Typically, rookies aren’t drafted until the mid to late rounds of fantasy basketball. Yes, every once in a while, there’s a hyped player who sneaks into the third round, but most seasons the best rookie won’t go until the fourth or fifth round at the earliest. And that is the case this season as well.
This presents a huge opportunity for the smart fantasy manager, who devotes the early rounds to laying the foundations of his team while keeping a certain rookie or two in mind for the mid and late rounds. Find the right starters, and this can be a winning formula.
But who are the rookies this season? And who are the other sleeper first-year players to keep an eye on as the season progresses?
Paolo Banchero, PF, Orlando Magic
Banchero was the best overall pick and played like that in the Summer League. His size, skill and athleticism allow him to score at will and control the offense off the dribble from the frontcourt. He has NBA size and will be relied upon to produce as much as he can for a desperate Magic team.
Projected Line: 20 PPG (46 FG%, 34 3P%, 74 FT%), 8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 3PG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG
Keegan Murray, PF, Sacramento Kings
Murray has the best chance to challenge Bancher for the top scorer in this class. He’s a combo forward who projects to play more of a power forward in the NBA, with strong 3-point range and a quick first step off the dribble. Murray has shown this summer that he is capable of scoring 20 points every night if given the chance. The main question is whether he can get enough snaps to do that, on a team that features De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and Harrison Barnes.
Projected Line: 18 PPG (49 FG%, 38 3%, 75 FT%), 7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.7 3PG, 1.0 SPG, 1.1 BPG
Jabari Smith Jr., PF, Houston Rockets
Smith is arguably the best shooter from center in this draft class, and he has enough time and time on the defensive end to develop into one of the better defenders as well. Smith is in line to be the Rockets’ starting power in front of the door, and on offense he’ll play off the ball as a 3-point shooter or an athletic finisher around the rim. Smith is a strong defender in the post and has the speed to switch to guards and disrupt the pick and roll. That defensive style should generate some stats, but not the amount of blocks he would get as a pure rim protector.
Projected Stats: 14 PPG (43 FG%, 39 3P%, 80 FT%), 6.5 RPG, 2.0 3PG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 BPG, 0.7 SPG
Jaden Ivey, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons
Ivey is considered the best running back in this rookie class. He has the right to start at shooting guard next to Cade Cunningham this season and has explosive speed and leaping ability as a dribble creator for himself and his teammates. Ivey was adept at running the pick-and-roll/pop game as a ball-handler this summer before he got hurt. Since Cunningham is also a combo guard, the two could share the floor general/shooter role for the Pistons. Ivey has good potential as a scorer and distributor, with a consistent 3-point shot he seems to be working on and quick enough hands to contribute steals as well.
Projected Stats: 16 PPG (45 FG%, 36 3P%, 75 FT%), 4.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7 3PG, 1.1 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Bennedict Mathurin, SF, Indiana Pacers
Mathurin looked like a pro in Summer League and could have been called up from day one to a rebuilding Pacers team. It’s unclear whether veterans like Buddy Hield or Myles Turner will remain with the team when the season begins, but Mathurin joins Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte and Jalen Smith as potential building blocks for Indiana going forward. the chemistry between Mathurin and Duarte was one of the highlights of the Pacers summer league team. Mathurin has great size and explosiveness for a wing with a strong 3-point shot. He doesn’t create much off the dribble, so he’ll have to rely on his teammates to set him up for open jumpers or finishes around the rim.
Projected Stats: 14 PPG (44 FG%, 37 3P%, 80 FT%), 4.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.8 3PG, 0.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Other rookies to watch out for
Tari Eason, SF, Houston Rockets
Eason managed to be one of the most productive players on the Rockets this summer while playing alongside Jabari Smith Jr. and Josh Christopher. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds and was a plus in steals, 3-pointers and blocks. He is one of the older rookies in this class at 21 years old, so if called upon he could contribute right away. The Rockets are one of the younger teams in the league, currently starting four players age 22 or younger…and 33-year-old Eric Gordon. It looks like Eason and Jae’Sean Tate could get a chance to start at small forward before the season is over, and if Eason gets the call he could be on the fantasy radar.
