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A Data-Driven Look at Spartans Hitting NBA Free Agency

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Where will Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes play next?

Forbes lands in the top 5 most improved while Valentine is top 5 for the second year in a row
Forbes and Valentine are both entering NBA free agency.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State has a reputation as a pipeline to the NBA. The Spartans have sent 21 players to the NBA since the turn of the century including six currently active. This offseason two of those active Spartans will hit the free agency market, Bryn Forbes from the San Antonio Spurs and Denzel Valentine from the Chicago Bulls. Where do they currently stand in the league? What team will they play for next season? How much money will they be making? How likely are they to create positive value on their new contracts?

Bryn Forbes

Bryn Forbes is a low usage floor spacer on offense. This past year he had 28 touches per game, in the sixth percentile amongst guards. He was efficient with the touches he did have. His offensive role revolves around his ability to move off of the ball and shoot from the perimeter. He actually shot better when used in screening actions such as this one:

Forbes had an effective field goal percentage of 54.4 percent this season, and that rose to 57 percent off of screening actions. He is aggressive when looking for his shot in these situations. He uses solid footwork to rotate his body toward the rim and get good looks from three. He was second on the Spurs in made threes behind Patty Mills. Forbes is a plus shooter not just because of his ability to put the ball in the basket, but also because of his ability to create open lanes for his teammates with his shooting gravity. His shooting gravity ranks in the 82nd percentile amongst guards according to BBall Index. He adds legitimate value in ATOs (after time outs), as there are frequently screening actions used as misdirections in these sets.

Outside of his shooting, Forbes does not add much value. He was involved in 0.1 isolation actions per 75 possessions for a team that was isolation heavy in the midrange. He is not much of a slasher going downhill either as he only took roughly one shot per game at the rim. He passed out of almost half of his drives to the rim. The positive in this is that he knows his limits. He is a conservative passer, never really seeking out assists or passing others open through back door cuts or screeners.

On defense, Forbes struggles to compete. At 6-feet-2-inches tall with a 6-foot-5-inch wingspan, he is a high effort defender, as shown by his propensity for diving for loose balls. He recovered 76 percent of loose balls, good for the 84th percentile amongst guards. He struggled to guard the PnR (pick and roll) as he gave up 0.95 PPP (points per possessions) when guarding ball handlers. He was scored against in 43.9 percent of PnR actions according to NBA Stats. He was near the bottom of the NBA in Defensive PIPM (Player Impact Plus-Minus), Defensive RAPTOR (Robust Algorithm Player Tracking On/Off Ratings), and Defensive BPM (Box Plus/Minus) 2.0. Forbes is a catch and shoot wing that adds value as a floor spacer. He does not do much outside of that on offense. On the defensive end, he gives great effort, but struggles due to his lack of size and athleticism.

Potential Teams

San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs are a potential team for Forbes just because he is a returning player. If that was not the case, Forbes most likely would not be an interest of the Spurs. A one-year flyer may still be possible for this team as San Antonio looks to make one last playoff run with DeMar DeRozen and LaMarcus Aldrige at the helm before most likely heading for a rebuild when their contracts are up at the end of the 2021 season. Forbes may not fit the timeline of a rebuild very well as he is 27 years old.

Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz could end up targeting Forbes as floor spacers are vital around Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Joe Ingles could be on the move via trade as well or free agency in 2021, so replacing his value as a floor spacer is a priority. Forbes’ defensive issues are much easier to hide with the Utah roster as the Jazz have a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rudy Gobert manning their backline. Mitchell and Conley are both solid fits as point of attack defenders, so Forbes can be hid off the ball on defense.

Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets may give Forbes a look as it seems more and more likely that Joe Harris gets priced out of their budget. Forbes is a low cost version of Harris and can fill his role rather seamlessly. The Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant led roster will need to be surrounded by role players and specifically shooters who can space the floor for Irving and Durant isolation actions. The defensive concerns are real with this roster makeup though as Irving struggles on the perimeter, and Durant is coming off potentially an 18-month rehab for an Achilles tear. DeAndre Jordan has lost a step when guarding the PnR as well.

