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By Mike Barner, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The regular season is nearly in the books. It was certainly a crazy campaign with COVID-19 creating a compressed schedule and plenty of missed games by players who either contracted the virus or who were placed in the league’s health and safety protocols because of close contact.
Let’s take a look back at some pleasant fantasy surprises and discuss what to potentially expect from those players next season.
Julius Randle, New York Knicks
When the Knicks once again missed out on signing an elite free agent, they settled on signing Randle before the 2019-20 season. His first campaign with the Knicks was a successful one, with averages of 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. However, the Knicks missed the playoffs again, which eventually resulted in them bringing in Tom Thibodeau as their new coach.
Thibodeau has the Knicks back in the playoff hunt, thanks in large part to the improved play of Randle. He’s averaging career-highs in both points (24.1) and rebounds (10.2), but that’s not what makes him one of the biggest fantasy surprises of the season. He’s made a huge jump in the playmaking department, averaging 5.9 assists per contest. Also, he’s averaging 2.3 three-pointers, which is more than double his previous best.
Finally, he’s shooting 80.9 percent from the charity stripe — nearly eight percentage points higher than his previous career high. When you put it all together, he’s ranked 37th on a per-game basis in nine-category leagues. Factor in that he’s barely missed any time and Randle is a first-round value (total value) in eight-cat leagues.
Not bad for a player who entered the season with a lower ADP (74.3) than Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Oubre, and Hassan Whiteside.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
LaVine has been the leader of the Bulls since he was acquired from the Timberwolves. The 2019-20 campaign was his best in Chicago, finishing with averages of 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 3.1 three-pointers. As good as those numbers were, he’s taken his game to another level this season with averages of 27.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 3.4 three-pointers.
The reason why he’s on this list, though, is because of his significant jump in efficiency. He’s shooting a fantastic 50.5 percent from the field — nearly four percentage points higher than his career average. With that number in hand, LaVine is ranked 26th in nine-category leagues on a per-game basis.
LaVine missed a key stretch towards the end of the regular season because of COVID-19 that will likely result in the Bulls missing the playoffs yet again. It also deprived us of the opportunity to see how he would mesh with Nikola Vucevic, a second star who Chicago hoped would lift some of the offensive burden from LaVine’s shoulders.
It’s worth considering that a full season playing alongside Vucevic and some possible regression with his efficiency could result in LaVine falling in the rankings next season. With that being said, unless the Bulls add a third star, he’s still someone that you’ll likely need to take in the second round if you want him on your squad.
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Ball’s rookie campaign began with him coming off the bench in his first 20 games. However, it was evident pretty quickly that he deserved more playing time and to start ahead of Devonte’ Graham. He’s thrived since becoming a starter, averaging 18.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, and 2.4 three-pointers across 24 games. He’s also helped with his percentages — a rarity for a rookie guard — shooting 45.0 percent from the field and 79.1 percent from the charity stripe during that stretch.
Just about everyone knew that Ball was going to be an excellent passer right out of the gate, but few could have projected him to perform so well in the scoring department. He’s clearly a franchise-changing type of talent, so look for him to follow this up with an extremely productive sophomore season. Fantasy managers will need to be extra aggressive in 2021-22 drafts to land Ball, who had an ADP of 96.2 this season.
Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets
Ball isn’t the only Hornets player who has far exceeded his expectations this season. Even with Ball in the fold, Rozier is having by far the best season of his career. His playing time hasn’t decreased a bit, mostly because Graham ended up taking the biggest hit in that department. When Rozier sees heavy minutes, he can be a valuable source of production in fantasy because of his ability to contribute across several categories. However, he’s traditionally been a major drain on field-goal percentage, having never shot better than 42.3 percent from the field in his career.
All that changed this season, as Rozier is hitting at a 45.1 percent clip from the field. What’s even more impressive is that he’s over 45 percent despite taking 8.3 three-pointers per game. Rozier has one more season left on his contract, so as long as the Hornets don’t bring in any big names over the summer, he should remain one of the focal points of the offense. While Ball is the far superior passer, Rozier is the better pure scorer.
Kevin Porter Jr., Houston Rockets
Porter showed some flashes as a rookie, but he never found a defined role in Cleveland and entered his second season mostly off of the fantasy radar (ADP: 149.4). He missed extensive time early on due to some off-court issues, but the Cavs ultimately deciding Porter wasn’t worth the headache turned out to be a major boon for fantasy managers. As soon as he arrived in Houston, it was instantly clear that he’d play a larger and most consistent role.
Fast forward to April and May, and with the Rockets tanking down the stretch, they’ve essentially handed over the reins to Porter. He’s turned out to be a huge pickup for any fantasy manager who grabbed him off the waiver wire, averaging 16.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.9 three-pointers. On his best nights, he looks like one of the league’s craftiest and most explosive scorers. He’s topped 20 points nine times this season, including a 50-point, 11-assist, nine three-pointer eruption against Milwaukee just last week. With many stars hurt and tanking teams resting players who had been valuable, Porter’s excellent production couldn’t have come at a better time.
The question is: what can we expect from Porter moving forward? The Rockets are in the early stages of a rebuilding process after trading away James Harden, so their roster will likely look very different next season. Ultimately, Porter’s role will likely be determined by what happens on draft night. If the Rockets land a lead ball-handler like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, or Jalen Suggs, then Porter could be relegated to a lesser role as he battles for touches alongside John Wall. But if Houston goes in another direction, there’s a scenario in which Porter could open next season as the starting two-guard.
Either way, fantasy managers will be much more vigilant during draft season this time around.