Knicks' RJ Barrett part of an NBA class destined to receive even bigger bucks

New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9). (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Late last week, RJ Barrett was in the midst of a mini-media tour to support his purchase of a Booster Juice franchise in Brampton, Ont., not far from where he grew up in Mississauga.

It’s quite a step for a just-turned 21-year-old, even for one in the third year of his rookie NBA contract which will total nearly $28 million by the end of the upcoming season.

“I’ve always been interested in business,” the New York Knicks guard/forward said. “My dad and I, we always talked about having the opportunity to own things. So when the opportunity with Booster Juice presented itself we kind of jumped at it …”

It’s been a living education in preparation for more opportunities to come, presumably.

“There’s a lot of things that go into it and it’s been very interesting,” said Barrett. “I’ve enjoyed every step of the process so far.”

The resources at Barrett’s disposal to establish a wide-ranging off-court portfolio will be considerable, that seems certain.

Being an NBA player has always been a lucrative undertaking with chances to be very, very rich: For 2021-22 there are 10 players in the league earning $40 million or thereabouts for this season alone, led by Steph Curry’s $45.7 million. Perhaps even more remarkably, there are 50 players on deals worth at least $100 million in total.

It doesn’t come without sacrifice. When I spoke with Barrett, it was at 6:45 a,m,, the early start so he could get his media obligations done before the first of his two-a-day workouts. They’ve been a staple of an off-season program aimed at fleshing out his offensive arsenal by adding pull-up three-point shooting and escape dribbles into threes to further leverage the catch-and-shoot three-point range he flashed during his breakout sophomore year.

There’s been little rest. He went from the Knicks' first-round exit to starring for Canada in an ultimately frustrating Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria -- “sometimes, basketball happens,” he said of Canada’s wild semifinal loss to the Czech Republic. “Just getting it into overtime was crazy and then to be up five with two minutes left in overtime and we lose, that really never happens. But you can only learn …” -- to jumping into preparations for his third NBA season.

There was a long weekend in the Bahamas with some of his Mississauga friends he grew up with to break up the grind, but that was about it.

But Barrett’s persistence could pay off in ways he couldn’t even have imagined even when he was drafted just two summers ago.

He stands to be part of the wealthiest generation of NBA players ever.

The NBA’s current television rights deal -- the monster worth $24 billion that made contracts like Bucks’ star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s five-year $228 million extension possible -- expires in the summer of 2025.

It’s four years away, but already there are reports suggesting that the NBA will be seeking to triple the value of its current deal when the time comes, leveraging the value of live programming in an ‘on-demand’ world.

As it impossible as it sounds, there are suggestions the league could sign a deal for $75 billion.

Presuming the current revenue-sharing arrangement where the league and its players split BRI (basketball related income) on a roughly 50-50 basis, players like Barrett could reach their primes at a moment with the salary cap at $171 million, compared to $112 million for 2021-22.

The numbers begin to boggle. Speculatively, a five-year max contract paying 35 per cent of the cap with eight per cent annual raises could be worth $347 million, with a first-year salary of $59.85 million and climbing to $79 million in year five.

It’s difficult to get your head around. In 1984-85 -- the league’s first year with a salary cap -- an entire team shared $3.6 million.

In 2015-16 -- the last year before the current broadcast deal -- the salary cap was ‘only’ $70.9 million.

In 2016-17 -- the first year of the current deal -- the cap jumped to $94.1 million, a one-year windfall that created more money under the cap than had ever been available in league history. It enabled the Golden State Warriors to be able to sign Kevin Durant and also paved the way for a slew of regrettable contracts. It was the summer the Charlotte Hornets paid Bismack Biyombo $72 million to pry him from the Toronto Raptors.

How the money from the new deal gets introduced to the system -- either all at once in a ‘cap spike’ as in 2016-17 or incrementally (cap smoothing) as the league will undoubtedly seek to do when they negotiate a new CBA with the players union in the summer of 2023 -- will shape the ultimate outcome.

But the impact of the potential windfall will begin to filter through the NBA well before a new broadcast deal might take effect.

Take Barrett, for example. Drafted in 2019, he will be eligible to sign a four or five-year extension prior to the start of next season.

As it stands, a wide range of outcomes are possible. If he builds on a very promising second season, the Knicks might simply offer him a max extension that would kick in for his fifth season and not think twice about it.

But if Barrett ends up projecting as a quality 3-and-D wing rather than a primary offensive fulcrum, maybe the Knicks try to sign him for something more in the range of the $75-$90 million; or updated versions of what the Raptors' OG Anunoby or the Phoenix Suns' Mikal Bridges earned after their third seasons.

But the prospect of a rapidly escalating cap midway through the extension could change the math on that decision.

Under that scenario, maybe a wiser move would be to sign Barrett to a designated rookie extension -- a full five years at the maximum allowable salary -- because the last three years of that deal would be a bargain under a $170-million salary cap.

A different scenario could play out for the Raptors' fourth overall pick, Scottie Barnes, and other members of the highly touted 2021 draft class.

Barnes and his peers would be eligible for extensions in the summer of 2024, and the timing should make for some fascinating negotiating.

Offering a ‘max’ deal that kicks in for the 2025-26 season -- in theory the first year of the new broadcast deal -- could carry a $191 million commitment over four years or $247.9 million over five.

If Barnes develops as might be expected for a fourth overall pick, maybe it will be an easy choice: just pay the man.

But if Barnes’ curve is a little flatter for any reason, maybe the Raptors would be motivated to offer a hefty deal by current standards, but short of the max.

Alternatively, with so much money in the system maybe Barnes and his class will be more likely to play for the qualifying offer in their fourth seasons (2024-25) and take their chances as restricted free agents the summer of 2025 in a year when countless teams would likely have money to burn.

It’s all fascinating stuff, but what’s clear is that a youngster like Barrett -- not to mention a wide swath of his peers -- should very soon be in position to buy all the smoothie franchises they could ever want.

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