I’m going to start this week’s column with two conflicting statements:
1. NBA rookies have not been good for fantasy purposes so far this year.
2. NBA rookies have a chance to save your fantasy season.
First, the facts: There is exactly one rookie (Brandon Clarke) inside the top-75 of 9-category leagues, per BasketballMonster.com. The next-closest is P.J. Washington, at 108. Then we get to a recently-slumping Ja Morant, who is 124th.
So why am I convinced that any first-year players can still make a significant impact in 2019-20? Because rookies have a tendency to quickly and decisively level up.
Let’s use last season’s Trae Young as a quick and easy example:
Trae Young, first 41 NBA games: 15.5 ppg, 7.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 1.4 3s, 39.4 FG, 4.0 TOs
Trae Young, final 40 games of rookie year: 22.8 ppg, 8.9 apg, 0.9 spg, 2.4 3s, 43.8 FG, 3.6 TOs
The difference between those two players in terms of numbers is striking. The difference between them in terms of fantasy rankings is that the first guy was outside the top-200 (234th, specifically). The second guy was inside the top 50.
For whatever it’s worth, Trae truly took off at almost this exact time of year — in early January. Not all rookies will do the same, and some won’t do so at all, but here are some of the first-year players with the potential to break out in a big way in the second half:
I’ll start with the top-ranked rookie in the 9-category rankings (a player I also wrote about last week), because I think the hurdle between Clarke and a breakout is a relatively small one: playing time. At age 23, Clarke arrived in the league as a ready-made contributor, and a guy who is averaging 21.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, 0.8 spg, 1.4 bpg and 0.9 3s per-36 minutes — while shooting 64.4 percent from the field and 77.6 from the line. It would be insane if the Grizzlies didn’t at some point in the second half up his minutes from the current average of 21 per game, and you want Clarke on your roster when that happens.
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Staying in Memphis, where there’s once again not a lot of overthinking required. We’ve already seen an extended top-40 stretch from Morant (19.7 ppg, 7.5 apg, 1.5 spg and 1.2 3s on 48.4 percent from the field and 82.4 from the line in 13 games from Nov. 13 to Dec. 18), and he busted out from a recent funk with 23 points on Thursday — his highest total since early December. Morant still has everything in place — skill set, opportunity and off-the-charts swagger — to have a Trae Young-like impact down the stretch.
You haven’t needed to search far to find the knocks on Garland: bad shooting, not enough assists, not enough steals, too many turnovers. All of those have been fair… so far. But there are also signs that all of those weaknesses are beginning to fade. As for the assists, Garland is coming off a career-high eight of them on Thursday night (along with 14 points, five rebounds, a steal and three treys). He’s also averaging 3.9 dimes over his last 10 games, after putting up just 2.8 in his first 24 games. During that same 10-game run, he’s posting 12.6 ppg, 0.8 spg and 2.1 3s, while shooting 45.4 percent from the field (with 2.6 turnovers) in 30 minutes a game. He’s not hinting at Trae Young’s upside, but it’s beginning to look like this is the beginning of bigger things for the 19-year-old Garland, who remains rostered in only 22 percent of Yahoo leagues.
We now commence the Porter Jr. portion of the column. First, Michael. The No. 14 pick in the 2018 Draft, Porter Jr. — still a rookie — is starting to hammer his way into the Denver rotation, as he put up 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting in just 23 minutes on Thursday night. It’s still a little difficult to imagine consistency given all the options for the Nuggets, but if your league is deep enough, I’d take a bet on the talent right now and see how things go over the next few weeks. Per-36 minutes, MPJ (granted, not a lot of minutes yet) has showcased some flat-out exciting potential, with 21.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.1 bpg and 2.2 3s on 53.4 percent shooting.
Now to KPJ, the 30th overall pick in last year’s draft, who has played five games since Jordan Clarkson was dealt to Utah, putting up 12.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.4 apg, 0.6 spg and 0.6 3s, on 46.3 percent from the field and 76.9 from the line. Nothing about that stat line is exciting, and it doesn’t hint at a super-high ceiling yet, but it is quietly encouraging — in particular the solid shooting — and with as much as the 19-year-old is on the court, he’s got a chance to improve quickly in the weeks ahead. He’s also the most widely available option I’m going to talk about today, at just 6 percent rostered in Yahoo leagues.
I’ve agonized a bit over this part of the column, simply because it’s such a strange and difficult situation to forecast. On the positive side, Zion went through practice on Thursday, so that’s significant progress for a player who has been famously adjusting how he walks and runs before returning to NBA game action. And considering that he was outstanding during the preseason, there’s a part of me that just wants to keep it simple and say he’s going to be a bona fide difference-maker in fantasy once he’s back. However, with the likelihood of missed games, a team that will be extremely careful with him — and remember, bad FT shooting (64.0 in college) — I think Zion is going to be some combo of a headache and a dynamo in fantasy leagues once he is back in action.
