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Roundball Stew

Stew: The Victory Lap

by Matt Stroup
Updated On: February 15, 2019, 11:35 am ET


When it comes to taking a victory lap, there are I believe two important unwritten rules to follow:

1. Make sure you stay in or at least on your vehicle;

2. Don’t celebrate until after the race is definitely over.

It’s that second one I want to underscore as we embark on this edition of Roundball Stew. Because make no mistake — we are celebrating here. Exactly what we will be celebrating as we hit the All-Star break are the fantasy options we patiently waited on all season, only to have them hit paydirt just in time for the stretch run. But we’ll be raising a glass with the requisite awareness that the race is very far from over. So we’re being humble and polite and all that and making sure not to anger the fantasy gods, who clearly do not like it when we fly too close to the sun.

Here are eight players who are paying off big-time if you stashed, waited and believed…

(…or if you were just unable to deal them away — it still counts)

Lauri Markkanen: The ultimate example of not putting too much weight on early season injuries on draft day. Seriously, draft the studs who won’t be available on opening night. More often than not, I’m inclined to think it pays off. Over his last 15 games, Markkanen — who missed the first 23 games of the season — has averaged 21.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 0.5 spg, 0.6 bpg and 2.9 3s — hitting 44.5 percent from the field, 91.2 percent from the line and turning it over just 1.5 times a game. His 9-category ranking during that month-long run: No. 25 overall. Yes, some more defensive stats would be nice, but instead how about I offer you more points and rebounds? Over his last six games, Markkanen has put up 25.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 2.5 3s, with three games of 30-plus points. The jury is still out on Jim Boylen’s ability to get the most out of his players, but his system is absolutely working for Markkanen right now. The only downside here is that the Bulls schedule stinks for the fantasy playoffs — with three games a week from Weeks 22-25. As well as Markkanen is playing, I don’t think it really matters.

Otto Porter: We’ll stop over in Chicago for one more paragraph, as Porter has gone from one of the biggest sources of early-season irritation to looking like his absolute best self for Boylen’s Bulls. Fresh off a career-high 37 points on Wednesday, Porter since the trade has put up 22.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.5 bpg and 2.8 3s, shooting 62.1 percent from the field in 35 minutes a game (through four games). The aforementioned schedule aside, there’s tremendous cause for celebration if you waited patiently on the 25-year-old.

Jonathan Isaac: You know about this one by now, but it bears repeating because Isaac may be the 2018-19 season’s ultimate shining example of patience paying off. To review: Through the first three months of the season, Isaac put up 7.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.7 spg, 1.1 bpg and 0.8 3s — on 40.5 percent from the field in 38 games (and he missed six in November due to injury). Now, over the last month (15 games), the 21-year-old has jumped to 12.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.1 spg, 2.1 bpg and 1.2 3s, shooting 45.7 percent from the floor and 92.6 from the line. Even more good news: He’s still on the ascent. Consider this:

Isaac’s last eight games: 14.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.1 spg, 2.6 bpg, 1.6 3s

Isaac’s last four games: 17.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.8 spg, 2.8 bpg, 2.5 3s

Wow. I guess I’m compelled to say here that the Orlando schedule is not ideal (3-2-4 from Weeks 22-24), but again, as well as Isaac is playing, I’ll take my chances on upside prevailing over a few less games.

Collin Sexton: Here’s one that might be happening right before our eyes. Again — might. Because let’s be clear: For most of this season, Sexton has actually been a pretty bad fantasy option. Through his first 53 games — until about a week and a half ago — he was the No. 309 player in 9-category leagues, behind averages of 14.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, 0.5 spg, 0.1 bpg and 0.9 3s, on 40.4 percent from the field. Turns out that bad shooting, low assists and almost no steals from a point guard is a bad combo.

However, the last five games, there are signs that Sexton has leveled up. His averages over those last five: 22.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 0.6 spg and 2.6 3s on 44.4 percent from the field. Will it last? I really don’t know. And I don’t want to be so naive as to think that he has definitely figured it out, especially since Sexton has had a couple other stretches like this of five or six games where he was shooting better and averaging 20-plus points per game. So maybe this is just a blip. But if it’s not — and if it has finally clicked into place — Sexton is set up to be a strong source of points and 3s with a handful of assists when it matters most. And the Cavs have a 4-4-3 schedule from Weeks 22-24.

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Cedi Osman: He finally started to take off in late January, then missed four games with an ankle injury. He returned just before the break, putting up a 13-5-3 line in 25 minutes, and has now averaged 20.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.2 spg and 2.8 3s over his last six games. For the same reasons I’m intrigued by Sexton — opportunity, upside and schedule — I think Osman is set up for a big finish.

Gordon Hayward: I’ll celebrate cautiously here, because the Celtics are annoyingly deep, Hayward’s season has been a series of pump-fakes and he’s benefited lately from Kyrie Irving (knee) being sidelined. Still though, it’s hard not to be at least a little bit encouraged by Hayward’s recent success: 17.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.8 apg, 0.8 spg and 1.8 3s (on 61.2 percent shooting) over his last five games. On the downside, Kyrie missed three of those games, and part of a fourth. And I’m talking myself out of this one more and more as I go. Let’s move on to a more optimistic situation…

Mitchell Robinson: That’s better. All season long we’ve been talking about Mitchell Rob as a guy who could put the pieces together in a serious way just in time for the stretch run. Now it’s happening, and my only regret is I somehow didn’t end up with him in any of my main leagues. For those who did, rejoice. Robinson has two or more blocks in 12 of his last 13 games, and three or more blocks eight times during that same span. His averages for those 13 games: 9.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.8 spg and 2.8 bpg. The only player to average more blocks than him over that timeframe? No one. Plus, it looks like his offense is clicking into place as well. With double-digit points in five of his last six, Robinson is averaging 11.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 0.7 spg and 3.0 bpg over that stretch. And if you’re worried about DeAndre Jordan being the starter — don’t be. Robinson, a per-minute monster, has done all that damage in just 22 minutes a game.

Chris Paul: I originally had the eighth and final spot reserved for Mikal Bridges, but I’ve talked about him enough for one lifetime this year, and it occurred to me just before the buzzer that CP3’s rise deserves some words. Now fully up to speed after missing more than a month with his latest hammy issue, Paul hit the break putting up some (mostly) vintage stats: 16.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 8.6 apg, 2.4 spg and 2.4 3s over his last five games. The only downside (aside from the fact that we’re all constantly terrified that he’ll yank a hamstring with his next sudden move) is the fact that he shot just 38.3 percent from the floor over that same five-game run. That’s been part of a season-long trend for the 33-year-old, who’s shooting a career-low 41.9 percent this year. So we may just have to accept that as reality. And while I will not be drafting CP3 next year for his age-34 season in any of my leagues, I’d be more than willing to gamble on him for a big finale this year. So yeah, I’d trade for him. And if I have him on any of my rosters, I’ll double down like I’m not even scared of those hamstrings at all.

The truth is though, I am scared. I’m terrified. But all of this celebrating of success stories has gotten me a bit drunk on arrogance. So weigh my advice on this last one accordingly.

Matt Stroup

Matt Stroup has covered basketball for NBC Sports Edge since 2008. You can find him on Twitter here .