Each year, a new crop of players enter the fantasy basketball pool. I'm usually hesitant to draft rookies because minutes are far from guaranteed. It takes time to adjust to the league, so I often pass on first-year players for names with established roles and experience.
Over the past six seasons, an average of three rookies have finished in the top 100 each campaign. While that's a pretty low ROI, my early bold prediction is that we'll see five rooks in the top 100 by the 2023-24 season's end.
Spoiler alert: Amen Thompson, Keyonte George and Cason Wallace didn't make the list, but they're next up!
Victor Wembanyama, PF/C, San Antonio Spurs
I expect Wemby to be a great fantasy basketball player. I have him within the top 40 of my points and category rankings, yet I never get him in drafts. He's going in the mid-third-round — above several proven stars, and I haven't brought myself to press the draft button.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't.
He's the equivalent of a five-tool baseball player with the allure of a generational type of talent. His unique size and two-way skill set are immediate cheat codes for fantasy. His peers call him "alien," while basketball pundits marvel at his superstar potential.
Rookies can prosper. Karl-Anthony Towns put up numbers in his efficiently rare rookie season, finishing in the top 12 in per-game and total value. I'm not saying that Wemby will be able to replicate an 18/10/2 line with 2.5 stocks and 54/34/81 shooting splits, but he'll be pretty close.
Walker Kessler, one of the top rookies a year ago, finished 57th last season, and Wemby has far more scoring and playmaking potential. Oddsmakers are giving him a 35% probability of averaging 20+ points with two blocks this season. That's well worth the risk, considering how much averaging two blocks per game could do for his fantasy value. Ten players averaged at least 1.5 blocks last season, and not one finished outside the top 60 in fantasy basketball on a per-game basis.
He's only 19, but his defensive instincts carried over to the Vegas Summer League, where he swatted eight shots across his only two games. He also averaged at least 1.4 blocks per game in his international career.
The Spurs are notorious for load management, and I have no doubt they'll be overly cautious with their new franchise player. Between being a part of a rebuild and surviving the demand of an 82-game season with such a lean physique, scheduled maintenance and rest days will come with the territory. Efficiency might be hit or miss in some games, along with the turnovers, but there's just too much upside to ignore a player who can score at all three levels, rebound and block shots at a high rate.
I don't love the draft price, but he'll get the type of usage and productivity worthy of a top-50 player.
Chet Holmgren, PF/C, Oklahoma City Thunder
He's technically still a rookie, and after missing the entirety of the 2022-23 season with a Lisfranc injury, Holmgren is motivated to contribute right away for an ascending team that's sorely lacking any presence in the frontcourt. The Thunder drafted him second overall, and with good reason — he's a stretch big who can also protect the rim. Similarly to Wemby, Chet has a knack for defense. He had the highest defensive rating in all of the NCAA in 2021-22 and finished fourth in blocked shots.
Standing at 7-1, he's a natural mismatch for most opposing power forwards and is an underrated rebounder, given his slender frame. As evidenced in nine Summer League appearances over the past two seasons, he's averaged 15.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 3.1 blocks with 48/30/81 shooting splits. I know it's Summer League, but he makes a difference on both ends whenever he steps on the floor. He'll get easy looks at the rim playing with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams, and if he continues to block shots and rebound, top 50 shouldn't be a challenge in Year 1, even with modest usage.
While I compare his game to Wemby, there's less risk of him being load-managed with the Thunder vying for a playoff spot this year. He carries injury risk like any big man coming off a foot injury and will have similar struggles with efficiency and turnovers. Still, I view him as a strong defensive anchor with more offensive potential than other bigs going around the same range (Walker Kessler and Nic Claxton).
Scoot Henderson - PG, Portland Trail Blazers
Seeing him live in Vegas, I felt he was an infusion of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. It was only one game (21 minutes at that) and I'd seen enough to believe it's a wrap when he gets the keys to Portland's offense.
Scoot Henderson in the first quarter of his first Summer League game:
13 points | 3 rebounds | 3 assists | 73% shooting
3rd Pick??? pic.twitter.com/T05yPlBQo0
— Teg🚨 (@IQfor3) July 7, 2023
Damian Lillard's situation made me pause on Scott's top-100 potential, but now that Lillard has been traded, as has Jrue Holiday, there's a direct path to minutes. I like Henderson more for points leagues, but if he can mask his inevitable low shooting percentage with six assists, a steal and 15-17 points per game, he can get into the top 100. Just look at Mike Conley's numbers from a year ago; it's possible.
Ausur Thompson - SG/SF, Detroit Pistons
We already know about Cade Cunningham and Jalen Duren's fantasy appeal, but it's time to add Ausur to the list. Thompson has a legitimate chance to start at small forward from Day 1. He's a disruptive, playmaking wing who will exceed his ADP if given anywhere close to 30 minutes per night. He's an athletic and rangy defender who reminds a bit of the Sixers version of Andre Iguodala.
AUSAR THOMPSON SHOWTIME! Reverse alley-oop dunk from the rook! 💪🐰 pic.twitter.com/mavs0qzuQN
— NBA Buzz (@OfficialNBABuzz) July 12, 2023
The Pistons ranked bottom-five in defensive rating last season (and bottom seven the year before), so it's clear they needed to prioritize defense in the draft. It also helps that Monty Williams is coaching — a guy who turned around a Phoenix Suns team that was bottom-10 in defensive rating in 2019 to become top-three within three seasons. Thompson looked more than comfortable at Summer League, averaging 13.5 points and grabbing at least eight rebounds in all four contests. But it's the defense — he also racked up 16 stocks (nine steals, seven blocks).
I was sleeping on him, but the more I read and hear about Thompson as training camp approaches, I couldn't be more hyped to see the rise of his ADP (148) and rostered percentage (36%) rise before the season begins.
Dereck Lively II - C, Dallas Mavericks
Lively landed on my rookie watch list after going to the Mavericks with the 12th pick of the 2023 NBA Draft. The TLDR version is that his competition is weak, and his rim-running and rim protection jives well with a Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving-led squad.
I feel even better about that take now that Jason Kidd told Mark Stein that Lively will have a chance to earn the starting center spot at training camp. If he gets the nod, averaging a low-end double-double with a block and a high field-goal percentage is a reasonable and achievable projection for the former Dukie. Staying out of foul trouble is always challenging for young bigs, but Lively's defensive profile from college is impressive.
He's also improving his range on the perimeter, so there's some sleeper appeal here. If he anchors the Mavericks front court, take a top-100 finish to the bank.