Who has been the biggest surprise in fantasy hoops so far?
And to be clear right away — I’m only talking about pleasant surprises. I’ve lived a lifetime of Mike Conley, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Marvin Bagley and Zion Williamson so far this season, and I’m ready to focus today on positive developments.
I’m also eager to see how sustainable these’ (shout-out to Devonte’ Graham) strong performances will be in the second half.
Below are my top-five* fantasy hoops surprises of 2019-20, with some perspective on how likely they are to carry on or crater the rest of the way.
I could sit and ponder the question for days, and I’m convinced I will find no more stunning performance than this. Ingram, a guy who ranked on the wrong side of 220th in 9-category leagues last season — a guy I refused to draft in any circumstance just a few months ago — is currently sitting 12th overall in 9-category leagues.
First, the context of last season’s sunken value: Ingram did average 18.3 ppg on 49.7 percent shooting, but the rest of his stat line was either A) bland or B) harmful, with 5.1 rpg, 3.0 apg, 0.5 spg, 0.6 bpg and 0.6 3s, along with 2.5 turnovers and 67.5 percent FT shooting — on 5.6 attempts per game. That is sneaky bad production in FTs, and when you combine it with the lack of volume in 3s, steals and blocks, plus the turnovers, you have a guy who just kind of stunk in fantasy. He also got a month-plus to potentially spread his wings while LeBron James was out with a groin injury last season, and was better in rebounds (6.1) and assists (4.1) during that stretch, but overall his numbers were pretty similar: 19.2 ppg, 0.6 spg, 0.6 bpg and 0.5 3s, on 63.6 percent from the line during that stretch.
So that’s the backdrop for Ingram, and why I wanted no part of him heading into this year. But here’s what I overlooked: Production can spike quickly for a player this young. Just having turned 22 prior to the start of the season, and joining a squad where he has consistently been a centerpiece, Ingram has put up 25.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.8 bpg and 2.4 3s, shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 87.0 from the line — up 20 percent from last year in that last category.
Is it sustainable? almost feels like a silly question at this point. I don’t see any way to conclude otherwise. Coming off a 29-8-11 stat line on Wednesday, he’s now averaging 26.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.7 bpg and 2.7 3s in his last 15 games, while shooting 91.4 percent from the line. I just made the slightly bold move (but is it even that bold?) of trading Kawhi Leonard for him, straight up. It’s a long-winded way of saying some words I really didn’t expect to say this season: Brandon Ingram has made me a believer.
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On the one hand, if you added Graham early in the season, you have an absolute gem on your hands — a guy averaging 18.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 7.8 apg, 0.9 spg and 3.6 3s. He is sixth in the league in assists, and tied for fourth in made 3s per game.
On the other hand, you may have a problem. Since his 40-point game on Dec. 11, Graham, for essentially a month, has been shooting 29.8 percent from the field — on 16.0 attempts per game. You don’t need me to say it, but I will anyway: That’s really bad. (In case you’re wondering, prior to that, he had shot 41.5 percent on 15.5 attempts per game in 27 games.)
Ultimately, it comes down to which version of Graham you believe. The good news is, he’s still producing strong counting stats (16.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 8.2 apg, 1.2 spg and 3.2 3s) during this extended shooting slump. In a points league, there is zero reason to be concerned. At the same time, in an 8- or 9-category league, that FG percentage is pretty crushing. He’s obviously a better shooter than 29.8 percent, but there’s reason to wonder if he’s worse than what he showed early in the season (41.5), including the fact that he shot 40.0 percent as a senior at Kansas. I didn’t end up with Graham in any leagues, so I’m curious how frustrated people are with his shooting. Do you see this as a short-term blip, or the start of a longer-term trend? Ultimately, I’m inclined to split the difference a bit with my expectations — he is neither that good nor this bad of a shooter — and I’ll be surprised if his FG percentage ends up too far off from its current season-long mark of 37.6. And that number, with his volume, pushes you toward a FG punt unless you have a lot of good shooters on your roster.
The last thing complicating this if you’re thinking about trading Graham away is that your team is probably counting heavily on those assists and 3s, which are legitimately stout numbers (and tough to find elsewhere in the case of the assists). So, you’re hurting yourself if you lose those assists, but you’re punching massive holes in your FG percentage if you keep him around. This is what we call a dilemma. Also, if your team is doing well regardless, you can probably do nothing and just laugh the next time he throws up a 3-for-16, which is a beautiful spot to be in.
That was exhausting, so let’s take it down a notch. Burks currently sits 60th overall in 9-category leagues (per BasketballMonster.com), averaging 15.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.2 spg and 1.6 3s, on 42.2 percent from the field and 89.3 percent from the line. The points, assists, steals, 3s and FT percentage are all career-highs for the 28-year-old, who should get every opportunity to continue churning out said numbers if he stays with Golden State.
