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NBA ROI: Are Ja Morant & Zion Williamson Living Up to Rookie Max Money?

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
After signing their first contract extensions in summer 2022, we took a closer look at the level of value Zion, Ja, and the rest of the offseason’s top earners are currently creating.

The textbooks will tell you that the concept of Return on investment (ROI) means the amount of profit, before tax and after depreciation, from an investment made, usually expressed as a percentage of the original total cost invested. Labeling an NBA player as a return on investment can sound dehumanizing, but in the case of professional sports, how much a team pays a player and what said player pays the team back in production can quite literally be expressed as a percentage.

In Volume I of our “NBA ROI” series, Boardroom evaluated the top five largest signed contracts this offseason: Nikola Jokic ($270 million) and Bradley Beal ($251 million) became the first and only players in league history to sign a deal worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars. Another MVP-caliber season from the Joker has the Denver Nuggets at the top of the Western Conference, while Washington continues to struggle amid a flurry of nagging Beal injuries.

Today, we’ll take a look at the NBA ROI among five players similarly among the best-paid of the 2022 offseason. The landscape is a bit imbalanced, but the following players are nonetheless some of the most electrifying in the league, and on potential title-contending teams besides.

Let’s take a closer look at the hard numbers and see what we find with regard to return on investment in all its forms.

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Grizzlies PG Ja Morant: $193,000,000

  • Type: 25% Designate Rookie Extension
  • Years: 5
  • Free agency: 2027
  • Grizzlies attendance rank: 19th
  • Morant win shares: 3.5

NOTE: Based on performance/awards milestones, the value of Morant’s deal can stretch to a full rookie max extension of $231,000,000. Click here to read Boardroom’s deep dive on Morant’s extension.

If you’re a hoops fan, you’ve probably been asked this question approximately 700 times: “If you were GM, who’s the one guy you would build your team around?” Ja Morant ought to be one of the first names that come to mind.

At just 23 years old, Ja’s already got the Grizzlies at the top of the West, proving that last season’s spirited run was no anomaly. In terms of numbers, he’s averaging 27 points, a career-high eight assists, and six rebounds one year after winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.

Of course, there’s more to ROI than sheer statistics and standings. Morant has accumulated roughly 401 million video plays on NBA social media accounts, the fourth-most among all players in the Association. Furthermore, since the start of the season, Grizzlies lead all team accounts on Instagram in follower growth percentage at +6.16% percent. 

And not for nothing, Ja recently became the 23rd player in NBA history to receive his own signature sneaker with Nike, debuting the Ja 1 on Christmas Day.

All told, expect his $193 million extension to escalate to a $231 million “true” rookie max extension at 30% of the salary cap if all goes according to plan and a second All-NBA nod comes his way this summer.

Pelicans PF Zion Williamson: $193,000,000

  • Type: 25% Designate Rookie Extension
  • Years: 5
  • Free agency: 2027
  • Pelicans attendance rank: 25th
  • Williamson win shares: 4.0

NOTE: Based on performance/awards milestones, the value of Williamson’s deal can stretch to a full rookie max extension of $231,000,000.

Remember how we just mentioned the idea of a young player you’d want to build your team around? Yeah, Zion’s there, too. Before this season, there was skepticism about just how big a financial commitment New Orleans ought to make here — after all, Zion only played 85 games in his first three seasons and the Pelicans went just 40-45 with him in the lineup.

During 2022 All-Star Weekend, CJ McCollum — who was traded to NOLA around the time — told TNT’s Inside the NBA crew that he hadn’t spoken to his superstar teammate. That followed JJ Redick’s comment describing his former teammate as “detached.”

Unfortunately, the 22-year-old will be out three weeks with a hamstring injury as of this writing, but his sheer ability to dominate negates all those notions in an instant.

In fact, he’s been a sight to behold in his first year without a minutes restriction or long-term injuries, averaging 29.5 points on 63% shooting since Dec. 1, and he’s lifted the Brandon Ingram-less Pels less than a game back from the West’s No. 1 seed (24-14), their best start since 2008-09 when they were the New Orleans Hornets.

Cavaliers PG Darius Garland$193,000,000

  • Type: 25% Designate Rookie Extension
  • Years: 5
  • Free agency: 2027
  • Cavs attendance rank: 6th
  • Garland win shares: 3.3

NOTE: Based on performance/awards milestones, the value of Garland’s deal can stretch to a full rookie max extension of $231,000,000.

The 6-foot-1 point guard is one of 14 players this season to score 50+ points in a game this season and became the third player in franchise history with multiple games with 45+ points and 5+ threes (Kyrie Irving, LeBron James). Odd enough, the Cavs are 9-0 in games without him this year, but 22-25 all-time. Paired with Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt, it would be difficult to find a more consistently productive guard duo in the Association right this second.

Team President Koby Altman drafted him fifth overall in 2019, and it’s paying off as Garland continues to establish himself as a cornerstone for a title-contending Cleveland squad.

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Warriors SG Jordan Poole$140,000,000

  • Type: Rookie extension
  • Years: 4
  • Free agency: 2027
  • Warriors attendance rank: 14th
  • Poole win shares: 0.4

NOTE: Poole is earning $3.9 million this season, but that number jumps to $27.4 million next season — a 602% raise! He can earn an additional $17 million in incentives from 2024-27.

Poole was the Warriors‘ 28th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and has since developed into a homegrown star. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green get the credit for being the core trio in Golden State’s dynasty (and rightfully so), but the 23-year-old embodies all that can continue to be right with the franchise after that superstar trio disbands. Poole developed within Steve Keerr’s system and grew into a flash scorer (20.6 PPG) and spot-up shooter.

His scoring tally is solid, but 20 points on 16 shot attempts per game isn’t exactly efficient. Nonetheless, he’s good for the present and the future given his potential to improve further.

Trail Blazers PG Damian Lillard$121,774,039

  • Type: Veteran Max Extension
  • Years: 2
  • Free agency: 2027
  • Trail Blazers attendance rank: 10th
  • Lillard win shares: 3.4

Dame agreed to a two-year, $122 million max extension with the Trail Blazers this past summer, keeping him with Portland through the 2026-27 campaign. Lillard’s on-court earnings will hit the $450 million mark when his contract is up in 2027, trailing only Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. His career on-court earnings will reach $450 million through the expiration of his contract in 2027, according to Spotrac, which would trail only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry all-time.

Thus, what more can we say about Dame that we haven’t already? He’s been the face of the Blazers since they drafted him in 2012 and he’s been a bonafide superstar — also one of the game’s most clutch players since entering the league. An abdominal injury kept him out for most of the 2021-22 season, but this year he’s back in superstar form at 27.4 points and seven assists per game, and the Blazers (19-18) have overachieved when you consider that this roster boasts zero All-Star appearances outside of Dame Dolla himself.

What’s the NBA ROI Verdict?

When you consider each of these guys as both individual players and puzzle pieces within bigger picture of their respective teams, you’re looking at a compelling assortment of talents with demonstrated ability to perform up to or beyond the value of their deals and compete meaningfully in the postseason. When you consider these factors in context, it’s safe to say that each player on our list is creating acceptable ROI over the first several months of their deals such that none of their teams ought to entertain the idea that they made a mistake throwing around so much cash.

So, who around the NBA is due for a big extension next? Click here to take a deeper look.

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