Potential Contract

Bryn Forbes’ market should be in the range of a two-to-three year deal at about $5 million annually. Just his shooting makes him an asset in the current state of the league. The defensive lapses are what stop him from pulling in a contract in the eight-figure range. Jacob Goldstein, a leader in the basketball analytics field, added a new feature to his website Wins Added, that projects the value of a player based on their contract and PIPM. According to this application, Forbes has a 27.7 percent chance of adding positive value on a two-year, $10 million contract. If you extend that to a three-year contract for $15 million, those odds drop to 18.6 percent.

Denzel Valentine

Denzel Valentine played 36 games this season after missing the entire 2018-19 season due to surgery on his ankle. In his first three years in the NBA, he had three surgeries. After playing 2,095 minutes in the 2017-18 season, his minutes were cut down to 488 after returning from injury. He was either a DNP (Did Not Play) or inactive for 29 games this season. He did not break into the rotation until the end of November, a month into the season. He had another stretch of games where he did not dress during the entire month of February. He struggled to shoot from deep considering that is his most valuable offensive skill. He shot 36.6 percent on catch and shoot threes, in the 60th percentile for wings. That rose 6.3 percent to 42.9 percent on corner threes. He struggled to finish around the rim at a 54.5 percent clip. The worst part is he only took 11 attempts at the rim. This explains his historically low free throw rate of 0.34.

One area where Valentine has excelled on offense is his passing. This has translated well from his days at Michigan State. He is one of the better passing wings in the NBA. He created 19.4 potential assists per 100 passes, in the 90th percentile amongst wings and created 9.0 assisted points per 75 possessions, in the 83rd percentile amongst wings. He is an aggressive passer that reads the floor well. He attacks mismatches to get into the midpost when necessary. In this range he has a very unique long floater or push shot.

Defensively, Valentine is a decent player on the wing. The numbers point to him being a major plus, but he was relegated to garbage time minutes frequently. This inflated his defensive numbers. He averaged 3.8 steals off bad passes and deflections per 75 possessions, good for the 79th percentile amongst wings. He spent 42 percent of his defensive possessions guarding shooting and cutting wings who played predominantly off the ball. This explains why he was near the top of the league in contesting three pointers, 5.2 contests per 75 possessions in the 85th percentile amongst wings.

Overall analytical metrics do not agree on Valentine. PIPM sees him as a slightly below average player, ranking in the 49th percentile amongst wings. RPM on the other hand sees him as a major plus in the 79th percentile amongst wings. This metric finds a lot of value in his ability to make plays and facilitate winning. RAPTOR is the metric that is highest on Valentine as he ranks in the 85th percentile amongst wings. Valentine has a unique offensive play style that revolves around his ability to facilitate, create in the midpost, and shoot off the catch with high variance.

Potential Teams

Chicago Bulls

Denzel Valentine has shown his commitment to the Chicago Bulls by his public comments about his willingness to return to the franchise as well as his appearance in their bubble. Teams who did not qualify for the Orlando bubble have gotten the chance to host in-market workouts over the past month. Most players in Valentine’s position of hitting free agency have opted out of workouts, like Valentine’s teammate Kris Dunn. Valentine has decided to continue working out with the team. Chicago’s new front office has a decision to make regarding the future of Valentine in the Windy City.

Golden State Warriors

If Valentine is willing to accept a minimum contract, he could make his way to San Francisco. The Golden State Warriors struggled on the wings this year as Jordan Poole managed to get 1,200 minutes of playing time. Valentine can add value on the perimeter for the Warriors as a facilitator in spot minutes. He can be a legitimate rotation piece off the bench behind Andrew Wiggins. If his shooting can progress to above league average, he could be another steal added to this roster for cheap.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers should bring in Valentine to compete for minutes on the wing with Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle. He is a veteran at this point in his career so he could provide some valuable insights to the two budding defensive wings. The 76ers need help on the perimeter in the shooting department as well. Even though Valentine provides that with extremely high variance, it may be worth the risk for the 76ers on a minimum or unguaranteed contract around $3-$4 million.

Potential Contract

Valentine may be compensated with a one-year deal in the $3-$6 million range. An outside team may be nervous to give him a guaranteed multi-year contract given that he really has not played a full season since his ankle injury. Looking again at Goldstein’s player projection model, Valentine has a 67.1 percent chance of providing positive value on a one-year contract at the $5 million mark. Say a team offers Valentine a two-year $8 million deal with the second year being a team option, there is a 82.9 percent chance that he is a plus.