The problem is, that is a rather colossal “if.” Burks has been called “a prime candidate” to be dealt by the San Francisco Chronicle, and it’s easy to see him landing as a backup wing with reduced minutes on a contending team. You probably aren’t going to fool anyone else in your league, but if you can trade Burks for someone more reliable in the top 75 or top 80 — or get some value by including him in a multi-player trade — I would not hesitate to do so.
As was the case with Ingram, Wiggins was a player I simply wasn’t going to draft in 2019. After all, he was coming off consecutive years of finishing 159th and 171st in 9-category leagues, with an especially brutal combo of 41.2 percent from the field and 69.9 from the line last year. I can handle a player being a percentage-killer in one category, which is why I’d understand if you’re dead set on keeping the aforementioned Devonte’ Graham. Double bad percentages for me is a deal-breaker.
Enter Andrew Wiggins, age 24, who has returned his percentages to more respectable levels (44.6 / 74.2), while adding career-highs in points (24.0), rebounds (5.3), assists (3.4), blocks (1.0) and 3s (2.2), putting him just outside the top-75 on the 9-category leaderboard.
When it comes to Wiggins, whether it’s fair or not, I’m constantly on the lookout for signs that his production is starting to crack. And for what it’s worth, over his last five games, he is at 18.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 4.6 apg, while shooting just 37.6 from the field and 70.0 from the line, with 0.4 spg and 0.4 bpg. Even so, I’ll stop short of being fully alarmed. Wiggins had 23 points and a season-high eight assists in just 26 minutes of a blowout victory on Thursday. In fact, that assist total is his highest since April of his rookie year in 2015. All things considered, I’ll buy into the idea that Wiggins can stay somewhere in the top-75 range the rest of the way.
I debated whether to include Whiteside on this list, and ultimately decided it was impossible to leave off a guy with an ADP of 76.7 on Yahoo who is currently providing first-round fantasy value. Back in the top-10 for the first time since 2015-16, Whiteside is averaging 15.8 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 2.9 bpg and a career-best 76.6 percent from the line.
The only potential concern is the looming return of Jusuf Nurkic, who is reportedly aiming to get back from his gruesome left leg injury around the All-Star break. Prior to the injury last year, Nurkic (still only 25 years old) was a bona fide fantasy stud. In the game where he got hurt, he had 32 points, 16 boards, five assists, two steals and four blocks. Even if his minutes are limited when he returns, and even if he sits back-to-backs, it’s not insane to think he could be ready for, let’s say, 20-plus minutes a game by March.
I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying we need a pithy term for a player who doesn’t have the most fantasy value on his own, but threatens to put a legitimate dent in another player’s value, because the way I just phrased it is entirely too wordy.
In closing, I certainly don’t think the Whiteside situation warrants anything close to panic. However, if you can start to think about an exit strategy, and a way to get back, let’s say, something in the ballpark of top 15 in return, I am in support.
*Bonus/Sixth Man: Jaylen Brown
One other player who was off my fantasy radar heading into this season was Brown, who was 160th and 187th in 9-category formats the last two seasons, with a stat line last year that offered few redeeming qualities: 13.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.4 bpg and 1.3 3s, on 46.5 percent from the floor and 65.8 from the line.
Basically, Brown’s numbers last season, unless it’s a really deep league, were a bunch of nothing baked in with subpar free throw shooting. This season, he’s made a dramatic leap. Behind 20.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.1 spg and 2.1 3s (49.8 FG / 76.8 FT) — all career-highs — Brown has climbed to 53rd overall. He did just put up a season-low six points on Thursday, but he’s still averaging 21.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 2.5 3s on 51.0 percent shooting since the start of December, with essentially no signs that these breakout numbers are in jeopardy. Clapping hands emoji if you drafted him.
Other Notable Surprises: Richaun Holmes would’ve gotten a longer writeup here if he wasn’t currently sidelined with a shoulder injury. … Similar situation for Fred VanVleet (hamstring). Davis Bertans is set to return from his quad injury on Friday and probably rain about seven 3s on the Hawks, but he’s also a notable trade candidate — and a risk to lose value if he goes elsewhere. … I thought about writing up Luka Doncic as a surprise first-rounder, but with an ADP of 18.0, the first round is exactly what people were hoping for. ... If true, it’s great news that the Knicks are planning to keep Marcus Morris, who has missed a couple games with a sore neck, but otherwise shows no signs of losing momentum (he had 38 points on 6-of-7 from distance on Sunday). … Damion Lee has started the last 12 games for the Warriors, putting up 14.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.0 apg 1.2 spg and 1.8 3s, and would have been in consideration for the top-five if he’d done this fine work for a more prolonged stretch.