Photo credit: KarynStepien.com
The New Orleans Pelicans have waived Axel Toupane, the team announced Tuesday.
Facing a hard cap at the $125.3-million luxury tax apron, the Pelicans decided that Toupane’s modest $100,000 guarantee, which would have been triggered had he been on the roster past today, was too limiting from a flexibility standpoint. It seems like a small amount to split hairs over, but the Pelicans get away with just $25,000 in dead money, a $75,000 saving that’s magnified in importance since they’re less than $4 million from the apron right now and presumably still have work to do. Keeping Toupane (and Quinn Cook) on a minimum deal with only that small guarantee would have been reasonable, too, but if they felt there was a good chance he’d eventually be cut, anyway, then making the move now makes fiscal sense.
This news is relevant from a Toronto Raptors perspective, of course, because Raptors 905 own Toupane’s G-League rights. After bringing Toupane into camp two years ago, the Raptors have helped develop Toupane over the course of two seasons, during which he’s earned three different calls up to the NBA.
Two years ago, he was named the G-League’s Most Improved Player and got a 21-game look with the Denver Nuggets. He showed moderately well there and again with them at Las Vegas Summer League but was cut in favor of Alonzo Gee in camp. He returned to the 905, getting a two-game look from the Milwaukee Bucks in the middle of an All-G-League Third-Team season and then signing a multi-year deal with the Pelicans. He appeared in just two games, with the lightly guaranteed 2017-18 part of that contract the real draw for New Orleans, and Toupane looked solid for them in Summer League.
Where Toupane goes from here is unclear. With three cups of coffee now, it’s clear there will be NBA interest, and he’s done little to dispel the notion that he’s an NBA talent. He hasn’t shot particularly well over his 25 NBA appearances, but he’s an effective multi-position defender capable of guarding wings of any size and even point guards and power forwards in a pinch. Defensively, he’s basically the mold of what a modern defender needs to look like, with quick feet, a solid frame, and length he uses well to disrupt ball-handlers and passing lanes. At the other end of the floor, he’s an aggressive attacker who has lived at the free-throw line in the G-League, and while it’s unlikely an NBA team would ask him to initiate much, that can still be a useful tool, particularly in transition. The limiting factor for Toupane may be his shooting – across the G-League, NBA, Vegas, and preseason, he’s shot just 32.8 percent on threes, though he’s been solid from the corners (41.7 percent with the 905 last year).
Several teams will probably make inquiries on Toupane, and he’d probably have offers for a two-way contract immediately after clearing waivers. The Raptors have not reached out to Toupane yet, but they figure to have that conversation, at least to see where he’s at and the likelihood of him returning to the 905. If the Raptors, or another NBA team, aren’t willing to offer him a standard NBA contract, the decision for Toupane becomes a complex one – there will be sizable overseas offers (he was on the fence about staying in the G-League last year after the Nuggets cut him), and beyond that, he may prefer to go the standard G-League route (possibly after a camp guarantee) instead of taking a two-way deal.
While that may sound strange, consider the economics: A two-way deal caps a player’s earnings around $271,000, and while that’s much higher than a G-League salary, the fact that Toupane has two years of service in the NBA means he’d make up money quickly on a 10-day if called up again. Toupane would earn $86,552 on a 10-day deal and would be eligible for a camp bonus larger than $50,000 if he wasn’t playing on a two-way deal, and so he could conceivably negotiate a decent camp guarantee, head to the G-League as a standard G-League player, and have made up the difference with two 10-day deals (give or take). Toupane has been keen to bet on himself in recent years, and the higher upside bet might be heading back to the 905 if he can’t crack a roster out of camp (perhaps more palatable for him than others, too, as he’s made about $272,000 over the last two years).
It’s difficult to just assume a player’s priorities in these situations. We’ve seen players with NBA experience sign two-ways already (Anthony Brown, Jack Cooley), and there’s always the chance a player can play well enough on a two-way that the NBA team will opt to convert it to a standard NBA deal at some point.
Whatever the case, Toupane will have offers and he’ll have options. Whether he returns to the 905 at any point may be a matter of the Raptors’ willingness to “promote” him up the development chain, or the willingness of someone else to. (If another team signed Toupane to a two-way deal, those rights would supersede the rights the 905 hold.) If he’s back, that will be great news for a 905 team that’s already been quite thinned out this offseason. If he’s not, well, it’s a sign the development program is working at that level and a reminder that the two-way system was a long overdue next step for NBA player development and the G-League in general.