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10 NBA players balling out in contract years

Vincent Frank

This upcoming summer will see the likes of LeBron James, Paul George and Kevin Durant likely hit free agency one way or another. As to where Durant will remain in Golden State, the drama surrounding James and George will be all about whether they remain with their current teams. All three will receive max contracts. This is known.

Though, there are other less heralded players set to hit free agency who are absolutely balling out in contract years.

From a veteran guard in Los Angeles having a career-best season to an embattled big man in the Bayou changing the way people view him, here’s a look at 10 players who have earned a ton of cash by exceeding expectations thus far this season.

Lou Williams, guard, Los Angeles Clippers 

Despite his All-Star snub, Williams is in the midst of the best season of a largely average NBA career. The 31-year-old guard is averaging 23.3 points and 5.1 assists while leading an injury-plagued Clippers team to playoff contention. He’s not simply filling up the stat sheet for a bad squad. That’s going to be an important distinction when Williams looks to cash in on what will likely be the last multi-year contract of his career this coming summer.

We’ve seen the NBA transition to a much more perimeter-based game with the best teams in the Association able to light it up from distance. Here’s to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets out west. That should make Williams a valuable commodity when his contract expires after this season.

Julius Randle, forward, Los Angeles Lakers 

Randle has been bandied about as a potential trade chip for the Clippers to rid themselves of Luol Deng’s absurd contract. He’s also no longer in the Los Angeles’ starting lineup after the emergence of rookie Kyle Kuzma. None of this means that other teams have not seen this former Kentucky standout up his game in a big way in his fourth NBA season.

Randle, 23, is averaging 13.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting at a lofty .552 on the season. His Lakers are also performing at a much higher clip, both offensively and defensively, with him on the court. An impending restricted free agent, there’s going to be a huge market for both Randle’s upside and what we’ve seen thus far this season. That’s not even in question.

Jusuf Nurkic, center, Portland Trail Blazers

Nurkic hasn’t necessarily taken his game to superstardom this season. He’s averaging 14.5 points after putting up north of 15 per during the 2016-17 campaign. The Bosnian is also averaging single-digit rebounds after posting 10-plus per game last season. Still, 7-foot skilled bigs like this 23-year-old are about as rare as a Damian Lillard All-Star Game appearance. That’s going to be appealing to NBA teams when he hits the restricted free agent market this coming center.

It’s also important to note that Nurkic boasts a 2.1 defensive plus-minus on the season. His skills don’t simply end on the offensive end of the court. With a backcourt in Lillard and C.J. McCollum that leaves a lot to be desired on defense, Nurkic has been a major cog there. That hasn’t gone unnoticed around the league.

Elfrid Payton, guard, Orlando Magic

A point guard with a tremendous mid-range game that can also distribute the ball and performs at an adequate level on defense is most definitely not a dime a dozen in today’s NBA. Payton has proven he can be this in his four seasons with the Magic. The 2017-18 campaign magnifies that even further.

Still only 23 years old, the former top-10 pick is averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. If these numbers hold, it will be the fourth time in as many NBA seasons that Payton has posted six-plus assists per game. Add in a .519 shooting percentage, and he’s morphed into a tremendous all-around player. With a player option this summer, we fully expect Payton to opt out and earn a bucket of cash in free agency. Because, why not?

Enes Kanter, center, New York Knicks

A throw-in from Oklahoma City in the Carmelo Anthony trade, Kanter has proven himself to be much more than simply a contract to make a deal work. His Knicks may be struggling and hovering on irrelevance back east, but Kanter has turned in one hellacious season.

He’s averaging 13.5 points and what would be a career-best 10.0 rebounds to go with a brilliant .598 shooting percentage on the season. There may be some struggles with consistency on defense, but a 25-year-old body of Kanter’s ilk that can pound the paint is not going to go unnoticed in free agency. That’s for sure.

Bryn Forbes, guard, San Antonio Spurs

We can easily envision a scenario where the Spurs move on to Forbes as their starting two-guard at some point here soon. The second-year player from Michigan State has taken on a much larger role as a sophomore, averaging nearly 21 minutes and starting a dozen games thus far on the season. And he’s making the most of it.

Forbes is shooting at a stellar 40 percent mark from three-point range with a .526 effective field goal mark. Not too shabby for someone who relies on the perimeter game. An undrafted free agent prior to the 2016-17 season, Forbes is set to hit the restricted market during the summer. It would not be an absolute shock to see a team loaded with cap room offer him a lucrative long-term deal in hopes Forbes morphs into a top-level secondary scorer he already looks to be.

Trevor Ariza, forward, Houston Rockets

At 32 years old, Ariza likely has one more lucrative multi-year contract left in his body. After all, he’s still going strong after 14-plus years in the Association. This year, he’s added an elite-level defensive performance on a Rockets team that had in the past been soft on that end of the court. And it’s one of the primary reasons this squad is Golden State’s primary competition out west.

Offensively, it’s not like Ariza is anywhere near a liability. He’s shooting 39 percent from distance and averaging 12.1 points per game to go with a .566 effective field goal mark. That’s some pretty darn solid stuff right there. And is should earn Ariza well north of $12 million annually in free agency this summer.

Aaron Gordon, forward, Orlando Magic

So starts the players that will likely be looking at max contracts after the season. When Gordon first entered the NBA as a lottery pick back in 2014, he was seen more as an athlete than an actual basketball player. His game needed to be refined big time in order for the former Arizona standout to make a consistent impact at this level. Through the first two seasons of his career, this was somewhat of an issue for Gordon. He averaged just 7.7 points and shot under 30 percent from distance. Since then, the 6-foot-9 forward has improved leaps and bounds.

This season, he’s averaging a career-best 18.4 points to go with 8.2 rebounds while expanding his range to three-point distance, shooting at a 35 percent mark from beyond the arc. With a body that creates mismatches both at small forward and power forward, Gordon has become a dynamic offensive player. And still only 22 years old, he’s looking at north of $25 million annually.

DeMarcus Cousins, center, New Orleans Pelicans

Cousins has had the talent to be a franchise cornerstone type of player. It’s his hot-headed mentality on the court and the rift we saw in Sacramento that led people to question whether Cousins had the temperament to be a player of that ilk. While technical fouls are still an issue in New Orleans, Cousins has been recognized as one of the game’s best bigs by being named a starter for the All-Star Game. It’s in this that his reputation has changed big time.

On the court, Cousins has been about as dominant as it gets. He’s coming off the first 40-point, 20-rebound triple-double in the NBA in over a half century and is averaging 25.6 points to go with 12.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists. Heck, Cousins is shooting 36 percent from distance with an average of six-plus three-point attempts per game. He’s going to get paid like the legit star he is this summer. It just remains to be seen whether that will be with New Orleans.

Clint Capela, center, Houston Rockets

Potentially the most improved player in the Association this season, Capela has played himself into a max-contract offer from Houston. He’ll be a restricted free agent when the summer comes calling, so there’s going to be competition for his services. But more than any player on the Rockets’ roster not named Chris Paul or James Harden, his value to the team is through the roof.

Thus far on the season, Capela is averaging 14.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and is shooting at an NBA-best 66 percent from the field. He’s doing all this in less than 27 minutes per game. At 23 years old, Capela’s game still isn’t anywhere near refined. That will lead to a team throwing a ton of cash his way with the Rockets needing to back up the Brinks truck to retain his services.