In years past, if I was writing this column on Jan. 1, I’d likely put together a forward-thinking platter of fantasy hoops predictions/wishes for the year ahead.
However, since we have completed exactly 10 days of the new season, I still find myself trying to get my bearings — what can we believe? What should we doubt? Is my squad for real, or was all of this a horrible mistake? — and I imagine many of you feel the same way.
With that in mind, here are five early-season takeaways from what we’ve seen on the court so far, with an attempt to make sense of what it all might mean:
1. Lu Dort, legit fantasy option, has arrived. (I think.)
Is this the most important fantasy takeaway we’ll cover in this column? Definitely not. But since this is the one recent waiver wire addition I’m discussing, I figured we might as well put it at the top. Now, let’s rewind:
The 2020 NBA Playoffs. Dort, who was a two-way player for OKC last season, was starting and playing significant minutes in the opening round against the Rockets, but he couldn’t shoot. In Game 2 through Game 5 (he didn’t play Game 1 due to a knee sprain), the defensive standout averaged just 8.0 ppg on 26.1 percent from the field, including 15.6 percent (5-for-32) on 3s.
Then, Dort started to piece it together. Next game out (an OKC win), he scored 13 on 5-of-9 shooting. And in Game 7, the rookie busted out: 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting with six 3s as the Thunder lost by two (and it was Dort with the ball in his hands in the closing seconds, attempting a game-winning trey, which got blocked by James Harden).
Fast forward a few months later, and Dort has picked it back up somewhat seamlessly, scoring 15, 26, 15 and eight points in the Thunder’s first four games for an average of 16.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.0 spg and 2.8 3s, shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 47.8 percent on 3s.
If you’re thinking those percentages seem unsustainable, I absolutely agree with you. And we do have some potential issues on the horizon when it comes to the blueprint for Dort’s success. As Ryan Knaus mentioned on the latest podcast (also embedded at the bottom of this page), teams are likely going to adjust and start closing out aggressively on Dort’s jumper, and he hasn’t been very effective driving to the hoop. I saw that very thing transpire at least a couple of times during OKC’s blowout loss on Thursday night, where Dort put it on the floor, really had nowhere to go and threw up a wild shot or turned it over.
So yeah, there are reasons to be concerned that his current 16.0 ppg may be a high-water mark by a long shot. (Ryan and I made a bet on the podcast on Dort over/under 14.5 ppg this season — I’ve got the over — and I feel somewhat certain I’m going to be buying Ryan a shirsey of his choosing at the end of the year.)
With all of that said, there’s still some intrigue here. We knew that Oklahoma City was going to have a lot of opportunity for young players this season — it’s why we were so high on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley — and clearly that same opening is here for Dort, who’s got a chance to be a solid-if-not-spectacular contributor in points, steals and 3s. The 21-year-old is already 52 percent rostered, so it’s possible you’ve missed the chance, but if you added him already, I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s time to buy in.
2. Finally, we got the Full Jokic from the start.
Let’s start this one by reviewing how Nikola Jokic has started (and finished) the season the last couple of years:
First 25 games — 16.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 7.6 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.8 bpg, 1.0 3s (46.7 FG)
Next 55 games — 21.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 7.1 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.7 bpg, 1.0 3s (52.7 FG)
First 19 games — 14.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.5 bpg, 0.8 3s (45.1 FG)
Next 54 games — 21.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 7.3 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.6 bpg, 1.2 3s (55.1 FG)
Playoffs (19 gms) — 24.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.8 bpg, 2.2 3s (51.9 FG)
If you look at nothing else there, just look at the points. As you can see, Jokic has started the season notably more slowly than he’s finished it the last couple of years, leading us to wonder why the Nuggets’ centerpiece was having trouble scoring.
No such issue this year. Jokic came into this season on a monster heater, putting up 24.5 ppg, 11.8 rpg and 13.5 apg (currently leading the league), along with 1.5 spg, 0.8 bpg and 1.0 3s on 62.5 percent shooting. (He has also added an irritating new wrinkle with 6.0 turnovers a game, but that’s mostly because of an outlier 10-turnover extravaganza on Tuesday evening.)
As Ryan also mentioned on the podcast, Jokic is leading the NBA in touches per game with 113.0, nearly 10 ahead of Domantas Sabonis and almost 13 ahead of the third player on the list, Russell Westbrook.
Bottom line: Jokic was always one of the safest, highest-floor picks this year because of his track record and durability. At age 25, with an absurd amount of opportunity every night, he’s finally reaching for his fantasy ceiling.
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3. I didn’t draft John Collins too early; you did.
