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Josh Huestis’s D-League adventure, a misplaced exercise in loyalty

A few days ago, Darnell Mayberry broke the story that Oklahoma City Thunder draft pick Josh Huestis might spend next year in the D-League, collecting a mere $25,000 or so salary, rather than sign in the NBA. This would be groundbreaking, not as the first first rounder to not sign immediately in the NBA (this happens quite often), but as the first to do so who instead signs in the D-League.

It also makes absolutely no sense on the face of it. As useful as the D-League can be, its salaries are extremely uncompetitive. Players are paid by the league in one of three salary brackets, determined by their ability, and even though Huestis would no doubt be worthy of the highest D-League salary possible, that figure is still paltry. It will be comparable before tax with what an NBA 10 day contract pays, and when I say ‘comparable with’, I mean ‘slightly lower than’.

Huestis would be doing so because the Thunder asked him to, in a pre-arranged deal running unnervingly close to the line. Tom Ziller speculated it, and Zach Lowe confirmed it. The projected second round or undrafted player going in the first round was indeed a eye opener, and it follows that, given that they may have been alone in wanting to take him that high, the Thunder felt they had the leverage to lean on him in this way. Apparently, to agent Mitchell Butler, the fact that it is the Thunder makes it all worthwhile.

An analogous situation here is that of George Hill with the San Antonio Spurs in 2008. The Spurs took the IUPUI guard in the first round when no one expected them to, and used this as a means of leveraging him into accepting less than the customary 120% on his rookie scale contract (one of only a handful of players ever to do so). Hill ended up with a contract paying 120% in the first two years but then only 80% in the final two – indeed, his 80% in the third year was such a low amount that it was actually lower than the minimum salary, and so the NBA had to modify his salary upwards to the league minimum.

Huestis, however, is all in for more than that. Rather than just taking less in his rookie deal, he is forgoing a year of salary altogether, save for some D-League dregs. And why? Because….well, because he’s nice. Or loyal. Or gullible. Or some combination thereof.

The NBA draft is a bizarre vehicle at the best of times. Bartered between the league, its teams and its current players – and not, it must be remembered, those it will actually effect – the draft is a means of controlling any young player worth a damn. Young players are told where they are going to play, and pretty much told how much they are going to play for. Now, apparently, they are also to have even less control as to when they can do it.

Only one party benefits here, and that is the Thunder. Huestis gains little apart from the thanks of the Thunder, and all that will get him is a 120% rookie scale deal next summer, one he ought be entitled to receive this summer anyway.

Players drafted in the first round are bound by the rookie salary scale for their first three years after being selected, a predetermined amount of money they must sign for in which they have very little say. They can sign for as much as 80% of the amount or as much as 120%, and any amount in between, but nothing more or less than that. To keep a first round pick’s draft rights, the team must offer a ‘required tender’ on or before the July 15th immediately after the draft (or, if applicable if the player does not sign in that first season, any relevant subsequent seasons). That required tender must be a contract that satisfies the requirements of the Rookie Salary Exception, which means it must be a rookie scale contract of a permissible amount.

Offering 80% of the rookie scale would suffice to meet this criteria. Just to have Huestis’s draft rights, then, the Thunder are required to offer him a guaranteed two year contract worth $1,579,459 – 80% of the rookie scale $918,000 for the 29th pick in the first year ($734,400), and then $845,059 in year two (the sophomore minimum, for it is larger than the $767,520 that 80% of the second year rookie scale salary of $958,400 would offer). That is the bare minimum amount of money available to Huestis today – in all likelihood, he would also be a strong candidate to have his third year option of $980,431 (again a modified minimum amount) and his fourth year option of $1,769,678 both exercised, for a total minimum tender offer of $4,329,568. That is on the table right now, at the bare minimum, and $1,579,459 of it is his regardless.

And of course, all this assumes the Thunder do not move beyond the 80% at any point. Were Huestis to take the full 120%, he would earn $5,621,236 over those same four years, with $2,252,880 guaranteed in the first two. That is what he is turning down for less than $30,000 in the D-League. And all because they asked. Even if we assume it really is a case of 80% if he does not play ball and 120% if he does, that is still (assuming a $25,000 D-League salary, which is a slightly lower amount than what his D-League salary will actually be) a $1,579,459 guaranteed salary over two years or a $2,287,880 salary over three.

Therefore, even if the Thunder really do only offer more than the 80% if Huestis goes to the D-League first (which we cannot decisively say is true), and take this stance even more strongly by declining his third year option, Huesties will still earn more by taking the tender and a subsequent $980,431 minimum salary. He would do without the shackles of his drafting team being the only one he can negotiate with, and he would also do it without the burden of restricted free agency, for players who had rookie scale options declined cannot be made into restricted free agents. Huestis therefore sacrifices money and freedom in order to gain……errr, support? Thanks? A salary increase that does not offset the salary towelling he takes in the interim?

(If the Thunder rescinded the tender, which they are allowed to do, they would not be allowed to sign him as a free agent until Huestis had signed with another NBA team first, and either completed that contract or was waived.)

Moreover, all this ignores one thing. If Huestis really is not going to sign in the NBA next year, fine, but this does not mean it has to be the D-League. He and his representatives agreed to go to the D-League, sure, but there is nothing binding them to it save for a promise. There are plenty of good leagues with plenty of good money that Huestis, a player who just gave his marketable skill away for free for four years, ought consider.

Maybe he really means it when he says he doesn’t want to go to Europe. But Emmanuel Mudiay probably didn’t think going overseas was the best idea, either, until someone offered him a million dollars to reconsider. Brandon Jennings likely had not considered it at one point, either, until the sheer size of the paycheck changed a few minds. Huestis stands to gain very little from this agreement, least of all money. The playing time and development excuses will probably be bandied about as a reason for Huestis’s decision, but if he thinks he cannot get playing time and development opportunities in Europe, with the right gig, then he has not been looking.

Accept the tender, Josh. They are contractually compelled to give it to you and you are surely morally bound to take it. If you only get the 80%, then, well, you were otherwise only going in the second round anyway, where two guaranteed years is no automatic thing. Take it and play no games. Get yours. The Thunder can make you promises that I have absolutely no doubt they intend to keep. But promises get broken. Read Keith Glass’s book, for example. It happens.

It may well work out exactly the way you forecast it will. Indeed, I have no doubts that it will. No one is entering this agreement with the intent to break it. But that does not make it worth it. A million dollars is yours right now with one phone call, and you’re walking away from it, under the guise of some greater good. It might not be there next time, fella, because as much as everyone is on board now, things change. Take it. Risk nothing. In risking it, you gain nothing. Accept the tender they are obliged to give you. Force their hand. Win that spot off Hasheem Thabeet. Start your NBA career. Live your dream. Get paid a million to do it.

And if they rescind it? Congratulations. Enjoy the free market. It’ll pay you more than this conscription ever would.

Photo credit: JWay20

Mark Deeks

Writing about anything involved with the process of building the best basketball teams possible. Also a competitive anagrammer. These two things combine to create brilliant son-in-law potential.