Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid among NBA's best sneaker free agents

Kawhi Leonard will have a new team in more ways than one in 2018-19.

The former San Antonio Spurs star, who was traded to the Toronto Raptors, has been a Jordan Brand endorser since coming into the league, but industry sources say that the company is going to let Leonard walk when his contract expires later this year. Extension talks between Leonard and the Nike subsidiary stalled earlier this year after Leonard turned down a four-year, $22 million extension.

That will make the former Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP the most accomplished player in a sneaker free-agency market that will include multiple All-NBA talents looking for new shoe deals this summer.

Most expiring sneaker deals are structured to run through Sept. 30, with players often allowed to take meetings with outside companies on a new deal up to 60 days in advance -- which means this year's class could be meeting with sneaker companies as early as next week.

Those meetings will include stateside staples like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour; the Chinese trio of global companies in Anta, Li-Ning and Peak; and an added batch of brands re-engaging on the pro stage this year. Longtime athletic companies like Puma, New Balance and AND1 are all looking to sign NBA players again and return to the hardwood at the game's highest level.

Even with Leonard, thought, this class doesn't include a can't-miss future star who'll warrant a signature shoe, as there was in 2015 -- when James Harden landed a landmark $200 million Adidas deal loaded with incentives -- or last fall, when Giannis Antetokounmpo drew significant interest before re-upping with Nike. However, this year's class does offer a mix of players with All-Star talent, social media savvy, off-court style and major-market visibility, led by the Eastern Conference's newest superstar.

Kawhi Leonard

Currently with: Jordan

Much like the uncertainty that dominated his final year with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard represents something of an enigma for sneaker companies, who'll have to sign him without having seen him on the court since January.

Industry sources say most brands aren't worried about his return from the right quad injury that saw him appear in only nine games this past season, and expect him to return to form on the court. There is, however, cause for concern about his prior lack of interest in endorsement deals and commercials, and his reluctance to play in flashy sneakers that can help draw attention to a brand's new launches.

Jordan featured Leonard in its Gatorade-affiliated "Like Mike" campaign at the start of last season to little fanfare -- he's likely best known in the marketing world for his deadpan expressions in local San Antonio grocery store ads. In an era where players can single-handedly flex their star power and promote products on social media, Leonard has also shown little interest in his online presence. His last tweet (of just four total) was three summers ago; he has no Instagram account.

While Leonard's trade sent him from one of the NBA's smallest markets to one of its largest, it also sent him to a different country, which could complicate things from a marketing perspective, on top of the existing questions about Leonard's level of interest in being a pitchman. Would a new company be able to get the historically reserved Leonard to jump in on the arena entry trend, with a series of made-for-social-media-styled outfits that have helped to raise the star power of players around the league? And even if it did, would fans find a sudden pitchman persona contrived and forced, given Leonard's longtime disdain for promotional appearances and public attention?

Like most dynamics currently surrounding the embattled All-NBA forward, there's no sensing where exactly his head is at, though the coming months should provide some resolution for all involved.

Joel Embiid

Currently with: Adidas

The sneaker industry's longheld mantra has been that "big men don't sell shoes." With Joel Embiid's expert-level dominance of social media, dating to draft night in 2014, and his potential to be named an Eastern Conference All-Star starter for years to come, several brands think the versatile 7-footer could break the mold.

Currently signed to a shoe deal with Adidas, Embiid has been specific about his tastes and preferences when it comes to his on-court sneakers. Because he prefers a no-frills, secure mid-cut model for his size 17 feet, a potential endorsement deal with the 76ers center is less about marketing the specific shoe he ends up wearing, and much more about the visibility and energy that a brand could generate through his collective mastery of both Twitter and Instagram.

Embiid could instantly do takeovers on brand accounts to grow their following with real-time stunts. He could lean on his legion of followers to rally behind supporting a new category slogan or campaign. He could also shut down the internet by signing with resurgent Puma Basketball and announcing his new brand partner in an instantly viral candid shot alongside Puma ambassador Rihanna, Embiid's elusive celebrity crush who famously turned him down as a rookie.

For brands like Puma, New Balance and Nike, there's an intrigue in Embiid's on- and off-court skills that could land him one of the highest shoe deal offers of this class. Wherever he lands -- don't rule out a return to Adidas either -- he'll be sure to let you know, in his own unpredictable and hilarious way.

Andrew Wiggins

Currently with: Adidas

Heading into the 2014 NBA draft as the clear-cut No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins represented everything a brand looks for in an endorser. The Canadian high flier once dubbed "Maple Jordan" could seemingly do it all once his game came together, with a lethal baseline spin move, bouncy double-jump quickness in the paint, promising shooting stroke and a wingspan tailor-made for lockdown perimeter defense.

Once he turned pro, his offers were more measured than once expected, though he still signed a rookie shoe deal that paid him more than $2.2 million per year, placing it among the top handful of deals for players entering the league over the past 10 years. Adidas has tried on a few occasions to market a Wiggins-led sneaker over the years, to disappointing results. First was the Crazy Light Boost in 2015, followed up by the appropriately named Crazy Explosive series. Wiggins unveiled the first vivid red Crazy Explosive shoe with a viral near-720 degree tomahawk during the 2016 offseason -- but fans weren't moved to buy the sneakers led by him later that fall.

