What John Henson's new contract could mean for other extension-eligible bigs

John Henson's new deal could get the market moving. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
John Henson's new deal could get the market moving. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

We've already seen several members of the NBA draft class of 2012 lock up lucrative long-term extensions, headlined by the five-year, maximum-salaried deals inked by Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard as soon as free agency opened in July. (We've also seen a four-year, $64 million pact for Jonas Valanciunas, whom the Toronto Raptors drafted in 2011 but who didn't make his NBA debut until 2012.) Beyond those two All-Stars, though, the extension marketplace for '12 first-round draft picks entering the final season of their guaranteed rookie contract has been somewhat slow to develop.

As the Oct. 31 deadline to extend rookie-scale contracts draws near, young players must carefully weigh their options. You can lock up the financial security of a multi-year, eight-figure deal now, as Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 2012's No. 2 pick, did with his four-year, $52 million extension ... but such a deal might not represent the absolute top dollar you could get on the market, essentially selling yourself short for several of your prime earning years.

Alternatively, you could wager that you'll be able to secure an even more lucrative long-term pact by playing a little hardball and/or waiting to enter restricted free agency next summer, when the infusion of revenue from the league's new broadcast rights deal will suitors flush with cash and send the salary cap soaring to a projected $89 million. (Hey there, Harrison Barnes and Bradley Beal ... although, in the latter case, maybe not.) Suffer through a down season, though — or, even worse, a significant injury — and your prospective payday could go up in smoke.

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You can understand the gridlock, but business could be about to pick up. The Milwaukee Bucks and center John Henson, the 14th selection in the 2012 draft, agreed to terms Friday on a four-year, $44 million that could be worth as much as $48 million if certain incentives are met, according to Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski.

Reasonable people can differ as to the value of the contract. On one hand, you'd be forgiven for thinking that $11 million per year might be a bit rich for a limited offensive player with relatively pedestrian stats who has yet to establish himself as a starter or log 2,000 minutes in a season. On the other, though, NBA clubs have to live in the world as it exists.

Henson's 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, and has proven a capable shot-blocker and pick-and-roll finisher. In an environment in which comparatively undecorated rotation bigs Ed Davis and Aron Baynes each got $6.5 million per year, and solid starter Robin Lopez got $13.5 million per season, the North Carolina product's salary seems commensurate with his standing as a quality reserve with the potential to grow into something more as he reaches his prime.

Quiet as it's kept outside of Wisconsin, Henson was part of three of Milwaukee's five best lineups to log at least 50 total minutes last season. At just 24 years old, he might only be scratching the surface of his potential on both ends in the brand of defense-first "longball" lineups favored by head coach Jason Kidd, for which Henson's frame and game seem a hand-in-glove fit. He has immediate value as a gap-bridging big following several important departures — starting center Zaza Pachulia, stretch four Ersan Ilyasova, small-ball power forward/key communicator Jared Dudley — as Milwaukee works to acclimate new center Greg Monroe, and in the long run, as the Bucks solidify their newfound identity.

Henson's $11 million-per-year deal — front-loaded, per Woj, to "minimize the financial impact of a potential work stoppage in 2017" — figures to reverberate outside Milwaukee, too, as it gives several other 2012 big men a jumping-off point for moving their own negotiations forward:

The lay of the land won't change much for the most noteworthy remaining big man on the extension-eligible board. Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores has publicly called Andre Drummond a "maximum player," and head coach Stan Van Gundy has made no bones about wanting to build his roster on a foundation of his mauling center and re-upped-for-the-long-haul point guard Reggie Jackson. The only questions, it seems, surround whether Drummond gets his five-year, $120 million-plus deal before Halloween or in the summer of 2016, and whether Detroit brass has the stomach to wait (thus opening up nearly $13 million in additional salary cap space to spend this coming summer) after watching that approach play out poorly in their negotiations with ex-Piston/new-Buck Monroe.

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For other, non-star-level bigs, though, Henson's deal looks like a market-setter, which could be good news for:

Meyers Leonard made a push for a payday in his third season. (Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images)
Meyers Leonard made a push for a payday in his third season. (Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images)

Meyers Leonard, Portland Trail Blazers. This time last fall, it would've seemed ludicrous to consider 2012's No. 11 pick being in line for an eight-figure deal. But then the 7-foot-1 Illinois product went out and turned himself into an intriguing stretch big, knocking down a scorching 42 percent of his 3-pointers while taking nearly five attempts per 36 minutes of floor time — the most accurate mark among high-volume-launching big men last season — while continuing to pull down more than a quarter of available defensive rebounds and holding opponents to an at-the-rim field-goal percentage just south of elite rim protectors like Rudy Gobert, Serge Ibaka and Andrew Bogut when he was defending the basket (albeit while contesting opponents' shots less frequently than those All-Defense-caliber bigs).

With veteran cornerstones LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Lopez all gone, the 23-year-old Leonard wants to take on a leadership role for the rebuilding Blazers, and figures to step into a bigger role this season, with a strong possibility that he'll start up front. Even if you expect that he won't drop daggers like Dirk and swat like Serge in a starter's share of minutes, stepped-down-but-still-solid performances on both accounts would figure to draw plenty of suitors in restricted free agency.

Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said this summer that he wouldn't engage in substantive extension talks with Leonard until October, "when there’s a sense of urgency on both sides and we’re on the clock." Well, here we are. After watching Olshey give Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu $6.5 million and $7.5 million per season, respectively, and seeing Milwaukee give Henson $11 million a year, will Leonard's representatives be able to lock in double-digits? Or will the Blazers, as clean as their future cap sheet is and as excited as they might be by the prospect of Leonard's development alongside Lillard, prefer to let him test the market and see if anyone else is willing to go to north of $10 million for a big man with just 16 career starts under his belt?

More solid than stellar, Tyler Zeller could still command eight figures a year. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
More solid than stellar, Tyler Zeller could still command eight figures a year. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Tyler Zeller, Boston Celtics. There's little thrilling about Zeller's game, but the 2012 draft's 17th pick has improved in each of his three seasons, developing into a solid big man who can run the floor, score near the basket and from midrange, make the extra pass, hold up defensively on the block and hold his own on the glass.

On one hand, he could find himself on the business end of a roster crunch for a Celtics club that imported a pair of veterans/likely starters in Amir Johnson and David Lee this summer while returning Zeller, fellow (though reportedly unlikely) extension candidate Jared Sullinger and floor-spacing big Kelly Olynyk. On the other, he might be the only real center in a frontcourt full of power forwards, and profiles as the most-known quantity of any of Boston's young bigs, which — if Sullinger and Olynyk again struggle to stay on the floor or cash in from long distance — might earn him more floor time than his higher-variance counterparts.

Zeller's offensive ceiling might not be as high as Leonard's, and his defensive ceiling might not be as high as Henson's, but if his floor is what we've seen the past two seasons — about 16 points and 10 boards per 36 minutes, capable work on both ends, a guy you can depend on — it might be worth ponying up to ensure, at worst, a capable third big man for rising star Brad Stevens' in-progress rebuild.

Zeller has said it'd "be nice to have an extension, since it's a little more security." Would offering Henson-level dough now lock up his fellow Tar Heel? Or will Danny Ainge hold fast to a lower number, preferring not to spend more than he absolutely has to on merely solid players in the interest of preserving every ounce of flexibility he can in his ongoing pursuit of "transcendent" ones?

Will the Rockets let both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas test the restricted free-agent market? (AP/Pat Sullivan)
Will the Rockets let both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas test the restricted free-agent market? (AP/Pat Sullivan)

Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, Houston Rockets. This, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted this summer, might be the most difficult-to-parse and interesting-to-watch extension scenario in the league.

Neither Jones (2012's 18th pick) nor Motiejunas (like fellow Lithuanian Valanciunas, a 2011 draftee who came to the States for the 2012 campaign) have yet established top-shelf bona fides as surefire future stars or even exceptionally reliable starting power forwards, and both have missed time with injuries over the course of their three-year careers. But both have also shown flashes of excellence in their years in Houston, with Jones looking like a potential future All-Star at times last season and Motiejunas proving capable of contributing on the offensive end both inside and out while also holding his own at the five while Houston was without injured starting center Dwight Howard.

Henson's deal likely won't get the job done for either of these two, but Rockets GM Daryl Morey might be reluctant to move higher than that — or, for that matter, any higher than he absolutely has to — this early in the game, knowing that he could face similarly pressing decisions next summer in the unrestricted free agency of Howard (who can opt out of a $23.3 million payday for next season in pursuit of a longer-term deal) and deciding whether to hang onto recently acquired point guard Ty Lawson (whose '16-'17 deal is now unguaranteed). Houston, then, might think it better to just let both the 23-year-old Jones and 25-year-old Motiejunas pass Halloween without new deals, give Morey one more season worth of information off of which to base contract decisions, and then hit restricted free agency and see what the new-cap-environment market bears.

Festus Ezeli, Golden State Warriors. The final pick of 2012's first round missed nearly a season and a half with a right knee injury, but the Nigerian big man opened eyes down the stretch last season, blocking 6.2 percent of opponents' field goal attempts during his time on the floor, which would have tied the New Orleans Pelicans' Davis for the second-highest share of rejections in the league had he logged enough minutes to qualify.

Festus Ezeli could soon have more than a championship to celebrate. (AndrewDH Photos)
Festus Ezeli could soon have more than a championship to celebrate. (AndrewDH Photos)

With the Warriors' other bigs struggling or sidelined, Ezeli played a major role during the Western Conference finals, battling the likes of Howard and Jones. He looked, at times, like a feasible plan for life after Andrew Bogut, who will turn 31 this season, has his own daunting injury history, found himself played off the floor when the NBA Finals went small, and will enter free agency come the summer of 2017.

Ezeli's track record is even thinner than the other bigs we've discussed, but his fit as a screener, pick-and-roll defender, rim protector and interior finisher in Golden State's system could make him worth eight figures on a deal that carries the about-to-be-26-year-old through the remainder of his athletic prime. Now that we know Henson's worth $11 million a year, though, the question becomes whether Ezeli's eager enough for his first real payday to take a similarly styled deal now or, with the benefit of good health and a full training camp under his belt, if he sees an opportunity to work himself into an even higher tax bracket come next summer.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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