match what he might be able to get on the free market after watching squint-and-they’re-similar players like Luguentz Dort, Norman Powell, and Tim Hardaway Jr. all get both higher annual average salaries and more total money on their new deals, the stage could be set for an awfully interesting contract year.
Gary Trent Jr.: Toronto Raptors
Only six players age 23 or younger averaged 18 points per game and shot 38 percent from 3-point range last season. Three (Trae Young, Darius Garland, LaMelo Ball) were All-Stars. One (Tyler Herro) won Sixth Man of the Year, and another (Desmond Bane) was a top-five finisher in Most Improved Player voting.
The sixth, as you surely deduced from the heading of this section, was Trent, who authored a breakout season for a Raptors team that bounced back to return to the playoffs—and who, in the process, might have put himself in position to secure an All-Star-level payday should he choose to decline his $18.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season.
Trent still has work to do to develop his all-around game, chiefly when it comes to complementary playmaking—he’s averaged fewer than two dimes per 36 minutes in his career—and finishing on the interior. But legit marksmen who can create their own shot and defend multiple perimeter positions well enough to stay on the court in the postseason are worth their weight in gold.
Maybe Masai Ujiri wants to see Trent spend his mid-20s north of the border. Another level-up campaign like last season’s, though, and it’d probably be in Trent’s best interest to opt out and find out just how badly Ujiri wants him—and who else might want him even more.
Victor Oladipo: Miami Heat
Four years ago, Oladipo was coming off his first All-Star and All-NBA berths after a breakthrough season in Indianapolis as the new leader of the post-Paul George Pacers. At just 25 years old with rocket boosters in his sneakers, an advancing three-level-scoring game, an All-Defensive First Team nod to his credit, and charisma to burn, Oladipo seemed set for superstardom—and, with it, the kind of lucrative long-term contracts that serve as a handsome reward for the NBA’s best and brightest.
And then, things fell apart. A devastating quadriceps tendon injury cut short his 2018-19 season and put him on the shelf for a year. His return lasted all of 13 games before the onset of the pandemic.
There should be opportunities for Oladipo to seize. If he can make the most of them, he’d put himself in position to go back into unrestricted free agency in a significantly stronger position than he’s been at any point since his injury. It’s unlikely that anything he puts on film this season will result in a new deal that makes up for the money he left on the table in Indianapolis and Houston.
But a player looking to show the world (and, to some degree, himself) that he can still be a legit difference-maker at the NBA level has to start somewhere. He’s definitely a young player to watch out for.
Josh Hart: Portland Trail Blazers
You can’t not name Josh Hart if you’re listing young players to watch out for. Every NBA team needs players like Hart; this much has been clear since well before he ever set foot in the league. The Blazers, being an NBA team, therefore need players like Hart—which is why they both traded for and retained him over the last six months. The question now, though: Will they keep him around? Or, with the 27-year-old just 82 games away from reaching unrestricted free agency, will a rock-solid do-it-all role player prove too attractive a commodity for the Blazers to resist shopping on the open market?
Though he’s slightly undersized at 6-foot-5 (albeit with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) and 215 pounds, Hart may well be the most sensible pick to start at small forward next to Dame and Simons this season, ahead of fourth-year wing Nassir Little and new arrival Gary Payton II. In context, though, you wonder whether a Blazers team that spent this summer throwing boatloads of cash at other guards—a new $122 million extension for Lillard, $100 million for Simons, and $28 million for Payton—not to mention using the no. 7 pick in the draft on über-prospect Shaedon Sharpe—might think hard about showcasing Hart in the first half of what could be his walk year before exploring the market for his services come February.
Kyle Kuzma: Washington Wizards
Kuzma is another young player to watch out for. After providing a slight silver lining for the woebegone Wiz with his all-around play last season, the 6-foot-9 forward finds himself staring down a $13 million player option for 2023-24.
If Kuzma can maintain his stepped-up rebounding and playmaking while advancing as a defender and scoring more efficiently as a complement to the hopefully healthy top two of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis, he could draw attention as the kind of versatile big wing that good teams (like the title-winning Lakers for whom he played a key role) look to target once free agency opens.
Also read: Top 5: Youngest Players in NBA History
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