August 23, 2019, 4:04 am
The sophomore year is a big time of growth for all. We’re no longer the losers who are just happy to be included as grown-ups. We’re no longer the idiots that have to take three different buses to get to and from a Walmart with an oversized box fan and two pallets of Gatorade (This may or may not be anecdotal.).
Just like we pretended like we grew up in school, the kids of the NBA are growing up right before our eyes. These second-year players have gone through the trials and tribulations of a basketball season against players who run like gazelles, leap like leopards, and would generally embarrass 99.9% of people playing a weird game with an orange ball that most apparently can’t figure out.
Some of these players will take big steps forward as they mature and excel at their passion. Others will get stuck in neutral because they can’t figure out their personal issues or why they keep forgetting to do their homework and are just winging it. Even more will probably change their major, study abroad to find themselves or quit altogether and promote shampoo on Instagram to recover from the small fortune they spent on shoes when they thought they’d made it.
It’s hard to cement any hooper, much less a player who has just one year of experience under their belt as a lock for elite production. Injuries and poor performance are part of the game and committing to that without a track record is always difficult. Still, the 2018 draft class has a number of players with elite fantasy potential.
Luka Doncic, G/F, Dallas Mavericks
2018-19 Stats: 72 GP, 32.2 MPG, 21.2 PTS, 2.3 3PT, 7.8 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.3 BLK, 3.4 TO, 0.427 FG%, 0.713 FT%
Cool Hand Luka was the deserving rookie of the year with one of the best popcorn campaigns we’ve seen in quite some time. He can do it all at this herky-jerky pace somewhat reminiscent of a more exciting and less annoying James Harden. Early in the season there was some competition for touches as the Mavs still had to give some attention to their 9th overall pick from the year before, Dennis Smith Jr. in his sophomore campaign. Eventually it became obvious that this was Luka’s show.
That is, until the All-Star break. The last two months of the season were unkind to Doncic as he was the No. 146 player in 9-category formats. DSJ and other pieces were shipped out of town for Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (torn contract). With less immediate competition, Doncic’s usage rate shot up. Unfortunately, he also very obviously hit a fatigue wall and really fell off the map late. He’ll have every opportunity to bounce back in 2019-20, so look for a mid-round value with elite upside if he can keep the shooting percentages up.
Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns
2018-19 Stats: 71 GP, 30.7 MPG, 16.3 PTS, 0.0 3PT, 10.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 1.8 TO, 0.585 FG%, 0.746 FT%
All things considered, Deandre Ayton was secretly amazing in his rookie season. The Suns haven’t had a lot to work with and are really scratching to build around Devin Booker and Ayton going forward. The defense is spotty and he often looks lost, but generally speaking there’s nothing significant to complain about. He led rookies in rebounds and shooting percentage and was top-10 in scoring, assists, steals, blocks and free throw percentage. If it wasn’t for the early magic from Luka Doncic and a late-season push from Trae Young, Ayton was primed to be an impressive Rookie of the Year.
Going into year two, we’re hoping for a normal progression to a stronger sophomore season. The positive is that there isn’t a huge amount that needs to change from a statistical standpoint for Ayton to jump into the upper crust of fantasy assets. What we saw last year was good enough to make him the number 33 player in 9-category formats, so even a small bump in popcorn numbers should jump him into second-round value.
Jaren Jackson Jr., PF/C, Memphis Grizzlies
2018-19 Stats: 58 GP, 26.1 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 0.9 3PT, 4.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.7 TO, 0.506 FG%, 0.766 FT%
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the epitome of a stat-set darling. It’s in moments like this when the rookie stat line of 14 and 5 with good percentages looks nice but isn’t wowing anyone. Here lies the biggest statistical inefficiency in fantasy basketball, and one that is the easiest to exploit for casual players: the everyday fantasy basketball player doesn’t always realize how valuable a player with shot-blocking prowess like this is.
