Under The Radar Free Agent Signings: Is Bruce Brown The Biggest Steal?

The big names always dominate free agency, and this year’s headlines have gone to Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Deandre Ayton, Bradley Beal, and Jalen Brunson. However, a team’s championship aspirations can be heavily affected by the role players brought in. These signings fly under the radar even though they play a critical part in roster construction. The following list is composed of the most impactful signings that have not received the necessary attention and praise considering their on court production. 

Bruce Brown – Denver Nuggets 

  • 2 years, $13.2M

Brown is an effective 3&D wing who just averaged 9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, and 2.1 APG on a 50/40/75 shooting split. As a catch and shoot threat, Brown shot 40.7% on 1.3 3PA. His off-ball movement and ability to space the floor complements Jokic’s passing perfectly. Brown also thrived in transition for Brooklyn and constantly hustled up the court. In 129 transition possessions, Brown produced 1.39 points per possession (90th percentile). The ball movement won’t stop with him either; he’s a willing passer who just posted a 2.6 assist to turnover ratio. 

Denver desperately needs his perimeter defense because it has been their fatal flaw. Brown is a versatile defender who has the lateral quickness to stay in front of guards and the strength to absorb contact from a bigger wing. He had 1.1 SPG and 0.7 BPG last season because of his 6’9” wingspan and anticipation. The perimeter defense looks far sturdier with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown now in the mix, which will significantly boost their chances. 

Overall, he fits the Nuggets offense and defense perfectly, and the 6’5” wing can play shooting guard or small forward. If they get anything close to his Game 2 (23 points, 4 assists, 3 “stocks”) or Game 3 (26 points, 3 assists, 3 “stocks”) performances against Boston, then this may be the steal of free agency. 

Ricky Rubio – Cleveland Cavaliers

  • 3 years, $18.4M

Rubio played 34 games for Cleveland last season before tearing his ACL and eventually being traded to Indiana in the Caris LeVert trade. During that 34-game span, he had 13.1 PPG, 6.6 APG, and 1.4 SPG on a 36/33/85 shooting split. When Rubio injured his knee, the Cavaliers were 20-14 (9th best record at the time) with the 13th Offensive Rating and 2nd Defensive Rating. During the rest of the regular season, Cleveland was 23rd in Offensive Rating and 15th in Defensive Rating – a severe drop-off. 

Opponents were able to limit the offense because Garland was essentially the only shot creator. Okoro, Markkanen, Mobley, and Allen relied on a player getting them the ball, so it was too much responsibility for one playmaker. If Rubio comes back fully healthy, Cleveland will have another playmaker and ball handler who can pass guys open. He thrived with this cast last season, and it’s the same crew besides the addition of LeVert (who Rubio never played with). 

The bench unit’s future looks brighter with Rubio running the show, and Cleveland can trot out a Garland Rubio backcourt when necessary because Rubio’s defense is legit. The major concern is health, but his contract doesn’t even make a dent in the cap sheet. Rubio’s perimeter shooting is also worrisome; however, he will have good three-point shooters surrounding him in Ochai Agbaji, Cedi Osman, and Kevin Love. Cleveland acquired a guard who accentuates their strengths and prospered for them last season, so it’s a fantastic signing that holds little risk. 

Isaiah Hartenstein – New York Knicks 

  • 2 years, $16M

The Knicks re-signed Mitchell Robinson, but he doesn’t offer much beyond rim protection and dunks. Hartenstein, meanwhile, is a skilled seven-footer who produced 8.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, and 1.1 BPG in only 17.9 MPG. The former Clipper displayed an effective jump hook and countered eager defenders with an up and under. His post scoring gives the Knicks a larger variety of offensive options from their center, including three-pointers. He only attempted 0.4 3PA, but he flashed a smooth shooting stroke and made 46.7% of them. His passing is also intriguing, as he showed solid court vision. With Hartenstein in the lineup, the Knicks will add another layer to their ball movement, which should create more open opportunities. 

On the defensive end, Hartenstein posted a steal percentage on par with OG Anunoby and a block percentage on par with Rudy Gobert. That’s not to say he is the same caliber defender as these two, but Hartenstein is a plus on defense. Robinson will get the start at the beginning of the season; however, Hartenstein may quickly replace him in that role. At a bare minimum, the Knicks signed a quality backup center for cheap. He’s only 24-years-old and still developing, so this move is beneficial both in the short and long-term. It’s disappointing that the Knicks passed on Jalen Duren in the draft, but Hartenstein is a great consolation prize.  

TJ Warren – Brooklyn Nets 

  • 1 year, $2.6M

19.2 PPG on an efficient 51/37/79 shooting split – that is Warren’s average in his last 179 regular season games. The Nets were able to acquire this production on an extremely cheap one-year deal because Warren has only played four games in the past two seasons due to foot injuries. He’s never appeared in more than 67 games for one season and constantly gets hurt. 

Brooklyn is striving to contend because Houston owns their draft capital. Durant and Irving are on the block, but the Nets are seeking All-Star compensation. Even with the elite talent the Nets acquire in those trades, they will need plenty of scoring to replace Durant and Irving. If healthy, Warren can provide a lethal scoring punch at either forward spot. Over 10 games in the 2020 Bubble, he averaged 26.6 PPG on a 54/47/92 shooting split (including a 53-point performance). Warren is a dangerous three-level who will space the floor for Ben Simmons and create his own offense off the dribble. It’s exceptionally rare to get this type of player for this price, and the Nets were wise to sign him. There is minimal risk and a potentially massive payout here. 

Braxton has been writing for Lineups since December 2021 with the majority of his articles focused on the NBA. He is currently a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he has spent the last few years working with various UPenn athletics teams and contributing to the UPenn Sports Analytics Group.

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