As I write this, it is nearly April, which means that if you’re not still alive in your fantasy league, desperately scraping for every stat you can unearth, chances are you’re probably bitter.
I know I am. In the 30-Deep league, I had the best record in the regular season (out of 30 teams), then lost Kevin Durant. In my hometown league, I had the best record in the regular season, but gradually lost DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler and then — as one last slap across the face — Stephen Curry. In a deep 12-team league that I joined with Mike Gallagher, I had the second-best record in the regular season, and lost Butler as well.
I’m sure many of you have similar (possibly even worse) stories of woe — though if you lost a more significant combo than Boogie/Butler/Curry, I’ll really be impressed.
But we’re not here to complain. Instead, as we wind down and start to look ahead to next season, I want to make sure we don’t forget some of the success stories of March (and soon to be April), and what it might mean for all of us heading into next year.
Has Trey Burke finally figured things out? There are a lot of ways to rationalize or write off what Trey Burke did against the Hornets on Monday night, but when a player drops 42 and 12 in a nationally sanctioned basketball contest, we have no choice but to stop and take notice. And this game — as impressive as it was — wasn’t Burke’s only notable line of this late season. In fact, over the Knicks’ last 10 games, he has posted 17.5 ppg, 4.8 apg, 0.9 spg and 1.6 3s.
So what does it mean? I think it’s easy to say that these are meaningless late-season numbers compiled for a bad team, and he’ll go right back to irrelevance next year. But that outlook, I think, overlooks one key factor: namely, that Burke has always had the track record to eventually thrive in the NBA. He was a phenomenal college player (led his team to the national title game, named AP Player of the Year), then was a top-10 NBA draft pick (No. 9 overall) that same year. But when he first got to the NBA, Burke struggled. Specifically, he struggled with accuracy. So his solid counting stats his first two seasons in the league (12.8 ppg, 5.0 apg and 1.6 3s combined) were weighed down by this ghastly number: 37.4 percent. And over the next couple of years, his role gradually diminished, to the point that he was no longer a starter.
But while transitioning to a backup role for the Jazz and then the Wizards, something quietly significant happened with Burke’s stats: his FG percentage improved. In 2015-16, it went up to 41.3. Last year in Washington, it rose to 45.5 (and 44.3 percent on 3s). Granted, that all took place with very limited attempts, making it pretty easy to overlook. But apparently, it meant something, because this season, in 30 games for the Knicks (three starts), Trey Burke has broken out a FG percentage that’s hard to believe: 52.3 percent (on 10.1 attempts per game). And so far, it has not just withstood increased volume, but improved in the midst of it. Over this 10-game run, his FG percentage is 55.6 percent — on 13.3 attempts a game.
Could it still all be a fluke? Sure. But I’m more inclined to believe that a celebrated college player and former top-10 draft pick is finally starting to figure things out in the NBA at age 25. And with that in mind, Burke will very much be on my radar for fantasy leagues heading into next season — even if the situation doesn’t look ideal at the start of the year. Ultimately, his considerable talent may finally be winning out.
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What should we make of the Markelle Fultz saga? When the Knicks and Sixers met on Wednesday night, the game was thick with redemptive subplots. And as compelling as Burke’s run has been, it’s tough to remember a stranger (and more fascinating) saga in recent years than that of Markelle Fultz. You know the story by now: The No. 1 overall pick either lost his shooting stroke because of a lingering shoulder injury, or because he developed a mental block of some kind — in the vein of a baseball player suddenly losing his ability to throw. Or some combo of both.
Fultz has now been back for two games (after a 68-game absence), and here’s what I’ve noticed so far:
1) Despite the long layoff, his all-around game remains very much intact. Through two games, Fultz is averaging 6.5 ppg, 4.5 apg and 7.5 apg (in just 14 minutes a game), at times looking pretty dynamic in the process.
2) As for the broken jumper, well — it may still be broken. Fultz hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer in his 28 minutes, but has knocked down a handful of mid-range J’s. Meanwhile, his free throw stroke looks anything but smooth (and he’s 1-for-2 in that department).
3) Regardless, there’s still plenty to be excited about. Fultz plays with a lot of swagger, clearly loves to pass and is just a unique, exciting player — even without a long-range jumper right now. If/when he gets his 3-point stroke back (something that certainly could happen this offseason), watch out.
Some other players making late-season noise that we should make sure not to overlook:
Taurean Prince — The Hawks’ season has been thoroughly depressing, but one positive development has been the late-season emergence of Prince as a bona fide (fantasy) force. Over his last nine games, Prince has posted 23.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.7 bpg and 3.6 3s. And if you want to expand the window to the start of February, the numbers still look pretty strong: 17.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.5 bpg and 2.8 3s in 24 games. Taking everything into consideration — specifically, that the Hawks should still stink, and have Prince in a featured role — it’s easy to envision a leap into the 18 ppg range in 2018-19.
Buddy Hield — Since the start of February (his last 26 games), Hield has put up 15.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.5 bpg and 2.5 3s. And since mid-March, he’s been even better — 20.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.4 spg and 3.3 3s (on 52.1 percent from the field) in eight games. The Kings have been a mess for a while now, but with Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Aaron Fox — another player I’ll be targeting in drafts next season — there is at least something we can start to be excited about.
Josh Jackson — I’m guessing this one is less likely to fly under the radar heading into next year’s drafts, so let’s just leave it at this: Over his last 25 games, Jackson has averaged 17.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.7 bpg and 0.8 3s. At this point, my only real concern is free throw percentage (62.3 percent on the season).
Denzel Valentine — Yes, the Bulls are bad, and injured, which is part of the reason Valentine is getting so many chances. But they’ll also probably struggle again next season, and Valentine (last eight games: 15.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.6 spg, 3.1 3s) remains a key part of their young core. Even with Zach LaVine back at full strength, I still expect Valentine to play a prominent role, so don’t forget about him toward the end of your drafts.
Nerlens Noel — Noel had a dud of a game on Wednesday night (five points, six boards and a steal in 20 minutes). Nevertheless, in 10 games since his return, he has put up 7.6 rpg, 2.0 spg and 1.0 bpg (with 5.5 ppg) in just 20 minutes a game. And even with that Wednesday night stinker, he’s at 6.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.0 spg and 1.5 bpg in his last four. It all depends on where he lands next season, but the soon-to-be 24-year-old has the potential to return to big-time fantasy relevance in 2018-19.
Kelly Oubre — The numbers haven’t been as flashy as the other names on the list, but we have still been seeing some peak Oubre lately. For the last month-plus (15 games), he has averaged 13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.3 spg, 0.7 bpg and 1.5 3s (40.1 FG / 80.4 FT). And don't forget, Oubre has made a climb from 3.7 ppg as a rookie, to 6.3 in his second season to 12.0 this year. He could easily be in line for another significant leap in year four.
Brook Lopez — Your favorite non-rebounding big man is making a big push toward free agency, putting up 19.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.7 apg, 0.7 spg, 1.9 bpg and 1.8 3s over his last 12 games. His season stats will not end up looking stout (something around 13 points and four boards), but that could make Lopez a fantastic discount option heading into next season.