JJJ was strong to start the season but tapered off down the stretch and then missed the last 23 games of his rookie campaign with a thigh bruise. Fortunately, that shouldn’t hinder him going forward, so we should be looking at a full-strength effort in 2019-20. We’re hoping to see him stretch his game further out the perimeter and get better on the boards in his sophomore season. A 2019 line of interest for him could be in the vein of 16 points, six boards, closer to two 3-pointers and two blocked shots per night with similar percentages. That in itself could launch him right up with Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic as the top players of the 2018 class.
Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks
2018-19 Stats: 81 GP, 30.9 MPG, 19.1 PTS, 1.9 3PM, 3.7 REB, 8.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.2 BLK, 3.8 TO, 0.418 FG%, 0.829 FT%
Trae Young and I have a tumultuous history. More specifically, Trae Young’s hair and I have a tumultuous history. Most specifically, his hair is bad and that’s all there is to say. Generally, I wasn’t high on Young coming into draft night and felt like Luka Doncic was a huge miss for the Hawks, who traded down to get their guy. Early on, it seemed like a completely disastrous trade. Young had a lot of trouble establishing his game. He was the prototype of a college star who could score and create for others at will against slower college players but would struggle with the physicality of the NBA while going into the trees down low, not to mention the turnstile defense. There were questions about his athleticism, his decision-making and his ball control.
Doncic was taking the league by storm and Young shot an abysmal 19 percent from distance in November and it seemed like he was just outmatched and overwhelmed. The calendar turned to February and it was like a switch completely flipped. The last two months of the year showed us the real upside and a lot of doubters (myself included) had to hold back the criticism. Watching a small rookie point guard dictate the flow of the game and average 24.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 9.4 assists over the last 25 games of the season is mightily impressive. There will always be concerns about the field goal percentage and the turnovers, but this kid can shoot the rock. A top-50 season with upside for more is not out of question.
Marvin Bagley III, PF/C, Sacramento Kings
2018-19 Stats: 62 GP, 25.3 MPG, 14.9 PPG, 0.5 3PM, 7.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.5 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 1.6 TO, 0.504 FG%, 0.691 FT%
Marvin Bagley III is poised to make a huge leap in his sophomore season. The offensive potential is massive. He’s a great athlete with the ability to make the outside shot, which is increasingly important in this NBA environment. The Kings finally have a promising young trio of players to build a competitive roster around. Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox combine to give this roster a potent backcourt for the future. It’s hard to say this is a competitive roster in the short term in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, but the pieces are finally falling into place.
Bagley finished as the 147th ranked player in 9-category formats last season, on the edge of standard league consideration. With playing time, health, and more time to gel with the key cogs in the rotation, we should see him become a 30-minute player with 20 and 10 upside. If he can continue to refine his defensive game and work on his free throw shooting touch, we have a gem on our hands.
Wendell Carter Jr., PF/C, Chicago Bulls
2018-19 Stats: 44 GP, 25.2 MPG, 10.3 PPG, 0.1 3PM, 7.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 1.5 TO, 0.485 FG%, 0.795 FT%
The Bulls had a crappy season in 2018. There’s no positive spin on the garbage disaster dump we saw with complete strangers playing significant minutes on an NBA floor. Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson were just two computer-generated names that found their way into legitimate NBA action. And who the hell is Walt Lemon? Of course, a lot of this rotation turnover was due to injury (LaVine, Markkanen, Dunn, Carter Jr.) and incompetency (Jabari Parker) from the main rotation pieces.
2019-20 should be better by default for the Bulls as they also bring in a high-end draft choice and another explosive guard to pair with Zach LaVine in Coby White. He joins an almost promising core with Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. WCJ has a very attractive and quiet skillset, not too dissimilar to Jaren Jackson Jr. (Maybe it’s a junior thing), where his shot-blocking ability will drive up his value. He missed the almost half the season with a thumb injury that required surgery. Now he’s dealing with a core muscle injury that will keep him out until at least early September. As long as he can avoid the injury bug, we could see a similar statistical output in the vein of Jonas Valanciunas, who at the very least has been a top-75 option for a number of seasons.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG/SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
2018-19 Stats: 82 GP, 26.5 MPG, 10.8 PPG, 0.6 3PM, 2.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 1.7 TO, 0.476 FG%, 0.800 FT%
This was about to be incredibly exciting for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The central piece of the monstrous return for Paul George with Russell Westbrook soon to follow, SGA was ready to be the Thunder’s point guard of the future… right now. There has been a whirlwind of positivity around SGA’s game, touted as a future All-Star with an incredibly bright future. He offers things that are hard to teach at this level. Awareness on both ends of the court and a tenacity and motor to match that awareness.