That is some textbook hedging, I realize, but Zion is a player with just an insane range of possibilities for the months ahead. There’s certainly a scenario where he comes back and blows the roof off of box scores for three months. There’s also a universe where he gets regular games off while putting up value outside, let’s say, the top-75. Or there’s a world where he comes back, is really good for a month, and then tweaks a knee and is shut down. It certainly won’t take much for that to happen. Ultimately, if the question is “Will Zion save my fantasy season?”, I still land on the side of no. But I can at least see the glimmer of hope.
Washington has been really solid most of the year, but when we’re talking about fantasy saviors/lottery tickets, I’m not sure he has a ton of ceiling to reach back and find this year. Since his 27-point explosion in the opener, Washington has averaged 12.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 spg, 0.9 bpg and 1.3 3s in 31 games. Again, that’s really solid production for a rookie. But can Washington climb above the solid plateau? On an encouraging note, he is averaging 14.0 ppg the last month (up from 10.6 ppg in November), so far crazier things have happened than him making a push for something like 17 points with good supporting stats before the season is out.
Getting back to headaches, I’ll lay out Hunter’s point totals from December to illustrate the issue: 18, 10, 28, 6, 21, 8, 19, 5, 14, 23, 5, 6, 16. In case you hadn’t gathered, that issue is: inconsistency. Overall, for the month, he averaged 13.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.8 spg and 1.7 3s, shooting 40.7 percent from the field and 75.8 from the line. His scoring, steals and FG percentage actually all improved in December from his numbers in November (13.1 ppg, 0.5 spg, 39.3 FG), but Hunter needs to pick up his shooting in a big way in order to make a significant impact. Considering that he was a 52.0 percent shooter at Virginia last season, and keeping in mind that he’s getting a ton of on-court experience (32 minutes a game in December), I’ll still bet on the No. 4 pick having some good (and probably not great) months ahead.
% Problems: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Coby White
Here are three rookies with varying degrees of percentage problems holding them back. With Barrett, it’s a FG percentage (38.5) and FT percentage (54.8) that are so sub par, he currently sits at No. 340 on Basketball Monster’s 9-category leaderboard. I suppose it’s possible that he finds his way into the top-150 in the second half, but a whole lot has to go right.
As for Culver, he’s also been a drain in FG (36.0) and FT (41.5), but unlike Barrett, he rarely gets to the line (2.0 attempts per game so far). So if Culver can find a way to shoot better from the field — he shot 46.1 percent last year for Texas Tech — there’s a path to fantasy success for a guy averaging 1.5 spg, 1.0 bpg and 1.3 3s per-36 minutes.
Lastly, Coby White, who had been shooting better lately (52.1 percent during a four-game run in late December), followed that up by going 3-of-11 on Thursday night, dropping his FG percentage to 36.8 on the year. The reason that White remains on my radar is something that my colleague Ryan Knaus brought up recently on the podcast. Paraphrasing: If and when shutdowns hit Chicago later in the year, White may have enough volume that his low FG percentage is something we’re all willing to live with.
Other Rookies Worth Noting: Sekou Doumbouya was not expected to play much for Detroit this year, but he has to at least be on our radar after a 10-point, 11-rebound performance on Thursday. Blake Griffin’s knee could change the fantasy landscape in Detroit (and more on that in a minute). … Rui Hachimura is currently injured, and was facing an uphill climb to hit mid-round fantasy value due to a shortage in steals, blocks and 3s. … New Orleans is playing better, and Derrick Favors is playing a big role, which is bad news for Jaxson Hayes for now. … Cam Reddish is still playing plenty, but has only attempted 7.0 shots per game since John Collins returned. … Tyler Herro has posted 12.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 0.4 spg and 2.6 3s in his last five games, but has yet to show he’s more than a good points and 3s guy. … Like Herro, Kendrick Nunn is solid, but may be on too good and too deep a team to get a shot to consistently go off. His last 10 games, Nunn has posted a steady 14.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 0.7 spg and 2.0 3s. … Per-36 minutes, Daniel Gafford is posting 14.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 3.9 bpg. If an injury hits Wendell Carter Jr., watch out.
Non-Rookie Lottery Tickets to Consider: Christian Wood is becoming a prime stash candidate given the situation with Griffin’s knee. His per-36 numbers: 21.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 0.6 spg, 1.6 bpg and 1.3 3s. … Steven Adams continues to appear in trade rumors, which makes Nerlens Noel a monster in waiting. Noel per-36 has churned out a phenomenal 2.1 spg and 2.9 bpg. … De’Anthony Melton is 7 percent rostered in Yahoo leagues, and continues to make his case for more playing time. He had 16 points in 21 minutes on Thursday, and has averaged 16.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 6.3 apg, 2.9 spg and 1.2 3s per-36 minutes this year (numbers bolded for emphasis). Memphis! Give that man 30 minutes. The world needs more Melton, and we demand it now.