Charlotte Hornets

Why this NBA draft class will test if the rookie-scale contracts are foolproof

Zion Williamson’s highlight reel

Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.
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Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.

The word for the 2019 NBA draft class might be “interchangeable.” That’s not a compliment.

After Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett — the presumed top three picks — there just isn’t much to distinguish between these rookies-to-be. There will be surprises; someone chosen seventh or 14th or 20th will outperform when he was selected. However, that won’t make this a memorable group.

Numerous draft analysts — including ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who lives in Charlotte — have said the 2019 group doesn’t look nearly as deep as the 2018 draft class. There will be players — maybe a half-dozen or more — selected in the first round June 20 who never would have made it into the first round a year ago.

Which means this draft will test the value of the rookie pay scale for the NBA.

Cheap labor

The rookie pay scale, which began in 1995, has generally been great for the NBA as far as developing young players on affordable salaries. The pay scale resulted from some mouth-dropping contracts for top picks, particularly the 10-year, $69 million deal Glenn Robinson got from the Milwaukee Bucks for being chosen No. 1 in 1994.

The tradeoff works this way: Each of the 30 picks in the first round has a salary slot (it increases annually). All first-round contracts include guaranteed salaries the first two seasons. Then, teams have two one-season options beyond that, after which those players qualify for restricted free agency.

This system dramatically lowers teams’ risk. The player chosen No. 1 in this draft (presumably Duke star Williamson by the New Orleans Pelicans) is guaranteed about $21 million the first two seasons. The players benefit because every first-rounder gets that two-year guarantee. The 30th pick in this draft knows his first NBA contract will guarantee at least $3.3 million.

This system has been great for the league, as far as developing young talent at affordable prices. The Charlotte Hornets have two former first-rounders, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, still on rookie-scale deals, plus whoever they select 12th overall next month.

But what happens if there aren’t 30 players in a given draft class worthy of this special status?

No passing

No NBA team just says “pass,” rather than accept the two-year salary obligation tied to a first-round pick. But over the history of the rookie scale, teams have been creative with salary-cap management. I expect teams picking at the end of the first round — typically contenders — will look at this draft class and consider alternatives.

They could trade picks. Or sell picks. Or draft someone already under contract to play outside the NBA, to defer signing that player now.

But the real test of this draft class won’t happen for two-to-four years. Exercising those one-year options for the third and fourth seasons on rookie contracts once were so common they were almost perfunctory. I bet not this time.

How many of these 30 first-rounders are still with the teams that draft them in four years? I put the over-under at 15.

And that might be too high.