Tuesday November 3rd, 2015

With two exceptions, the 2012 draft class’s rookie extensions got done early or they got put on hold.

After Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Damian Lillard, John Henson and 2011 holdover Jonas Valanciunas reached lucrative extensions earlier this summer, Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb and Raptors guard Terrence Ross were the only players to ink rookie extensions in the hours before Monday’s deadline.

That sends the rest of the 2012 class, including lottery picks Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Harrison Barnes and Meyers Leonard, on the path towards restricted free agency next summer.

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The NBA’s surging salary cap—this year’s $70 million cap is projected to hit $89 million in 2016–17—played a role in encouraging both players and teams to wait until July. On the player side, B-level guys like Barnes and even C-level guys like Waiters can reasonably expect meaningful pay days next summer. The risks associating with waiting—injuries, a down year—are lessened this year because so many teams project to have major money to spend. If ever there was a time for a young and unproven player to “bet on himself,” this is it. A fourth-year breakout could easily increase a player’s value over his current level by tens of millions in dollars.

On the team side, all that new money creates a “sky’s the limit” approach to roster-building. Instead of being hemmed in by their previous commitments, teams like the Pistons and Wizards can dream about making a splash in free agency with their newfound room. To maximize their flexibility, Detroit and Washington opted to table extensions for max-level A-listers (Drummond and Beal, respectively) until July. Doing so allows them to operate with the added room generated by the difference between their 2016–17 cap holds and their projected salaries on their extensions. The Spurs used this approach in delaying a rookie extension for Kawhi Leonard last year, a move that facilitated the free-agency addition of LaMarcus Aldridge.

Now, let’s grade the two deals that did get done.

Toronto extends Terrence Ross

Shortly before Monday’s midnight deadline, the Raptors inked Ross to an extension worth $33 million over three years, according to Yahoo! Sports and USA Today. The deal will begin in 2016–17 and run through 2018–19.

Ross, 24, is a high-flying wing who has been both tantalizing (winning the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest and scoring 51 points in a January 2014 game) and frustratingly inconsistent. Although Ross has proven himself to be a good, if somewhat streaky, outside shooter, his overall player efficiency has been well below-average in each of his three seasons, Toronto’s defensive rating was six points worse with him on the court last season, and he was a non-factor in both the 2014 and 2015 playoffs. In related news, the off-season signing of DeMarre Carroll bumped Ross back to the Raptors’ second unit.

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By extending Ross, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri has avoided a possible worst-case scenario in which both Ross and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan enter free agency next summer and it becomes too expensive to keep both. Ross’s new contract figure isn’t exorbitant, and it still allows Toronto to compete to retain DeRozan, assuming he opts out, even if the bidding approaches max territory.

At the same time, Ross represents a somewhat plausible back-up plan should DeRozan walk: he started for large portions of the 2013–14 and 2014–15 seasons, and he has the potential to improve considerably on his 9.8 points per game scoring average from last year if asked to fill a larger role. Ujiri’s modus operandi, dating back to his Denver days, has been to hand out the money first and figure everything out later. This deal fits that pattern without seriously compromising the Raptors’ 2016 options.

These terms represent a win for Ross, whose demotion limited his ability to significantly increase his value this season, barring an injury to Carroll or DeRozan. Right now, Ross honestly isn’t anything to write home about: he’s not the world’s most consistent finisher despite his acrobatic and explosive highlight plays in transition, he doesn’t regularly get to the line, he’s a mediocre rebounder, he really doesn’t make plays for others, he’s not an imposing physical specimen and his -3.77 Defensive Real-Plus Minus was easily the worst among small forwards last year.

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While there’s as much to dislike about Ross’s game as there is to like, he has played significant minutes on successful Raptors squads and he’s found ways to contribute in a complementary role behind Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. Those points help this signing make a little more sense within Toronto’s specific circumstances than it does in a vacuum.

Ross’s $11 million average annual value reflects the expectation that he will be a quality role player, rather than a centerpiece, going forward. He’ll get to that standard if he can become a more reliable night-to-night scoring threat and if Toronto’s recent defensive-minded additions can help cover for him on the other end.

Grade: C

Charlotte extends Jeremy Lamb

ESPN.com reported this week that Lamb’s contract extension in Charlotte is worth $21 million over three years. The deal begins in 2016–17 and will run through 2018–19. Lamb, 23, averaged 6.3 points and 2.3 rebounds in 47 games for the Thunder last season. He was traded to Charlotte in a salary dump over the summer and is best known as one of the pieces Oklahoma City received in return for trading James Harden to Houston.

Why were the Hornets and Lamb able to reach a deal when others chose to wait? The best explanations are, unfortunately, somewhat cynical: Charlotte appeared willing to preemptively overpay so as to avoid the potential for greater damage down the line, while Lamb seemed to take the money and run.

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The Hornets face serious question marks on the wing, now and in the future. Kidd-Gilchrist, who reached a four-year $52 million extension in August, will miss most of the season due to a preseason shoulder injury. Nicolas Batum is on track to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and he has no long-term ties to the Hornets after arriving in an off-season trade. Charlotte’s other wing options are entirely underwhelming. No wonder locking up somebody—anybody—might have a certain appeal.

Although Lamb has yet to distinguish himself in any way—he hasn’t proven himself as a scorer, shooter or play-maker and he was a minus defender last season—Charlotte is betting that he will be able to handle rotation minutes this season and grow from there. A $7 million average annual salary in an $89 million cap environment is equivalent to a $5.5 million salary in a $70 million salary cap, meaning Lamb will be receiving the equivalent of mid-level money next season. At present, he hasn’t done enough to merit that level of compensation, but he isn’t being asked to clear the world’s highest bar. Plus, he should enjoy the largest role of his career, out of necessity, this season.

Lamb’s path to relevance centers on his ability to become a consistent threat from the perimeter, and major progress on that front this season would almost certainly translate into greater riches next summer given the NBA’s shooter-crazy spending environment. Reaching an early extension won’t drastically impact Charlotte’s cap room, as the Hornets have few long-term commitments on their books. Even with Lamb, the Hornets should enjoy plenty of flexibility to make decisions on Batum, center Al Jefferson and the rest of the 2016 free agency class.

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From Lamb’s side, $21 million is a lot of money, especially for a player who has drawn the dreaded “talented but needs to flip a switch” label while sleepwalking through most of his career to date. His basketball situation in Charlotte also isn’t ideal: Kemba Walker is a shoot-first point guard, the Hornets’ offense has struggled with its efficiency in recent years, both Batum and Jefferson are in contract years and coach Steve Clifford is entering the last year of his contract. Lamb’s development isn’t necessarily a top organizational priority, a breakout isn’t a foregone conclusion, and the Hornets may need to pivot drastically next summer depending on how this season goes and who wants to come back. The certainty of a multi-year commitment, at a solid number, sounds pretty good when you’re halfway down your team’s totem pole and when your team is facing such a cloudy picture.

Although this agreement is unlikely to prove damaging to Charlotte’s big-picture plans, whatever they might be, its cost will outpace its return unless Lamb really turns a corner. Of course, wanting a talented player to reach his potential isn’t the same thing as watching him actually do it. Will Lamb really succeed in taking those next steps without any carrots dangling in front of him as motivation? For now, this negotiation looks like an overly optimistic investment in an unproven and uninspiring player who was willing to settle for what will be fairly average compensation.

Grade: C-minus

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