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Roundball Stew

Stew: Believe In VanVleet

by Matt Stroup
Updated On: January 9, 2021, 12:03 pm ET

Around this time of year, I like to take a spin through the fantasy rankings and ask myself one of two main questions when it comes to the players I chose for my squads:

1. Why did I do that?
2. Why didn’t I do that?

Basically, no matter how well you drafted, at this point of the season it’s almost impossible not to have some regret — one player you missed out on, two players you missed out on, eight players you should not have drafted. So let’s wallow in it!

Here now is a look at some of the most surprising early developments on the fantasy leaderboard. The primary focus here, as always, is 9-category leagues, so you can follow along if you choose at BasketballMonster.com.

Here we go:

Malcolm Brogdon: No. 5 overall

Key Stats: 23.6 ppg / 7.0 apg / 2.0 spg / 3.1 3s

This would fall under the category of why didn’t I do that — sort of. As good as Brogdon has been, my concerns about him coming into this season were twofold:

1) We’ve seen him do this before. In fact, it was last year. Brogdon was fantastic early on last season, putting up 19.5 ppg, 7.7 apg, 1.0 spg and 1.5 3s over his first 22 games. The rest of the way (32 games), he dropped to 14.5 ppg, 6.6 apg, 0.4 spg and 1.3 3s, with injuries slowing things down quite a bit (he missed a total of 19 games on the season).

2) My other concern with Brogdon is that I like fantasy point guards (and players in general) to get steals — at least something close to 1.0 per game — and Brogdon averaged a career-low 0.6 spg last season, down from 0.7 the year before. At that number, you’re starting from a spot where you need to play catch-up in that category.

With all of that said, clearly if you drafted Brogdon (Yahoo ADP: 58.2), you ended up with a phenomenal value. I would just be really surprised if we check back a couple months from now and see that these numbers — in particular 23.6 ppg, 2.0 spg and 3.1 3s — were anything other than a pretty extreme high-water mark.

CJ McCollum: No. 6 overall

Key Stats: 26.8 ppg / 5.3 apg / 1.6 spg / 4.8 3s

Another key stat here is 11.0 — that’s how many 3s McCollum is attempting per game. That number has steadily risen in recent years, from 5.9 to 6.4 to 7.3, as have his makes (2.3 —> 2.4 —> 2.8 —> 4.8), so there’s a clear progression to follow, and he has taken it to another level this season, more or less confirming that this is by design.

I know I didn’t get McCollum in any drafts because the pick seemed almost too “safe”, but some of these stats are dangerous in the best way possible. And even if he loses some steam in steals (he’s at 1.6 right now, double his average of 0.8 from last year), there’s plenty of reason to believe that McCollum, at worst, can stay in or around the top 25.

Fred VanVleet: No. 17 overall

Key Stats: 20.6 ppg / 5.3 rpg / 5.7 apg / 1.6 spg / 0.7 bpg / 3.6 3s

Favorite draft pick I made in most of my leagues? That would be FVV, who was the 25th overall player in 9-category leagues last season, and for unknown reasons went 38.7th overall on average in Yahoo leagues despite being a 26-year-old with a fat new contract and pretty much the exact same setup as last year.

What was not to like here? VanVleet, like McCollum, is launching more 3s than ever before (9.1 per game, up from 6.9), and shooting it at almost the exact same clip (39.1 this year, versus 39.0 last year). Add in a career-best 44.1 percent from the field with just 1.3 turnovers per game, and you’ve got a 9-category gem brewing.

Before this year, the last player to average 5.5 apg or better and 1.5 turnovers or less (per Basketball Reference) was Mike Conley, in 2015-16. Before that, it was Jose Calderon in 2009-10. Before that, it was Damon Jones (2003-04), preceded by Terrell Brandon in 2001-02, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Bottom line: VanVleet has been fantastic, and I’m very much a believer in his ability to stay at or inside the top 20 of fantasy leagues all season.

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Devin Booker: 136th overall

Key Stats: 21.5 ppg / 4.6 apg / 0.9 spg / 2.0 3s

I didn’t understand Booker’s ADP (12.1) from the start. Yes, he’s a tremendous real-life player and a very good fantasy option, but top 12? Let’s look at this more closely.

The last three seasons, while averaging 24.9 ppg, 26.6 ppg and 26.6 ppg (yes, the exact same number the last two years), Booker finished 48th, 42nd and 29th in 9-category leagues.