Unfortunately, Chris Paul slid into town as part of the return for Russell Westbrook (who was inevitably out the door at that point, it seemed.). We can look at this in two ways. For the immediate future, Paul will take the primary ball-handling duties and limit SGA’s opportunities to break out into a true powerhouse asset. On the other hand, there aren’t many better options to learn the point guard position from than one of the best floor generals of all time who spent the last few years standing around in the corner while James Harden dribbled for 20 seconds and took ill-advised 28-foot stepback jumpers. Paul will be out to prove something and a fired up version in the late stages of his career could push SGA to incredible heights in the future.
Even beyond all that, the Thunder aren’t just going to let SGA waste away as Paul fights the sunset. There are ways to get both on the floor at once — shield your eyes from OKC’s wing depth chart — and the Thunder seem intent on getting Gilgeous-Alexander whatever they can even through the CP3 mini-era.
There are many players from a strong 2018 class who could flash potential and be consistent fantasy contributors in 2019. They may not be locked in as solid bets for production as they remain prone to the whims of coaching and rotation dynamics, but as long as the opportunity remains, the following players will be looking to jump onto (or stay in) standard league consideration in 2019.
Kevin Huerter, SG, Atlanta Hawks
2018-19 Stats: 75 GP, 27.3 MPG, 9.7 PPG, 1.8 3PM, 3.3 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 1.5 TO, 0.419 FG%, 0.732 FT%
The Hawks will be a very interesting team to watch win 32 games in 2019. Trae Young has big potential and John Collins will get his due as long as he is healthy. Outside of those two, rookie De’Andre Hunter and sophomore Kevin Huerter will be the main pieces in focus. Huerter got into a lot of action last season, averaging more than 27 minutes per contest. It didn’t result in a particularly inspiring line in 2018, but there’s a lot of opportunity, which is what we need to bank on for fantasy purposes. Gone are Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore, opening up a lot of wing minutes for the Maryland man.
At the very least, it seems plausible that Huerter becomes a high-volume shooter, hitting more than two 3-pointers per contest and creating more space for Young and Collins to do their work. He’s also a more willing passer than some expect, and he could get to around four assists per game as well. That lines up with a late-round talent with some upside to have Jeremy Lamb stretches.
Collin Sexton, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
2018-19 Stats: 82 GP, 31.8 MPG, 16.7 PPG, 1.5 3PM, 2.9 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.1 BLK, 2.3 TO, 0.430 FG%, 0.839 FT%
Colin Sexton has all the bad traits Trae Young possesses without most of the good ones. Namely, Sexton is a point guard who averaged three assists per game as a rookie. That’s bad. Young is bad defensively and Sexton is worse. That’s bad. He can score and make the outside shot but it’s hard to get to fantasy stardom without an elite skill or general consistency. Sexton provides neither.
The opportunities should still be there this year, although rookie Darius Garland may have something to say about that. Maybe they join forces and create a dynamic backcourt or maybe Sexton isn’t long for a starter’s position in the NBA. For now, we’ll bank on improvement and volume. This is a pure minutes play because no one else is breaking down the door to take those minutes away.
Robert Williams, C, Boston Celtics
2018-19 Stats: 32 GP, 8.8 MPG, 2.5 PTS, 0.0 3PM, 2.5 REB, 0.2 AST, 0.3 STL, 1.3 BLK, 0.3 TO, 0.706 FG%, 0.600 FT%
Robert Williams will make his name this season on opportunity. Al Horford has found a new home and Aron Baynes was traded to specifically not a contender after that was all he wanted. Jayson Tatum and Enes Kanter occupy the big man roles on this team, and Robert Williams sits behind them with shot-blocking acumen and a path to being the first big man off the bench. It’s not a bad gig for a rookie who just didn’t get a lot of run last season.
The big ticket is the staggering 5.1 blocks per 36 minutes for Williams in his rookie production. Obviously, that’s unsustainable, but a blocks specialist has a role even in standard leagues, and we’ve seen a profile of this in Mitchell Robinson, who was a top-50 player in 2018 with just a shade over 20 minutes per game because of his shot-blocking and high shooting percentage. The profile is very similar here. If we could see 20 minutes for Williams, we could easily see eight points, seven boards and two blocks per game.
Mikal Bridges, SF/PF, Phoenix Suns
2018-19 Stats: 82 GP, 29.5 MPG, 8.3 PTS, 1.3 3PM, 3.2 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 0.9 TO, 0.430 FG%, 0.805 FT%
The sun is shining on the Suns because they might have three good young players. Mikal Bridges will get opportunities to improve this season on a Suns team generally bereft of game-changing talent. Bridges got close to 30 minutes per game as a rookie because of the absence of T.J. Warren and the absence of interest from Josh Jackson (who consistently looks like he’s surprised to be there). He may not have huge star upside, but he has defensive instincts and can be a 3-and-D wing for this team.
The arrival of Dario Saric may complicate things for Bridges slightly depending on how much Saric impresses going into the year. The outlook on Bridges could change (although it seems unlikely at this point) if Saric finds himself the starting power forward for the Suns to start out the season. He’s going to sneak up on a lot of fantasy players and we’d advise you against being one of them.
Miles Bridges, SF/PF, Charlotte Hornets
2018-19 Stats: 80 GP, 21.2 MPG, 7.5 PTS, 0.8 3PT, 4.0 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 0.6 TO, 0.464 FG%, 0.753 FT%
The second of our Bridges is also a beneficiary of opportunity for a moribund franchise with no plan. In this case, it’s literally a situation of someone needing to play the minutes. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been injured and not a factor both in reality and fantasy. The letdown between whiny superstar Anthony Davis and non-whiny half-a-star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as the top two picks of the 2012 draft becomes more apparent every day.
For Miles Bridges, we’re looking at a lot of minutes so he can become a quiet jack-of-all-trades player who can score a bit and generally be present to soak up some stats. Let’s not get feisty because there isn’t a standout skill here, but if he could get to 14 points and 1.5 threes and grab some rebounds we can’t be that mad. He’s got an interesting stat set and should see those defensive numbers come up along with his minutes.
Rodions Kurucs, SF/PF, Brooklyn Nets
2018-19 Stats: 63 GP, 20.5 MPG, 8.5 PTS, 0.9 3PM, 3.9 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 1.2 TO, 0.450 FG%, 0.783 FT%
Rodions Kurucs has an interesting path to playing time on this Nets roster this season. The Nets made big splashes in free agency, trading for Taurean Prince and bringing in Kyrie Irving AND Kevin Durant. Now it seems fairly apparent that for this season, Kurucs will get some chances to play, primarily off the bench again. The actual statistical output is pretty solid for just 20 minutes per game, although nothing stands out enough to make him a viable standard-league play without a step forward. We’re looking for some improvement shooting the ball to stretch the floor out for Kyrie Irving.
This may end up being a stretch for Kurucs but he really did show productive flashes as a rookie and now has the aid of Kevin Durant, a player not so dissimilar in style, to help guide him this season. The important part will be if the minutes line up and are significant enough to make a big jump forward.
This draft class had quite a few names worth monitoring in deeper leagues. For all intents and purposes, a league with 14-16 teams is probably not the place to find the players below, but many of these talents are an injury away from being true fantasy contributors even in a standard 10-12-teamer.
