The NBA season is just entering the second week, and we've already had plenty of important developments. Injuries have already afflicted Zion Williamson, Marvin Bagley, Jrue Holiday, Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum and others. We're still waiting to hear timetables for Zach Collins and Trae Young, and it's unclear if Deandre Ayton stands a chance of having his 25-game suspension reduced on appeal.
Those are indisputable events that have already impacted fantasy owners, led to a scramble for waiver-wire pickups, and forced those without an IR spot to make some tough cuts. This early in the season, though, we're also reading the tea leaves from a handful of performances. Which stats and storylines are real, and which are simply the result of a tiny one, two, three or four-game sample size? There are no definitive answers, but that's the fun and intriguing part of small-sample-size statistics. In today’s column, I’ll highlight some players whose early-season performances seem plausible – or not. We’ll begin and end with usage rates!
October in Usage County
I've shown in the past that usage rate (defined by NBA.com as "the percentage of team plays used by a player when he is on the floor") has a strong positive correlation with overall fantasy value -- as usage rises, typically so does 8-cat/9-cat/points value. The relationship is a bit weaker in 9-cat, where turnovers take a real toll, but it's still second for strength-of-correction, behind minutes. It's therefore good practice to look at players with unusually high or low usage rates, since it's an easy way to identify fantasy trends.
Let's start with the low men, most of whom are obvious fantasy liabilities. Meyers Leonard's starts for the Heat haven't mattered with a usage rate of 7.4% in the first four games, and that was without Jimmy Butler on the court. Leonard did chip in across the board on Tuesday with nine boards, three blocks and two assists (to go along with three points), but I'm still not sold on him. Trevor Ariza is also in single-digits at 8.9% and even the absence of Marvin Bagley (thumb) may not be enough to spring him loose -- he posted nine points and five boards in 23 minutes on Monday, when the big winners were Nemanja Bjelica and Richaun Holmes (more on him in a minute).
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P.J. Tucker is an exception to the usage/value correlation, as he continues to be a low-usage maestro. He's never had higher than 12.9% usage in six NBA seasons, and is sitting just below 12% this season. That hasn't stopped him from piling up useful stats with 16.7 points, 4.0 triples, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks. He's a ridiculous 64.3% from the field and 66.7% from deep, and he's made both of his free throw attempts. The hyper-efficient scoring won't last, but he should still cruise into top-100 value thanks to defensive numbers and wide-open shot attempts.
Tucker's trajectory is a best-case scenario for Suns swingman Mikal Bridges, who has been buried in the first four games with an 8.5% usage rate in just 19.2 minutes per game. Double whammy. He's still swiping a steal per game in that limited action, but there's no clear path to standard-league value while Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre are healthy. OG Anunoby is another great example of how a Tucker-like player can thrive, as he's racking up defensive stats (2.3 blocks, 1.5 steals) with substantial rebounds (7.3), and most of his buckets are coming in the paint or at the 3-point line (1.8 triples per game). I'm not expecting OG to shoot 53.8% all season, but he looks like a complete steal (no pun intended).
Moving onto big men, there are plenty of centers who offer value with limited usage, since they simply need to rebound, block shots and cash in on limited shot attempts from lobs, putbacks and the occasional transition dunk. That said, it's not ideal to see DeAndre Jordan (11.3%) and Jarrett Allen (11.3%) both near the bottom of the league among rotation players. Both guys can thrive with FG% as a catalyst for value, but the Nets' offense simply hasn't been looking their way in the first three games.
I'm less bothered by Robert Williams (10.9%) being that low, for instance, because we didn't expect him to score double-digit points anyway. Odd to say, I'm almost encouraged to see Dwight Howard at a mere 11.8% this season, because it's further evidence that he's embracing his limited role in L.A. this season -- 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 5.8 points on 68.8% shooting has been enough for low-end value in 8-cat/9-cat. If he stays in his lane offensively, he should do enough damage to help most owners (and spoil JaVale McGee as a late-round center to own).
