Playing out your fantasy hoops league all the way through these final days of the season is a bit like walking around town in a superhero costume when it’s not Halloween — I’m not really sure why you’d want to do it, but I won’t begrudge you your right to do so.
With that in mind, I’ll have a few last-minute waiver recommendations toward the end of this column. But in the meantime, for those of us who are already beginning to think about next season, here are a few players I’m expecting to break out forcefully in 2016-17:
Devin Booker, SG, PHX: Merriam-Webster defines swagger as “a way of walking or behaving that shows you have a lot of confidence”. Based on what I’ve seen from Devin Booker this season, the rookie has it in bushels. The 19-year-old (repeat: 19) has six 30-point games this season, including his latest, a 34-point outburst against the Hawks, when it was wildly apparent watching him fire up 25 shots that he didn’t have a shred of conscience — and his teammates seemed to prefer it that way.
More importantly, because of his limited role early in the season, Booker’s season stats are still relatively modest: 13.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.6 apg, 0.6 spg and 1.3 3s on 42.3 percent from the field. Don’t be fooled by that number when evaluating his potential for next year. The key number to consider is this — Booker since the start of January (right around the time he took over as a full-time starter): 18.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 0.7 spg and 1.7 3s on 41.1 percent from the field in 44 games.
Or this: Since early March (19 games), Booker is at 22.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.8 apg, 0.7 spg and 1.7 3s, shooting 42.3 percent from the field while hoisting it up nearly 19 times per game.
Is he turning it over a lot (3.6) while also shooting poorly? Yes. But we have to remember, above all else, that Booker is 19. Nineteen, and he already fires away fearlessly. As he continues to figure things out, there is easily top-25 upside here — possibly as soon as next season.
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Jusuf Nurkic, C, DEN: This name came up in our Rotoworld roundtable discussion on next year’s bounce-back players, but I wanted to say a few more words about Nurkic here. He let me down in multiple leagues this year — most notably in 30-Deep, where I gambled on his upside when I could have gone the safer route with a Zaza Pachulia — but my faith in said upside remains unscathed. Nurkic is still just 21 years old, and in games where he got just 20-plus minutes (six total), he posted 14.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 0.7 spg, 2.2 bpg and 2.8 apg. Again, those are his stats when he got just 20 minutes or more. Another year removed from the knee trouble that derailed this season, Nurkic could be a straight-up monster.
Willie Cauley-Stein, PF/C, SAC: I don’t feel as strongly about Cauley-Stein’s upside as I do about Booker's or Nurkic's, but there’s still plenty to be excited about here nonetheless. The 22-year-old has had a rookie year marked (not shockingly) by spurts of productivity followed by maddening droughts. But at the end of it all, he’s closing on an intriguing note. Over his last eight games, the No. 6 overall pick has posted 13.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 spg and 1.3 bpg, including the first two 20-plus-point games of his career during that stretch.
A couple other random breakout options on my radar…
Elfrid Payton, PG, ORL: Between a lack of 3s and a lot of inconsistency (the latter partially the fault of his coach), Payton was pretty maddening this season. But he’s still just 22 years old, and could start creeping closer to one trey per game next season (he has shot 34.1 percent from behind the arc this year, up from 26.2 as a rookie). He’s also closing out his second season on a pretty solid run: 12.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 8.8 apg and 0.8 spg on 48.9 percent from the field in his last eight games. I certainly won’t be going out of my way to draft Payton next season, but I won’t hesitate to make the move if other owners are uncertain.
1) Kent Bazemore could very well leave ATL as a free agent at the end of the season;
2) When getting just 20 or more minutes (15 games), Hardaway Jr.’s numbers look like this: 11.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.7 spg and 1.8 3s. Again, that’s in just 20-plus minutes per game. He probably won’t be much of an asset in rebounds or assists, but the 24-year-old is a name to remember as a quiet breakout candidate, and potentially a strong contributor in points and 3s next year.
Other Random Thoughts — aka Random Players Who Can Help Last Minute: Carl Landry (10 percent owned in Yahoo leagues) has posted 16.1 ppg and 6.4 rpg in his last nine games. He’s getting no defensive stats (0.3 spg, 0.2 bpg), but has hit two treys in back-to-back games, and is shooting 60.8 percent from the floor during his hot streak. … Seth Curry (13 percent owned, so a lot of you probably know already) is averaging 14.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 0.8 spg and 2.4 3s in his last eight games (on 50.6 percent from the field). … Vince Carter (2 percent owned), who is legitimately almost 20 years older than the aforementioned Devin Booker, has posted 12.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 0.8 spg and 1.6 3s in his last five games. … Moe Harkless (14 percent owned) has hurled himself onto the radar as a late-season pickup, and as a player to watch heading into next year’s drafts (last nine games: 13.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.2 spg, 0.9 bpg and 0.8 3s). However, on a less happy note, Portland plays just one game to close out the season next week.