Mohamed Bamba, C, Orlando Magic
Mo Bamba is a frustrating own for all involved right now. Nikola Vucevic is back in town long-term and has been a stalwart as a fantasy producer. Unless the Magic can’t move forward with the frontcourt trio of Vuc, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, Bamba is getting backup center minutes at best. We’re going to find out this summer if Khem Birch can pull his weight and steal some of those backup minutes as well.
Bamba has a nice skillset and is a per-36 watch list player. If he were to get even low-end starter minutes, we could see a double-double average with a couple blocked shots. That doesn’t seem likely on this team for the foreseeable future.
Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Washington Wizards
Fun fact: the Wizards are very bad. There’s boundless opportunity up and down the roster as long as we turn a blind eye to their shooting guard (He’s good). Right now, the center position looks like Thomas Bryant (fantasy darling), Ian Mahinmi (probably dead), and Moritz Wagner (probably not dead). The power forward depth chart is Rui Hachimura (exciting and a rookie) and Davis Bertans (not exciting and not a rookie). The skinny is that skinny Mo Wagner might get ample playing time and be relevant. He also might not be good. Stay tuned on the next episode of Wizards of Washington Place.
What can we expect from Wagner? Realistically, just a good shot to score and rebound adequately and an ability to stretch the floor and pitch in two defensive stats per game. If the average fantasy player isn’t aroused by that, don’t be alarmed. There’s a reason we’re digging deep here.
Landry Shamet, SG, LA Clippers
Landry Shamet did some good things for the Clippers after coming over in the Tobias Harris deal. He became a 3-point sniper late in the year, knocking down 2.7 threes per game at a 45% clip in 25 games (23 starts) with the Clippers. If the Clips stood pat, Shamet may have slid into the starting SG role for this season and would definitely be a standard league consideration at least as a 3-point threat.
As we know, the Clippers stood the opposite of pat and brought in not just Kawhi Leonard, but also Paul George as well to likely take over the starting shooting guard spot, moving Shamet to the second player off the bench. He can still provide some value as a specialist, but it’s hard to see him getting enough time unless we continue to manage our loads with the two new wings or shuffle one of them down to power forward.
Aaron Holiday, PG, Indiana Pacers
Big bummer for Aaron Holiday to have Malcolm Brogdon introduced to the squad. Brogdon and Oladipo will make up one of the most underrated backcourts in the NBA when Dipo gets healthy, and Holiday will hang out on the bench for the foreseeable future. On top of that, the Pacers made a sneaky signing of Jeremy Lamb as well. He’s coming off a career year for the incompetent Hornets (who had one of the most embarrassing offseasons in sports history, but that’s a tale for Hornets fans to regale their grandchildren with and it’s just not my place).
Holiday has potential to be a solid but unspectacular point guard if he can find the playing time to contribute regularly. The first few months of the season will be crucial for him to play his way into a regular role. He’s not quite as good as his older brother Jrue, but a poor man’s version with enough run isn’t crazy.
Lonnie Walker, SG, San Antonio Spurs
Things Lonnie Walker did not do last season: play many games. Things Lonnie Walker did do last season: have ridiculous hair. Things Lonnie Walker did this summer: light up the Summer League. What does that mean? Maybe nothing, because right now the Spurs have a smorgasbord of veteran talent sitting in front of him on the depth chart.
Fortunately for Walker, he has a chance to be a part of the next contending Spurs team at just 20 years old. He’s a high energy, athletic, huge guard who can rebound and score off the dribble with a nose for the ball. There’s a profile here that could be very enticing if the minutes would open up.
Michael Porter Jr., PF, Denver Nuggets
Let’s close this out with the biggest wild card on the board. Technically still a rookie after missing all of 2018-19 with a back injury that caused him to slide down the draft board, MPJ might be ready to roll during the second month of the year. He also might not get a lot of action in a crowded Nuggets’ rotation. The Nuggets had also been touting Jerami Grant for some time and managed to rope him in this offseason as well.
Today, Porter Jr. is, at best, the fifth forward option when healthy behind Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap and the aforementioned Grant, so we’re looking at injuries and incompetency to bring MPJ to the forefront. Given recent history with Millsap, Barton and even Gary Harris of late, it’s not out of bounds.