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Is Derrick Jones Jr. part of the long-term plan?

Will Jones Jr be a multi-year fixture for the Trail Blazers or a one-hit wonder?

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

You know what’s fun? Having this guy on your favorite NBA team:

If nothing else, Derrick Jones Jr. is going to give Rip City more highlights than anyone since ...Rudy Fernandez?

His more substantive on-court impact, however, is still open for discussion. Jones Jr. has the youth, raw athleticism, and burgeoning defensive potential to become an impact player for the Blazers. If he puts it all together he will be a solid fifth starter. If he develops an even vaguely reliable corner 3-point shot he becomes an idealized version of Moe Harkless. Adding that version of Jones Jr. to a frontcourt that already features Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic would be a better fit than Santa Claus eating milk and cookies.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that Jones Jr. doesn’t improve much from last season and is barely in the playoff rotation. Blazer’s Edge commenter emeritus Royster pointed out recently that DJJ has been brought in, ostensibly, to guard LeBron James. One small problem: he couldn’t get off the bench in the Finals last year while the Heat were matched up against the Lakers and LeBron. Hm.

Nobody wants to hear this, but there’s also a chance that Jones Jr. is the second coming of Jake Layman and not “what we all imagined Harkless would be.”

The Uncertainty of Jones Jr.’s Contract

Jones Jr.’s contract reflects an uncertainty that matches the questions around his on-court impact. He signed for the full mid-level exception (MLE) for one season with a player option for a second year.

It might be a slight overpay for a player without a stronger track record, but the deal is short enough it’s largely worth the gamble. Especially if the Blazers need some mid-salary filler for a consolidation trade at the deadline.

The problem, however, is that if Jones Jr. breaks out this year and opts out to renegotiate the most the Blazers will be able to offer him is a new salary that starts at $11.1 million.

That’s more than next year’s MLE, but in a world where Kyle Kuzma apparently merits $13+ million per season, it may not be enough to re-sign a significantly improved Jones Jr. General Manager Neil Olshey presumably considers this a long-shot and decided that the benefits of signing Jones Jr. were worth the trade-off of giving him flexibility to leave Portland so quickly. But Jones Jr.’s presumed free agent value is something to consider as his on-court impact is evaluated this season.

The Downside to this Contract

I’ll save everyone 300 words of spreadsheets and math here and just point out that the Blazes will probably not have the full MLE again for at least a couple years. Their commitment to the current core of players would require significant roster restructuring to get far enough under the salary cap apron to open up the MLE in 2021 or 2022.

Which makes it a little weird that Olshey used the MLE on a one-year contract. Given that the Blazers likely won’t be able to sign a free agent at that price point again for a couple years, a default goal should be to lock in the 2020 MLE signee for as long as possible. To put it another way: You can’t replace Jones Jr. if he leaves next summer so do what it takes to make sure he’s locked in for multiple seasons.

This isn’t a huge problem if the Blazers are confident they can keep him for $11.1 million or less, but it is vaguely reminiscent of the Seth Curry one-year signing which, in hindsight, seems like a prearranged and mutually beneficial marriage of convenience. If Jones Jr. does similarly depart after only one year, it will be very fair to criticize Portland’s use of the only full MLE it had during Dame’s prime.

Hopefully that’s not the case with Jones Jr. and, if he does prove to be a solid or good player, he’ll become a fixture in Rip City. But that’s far from certain at this point.