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Experts Analysis

Is it really 'just the preseason?'

by Jared Johnson
Updated On: December 15, 2020, 1:41 am ET

Aw yes, it’s that time of year again, the glorious preseason, where we confirm all our priors and rationalize away anything that goes contrary to our initial hypotheses with the catch-all phrase: “it’s just the preseason.” When a guy we like explodes in their first preseason game, we point and say, ‘See! I told ya!’ However, if someone we’ve been hyping up puts up a stinker, ‘well, that’s just the preseason jitters. He’s rusty!’

But is it really just the preseason? Like most things in life, the answer to that question depends – but I would argue that this year’s preseason should hold more weight than in previous years. With the quick turnaround from the 2019-20 season that corresponded with a cancellation of Summer League and shortened training camp, a lot of clubs are using this reduced preseason as a very real trial run for the start of their 2020-21 campaigns. An offseason that is typically four months-long has been reduced to a 10-week period this year, and while these are just exhibition games, they do give us a peek behind the curtain – showing us how a player may be used and what his role might look like. When evaluating the preseason, it’s the context behind the big stat lines that matter most.

When Bruno Caboclo explodes for 17 points, seven boards, five triples, one assist, one steal and three blocks in his preseason debut it doesn’t matter, because (1) he’s not going to average 25 minutes for the Rockets this season (2) James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Christian Wood were inactive for that game and (3) he followed up that explosion with a two-point, five-board stinker his next time out.

When Devin Vassell puts up 12 points, six boards, two triples, two assists, three steals and a block in his preseason debut – it’s interesting – but does it matter? Probably not, considering Gregg Popovich has a lengthy history of bringing rookies along slowly – and Vassell also happens to play the same position as DeMar DeRozan.

However, when Victor Oladipo looks like he still has no pop and goes 2-of-6 from the field against the Cavs in his preseason debut – that matters. When Gary Trent Jr. looks like the Bubble-version of himself and pops off for 18 points, three triples, three rebounds, two assists and one steal in his preseason debut – and he follows that up with a 17/3/2 line – that too, matters. And when guys like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant get back on the court for the first time following major injuries, that matters to a certain degree, but not really enough to change my priors. Context is everything during the preseason.

Regarding Victor Oladipo – I’m concerned. He just hasn’t looked like himself since that knee injury, and it’s worth pointing out that in Vic’s first-round season (that occurred two years ago), his value was buoyed by a remarkable and career-high 2.4 steals per game (he also shot a career-high 47.7% from the field that year). He averaged 1.7 steals the following season (before the knee injury), and just 0.9 last year. The steals numbers are what drives his value, and the lack of those partnered with tanking percentages have me avoiding him in all leagues. Remember, Tony Parker is the only other player in the league to have experienced the same injury as Oladipo, and he said it was comparable to an Achilles tear.

As for Gary Trent Jr., all I needed was one preseason game to get right back on board that hype train, as I think he’ll be one of the ultimate steals in this year’s draft. I was a bit concerned for Trent’s outlook when the Trail Blazers added Derrick Jones Jr. and retained both Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony during free agency, but I can’t imagine a situation where this kid isn’t getting major minutes for Portland this season – he’s just too good and so clutch. Trent Jr. can also play alongside both Melo and Hood, and Hood will be brought along slowly in his first year back from the Achilles tear, so his presence doesn’t concern me. I’ll acknowledge the sample size is small, but in Trent Jr.’s torrid Bubble run he put in averages of 15.8 points, 3.9 triples, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks and just 0.5 turnovers per game on 50.6% shooting in 35.1 minutes per game. Now, I wouldn’t expect him to be quite that good, as his minutes will probably be reduced to the high-20s, but he’s a guy with top 50 upside that you can currently get outside of the top-150.

From the group of players coming back from serious injuries, John Wall is the guy who is starting to make me re-evaluate his outlook. He’s looked great in his first two preseason games with averages of 17.0 points, 6.5 dimes, 1.5 triples, 1.0 steal and 2.5 turnovers per game on 48.1% shooting in just 21.6 minutes a night. I’m still concerned about the impending restrictions for Wall, but if he’s still on the board when it gets to Round 8, I might have to seriously consider taking a flier on him. The same can be said for Boogie Cousins, who has put in averages of 12.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 triples, 1.0 steal, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 turnover per game on 57.1% shooting in just 15.9 minutes. Even if Cousins is only earning minutes in the mid-20s as Christian Wood’s backup, that should still be enough for time for him to make a difference in fantasy hoops, assuming he can stay healthy.

I remain skeptical of Kevin Durant, though. I was glad to see him back on the floor Sunday night, and he did have some nice moments (a dunk through contact, some blocks and he even felt comfortable enough to take a charge), but it’s not like his stat line of 15 points (5-of-12 FG, 5-of-6 FT), three boards, three dimes, two blocks and two turnovers was spectacular. I’ll be rooting for KD this season, but I think the minutes restrictions and random missed games will make him too much of a headache to manage.

Lastly, I’ll close out this column with a few words on 2016’s unanimous MVP, one Mr. Wardell Stephen Curry II. It doesn’t matter to me that he shot 3-of-10 from the field in Golden State’s preseason opener because, I mean, guys, he’s Stephen freaking Curry (gestures towards MVP trophies, plural). He is getting up there in age at 32 years old, but an elite marksman like Steph should be good into his golden years, and we did just see the 35-year-old LeBron James lead his team to a championship while earning his fourth Finals MVP trophy. Curry has had too much time to rest, and it’s obvious that he’s looking to explode this year as he attempts to lead a Klay Thompson-less Warriors’ squad back to the postseason. I truly expect Curry to be the No. 1 ranked fantasy player this season when all is said and done, and I am not afraid at all to take him No. 1 overall.

Jared Johnson

A hoops fanatic, Jared Johnson has been a member of the NBC Sports Edge team since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Jae_Tha_Truth, and feel free to send him your questions regarding trades, draft strategies and all things fantasy basketball.