Did we blow his performance in the NBA Bubble (30.5 ppg and No. 9 overall for a two-week, eight-game bonanza) out of proportion? It seems that may be the case, because otherwise I’m not sure what ladder Booker can climb to get to top-12 overall. Consider his trajectory in some of the main categories:

*Points (I already mentioned this one): 24.9 —> 26.6 —> 26.6 —> 21.5 (this year)
*3s made: 2.7 —> 2.1 —> 2.0 —> 2.0
*3s attempted: 7.1 —> 6.5 —> 5.7 —> 5.8
*Assists: 4.7 —> 6.8 —> 6.7 —> 4.6
*Steals: 0.9 —> 0.9 —> 0.7 —> 0.9

I know Booker is only 24 years old and could easily get ridiculously hot in terms of scoring at any moment, but that may be the key phrase: in terms of scoring. Because when you look at his stat line, where else are we going to see the improvement? He’s hit a plateau in steals, and it’s a low one at that — he has never averaged even 1.0 per game in his career. He’s shooting less 3s now than he was two years ago, or the year before that, and his makes have been almost identical the last three seasons.

You get the point. Short of Booker scoring a lot more (close to 30 ppg), getting his assists up to around 6.0 (his number in the bubble), and doing all of that while cutting his turnovers a ton (he’s currently at 4.8 per game), I just don’t see how he hits the value you expected in 9-category leagues.

Will it get better than this? Absolutely. Is there any reason to think this guy can’t eventually make a run back toward the top 25-30? No. Do I like Booker as a player in real-life? Certainly. Is this whole thing less of a thing if you’re punting turnovers? Without question.

I will now stop asking and answering my own questions, because I think we’ve all gotten the point. Things will almost definitely improve, probably by a lot, but still perhaps not to the level some of us originally envisioned.

Collin Sexton: 37th overall

Key Stats: 25.1 ppg / 3.5 apg / 1.4 spg / 2.0 3s / 53.1 FG

Smashing his ADP (81.0) while occupying zero of my fantasy rosters, Sexton has come a long way from being a very limited fantasy option his rookie year.

As a 20-year-old in 2018-19, the No. 8 overall pick averaged 16.7 ppg, but added just 3.0 apg, 0.5 spg and 1.5 3s, shooting 43.0 percent from the field. Despite the points and 3s, those numbers left him as a really shaky starting option in 9-category leagues: He ranked 240th overall, two spots behind Dennis Smith Jr.

We can argue whether 240th seems a little low for a guy who averaged 16.7 ppg and 1.5 3s, but the point is that Sexton’s stat line didn’t leave a lot of cause for excitement about his fantasy prospects in the near future.

Then last year happened. Sexton shot better from the field (47.2 percent) while upping his scoring to 20.8 and doubling his steals, to 1.0 per game. And in year three, we’re seeing it all come together for the 22-year-old, who is probably unsustainably hot from the field (53.1) and from 3-point range (51.6), but has room to cool off a bit and still remain a really strong fantasy option overall. Something in the top-50 range seems very believable to me, and the fact that his turnovers are the lowest they’ve been (2.1 per game) doesn’t hurt either.

(Note: Sexton was a late scratch on Thursday night with an ankle injury. The Cavs play at Milwaukee on Saturday.)

Julius Randle: 52nd overall

Key Stats: 23.1 ppg / 12.0 rpg / 7.4 apg / 4.9 TOs / 77.8 FT

I’ll be honest — I had no interest in drafting Randle at or near his ADP (75.8) for a few simple reasons: He got some points (19.5) and some rebounds (9.7) and some assists (3.1), but contributed almost nothing in defensive stats (0.8 spg / 0.3 bpg) while missing too many free throws (73.3 percent) and turning it over too much (3.0 per game). Add all of that up, and you had the 140th overall player in 9-category formats, a definite fantasy starter, but not someone I wanted on my roster with anything close to a 6th-round pick.

Cut to: now. Randle’s turnovers have spiraled in the wrong direction, but he has improved his free throw shooting while pouring a bunch of gasoline on his counting stats: 23.1 ppg, 12.0 rpg and 7.4 apg — more than double his average dimes last year.

So, can he keep this going? Say hello to Tom Thibodeau. Randle leads the league at 38.6 minutes per game and the Knicks are 5-3, so I’d say this is the formula for the foreseeable future. I’ll remain skeptical on the realism of Randle churning out 7.4 dimes per game when he’s never averaged better than 3.6 — that’s a crazy leap for anyone, not to mention a power forward — but it’s clear that his assists in general are not going away, nor is his top 50-70-ish value overall.

For more on some early-season trends — including turbulent starts for Trae Young and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — check out my conversation with Ryan Knaus on the latest podcast, below: