Fantasy Basketball: Late-season NBA rookie risers and fallers

By Nick Whalen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Periodically throughout the season, we’ve been checking in on the 2022 NBA rookie class, which has been both volatile and unpredictable when it comes to fantasy basketball.

While big names like Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith and Jaden Ivey have, for the most part, stayed healthy and played major roles, none of those three currently rank inside the top-130 in 9-cat, total value. With that said, the 2022 class has proven to be deeper than many expected. Walker Kessler and Jalen Williams are the two highest-ranked 9-cat players on the year and neither was picked inside the top 10. Williams went 12th to Oklahoma City, while Kessler fell all the way to 22nd.

With almost exactly a month remaining in the regular season, first-year players will continue to make a major fantasy impact — particularly those on bottom-feeding teams likely to open up their rotations down the stretch. This week, we’ll take a “stock watch” approach to the rookie class, highlighting which players are trending up, trending down or holding their position as we move into the home stretch of the fantasy season.

Trending up

Jaden Ivey, Pistons

Thanks in large part to shaky percentages, Ivey has had a better rookie season in real life than in fantasy, where he currently ranks outside the top-200. He’s been steady all year, but Ivey has picked things up of late, posting 16.5 points, 6.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 threes (37.5% 3Pt) since the start of February. With Bojan Bogdanovic perhaps on his way to being shut down, Ivey should be the Pistons’ unquestioned offensive engine the rest of the way.

Walker Kessler, Jazz

Those who grabbed Kessler early on and stashed him on the bench have been handsomely rewarded over the last few months. The big man is the best fantasy player in the class and has multiple blocks in 10 of his last 11 games. The Jazz are a bit worrisome from a shutdown perspective, but as a rookie, Kessler should be immune if the Jazz do opt to pull back over the final weeks. On the season, Kessler ranks a full round ahead of Rudy Gobert in total fantasy value, despite not taking over as a full-time starter until mid-January.

Jalen Williams, Thunder

Williams is developing into a well-rounded fantasy star, and there’s a strong case to be made that he’d be a top-three pick in a 2022 re-draft. Over the last 11 games, Williams is averaging 20.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.5 steals (!!), 0.5 blocks and 1.6 made threes with a 57/50/85 shooting line. He’s currently dealing with a wrist injury, however, so fantasy managers should closely monitor his status over the next few days.

Mark Williams, Hornets

The big man may be trending closer to “status quo” territory, but overall he’s still on the ascent after taking over as the Hornets’ starting center post-trade-deadline. Williams is more inconsistent than managers would prefer, but he’s still putting up 11.5 points, 9.1 boards and 1.4 blocks over his last 10 games.

Tari Eason, Rockets

Fantasy managers have been waiting months for the Eason breakout, and while we’re running out of time, the LSU product has worked his way into the top-100 in 9-cat total value. Though he’s still not starting, Eason continues to add high-end steals value in 25-to-30 minutes per night off the bench.

Ousmane Dieng, Thunder

The Thunder are officially on Tank Watch the rest of the way, which is incredibly worrisome for players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. However, if the Thunder do start resting veterans, Dieng will be in position to benefit. After spending a month in the G League, Dieng has logged at least 19 minutes in each of OKC’s last three games. Over the last two, he’s totaled 23 points, nine rebounds, four steals and four three-pointers in 39 minutes.

Trending down

Jabari Smith, Rockets

For the most part, it’s been the same old story for Smith, who simply has not flashed much tangible upside. He’s scored in single-digits in three of his last six games and continues to be a trainwreck from long range. Any hope of a late-season, he’s finally figuring it out stretch from Smith is fading quickly.

Jalen Duren, Pistons

The big man has missed six straight games with an ankle issue and remains without a firm timetable. Once he’s back, he’ll face increased competition for minutes from Marvin Bagley, James Wiseman and Isaiah Stewart.

AJ Griffin, Hawks

A staple in the rotation for most of the year, Griffin has been a DNP-CD in each of the Hawks’ last two games. The addition of Saddiq Bey looks like it’s pushed him out of new head coach Quin Snyder’s rotation for the time being.

Status quo

Paolo Banchero, Magic

It feels like Banchero has flown under the radar for the last few months on a middling Magic team, but he continues to be one of the most consistent, high-level rookies in recent history. Over his last 10 games, he’s averaging 19.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals/blocks, though his three-point shooting has fallen off of a cliff. Since Jan. 25, Banchero is shooting a ghastly 15.4 percent (10-of-65) from deep. Still, his counting stats and durability — 48 consecutive games played — have been massive for fantasy managers.

Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers

It’s true that Mathurin’s production has slightly tailed off, but for the most part he’s putting up comparable numbers to his season averages. Since the start of February, Mathurin has hit a wall from deep (27.9% 3Pt), but he’s still giving managers 13.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.2 made free throws per game.

Keegan Murray, Kings

Like Smith, Murray’s output tends to vary night-to-night, but he’s been a much more efficient player overall. Murray is shooting better than 43 percent from three over the last month, and since the All-Star break he’s adding 1.3 steals per game. He has more steals in his last seven games than in the previous 20 combined.

Malaki Branham, Spurs

The Ohio State product had a strong run in February while Devin Vassell was sidelined, but his role will be a bit more complicated going forward. The tanking Spurs are impossible to project when it comes to the injury report, though, so Branham should still be in line for a decent number of starts. Over his last 13 games (30.8 MPG), he averaged 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 threes.

Ochai Agbaji, Jazz

While I’d like to place Agbaji in the Trending Up category, he hasn’t been able to do much with his recent jump in minutes. The Kanas product has logged six starts in his last 10 appearances, but he’s providing just 9.8 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.9 threes (41.0% FG, 33.9% 3PT) in that stretch.

Jeremy Sochan, Spurs

In general, Sochan projects as a late riser who should receive plenty of minutes over the next few weeks. He’s already on the ascent as a scorer — 15.4 PPG in last 15 games — but remains a fairly shaky fantasy asset given his volatile percentages and lack of consistent production on defense. Sochan missed the Spurs’ last game Sunday with a knee injury and is considered questionable for Friday’s matchup with the Nuggets.