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By Mike Barner, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The start of the NBA regular season is almost upon us. With a significant amount of preseason in our rearview mirror, we’re starting to get a better picture of how certain teams and players may perform over the long haul.
At this point, most teams have played three or four preseason games, which means their stars have probably played one or two. Nonetheless, we have enough of a sample to give us at least some inclination as to which players are trending in the right — or wrong — direction before the games start to count.
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Despite being limited to only 43 games last season, Anunoby took a significant step forward in his fourth NBA season. He averaged career-highs basically across the board, including 15.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. His biggest improvement came from behind the arc as he averaged 2.4 three-pointers on 39.8 percent shooting. That efficiency was even more impressive when you factor in that he averaged 6.1 three-point attempts, which was nearly double from the previous season. He’s also proven to be a strong defender, averaging at least 1.4 steals in both of the last two seasons.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Anunoby could be poised to break out even further and make a case for being a top-30 fantasy option. He’s scored at least 17 points in all four of his preseason games, including two games with more than 20 points. More importantly, he’s shot a combined 13-for-24 (54.2 percent) from behind the arc. That type of efficiency isn’t sustainable over the long term, but it further illustrates that his production last season was not a fluke. He should be set for a bump in volume.
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
After dominating in the playoff bubble, there were high expectations for Herro coming into last season. While he couldn’t live up to them, he wasn’t a complete flop either, with his averages of 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.0 three-pointers per game. The problem, from a fantasy perspective, is that he only shot 43.9 percent from the field and contributed very little on the defensive end.
The Heat made some changes this offseason, including bringing in Kyle Lowry to start at point guard. Herro should still be an important member of their second unit, though, and play significant minutes. He scored at least 24 points in three of the Heat’s first four preseason games and hit eight total three-pointers. If anything were to happen to Lowry or Jimmy Butler, Herro could be thrust into an even more prominent role. Basically, he has a lot of upside for a player who has a Yahoo ADP in the 120s.
Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors had major depth issues last season. They lacked viable scoring options behind Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins, which created a larger role for Poole as the season moved along. Over his final 38 games, Poole averaged 14.7 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.3 three-pointers across 24 minutes per game.
While they have improved their depth to a degree, the Warriors still badly need secondary scorers, especially with Klay Thompson (Achilles) possibly out until December. Poole has started all four preseason games and will likely stay in that role, at least until Thompson returns. While fantasy managers likely shouldn’t expect much from him outside of scoring and threes, his averages of 23.2 points and 4.0 three-pointers in the preseason should have him moving up fantasy draft boards. In Tuesday’s win over the struggling Lakers, Poole flashed for 18 points, five rebounds, and four assists in just 19 minutes.
Mo Bamba, Orlando Magic
Stuck behind Nikola Vucevic, Bamba didn’t have many opportunities to contribute during his first couple of seasons in the league. After Vucevic was dealt to the Bulls last season, we caught a glimpse of what Bamba could be capable of. He averaged 11.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and 1.2 three-pointers across his final 24 games. What’s even more impressive is that, while he played more than previously, he still only averaged 21 minutes per game during that stretch.
After coming off of the bench in his first preseason game, Bamba has started the last two games. He even started alongside Wendell Carter Jr. in their last game Sunday and looked plenty comfortable, logging 27 minutes and posting 16 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, and two three-pointers. Overall, he’s averaged 12.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.3 blocks, and 1.3 three-pointers over three games. There’s no reason to believe that he won’t at least average 20 to 25 minutes per game during the regular season, so Bamba has emerged as a viable target in the late rounds of your draft — especially if you need blocks.
Trey Murphy, New Orleans Pelicans
The 17th pick in the 2021 Draft had a strong showing at Summer League in August, and it’s carried over to the preseason. In his preseason debut, Murphy went for 21 points and six three-pointers, only to follow it up with 20 points and six more threes two nights later. In the Pelicans’ next exhibition, Murphy drained three more three-pointers on his way to 17 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, and a steal.
Through four appearances, he’s averaging 17.5 points, 4.3 threes (53.1% 3PT), 6.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists. New head coach Willie Green has had nothing but good things to say about the rookie, who’s likely locked up a spot in the regular rotation — he could even compete for a starting job — heading into the regular season.
Other notables: Lonzo Ball, Bones Hyland, Jordan Nwora, Miles Bridges, Daniel Gafford, Jalen Smith, Scottie Barnes, D’Angelo Russell, Precious Achiuwa, Desmond Bane, Josh Giddey
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Williamson is a special player. With his size and athleticism, the sky's the limit. After a monster season in which the Pelicans removed any sort of minutes restrictions, he was expected to be taken in the first two or three rounds of most fantasy leagues this season.
As good as Williamson can be, there has to be some level of concern about his current foot injury. He still hasn’t played in the preseason and is yet to even be cleared for full-speed running. He is set to have some scans taken of his foot this week, which will reportedly help the Pelicans determine the next steps in his rehabilitation. Since he hasn’t even started running yet, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him start the season on the sidelines, even if the results of the scan are encouraging. Add in the possibility that he might have his minutes limited when he does eventually retake the floor and suddenly Williamson carries a bit more risk than managers should hope to take on in the second round.
Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Lakers
If you play in a points league, Westbrook is an absolutely elite option. He’s averaged a triple-double in four of the last five seasons. The numbers speak for themselves. However, the downside in roto leagues is that he can — and usually will — tank your percentages. Still, with what he can do with his counting stats, Westbrook remains a decidedly polarizing option.
The problem with Westbrook is that he’s now in a very different situation with the Lakers, playing alongside LeBron James, who can stuff the stat sheet in a lot of the same ways. He also has Anthony Davis and a deep roster around him, which likely means that Westbrook won’t be asked to shoulder as much of the load. When he played alongside another player who can do it all in James Harden during the 2019-20 season, he “only” averaged 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game.
Westbrook didn’t play in the Lakers’ first two preseason games, but his showings in the next two indicated that he could be in line for a bit of a bumpy ride with his new team. He didn’t score more than eight points in either game and had 15 turnovers to go with just nine assists. Westbrook looked slightly better in Tuesday’s matchup against the Warriors (10 points, 10 rebounds, six assists), but he shot just 3-of-9 from the field and racked up five more turnovers in 28 minutes.
Other notables: Talen Horton-Tucker, Kyrie Irving, Jalen Suggs, Kevin Love, Malik Beasley, Isaiah Roby