While it's clearly too soon to write him off on the court, there are some hesitations about his potential as a brand endorser, according to several industry sources. Wiggins will likely be looking at offers ranging around half of what he signed for with Adidas as a rookie, with outside companies feeling "he's signable," according to a rival executive.

Adidas may look to move on from the once-coveted teen phenom, according to industry sources, in favor of a push for a proven All-NBA talent like Kawhi Leonard, or to provide its younger emerging stars like Donovan Mitchell and Brandon Ingram more room to grow as they eclipse Wiggins' marketability.

Gordon Hayward

Currently with: Nike

Though he's coming off of a foot injury that robbed him of the entire past season, Gordon Hayward is already expected to receive huge interest from a variety of brands looking to find their way onto a loaded Boston Celtics franchise that's slated to compete for a championship this upcoming season, and for several years to come.

Hayward has been signed with Nike throughout the prime of his career, after a short-lived deal with Chinese brand Peak during his second season. This time around, his expected return to All-Star-level form and the spotlight on Boston has brands lining up to try to pitch him when he can begin meeting with potential suitors in August.

One company with strong interest in Hayward is New Balance, which would look to re-launch its dormant basketball category with the Celtics star. The company's commitment to re-engage in hoops isn't entirely a secret, as it recently partnered with the Celtics on the team's new 70,000-square-foot Auerbach Center, the franchise's new state-of-the-art training facility.

In addition to New Balance's expected interest, Chinese brand Anta could also emerge as a strong contender to sign Hayward. While Klay Thompson is the brand's current headliner in China, where his "KT" signature line has been a huge hit for the brand that boasts more than 10,600 retail stores throughout Asia, the company's familiarity with the Celtics could come into play for Hayward. Two of Anta's initial signature athletes were Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, both of whom signed just after their 2008 championship season in Boston, establishing a connection for Anta fans with the team ever since.

DeMarcus Cousins

Currently with: Nike

Since entering the league with a Nike deal in hand, DeMarcus Cousins has established himself as one of the NBA's biggest sneakerheads. Wearing everything from vintage retro Jordans to player-exclusive colorways of the Swoosh's newest silhouettes, each featuring his "DMC" logo, the four-time All-Star has garnered as much attention for his footwear as any other big man in recent years.

With his unexpected signing with the Golden State Warriors, Cousins could provide a brand with visibility on the game's biggest stage. Though he might not return to the floor until midseason following his Achilles injury, the Warriors will certainly look to make their fifth consecutive NBA Finals next spring, with Boogie as a featured contributor in the All-Star-laden starting five.

His upcoming season with the Warriors is widely viewed as a placeholder year, due to a variety of contract restrictions that could make retaining a rehabbed and full-strength Cousins difficult for the team in 2019. According to league sources, the big man will have his eyes on a big market if he's unable to return to the Bay Area, as he looks to lock in a long-term shoe deal this fall that will carry him through the remainder of the prime of his career.

Isaiah Thomas

Currently with: Nike

Over the past two years, Nike released special-edition launches of Kobe Bryant's Kobe AD model with Thomas themes. One pair featured a purposely undersized Swoosh logo on the side in Cleveland's wine and gold hues, mimicking IT's diminutive stature on the floor. Along with Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker and DeMar DeRozan, Thomas was one of just a select few to receive his own player-exclusive colorway of the remade Kobe 1 Protro.

However, much as his injury-plagued season in 2018-19 cost him on the NBA free-agency market, Thomas' timing as a sneaker free agent couldn't be worse. He's also gone from three relatively good situations as far as selling sneakers (major markets in Boston and Los Angeles surrounding a short stint with a championship contender in Cleveland) to a questionable one as a member of the Denver Nuggets.

Regardless, he's built a loyal fan base and should draw attention from both U.S. brands and Chinese brands, who feel his smaller height against the league's giants and his story of perseverance will resonate well with fans in Asia.

Kelly Oubre Jr.

Currently with: Adidas

While not yet an All-Star like several other players in this class, Kelly Oubre Jr. represents the rising hybrid stars of the league whom brands are always eager to sign, and could be the wild card of this class who emerges as one of the more sought-after players.

Recently named to Sports Illustrated's "Fashionable 50" list highlighting the 50 most stylish athletes across all sports, Oubre is among the most-followed players for his daring pregame arrival outfits and his rock star-inspired fashion. With a unique style that blends the street and the court, Oubre has become a trendsetter in all facets of the fashion game.

The former Kansas one-and-done player has worn Adidas since college and throughout his pro career, often sticking to the brand's low-top Boost-boasting models like the Crazy Light and James Harden's signature series, with some added sneaker scribbles of his own. With a variety of companies expected to be in the mix to pitch Oubre over the next month, brands will be banking on Oubre's potential as a two-way wing for a Washington team looking to make a deeper playoff run in the newly wide-open Eastern Conference.