Five must-watch players when NBA free agency opens Thursday night

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Big-name, game-changing players are about to become NBA free agents: James Harden, Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal.

Boring.

All three will quickly re-sign with their current teams (Beal and LaVine for the max, the only interesting question about Harden is how much of a discount he takes to stay in Philly). The action is elsewhere in 2022 NBA free agency, which opens at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30 (Thursday).

Here are five players that are must watch as free agency opens — not all are free agents, but all could be on the move to new teams. All five are the unknown, the wild cards, not situations that are predetermined long before free agency opens. Check them out.

1) Deandre Ayton

Former No. 1 picks almost always get a max contract extension off their rookie deal — since 2008, only two have not (Anthony Bennett, Markelle Fultz).

Deandre Ayton is about to be the third — despite him averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds a game last season as the starting center on a team that had the best record in the NBA, a team that went to the NBA Finals the year before. The Suns don’t want to pay him the max. They didn’t last summer when they didn’t put a max extension offer on the table, and they didn’t after this season ended with a frustrated coach Monte Williams playing Ayton just 17 minutes in a close-out game and when asked why said, “it’s internal.” It looked like Ayton was done in Phoenix.

However, the market has not been kind to Ayton. There have not been teams falling over themselves to offer Ayton the max. The Suns would be open to a sign-and-trade (it would keep Phoenix out of the luxury tax, and never forget Robert Sarver still owns this team) but that has yet to materialize either. There was a time Detroit was thought to be the frontrunner to pay Ayton big money, only to watch them draft Jalen Duren and start using their cap space to take on Knicks contracts so they could throw big money at Jalen Brunson (the Pistons racked up draft picks for their troubles). Ayton’s other prospects appear to have died on the vine as well. Portland decided to stick with Jusuf Nurkic. Toronto has been mentioned. Atlanta may be the most typical: They are interested but don’t want to give Ayton the max, and their focus has been elsewhere.

Can Ayton find a max offer on the market? Can he find a sign-and-trade deal that gets him face-savingly close to the max and out of Phoenix? Ayton has said he is under-utilized in Phoenix and can do so much more on offense, but is there a team willing to give him a chance to prove it? There probably should be — he was a 17-and-10 guy who may be inconsistent but is a quality center — but the value of more traditional centers in the league continues to drop.

Or are Ayton and the Suns going to strike some kind of keep-the-marriage-together shorter-term deal where nobody is really happy? Ayton’s situation is the most wide-open in free agency, and it feels like anything is possible.

2) John Collins

Not a free agent, but is anybody going to trade for a bouncy 24-year-old forward who averaged 16.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, shot 36.4% from 3, and can block some shots? Atlanta has been trying hard to trade Collins since the February deadline and through this NBA Draft, yet he is still a Hawk.

There have been nibbles — the Kings and Celtics at least talked with the Hawks about trades on some level — but no bites. The Spurs preferred Danilo Gallinari and draft picks over Collins (because Collins would have helped them win more now, and that’s not the goal in San Antonio).

Collins has four years and $102 million left on his contract — no small amount, but not out of line with what he brings to the table. This isn’t an anchor of a contract and, again, he is just 24.

It’s tempting to say “I’d be shocked if Collins is still a Hawk a week from now,” but I said the exact same thing on draft night, yet here we are. Will some team that strikes out on its free agent forward wish list put together a trade package for Collins? Atlanta is listening, the phones are open.

3) Miles Bridges

Along with Ayton, Bridges is at the top of this year’s restricted free agent class — and like Ayton, Bridges is struggling to get a max offer from anywhere (despite reports the Hornets would be hesitant to match a max offer for luxury tax reasons).

Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak dampened Bridges’ market by saying they would keep him. Add into the mix that Bridges was just arrested for felony domestic abuse this week and teams may be hesitant to make an offer (we don’t know the details of that case or how it could impact his free agency).

Bridges is an athletic wing, a solid and improving wing defender who took a leap forward last season and was in the mix for Most Improved Player, averaging 20.2 points and 7 rebounds a game. He plays well off LaMelo Ball — the Hornet should want to lock him up and keep him happy (hence Kupchak’s comment). He’s not a consistent 3-point shooter yet, but he’s improving.

Indiana and Memphis have been rumored to have interest in Bridges, but whether that leads to an offer is another question. Detroit also has been rumored as a potential team trying to poach Bridges — they just saw Jerami Grant get traded and create a hole on the wing — but they have focused their cap space elsewhere (specifically, taking on contracts the Knicks want to dump). Is there another surprise suitor for Bridges, or will he have to figure out something with the Hornets that is less than what he had hoped?

4) Collin Sexton

The wildest card on the board — it’s unclear what the market will be for Sexton, what teams might step up and make a genuine offer, and if the Cavaliers would match it or just wave goodbye as they put their arm around Darius Garland.

Sexton can get buckets — he averaged 24.3 points per game two seasons ago. However, he’s not a good defender, not a great passer, and his dominant style frustrated teammates. Add to that he missed all but 11 games last season due to a torn meniscus. There are many question marks, but there is always room for a scorer in the league.

Some teams picture Sexton more in a sixth man role — would he accept that and the payday that comes with it (around $18 million a year)? Does he want to start, and if so, what teams want him in that role?

There have been a lot of teams rumored to be interested — Pacers, Knicks, Pistons, Wizards — but none that have him as a top priority. Sexton is another restricted free agent, the Cavaliers can match any offer, which could lead to a sign-and-trade. But where and for how much are among the mysteries for the wildest card on this list.

5) Rudy Gobert

It’s no secret that Danny Ainge and the Utah Jazz have listened to offers for Rudy Gobert, but their asking price — an All-Star (or future All-Star) young player plus picks and enough salary to match for tax reasons — has other teams backing away. Talks cooled around the draft.

Will they heat up again now? The Bulls have long been considered a frontrunner (with a deal based around Nikola Vucevic), but nothing has been solid yet. Minnesota gets mentioned as a landing spot because new team president Tim Connelly wants to put a defensive big man next to Karl-Anthony Towns, but again no deal appears close (would the Jazz want D'Angelo Russell back in a deal?).

All that on top of the fact Gobert has four years and $170 million remaining on his max contract extension and it’s tough to put together a good trade for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Jazz will try, but new coach Will Hardy may have to figure out a way to get more out of the Gay/Donovan Mitchell pairing.

He’s worth watching, though, because a lot of teams could use a Gobert.