Other players with usage rates so low that they make me nervous include Joe Harris (14.0%), Tomas Satoransky (12.5%), Landry Shamet (11.8%), Kyle Anderson (12.3%), Marc Gasol (13.0%), Marcus Smart (13.6%) and Jarrett Culver (13.5%).
Up, Up and Away
It's been odd to watch Derrick Rose not only rack up elite usage of 36.2% off Detroit's bench, but to do so efficiently -- he's hitting 54.7% of his FGs and 93.8% of his FTs through four games. I'm perennially skeptical of Rose's ability to stay healthy, of course, let alone contribute enough 3-pointers (0.3) or steals (0.8) to compensate for an inevitable decline in percentages. The Pistons will want him to serve as a go-to scorer off the bench all year, ideally, but his usage will decline when Blake Griffin (knee, hamstring) and Reggie Jackson (back) are up to speed. Multiple reasons to shy away from him or attempt to sell high.
It's been very encouraging to see the Mavs' two stars share the ball equitably this season with Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic both ranking in the top-15 for qualifying players (going into Tuesday's game). That's not an easy balance to maintain, but it helps that they're surrounded by teammates who don't need the rock to stay engaged at both ends. Players like Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith all seem content to take whatever trickles down from the 'Big 2' in Dallas, which might be plentiful some nights -- the Mavs were exceedingly balanced on Tuesday with nine players scoring 10+ points.
Wright is sitting on top-50 value, Maxi Kleber has been useful in Dwight Powell's absence, and even Seth Curry is clinging to late-round value. Fantasy owners must be thrilled, since all of this production feels sustainable (though Powell should overtake Kleber). And if you drafted Tim Hardaway Jr., you have nobody to blame but yourself.
More players with noticeably high usage this season include Isaiah Thomas (32.7% in his lone appearance), Pascal Siakam (taking on the alpha role with 31.7%), Bojan Bogdanovic (29.6%), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (28.0%) and Dejounte Murray (busy when he's on the court at 26.2%).
Holmes is Where the Heart Is
Richaun Holmes has been a hot waiver addition since Marvin Bagley went down, and satisfied owners with a 24-point, 13-rebound effort on Monday that included 10-of-14 shooting and a pair of blocks. He played 30 minutes off the bench, thoroughly outplaying starter Dewayne Dedmon (17 minutes), and needs to be added wherever he's still available. The key for me is two-fold.
First, he looks set to average 25+ minutes until Bagley returns, which may not be until late November. Second, we've seen him rack up top-40 value for three consecutive years on a per-36-minute basis. Even if he's hovering in the 24-28 minute range, that's plenty to help owners in standard leagues -- I'd even consider him in most 10-team leagues. The biggest threat I see, prior to Bagley's return, is that Harry Giles cuts into his minutes once he's healthy. Giles is likely to be on a very strict limit, though, so even that doesn't scare me off.
A handful of young guys have impressed me with their willingness to attack the basket over and over this season -- Zach LaVine, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and Dejounte Murray. Those first three guys are all attempting at least nine shots in the restricted area per game, putting all of them in the league's top-five. Restricted area shots typically favor bruising big men and elite driving guards like Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving, so it's a notable accomplishment.
It also boosts their efficiency, as even poor at-the-rim shooting is better than your average 2-point attempt. LaVine is hitting 59% of these looks, Morant is at 53.6% and Barrett is at 56.8%. I'm especially pleased to see this year's lottery picks throwing themselves into the paint with abandon, since brutal FG% is usually a concern for high-volume rookies. That's alleviated by shot selection that skews heavily toward the basket. Here are their shot charts so far:
Again, they haven't even been very good for fantasy owners' FG% this season. But imagine how much worse they'd be if they weren't getting tons of looks at the rim. The only downside for Barrett is that all that contact has sent him to the line 25 times, where he's a combined 11-of-25 (44.0%). Yikes.