I’m not sure exactly what that means, but here’s the point: The Hawks got a lot deeper, as we all know, and some people were clearly concerned about the fallout for Collins, who had an ADP right around 25 on Yahoo despite the fact that he was a top-10 fantasy player on a per-game basis last year (21.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 0.8 spg, 1.6 bpg and 1.4 3s).
Partially because I’m a maniacal Hawks fan, I didn’t share those same concerns. I thought the talent of Collins would inevitably rise above the environment, and even if he didn’t quite hit last year’s numbers, the combo of stats would still be pretty thrilling.
Through the first three games, that didn’t look good. A foul-plagued Collins (four, four and five personals) was putting up just 14.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 1.7 bpg, while playing just 24 minutes a game — and the Hawks were off to a 3-0 start.
There was a stretch though late in that third game against Detroit where Collins seemed to come to life. He scored six points in the span of about one minute in the fourth quarter, finishing with 10 points in that quarter overall, and looked like a guy well on his way to a huge game if it hadn’t come together so late.
On Wednesday, we saw that spark turn into a Collins breakout: The 23-year-old dropped a 30 and 10 line on the Nets with two 3s and a steal in just 31 minutes.
That last number has some significance, because it reminds us that the ridiculously efficient Collins doesn’t need tons of minutes to still make his impact on a deep team. Last year, per Basketball Reference, Collins became the first player ever to shoot better than 58.0 percent from the field, 80.0 from the line and 40.0 on 3s while also scoring double-digit points. (Nikola Jokic, incidentally, has cleared the same high bar through his first four games this season.)
Bottom line: Even with three of his first four games not up to his standards, Collins (18.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 0.8 3s) is still the No. 31 player on BasketballMonster.com’s 9-category leaderboard. I’ll be surprised if he’s not surging toward the top 15 in the near future.
4. James Wiseman is more exciting than advertised.
By virtue of the fact that he only played three games in college at Memphis (19.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.0 bpg), Wiseman was awash with intrigue — and question marks — heading into this season. And I’ll admit, as much as I liked his potential, I expected he’d be more of a rim-runner/putback kind of guy on offense this year — especially since he only attempted one triple in his three college games, and his college highlight reel isn't exactly a barrage of jumpers.
There’s his outside shot, which is borderline silky (the lefty has made 5-of-8 from downtown so far).
And, best of all for the purposes of this column, there may still be a chance to get this young dynamo on your fantasy squad without giving up an insane amount in return. After scoring 19 and 18 points in his first two games, Wiseman heads into the weekend coming off a couple of foul-plagued outings where he put up just 6.5 ppg and 4.5 rpg (with 1.5 bpg and 0.5 3s).
Overall, the 19-year-old has averaged 12.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg 0.8 spg, 1.5 bpg and 1.3 3s through his first four NBA games, and there’s upside for a lot more if he figures out how to avoid foul trouble.
5. Is it panic time on Deandre Ayton?
I didn’t get him in nearly as many leagues as I would have liked, but I did land Ayton in the 30-team fantasy draft, and I was definitely high on his potential coming into this season. After all, this was a guy who had a two-month run from January to March where he put up 20.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 0.8 spg and 1.8 bpg in 24 games.
Five games into the new season, we are not seeing anything close to that guy. After scoring just four points on 2-of-8 shooting on Thursday, Ayton has yet to top 13 in a single game this year, with five-game averages of 10.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 0.4 spg and 1.2 bpg. His minutes (27.6) are down nearly five per game from last year, and his shot attempts are down by almost six — from 14.9 to 8.8. As noted in our most recent blurb on Rotoworld, Ayton’s usage rate is a career-low 17.4.
Maybe more alarming for fantasy managers is the fact that the formula is working: Phoenix is 4-1.
So what’s going on? I went searching for some perspective and found this from SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun: “Ayton is now a trusted anchor in the middle of the Suns top-ranked defense, but appears to have even less of a clue how to score outside of layups and dunks from under the basket.”
So, Ayton is significantly better than he used to be on defense, but he is (as we’d gathered) lost on offense, and the post referenced above also discusses how he’s not yet in sync with new point guard Chris Paul. That notion leaves room for some improvement if and when CP3 and Ayton get on the same page.
What do we do in the meantime? Ultimately, in leagues where I drafted Ayton, I’d be adjusting expectations if I hadn’t done so already. That 20 and 11 we were hoping for is probably not walking into the arena. However, this is way too talented a player to hover around 10.0 ppg (his current average) all season. I’m still turning away Ayton trade offers unless they take into account that the big man is going to improve quite a bit, and I’m absolutely trading for him if I sense that others are panicking.
Also, we’re 10 days in. Try not to panic.
See you here next week, and every Friday throughout the season. And for more on some of the topics above, and other early-season takeaways, check out our latest podcast below...