By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Moving into Week 8 of the NBA season, it’s time to evaluate the first-year players making an impact on the fantasy basketball landscape. At this point, most of the rookie class has roughly a quarter of a season under its belt, and while some players have fallen victim to injuries, we have enough of a sample to make some early evaluations.
Overall, the 2019 class is still very much in wait-and-see mode. At the top, of course, is Zion Williamson, who’s yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball. It’s still unclear when — or, to some, if — he’ll make his debut for the Pelicans, but whenever that happens, the No. 1 pick will command a league-wide spotlight.
In Memphis, Ja Morant looks every bit the part of a future star, but outside of the top two selections, the class is shaping up to be just as subjective and unpredictable as many characterized it back in June.
RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, Coby White, and other top-10 picks have had their moments, but none have emerged as a true future star. And while the rest of the draft has produced a few early gems like Tyler Herro and PJ Washington, there hasn’t been any Donovan Mitchell-esque, this-guy-is-a-no-doubt-future-star ascents just yet.
As of Tuesday, only three rookies — and only one who was drafted in the top 12 — rank inside the top 100 in Yahoo leagues, while many more are off the fantasy radar altogether.
As the season rolls into mid-December, let’s check in on some of the more notable names in the 2019 class:
Ja Morant, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
A back injury kept Morant out of four games to begin December, but he returned to action Monday night against Golden State and had one of his best games of the year. Morant put up 26 points — his 10th 20-point effort in 18 games — to go with seven assists, two rebounds, and a steal. For the season, Morant’s averages sit at 19.1 points, 6.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. If he maintains those numbers over the course of the season, he’ll become just the fourth rookie ever to average at least 19 points, six assists, and one steal.
The Grizzlies play at a top-five pace, but Morant is hitting those numbers in fewer than 29 minutes and his shooting line is up to 46/43/77 — outstanding by rookie point guard standards. Morant still turns the ball over at a relatively high rate, which hurts his fantasy value, but as of Monday he ranks inside the top 100 in Yahoo leagues, and he could continue to rise if his minutes' load climbs into the low-30s.
Kendrick Nunn, PG/SG, Miami Heat
Technically, Nunn went undrafted as a member of the 2018 class, but he qualifies as a rookie after spending all of 2018-19 in the G League. Nunn emerged from obscurity toward the end of the preseason and immediately became an impact player for one of the deepest teams in the East. He’s slowed down a bit after a fast start, but through 23 games, Nunn holds averages of 15.3 points, 3.4 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.0 steals.
For fantasy purposes, Nunn ranks just outside the top 130, and his rostership has fallen to 64 percent. He remains a steady source of points and threes (2.0 per game), but his efficiency has been shaky of late — 34/23/72 shooting line over his last seven games — and he doesn’t add much in the non-scoring categories. Still, Nunn has been a revelation by undrafted-free-agent standards, and his contract will make him one of the best per-dollar values in the league over the next few seasons.
RJ Barrett, SG/SF, New York Knicks
The No. 3 overall pick remains rostered in 82% of Yahoo leagues, but he’s done more harm than good in most traditional scoring formats. While Barrett’s slashing ability and attacking mentality have been as-advertised, he’s been wildly inefficient as a shooter, particularly at the free throw line.
It’s not uncommon for rookie guards to dip below 40% from the field — Barrett sits at 39.5% FG — but when coupled with a 53.2 free throw percentage, a player becomes nearly unstartable. Barrett deserves credit for getting to the line 5.0 times per game (second among rookies behind Morant) but that volume makes his struggles all the more damaging.
Darius Garland, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
Garland got off to a (very) slow start, but he’s started to string together some encouraging performances of late. He scored in double-figures just once in his first seven games before hitting at least 10 points in seven of his next eight. The No. 5 pick has still been prone to disappearances, such as Monday’s nine-point effort against Boston, but he’s become a more confident shooter from beyond the arc.
As of Tuesday, Garland is hitting 35.9% of his 4.5 threes per game, while knocking down 85.2% of his free throws. Both are encouraging figures for a rookie guard. The problem is Garland is contributing virtually nothing else. He’s making just 38.7% of his two-point attempts, causing his overall field goal percentage (37.5%) to plummet into The Brandon Jennings Zone. On top of that, Garland adds almost no significant counting-stat value, giving the Cavaliers two recent-lottery-pick guards who fit that concerning profile.
Like Barrett, there’s reason to believe Garland will look much better in a more productive system with higher-level talent around him. But for the purposes of the 2019-20 fantasy season, Garland currently ranks outside the top 300.
Coby White, PG, Chicago Bulls
White is one of several players in the 2019 class who’s swung wildly between startable and unrosterable on a near-nightly basis. He came out of the gates firing, putting up 42 points over his first two NBA games — including 25 in a win over Memphis — but he followed up with five straight single-digit scoring efforts, shooting just 12-of-39 from the field and 4-of-22 from three in that span.
True to form, White responded with five straight double-digit scoring games between Nov. 5 and Nov. 14, headlined by back-to-back 27-point and 26-point outbursts against New York and Milwaukee. White’s highs are as lofty as any rookie’s in his class, but his lows have been equally remarkable. In the last two weeks alone, White has suffered through 3-of-13, 0-of-7, 1-of-8 and 0-of-7 shooting nights.