An even more interesting case is Dejounte Murray, who is not only getting into the paint very often (7.3 shots at the rim per game), but he's converting at an exceptional rate (77.3%). In fact, Murray is a combined 1-of-11 everywhere beyond the restricted area -- a mild concern, but one I won't fret about as long as he keeps driving the ball. This is also the reason we're not seeing Murray share the court with Derrick White very often this season. Neither of them are great 3-point threats right now (though White shows promise), and San Antonio needs court spacing with DeMar DeRozan also shying away from the 3-point line. It dampens the Spurs' PG fantasy prospects a little bit, though mostly for White -- Murray has looked great on both sides of the court, and he's on a minute-limit anyway to begin the year.
Brandon ‘Icarus’ Ingram
As discussed in a recent podcast, I view Ingram as a clear sell-high candidate after a torrid start in 2019-20. Through four games, he's averaging 27.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.5 triples, 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals. He's also shooting 50.0% from the field and 73.3% from the line. Literally all those numbers would be career highs if he maintained them this season, which he won't.
Yes, Ingram is set up for a career year and he's increased his scoring every season in the league. The Pelicans are also giving him a league-high 5.8 spot-up shot attempts per game, which he's converting at an efficient 56.5%. That's an encouraging trend and a glimpse of how they'll continue to use him off ball. However, he's hitting these marks on a team without Zion Williamson for at least four more weeks, and he's played without Jrue Holiday in half of the Pelicans games this season. The return of a full-strength Holiday will likely dent his usage and assists, if little else, while Zion's return should cut into his rebounds and points. Add the fact that Ingram missed 53 games the past two years due to injury, and I'm skeptical. This Pelican is flying too close to the sun.
The key to a 'sell-high' opportunity, of course, is extracting an asset you feel certain has a safer rest-of-season floor. As I said to Matt Stroup, a guy like Khris Middleton or Kelly Oubre would get it done for me as an Ingram owner -- I'm more willing to snag what I believe is a solid top-60 player than run the risk that Ingram regresses to the inefficient, high-volume fantasy drag he's been for the first three years of his career. Sometimes selling high involves pessimism.
Nothing but Nets
Kyrie hasn't needed a protective mask despite suffering (and then aggravating) a facial fracture this preseason. It's as though the injury never occurred, and he looks as quick and sharp as ever, averaging 37.7 points, 5.7 boards, 6.3 assists, 4.7 triples, 1.7 steals, and even 0.7 blocks. He's been awesome, simply put, and I'm not even sure it's a 'sell high'. If I could get a durable top-10 player like Damian Lillard, of course, but that's not going to happen. I'm more inclined to cross my fingers and hope he stays healthy, as his 38.0% usage leads the league ahead of Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, etc.
A report surfaced on Tuesday that Nets management feels "queasy" about Kyrie's mercurial moods, and therefore his potentially negative impact on the locker room, but Nets coach Kenny Atkinson flatly denied it. Either way, it's his physical health that should concern fantasy owners, and right now he's great. The Nets have also put him in a league-high 16.0 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game, on which he's scoring 1.27 points per possession -- in other words, they're tailoring the offense to fit their star.
Brooklyn's players have the benefit of two overtimes in three games to pad some stats, but it's still encouraging to see Caris LeVert get off to a hot start. The negatives have been 54.5% free throw shooting and 4.3 turnovers. He needs to clean those up and he will, having never averaged below 69.1% FTs or more than 3.0 turnovers on a per-36-minute basis. When those stats normalize, his value will soar with current averages of 19.7 points, 1.7 triples, 4.3 dimes, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals. LeVert is such a buzzy player that you probably reached a round to get him, but it's about to pay off nicely. I'm also pleased with Taurean Prince, simply because he's playing almost 35 minutes per game. He's getting a quarter of his shots in spot-ups, but just hasn't knocked them down yet. The rebounds are there with some defensive stats, and his 2.3 triples will spike once he warms up.
That's all the time I have for today's 'Numbers Game' column, but I’ll close with one amusing statistic: Tacko Fall currently leads the NBA in usage rate. The Celtics' fan favorite had a comical usage of 62.5% in his 3.6 minutes on the court this season. The name of this column is 'Small Sample Size Statistics' so we need to have fun with meaningless numbers, right?