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Fantasy Basketball: Checking in on the NBA's top rookies

·9 min read
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By Nick Whalen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

With the trade deadline in the rear-view and the dog days of the fantasy season upon us, what better time to conduct another check-in on the 2020 rookie class?

It’s been over a month since we zeroed on the first-year players — and at that time, LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton were duking it out for the title of Top Fantasy Rookie in most formats.

Shortly thereafter, of course, Ball turned on the jets and solidified himself as easily the best rookie — both in fantasy and reality — from the 2020 Draft. While Ball’s wrist fracture doesn’t take anything away from his accomplishments through 41 games, it likely ends his fantasy season, meaning he almost certainly won’t finish as the top rookie in terms of total value in eight-category leagues. Entering Thursday, Ball is still a top-50 player overall (39th, to be exact), but that number will continue to fall as he racks up missed games.

Haliburton (50th overall) is on his way to overtaking Ball as the season’s top fantasy rookie, and he’ll probably end up holding that crown by a large margin. Of course, most rookies don’t step in and instantly produce top-100 value, but the 2020 class has been particularly fickle when it comes to finding sustainable fantasy viability. Even so, players like Immanuel Quickley, Anthony Edwards, Jae’Sean Tate, and Patrick Williams have shown plenty of flashes to imply they’re well on their way to productive pro careers.

Using those eight-cat rankings as our guide, let’s take a look at the season’s most notable first-year players:

Tyrese Haliburton, Kings

Overall ranking: 50th

While Ball still sits ahead of Haliburton, the 12th-overall pick should overtake him within the next week or two, assuming he stays healthy. Haliburton was neck-and-neck with Ball through most of the first half, but he missed a handful of games around the end of February, just as Ball was picking up steam. Either way, Haliburton is having a fantastic all-around season for a late-lottery rookie, with his overall efficiency — 48.6% FG, 87.2% FT, 42.3% 3Pt — standing out as his most impressive trait.

LaMelo Ball, Hornets

Overall ranking: 39th

Ball has only missed five games — he didn’t miss any time before the wrist injury — so the fact that he’s still a top-40 player isn’t all that surprising. Again, that ranking will drop, but had the injury not occurred, Ball would’ve been on pace for the best rookie fantasy season since Ben Simmons’ 15th overall finish in 2017-18. At the time of the injury, Ball was the 22nd-most-valuable player, though the fact that he didn’t miss any games was a significant factor. Still, that shouldn’t detract from one of the more memorable rookie guard seasons in recent memory. Over his final 22 games, Ball posted 19.8 points, 6.3 assists, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.8 steals while holding a 47-43-83 shooting line.

Jae’Sean Tate, Rockets

Overall ranking: 85th

A combination of opportunity, versatility, and durability make Tate one of the most surprising top-100 players of the 2020-21 season. Undrafted in 2018, Tate resurfaced with the Rockets after spending all of last season overseas. He’s gone on to appear in every game, averaging 10.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, and 0.8 three-pointers, while shooting 52 percent from the field. As the numbers imply, Tate does a little bit of everything, and the Rockets have taken advantage of his skill set to use him at virtually every position. Playing for a tanking team that at one point dropped 20 games in a row has certainly helped, but Houston appears to have found a diamond in the rough.

Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves

Overall ranking: 92nd

The No. 1 overall pick got off to a predictably rough start, but he’s rounded into form over the last five weeks. Since Feb. 24, Edwards is averaging 23.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 2.6 three-pointers per game. Efficiency remains a major concern (41.4% FG, 29.8% 3Pt in that span), but Edwards is noticeably more comfortable picking his spots to attack.

Minnesota Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards (1)
Anthony Edwards has gotten better as the season has come along. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

He owns the highest-scoring game by a rookie this season (42 points at Phoenix on March 18), and he’s flashed better potential as a steals-provider than most expected. Edwards has at least one steal in each of his last 16 games, and he finished Wednesday’s win over the Knicks with 24 points, three steals, and a career-high three blocks. Over the last month (13 games), Edwards ranks 50th overall in total value — well ahead of any other first-year players.