Walker Kessler, C, Utah Jazz
Kessler has a real opportunity to start rebuilding the Jazz this season. Although he’s technically behind recently traded center Kelly Olynyk on the depth chart, Kessler is a 21-year-old first-round pick the Jazz traded for as part of the Rudy Gobert deal. He is an elite shot blocker who generated 4.6 BPG for the Auburn Tigers last season and his per 40 minutes stats were an astounding 17.9 PP40, 12.6 RP40 and 7.1 BP40. He’s never shown he can play big time, still needs to earn minutes in the Jazz rotation, but if he gets going, he’s a potential sleeper as a defensive player in major leagues.
Shaedon Sharpe, SG, Portland Trail Blazers:
Sharpe was one of the best rookies in this class, but he also has a lot of growing to do because he didn’t play in college. Sharpe also got injured almost immediately in his Summer League debut, so he didn’t even get to compete with the pros this summer. With Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simmons in the backcourt and veterans like Jeramie Grant and Jusuf Nurkic on the front line, Sharpe is unlikely to get much playing time or opportunity to start the season. But if the Trail Blazers have a season like last year, where they go into offseason mode early, it’s possible they’d like to see what they have in Sharpe later in the season.
Mark Williams, C, Charlotte Hornets
Williams has a legitimate chance to compete with Mason Plumlee for the starting center position at some point this season. He is one of the best defensive shot-blockers to come out of this draft and the Hornets need him. In addition, 21-year-old LaMelo Ball as the centerpiece of the team gives the Hornets a youthful look, and if Williams can develop a relationship with Ball, it could increase his chances of earning increased minutes as the season progresses.
Jalen Williams, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
While all eyes were on number two overall pick Chet Holmgren, Williams was another lottery pick for the Thunder. And, on a team that is constantly rebuilding, Williams has a chance to earn a spot in the rotation. Williams is a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter, so if he earns minutes he could be worth long-term consideration in divisional leagues as a 3-point shooter.
Johnny Davis, G, Washington Wizards
Davis was a consensus First Team All-American last season, with college averages of 19.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.1 APG and 1.2 SPG in 34.2 MPG. But he had a disastrous Summer League where he didn’t seem able to keep up with even the speed of Las Vegas…which doesn’t bode well for his chances of quickly adjusting to the NBA. That being said, the Wizards lack talented backcourt depth, and Davis has a chance to work his way into the rotation. If he can prove that what I saw in Vegas was a fluke, he is able to take his All-American potential to the next level instead.
Dyson Daniels, PG/SG, New Orleans Pelicans
Daniels is a big combo guard, and he played in the NBA G-League last season so he already has professional experience. He is expected to play some point guard in the pros, and when he develops he could fit in well next to 6-3 combo guard CJ McCollum. But the Pelicans have serious postseason aspirations this season, with an impressive starting five and former starters like Devonte’ Graham and Larry Nance coming off the bench. Barring injury, he’s unlikely to get enough runs for fantasy consideration.
Jalen Duren, C, Detroit Pistons
Duren is the youngest member of this draft class, but he grew in man size with upside to eventually develop into a dominant two-way center. He had stretches during Summer League where he nailed multiple possessions in a short period of time, and his ability to finish around the rim is likely ready now. The rest of his game isn’t though. The Pistons are a young team, but they played well to end last season and will want to use their vets to help establish a winning culture. Duren looks more like a development player for this season, but I’m still keeping an eye out in case they decide the best way for him to develop is alongside their other youthful centers.
Malachi Branham, G/F, and Jeremy Sochan, SF/PF, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are in the midst of a rebuild after trading away their best players since the start of last season. They retained Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl, and young guard Devin Vassell is expected to get a bigger role this season. But the door is clearly open for their starters, Branham and Sochan, to start getting minutes before the season ends. Branham is a 3-iD type, while Sochan is a defender with an extremely weak jumper. Neither is likely to put up huge numbers, but if either/both of them end up starting, that would be enough to make them worth keeping an eye on.
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