Over the last two decades, only four rookies have taken at least 11 field goals per game and shot less than 37% from the floor. An optimist would point to one of those, Kemba Walker, as an example of a player who was in a bad situation early on and greatly improved his efficiency in Year 2. However, some would focus on the other names on that list — Emmanuel Mudiay, Kevin Knox, and Dajuan Wagner — as cautionary tales of betting big on streaky scorers.
Looking forward, unless White can significantly boost his percentages, he should remain on waivers. Outside of three-pointers, the North Carolina product hasn’t provided much outside of pure scoring. While he’s listed as a point guard, White has played the vast majority of his minutes off the ball. For the most part, that’s limited his assists potential (2.4 per game), though he did just hand out eight dimes in Monday’s narrow loss to Toronto.
Jaxson Hayes, C, New Orleans Pelicans
Currently riding a nine-game losing streak, New Orleans is near the top of the list of the league’s most disappointing teams thus far. But injuries up front have enabled Hayes to enter the regular rotation and make an impact sooner than expected.
For fantasy purposes, Hayes is most appealing as a dynasty prospect, but he’s worked his way into the top-170 in Yahoo leagues thanks in large part to a strong field goal percentage (61.0%) and 1.9 blocks/steals per game. With Derrick Favors away from the team, Hayes has started 10 of the last 13 games, and he’s putting up 10.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 0.9 steals in that stretch. Hayes isn’t much of a floor-spacer, but he’s an explosive roll-man who gets to the line (3.9 FTA/G) and converts at a respectable 68.6% clip.
Once Favors is back in the mix, which will likely be Wednesday against Milwaukee, Hayes (22% rostered) could sink back to a lesser role. But he’s worth keeping an eye on for the rest of the season, particularly if the Pelicans continue to fall further out of the playoff race.
Rui Hachimura, SF/PF, Washington Wizards
Coming into the season, Hachimura was a late-round consideration in fantasy drafts, rooted mostly in the belief that the Wizards’ depth chart would all but force him into a significant role. Twenty-two games in, that’s exactly what’s happened. The Gonzaga product has started every game thus far, averaging just a shade under 30 minutes per contest, which he’s turned into 14.2 points (fifth among rookies), 5.8 rebounds (second), 1.7 assists and 0.8 steals.
The lack of threes (9-44 3PT) and, especially, blocks (three blocks in 651 minutes) are a disappointment, but Hachimura is already an effective scorer, and he’s the rare big man who helps in free throw percentage (88.9% FT).
After a rough end to November, Hachimura is available in 33% of Yahoo leagues, but that number figures to rise considering he’s averaging 19.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 37.1 minutes over his last six games. So long as Thomas Bryant remains sidelined with a stress reaction, Hachimura will be in line for big minutes on a nightly basis.
Tyler Herro, SG/SF, Miami Heat
Herro caught fire in Las Vegas over the summer. He carried it over to the preseason and hasn’t looked back. The Kentucky product ranks fifth among rookies in minutes per game, third in points, eighth in rebounds and eighth in assists. He’s already surmounted veteran Dion Waiters on the depth chart and, despite playing on a deep roster, has found his way into 20-plus minutes in 20 of 22 games thus far.
As of Tuesday, Herro is hovering around the 140 range in Yahoo leagues, and his 65-percent rostership reflects that. He’s a valuable piece for managers in need of threes, but he doesn’t offer much on the defensive end, and his free throw percentage (83%) is good-not-great for a player with his shooting profile.
It is worth noting, however, that Herro is coming off of two of his better games to date. He went for 22 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in Friday’s win over the Wizards and followed up with 27 points (5-11 3PT), six rebounds and three assists Sunday against Chicago.
Brandon Clarke, PF/C, Memphis Grizzlies
An older prospect who turned 23 in September, Clarke may not have the highest long-term upside, but he’s been able to step in and contribute right away. He’s missed the last four games with an injury, but prior to that, Clarke averaged 12.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 block in just 21.7 minutes over his previous 16 contests. And while he’s not a high-volume shooter, Clarke holds a 65/45/82 shooting line over that span.
In terms of per-game fantasy production, Clarke ranks 84th in Yahoo leagues — the highest among all rookies.
PJ Washington, SF/PF, Charlotte Hornets
Washington broke out on opening night with 27 points and seven threes, and while he hasn’t quite been able to maintain that pace, he’s remained a top-90 player in Yahoo leagues. The 21 year old hasn’t been outstanding in any one area, but he’s a well-rounded contributor who adds value most categories, with the exception of assists (1.8 per game) and free throw percentage (69.8%).
Eric Paschall, SF/PF, Golden State Warriors
The moment Aaron Baynes landed on Stephen Curry’s left hand on that fateful October night, the stage was set for one of the all-time out-of-nowhere good stats/bad team seasons. As of Tuesday, Paschall ranks second among rookies in scoring (16.6 PPG), trailing only Morant, while adding 5.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. He’s scored in double-figures in 11 of his last 12 games, reaching 20 points four times and 30 points once in that span.
Paschall has the skillset and, more importantly, the workload, to go for 20-and-7 on just about any night, but his poor three-point efficiency and lack of ancillary contributions make him only a borderline-roster consideration at this point. In Yahoo leagues, he ranks outside of the top-150.
Other rookies to monitor: Ky Bowman, GSW; Cam Reddish, ATL; De’Andre Hunter, ATL; Matisse Thybulle, PHI; Grant Williams, BOS; Ty Jerome, PHO; Jarrett Culver, MIN; Zion Williamson, NOR