Patrick Williams, Bulls

Overall ranking: 129th

Williams’ rookie season has been a slow and steady burn. He’s scored more than 20 points just once, but the fourth-overall pick has started every game in which he’s played while missing only one contest. In 28.4 minutes per game, Williams holds averages of 9.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.7 blocks and 0.8 made threes. The volume hasn’t been huge, but Williams’ percentages are rock-solid (47.4% FG; 38% 3Pt), and just how good he’s been on the defensive end doesn’t always show up in the box score. Williams may never reach the heights of Ball or Haliburton or Edwards, but the 19-year-old is shaping up to be one of the more well-rounded fantasy players in the class.

Saddiq Bey, Pistons

Overall ranking: 139th

Like Tate, Bey has been able to take advantage of increased opportunity on a team that abandoned any playoff hopes about a month into the season. Since becoming a full-time starter in mid-February, Bey has put together averages of 12.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 0.9 steals. He’s also tacked on 2.7 made-threes at a 36.3 percent clip. Bey’s overall efficiency has waned of late (38.7% FG since the break), but he’s remained a strong source of three-pointers and ranks fifth among all rookies in total points scored.

Isaiah Stewart, Pistons

Overall ranking: 141st

The 16th overall pick has been in the rotation since Day 1, and his shot-blocking has kept him in fringe-roster territory in deeper fantasy leagues. His overall averages — 6.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 0.5 SPG — are nothing to write home about, but they become more impressive considering Stewart is seeing only 19.1 minutes per game. Stewart very quietly leads all rookies in both total rebounds (257) and total blocks (45), while ranking fourth in win shares. He’s also expanded his range of late, hitting eight threes in his last eight games.

Immanuel Quickley, Knicks

Overall ranking: 163rd

Quickley highs have been higher than most of the players’ on this list, but his ability to heat up in a hurry hasn’t necessarily translated to strong fantasy value. For one, his workload has remained inconsistent night-to-night, and on top of that, he’s shooting just 38.7 percent from the field. Long-term, Quickley is on an upward trajectory, but as of now his fantasy profile essentially consists only of points, threes, and free throw percentage. He does lead all rookies in made free throws (119), despite ranking 13th in total minutes played.

Theo Maledon, Thunder

Overall ranking: 171st

As the 34th overall pick, little was expected of Maledon, but he’ll likely end the season having started more than half of the Thunder’s games. For the most part, Maledon hasn’t been viable in standard leagues, but his raw numbers in 25 starts — 10.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 2.0 3PM — are respectable by 19-year-old standards. The Thunder’s unique situation has made Maledon a tough evaluation, and while it’s too early to say whether he has the potential to be a starter long-term, we’ve already seen more from him than expected in Year 1.

Other notables

Moses Brown, Thunder: He’s only played in 18 games, but Brown is averaging 13.4 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks across his last nine — a stretch that includes a 21-point, 23-rebound eruption.

James Wiseman, Warriors: Missed games have cost the No. 2 pick, but not as much as his almost complete lack of assists, steals, and three-point production.

Cole Anthony, Magic: Anthony had a golden opportunity when Markelle Fultz went down with a torn ACL, but an injury of his own has kept the No. 15 pick sidelined since Feb. 9. Before the injury, Anthony showed plenty of flashes, but he struggled to shoot efficiently and ranked around 180th overall.

Deni Avdija, Wizards: It’s been mostly a developmental year for Avdija, who’s in the rotation on most nights but typically sees limited minutes. He’s up to 24.4 minutes per game since the start of March, but Avdija has translated that to just 6.6 points (28.3% 3Pt) and 4.9 rebounds per game.

Desmond Bane, Grizzlies: Bane ranks just behind Maledon at 174th overall, but he’s fallen off a bit since the Grizzlies have begun to give more looks to Grayson Allen and De’Anthony Melton. In his 11 starts, Bane has posted 9.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.9 steals, and 1.6 threes in 24.6 minutes.

Kira Lewis, Pelicans: He hasn’t played enough to warrant fantasy consideration, but Lewis is averaging 8.1 points, 3.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.0 threes over his last 10 games.

Jaden McDaniels, Timberwolves: The 28th pick entered the starting lineup five games ago and has since averaged 13.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 2.4 three-pointers. It could very well be a bad-team/good-stats situation, but McDaniels is a name to monitor as the Timberwolves fall further and further away from playoff contention.