The news about Jimmer Fredette signing a make-good contract with the Spurs was met more with disdain than anything else by the basketball world at large. After four largely disappointing seasons, the former BYU star has gone from lottery pick to camp body.
It wouldn't be surprising at all to see Jimmer waived as San Antonio's roster starts to take shape. Yet the way his contract is structured makes it a real possibility that he sticks, even if he's not in the team's long term plans.
The Spurs will have 14 players under contract making more money than Fredette, including Matt Bonner and Jonathon Simmons. Bonner's contract is only partially guaranteed but with Boban Marjanovic's injury issues and the Red Rocket's familiarity with Gregg Popovich and the system, he will very likely make the team. The Spurs rarely carry 15 guys at the start of the season, so Fredette will likely have to battle Simmons for that 14th spot.
Fredette's partial guarantee is very close to the fully guaranteed amount of the rookie minimum contract Simmons signed, so money shouldn't be the deciding factor. The Summer League standout does have the physical tools to become a prototypical 3-and-D player, something the Spurs could use off the bench. At 26 years of age neither player has much untapped potential. It's really a no-brainer to go with the guy with an NBA body and athleticism and pray he can become a reliable shooter instead of hoping Fredette figures out how to be a plus defender.
If the two are in fact fighting for a job, Simmons will likely emerge victorious. There might be room for both, however.
While it's true the Spurs like to have an open roster spot to add players on 10-day contracts or in case a veteran is waived later in the season, as recently as last year they carried 15 players on opening day. The desire to keep the championship team together might have been the main motivation but the decision also made sense from a pragmatic roster management standpoint. It looks like the Spurs have figured out that starting out with 15 players is actually smart as long as it doesn't mean having a bloated payroll or sacrificing flexibility.
The reason why seems obvious: having an open spot is only valuable if there are prospects available. 10-day contracts can't be signed until January 5. Players from Euroleague teams that have been eliminated are typically made available at the end of the first round, which also happens in early January. The Chinese basketball league's regular season ends in early February. The trade deadline (and subsequent waiver market) is slated for February 18. That means that before early January, having an open roster spot is not of much use. So why not have a full roster in case of emergency?
The Spurs guaranteed half of Fredette's million dollar contract so they are on the hook for that money even if they waive him after training camp. Partially guaranteed deals like Jimmer's don't become fully guaranteed until January 10, though, so as long as they release him a couple of days before then that's all they owe him. They can simply decide whether to keep him for the rest of the season or waive him on January 7 (he needs to clear waivers before the deadline), which is coincidentally when other free agents start to become available. They did that with Austin Daye last year, despite his contract being fully guaranteed after camp.
In the meantime, they get another body to round off the guard rotation. Tony Parker is competing in Eurobasket and might need to take a few rest days. Manu Ginobili is fragile. The 2013/14 season showed that even durable players like Danny Green can get hurt. The Spurs don't have the proven depth to survive those setbacks anymore. They might need unlikely contributors to step up.
Fredette has not been impressive so far in his career but he has experience and an elite skill (three-point shooting) already in his repertoire. Keeping him for an extended tryout for the equivalent of the rookie minimum until January makes a lot of sense. He could either surprise and earn a permanent spot or just be there in case of emergencies before being waived.
It's entirely possible the Spurs are truly interested in Fredette for a rotation spot. They could have simply gone with Reggie Williams instead of offering another player a sizable guarantee if the idea was to solely carry 15 players. Jimmer's shooting prowess would certainly help mitigate the loss of Marco Belinelli and it's not impossible to imagine him outplaying both Williams and Simmons during training camp. The scoring talent that made him a top 10 pick is plain to see.
But his best shot at making the roster seems to be tied to his contract, the dates in which free agents become available during the season and past injury scares. What he does with the opportunity if he in facts gets it could determine how his career progresses from there.
Contract information via Basketball Insiders