For many fans, keeping track of free agency can be a daunting task. With hundreds of players rotating through 30 teams, many additions end up unnoticed as a result of the glitz and glamour of big name free agents. Even so, the gravity of overlooked signings can make a significant impact on a team’s outlook. Filling rotational gaps and adding players with dynamic skill sets can transform a staff’s gameplan.
The invaluable locker room influence of a veteran addition can be equally as important as the player’s on-court production. Culture is everything in the NBA and a refined roster of talented personnel translates to the court. Whether it be on the court or on the sidelines, these three overlooked signings are major for the respective teams.
Brook Lopez - Milwaukee Bucks
Lopez is highly regarded as the ultimate professional. On and off the court, Brook is a high-character individual whose passion for the game and veteran experience make him a serviceable addition to any team. More importantly for Milwaukee, he fits the bill for everything they needed out of their center.
At seven feet tall, Lopez’s stature and high basketball IQ make him an exquisite rim protector and rebounder. Los Angeles used him sparingly at only 23.4 minutes per game but received an excellent production in spite of his minor role. Brook averaged 13 points and four rebounds along with 1.3 blocks per contest, which translates to a full two blocks per 36 minutes. In his heyday with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Lopez was an All-Star caliber center as the third option behind Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
Now as a veteran leader, Lopez knows his role and sticks to it well. Throughout his career, he’s shown the ability to stretch the floor and knock down deep midrange jumpers. As the league has evolved and Centers have received the green light to take three’s Lopez has adjusted and become a superb catch-and-shoot recipient. His 34.5 percent from behind the arc doesn’t quite do justice to his range, as Los Angeles’ unconventional offense encouraged players to chuck shots from deep.
Milwaukee spent most of last season clawing for decent production out of their centers but never quite found it. Forward Thon Maker, whose shown flashes but has yet to build consistency, isn’t quite where they’d like him to be physically and John Henson hasn’t panned out as a reliable rim protector. Adding Lopez into the mix adds another dimension of size and length that could propel the Bucks higher in the Eastern Conference standings.
Mario Hezonja - New York Knicks
Youth is the name of the game for the New York Knicks, who’ve set their draft focus on the youngest available players over the last three seasons. While it’s been a rocky road with the departure of Carmelo Anthony and the ACL injury suffered by Kristaps Porzingis last season, the future is bright in New York for the first time in a long time. Rookie Kevin Knox is surpassing all expectations as a Summer League standout and sophomore Frank Ntilikina is developing into a spectacular two-way talent. Now’s the perfect time for the Knicks to take a flyer on a player whose potential was lost in Orlando.
At just 23 years old, Mario Hezonja has exemplified a unique guardlike skill complemented by his prototypical small forward build at 6’8. His floor spacing, ball handling and scoring mentality are worth the chance for coach David Fizdale’s new look Knicks. In only 22 minutes per outing, Hezonja averaged 9.6 points and 1.1 steals on an uninspired 44.2 percent shooting. In contempt of his limited role, Hezonja put together a strong ending stretch to the year where he showed himself to be more talented than the numbers may show.
Orlando oversaturated the small forward position with Aaron Gordon, Jonathon Simmons and Evan Fournier splitting minutes on the wing. This oftentimes left Hezonja out of position and without proper opportunities to grow. Expectations are low for the Knicks, especially with Porzingis’ status in limbo. This allows Fizdale the chance to let Hezonja be himself, something the Magic never truly committed to.
Julius Randle - New Orleans Pelicans
Yes, the loss of Demarcus Cousins was tremendous for the New Orleans Pelicans. After throwing assets at Sacramento just a season and a half ago, the Pelicans were left without young talent or their star center after his departure to Golden State. This was a shot to the heart of the Big Easy, who won their first playoff series since 2008 in April. Somehow, the burned Pelicans are landing on their feet.
Replacing Boogie is nearly impossible, as his multifaceted skill set and dominant scoring make him and Anthony Davis the league’s two best big men by a wide margin. Even so, New Orleans did a great job of picking up the pieces by snagging Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle on a two-year “prove it” deal worth $18 million. The story of the summer for Los Angeles is LeBron James’ decision to join a long line of legends who left for Malibu to presumably end their careers. With all attention on the King, forward Julius Randle was isolated by the team that drafted him seventh overall in 2014.
Randle put up a career-high in scoring at 16.1 points on 55.8 percent shooting from the floor. He also tacked on eight rebounds and 2.6 assists in his 26.7 minutes per game. Similarly to Lopez, the Lakers never truly utilized Julius to the best of his ability. As a perimeter-oriented team, Los Angeles’ offense often left Randle to create his own opportunities and influence the game by his sheer will and ferocity.
Boogie’s impact on the Pelicans can be boiled down to playmaking rebounding and intensity; three traits that define Randle’s playstyle. As one of the league’s most tenacious interior presence, he’ll seamlessly integrate on the low block alongside Davis. By creating shots for his teammates, affording second-chance buckets and barrelling through defenders, Randle wears down opponents and drains their energy. This opens up a world of possibilities for Davis, who’s by far the most talented big man in basketball.
Whether he’ll start next or come off the bench for forwarding Nikola Mirotic is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt that Randle can help push the Pelicans to a new phase of success.