The best bargains remaining in NBA free agency

Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Evan Fournier are among the best free agent bargains.
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Last summer, PointAfter unveiled a new metric called Free Agent Quotient (FAQ) to try and predict the future development of free agents.

To do this, rather than focusing on what players have accomplished in the distant past, the FAQ formula puts extra emphasis on a player’s age and performance over the past two years. It uses statistics such as player efficiency rating (PER), win shares,value over replacement player (VORP) and box plus-minus (BPM) to create a scale that equates a 0.0 FAQ to a projected average NBA starter.

150 = Strong MVP candidate
125 = Borderline MVP candidate
100 = Superstar
75 = Bona fide All-Star
50 = Borderline All-Star
25 = Above-average starter

 0 = Average starter 
-25 = Average bench player
-50 = D-League All-Star 

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I’ll highlight three guys—one guard, one wing and one post player—whom FAQ pins as underrated by the NBA media. Specifically, I’ll compare FAQ’s rankings to the free agent rankings of SI’s Rob Mahoney and SB Nation’s Tom Ziller.

Jared Sullinger 

FAQ (Ranking among free agents): 34.1 (10th)

Sports Illustrated/SB Nation Ranking: NR/48th

Sullinger’s value has taken a hit due to his history of back injuries and showing up to camp overweight. But if some lucky team can whip Sully into shape, FAQ loves the big man’s potential.

Despite being only 6-foot-9, Sullinger has rated out as a premier defender at center, where he played a career-high 86 percent of his minutes in 2015-16. He’s also an above-average passer for a big man, averaging 2.3 assists per game in each of the last two seasons. Sullinger’s shooting certainly leaves something to be desired—it’s probably time to curb the three-ball attempts altogether after a reduced load last year saw him plateau at 28 percent from deep. 

Jared Sullinger's Three-Point Shooting Over Time | PointAfter

Then again, he doesn’t turn 25 until next March. Sullinger could still feasibly find his outside stroke and improve his overall game. Anyone who tries to pry the restricted free agent from Boston would be bidding on his prime years, something that can’t be said about the vast majority of free agents. A young team in need of a steady passer and defender down low could do well to make a calculated risk on Sullinger. Luke Walton’s Lakers, perhaps?

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Sullinger fell out of favor in Boston as the season went on and never topped 20 minutes in the first-round playoff matchup against Atlanta. With the Celtics hoping to acquire a star down low, they might not match an offer for Sullinger that would muck up their precious cap space. 

Celtics Salary Commitments | PointAfter

SG/SF Evan Fournier

FAQ Ranking: 25.9 (14th)

Sports Illustrated/SB Nation Ranking: 24th/23rd 

Another restricted free agent, the 23-year-old Fournier tallied 15.4 points per game as Orlando’s scoring leader in 2015-16, his first full season as a starter. It’d be pretty shocking if the Magic let him walk, especially after the trade of Victor Oladipo opened up some backcourt minutes for Fournier, who struggles to defend stronger wings.

That being said, general manager Rob Hennigan would have to pause before matching a near-max offer sheet for Fournier that could approach five years and nine figures. Such a commitment might sound ludicrous for a player of Fournier’s caliber, but the ample cap space around the league keeps it in the realm of possibility.

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And Fournier is no slouch, despite his relatively reduced profile due to injuries and playing in two small markets (Denver, Orlando) thus far. The Frenchman started 40 games prior to 2015-16, then was handed 71 starts last season and responded with a breakout campaign he’d been waiting for since being drafted No. 20 overall in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Evan Fournier - Monthly Split Stats in 2015-16 | PointAfter

Though not an accomplished defender by any means, Fournier’s defensive box-plus minus in 2015-16 was the best of his career. A permanent move to shooting guard could further aid that part of his game.

On offense, Fournier was one of just 13 players in the NBA to attempt at least four three-pointers per game and make 40 percent of them. That put him among some distinguished company, of which Fournier was the youngest. He seems primed to take another leap in 2016-17.

High-Volume, Efficient Three-Point Shooters | PointAfter

PG Rajon Rondo

FAQ Ranking: 14.9 (23rd)

Sports Illustrated/SB Nation Ranking: NR/34th

By now, everyone knows the book on Rondo, who just completed his 10th NBA season. Bad shooter and declining defender, generational passer. He was the NBA’s assist leader last season, and it wasn’t particularly close, as he matched his career high with 11.7 dimes per game.

NBA League Leaders in Assists per Game (2015-16) | PointAfter

But Rondo evidently spent a lot of time working on his outside shot last year, something that largely went unnoticed in the NBA landscape. The 30-year-old sank 36.5 percent of his looks from downtown, easily the best rate of his career.

Rajon Rondo: Suddenly a Three-Point Threat? | PointAfter

In fact, virtually all of his numbers have rebounded to what they were during his glory days with the Celtics. Though the one-year, $9.5 million deal Rondo signed with Sacramento last summer might have effectively rebuilt his value, there simply doesn’t seem to be a ton of demand for his services.

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Point guard is the most crowded position in the league. Even in a free-agent class where Rondo is easily a top-three option at the position, there’s not too many teams without one. Ruling out a return to Dallas or Sacramento, the most obvious fits would be in Brooklyn, Chicago or Memphis—assuming Mike Conley leaves the Grizzlies.

If none of those teams opt to pay a premium for the four-time All-Star, Rondo could end up being one of the most underutilized backups and biggest bargains in the league next season. 

Will Laws is a writer for PointAfter, a sports visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network.