Fantasy Basketball: Miles Bridges among biggest early surprises
By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Coming off of Monday night’s nine-game slate, we officially have one week of NBA action in the books. With each team having played no more than four games — and some as few as two — it’s important to keep in mind that we’re working with an extremely small sample size.
Will Harrison Barnes continue to average 28 points and five threes per game on his way to his first MVP? Are Rudy Gobert’s 20.5 rebounds per game sustainable? Can Kevin Porter make a run at the all-time single-season turnovers record?
Only time will tell.
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For now, though, we’ll try not to read too much into the extreme ups and downs of the first week of the NBA season. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the outliers tend to regress, or progress, toward the mean throughout 82 games. With that said, let’s check in on some of the biggest fantasy storylines through the first week of play.
The Miles Bridges buzz is for real — pun absolutely intended
As most expected, one week into the season the No. 1 overall fantasy player is … Charlotte’s Miles Bridges. The third-year wing has played four games, so that helps, but even on a per-game basis, he ranks inside the top 10 — one spot behind Ja Morant and one spot ahead of little-known Nets forward Kevin Durant.
Late last season, Bridges showed signs that a breakout could be on the horizon when he averaged 20.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, and 3.0 threes over the final 20 games of the season. But those numbers came with Gordon Hayward sidelined, so there was reason to believe some regression could be incoming. Instead, Bridges has swiftly usurped P.J. Washington as the Hornets’ every-night starter at power forward and averaged 35.3 minutes per game through the first week of the season.
Entering Wednesday’s game at Orlando, Bridges is putting up 25.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.3 steals, and 2.5 threes per game while shooting 52.9 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from three, and 94.1 percent (16-17 FT) at the line.
Speaking of P.J. Washington ... he was a top-80 player last season but has seemingly fallen out of favor amid the emergence of Bridges and the offseason addition of Mason Plumlee, who’s started all four games at center. A knee injury kept Washington out of Monday’s game against Boston, but before that, he’d averaged just 6.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and shot 6-of-22 from the field through his first three games.
Sticking with the Hornets, LaMelo Ball has been on fire early on, pouring in 22.8 points to go with 6.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 4.0 threes per game. Ball already has two games with seven made threes, and Monday’s matchup against Boston marked the first time he topped 30 minutes in a game this season.
The Russell Westbrook predicament
The Lakers are off to a 1-2 start after barely hanging on to beat the Grizzlies on Sunday night. Much of the blame for the sluggish start has been lobbed at Westbrook, who’s visibly struggled to find his place alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
After a disastrous opener (eight points, five rebounds, four assists, four turnovers), Westbrook nearly notched a triple-double against Phoenix on Friday (15 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists), but he committed four turnovers in a game that got away from the Lakers early in the second half. In Sunday’s win, Westbrook piled up 13 assists to go with 13 points, seven boards, and four steals, but he turned the ball over nine more times, giving him more turnovers (17) than made field goals (15) through three games.
On a more positive note for the Lakers, Anthony Davis and LeBron James have looked great after both finished last season battling injuries. James is posting his usual counting stats while draining 14-of-29 three-point attempts. Meanwhile, Davis is averaging 25.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.7 blocks per game, helping offset some shaky free-throw shooting (68% FT) early on.
It was Carmelo Anthony who carried the Lakers to victory Sunday night, pouring in 28 points (10-15 FG) and six three-pointers to go with a pair of blocks. Chances are, Anthony won’t be a consistent fantasy option this season, but he’s racked up 44 points and 10 threes over the last two games alone.
Ja Morant is officially on breakout watch
Morant has already been a borderline All-Star through his first two seasons, but early on he looks like a player set to make a major leap toward superstardom. Coming off of a strong preseason, Morant has picked up where he left off, dropping 37, 28, and 40 points, respectively, in his first three games. He’s also tacked on 8.0 assists and 1.3 steals while knocking down 2.7 threes per game — up from just 1.2 per game last season.
The shooting could gradually regress as the season wears on, but it’s extremely encouraging that Morant already has two games with at least seven three-point attempts. Last season, he took at least seven threes only twice in his first 46 games. Morant’s 35.0 percent usage rate trails only Bradley Beal's (34.5%) for the league lead entering Tuesday.
... And so is Tyler Herro
Herro looked like a vastly improved player during the preseason, and it’s carried over thus far. After piling up 27 points, six rebounds, five assists, and four threes against Milwaukee in the opener, Herro followed up with 30 points, 10 boards, and three three-pointers against Indiana on Saturday. He cooled off a bit in Monday’s blowout victory over the Magic but still added nine assists and five rebounds to go with 13 points. Currently, Herro ranks as a top-55 player — he leads the Heat with a 31.7 percent usage rate — but it’s a bit concerning that he’s yet to record a single steal or block in 95 minutes of action.
Rookie class living up to the hype
While Cade Cunningham is yet to take the floor in Detroit, several first-year players have already made significant fantasy impacts.
Coming off of a pair of lackluster games to begin his career, No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green erupted for 30 points (8-10 3Pt), four rebounds, three assists, two blocks, one steal and at least three did he just do that? dunks — including this one over Jayson Tatum:
Jalen Green. The violence of that, my lord. pic.twitter.com/YjoWcAHecT
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) October 25, 2021
Green’s eight three-pointers set a new Rockets rookie record, though he fell just one make short of tying the NBA rookie record which — as everyone knows — is shared by Rodrigue Beaubois and Yogi Ferell.
In Cleveland, Evan Mobley is already making me wish I’d targeted him more aggressively in season-long drafts. The big man is coming off of a 10-point, eight-rebound, two-assist, one-block effort against Denver on Monday. It says a lot that it was easily the least productive game of his young career. After an 0-2 start, the Cavs have quietly banked two wins over Atlanta and Denver. Mobley led the way with 17 points, 11 boards, four blocks, and a steal against the Hawks.
Indiana’s Chris Duarte has been arguably the biggest surprise among rookies thus far, having scored in double-figures in four straight games to begin his career. Headlined by a 27-point, five-rebound, six-three-pointer eruption on Opening Night, Duarte is averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 3.3 threes (44.8% 3Pt) through four games. He’ll eventually cede some minutes to Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren, but both players are still without concrete timetables.
No. 6 overall pick Josh Giddey broke out Sunday against Philly, finishing with 19 points (8-13 FG), eight rebounds, seven assists, and four steals in 34 minutes. The Thunder have been blown out in all three games so far, but Giddey’s spot in the starting five should be safe as OKC once again prioritizes player development.
Down in Orlando, Jalen Suggs is shooting under 30 percent from the field and from three, but he’s scored in double figures and recorded at least one steal in all four games while chipping in 3.5 assists and 3.3 boards. Monday’s loss in Miami (15 points, four three-pointers) was a step in the right direction, but Suggs’ field goal percentage makes him difficult to start in roto leagues right now.
On the Cunningham front, the No. 1 overall pick will miss at least one more game but could make his debut as soon as Saturday (vs. Orlando) or Sunday (at Brooklyn). Cunningham, who missed the entire preseason due to a sprained ankle, scrimmaged with the Pistons’ G League affiliate this week.
Odds and Ends
Michael Porter Jr. is off to a strangely quiet start in Denver, which managed just 87 points in a home loss to the Cavs on Monday. Through three games, Porter Jr. has just 32 total points on 34 shots. He’s made only one trip to the line and hasn’t added much in terms of counting stats (4.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals). The 23-year-old should come around, but his sub-20-percent usage rate thus far is at least mildly concerning.
One of last season’s hottest mid-season waiver wire pickups, Thaddeus Young was a popular late-round target in 2021 fantasy drafts. But a week into the season, he’s already a drop candidate after picking up two DNP-CDs in the Spurs’ first three games. Managers can safely cut bait, but Young could resurface elsewhere later in the season if he’s eventually bought out.
The 4-0 Chicago Bulls had one of the NBA’s most polarizing offseasons, but everything seems to be clicking early on. Granted, the Bulls have played an exceedingly easy schedule (Detroit twice, New Orleans, Toronto), but all four of Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic, and DeMar DeRozan have found ways to be productive. Ball, in particular, is off to a fantastic start, putting up 14.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.8 blocks, and 3.3 threes in 36.0 minutes per game.
Maybe we can chalk it up to the league cracking down on ref-baiting, but James Harden hasn’t looked like James Harden. Through four games, the longtime consensus No. 1 player in fantasy basketball is yet to top 20 points, and while his assists and rebounds numbers have been fine, he’s made just 12 trips to the free-throw line. That’s 12 total for a player who once averaged 11.8 FTA/G for a full season. Inevitably, Harden will adjust to how he’s being officiated, but his days of lapping the rest of the field in free-throw shooting may be over.
With Pascal Siakam sidelined, fourth-overall pick Scottie Barnes has started and topped 30 minutes in all four of Toronto’s games. There’s been some good (a 25-point, 13-rebound game against Boston) and some bad (two six-turnover games already), but Barnes looks like he’ll stick around in the rotation even once Siakam is back.
The same might not be true for Chris Boucher, who needed all of three games to very publicly land in Nick Nurse’s doghouse. Boucher has played just 13 minutes over the last two games, with Nurse leaning heavily on Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch alongside Barnes. Achiuwa has three straight double-doubles after going for 11 points and 11 boards Monday night, but he’s yet to block a shot in 105 minutes.
While I may have sworn off rostering Kevin Love in any leagues this season, I’ll admit I at least entertained the idea of tossing out some waiver claims on the 33-year-old. Love can’t be thrilled to be coming off the bench behind Mobley and Lauri Markkanen, but he’s seemingly embraced the new role. In Monday’s win over Denver, Love posted 22 points (8-13 FG, 5-5 FT) and six rebounds in 21 minutes.