By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
If you’re an experienced fantasy basketball player, you’re well aware of the unwritten rule that rookies rarely tend to be valuable fantasy commodities. For the most part, it’s true. However, in recent years, a number of first-year players have emerged not only as viable roster options, but as players who can comfortably provide top-100 value.
Take last season, for instance. Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma and John Collins each emerged as starting-caliber fantasy contributors, while Ben Simmons, a holdover from the 2017 Draft class, finished in the top-five in the NBA in total steals and assists, in addition to ranking 16th in rebounds and within the top 40 in points and blocks.
Simmons and Mitchell, in particular, enjoyed special rookie seasons, but the 2017 rookie class also ran deep with borderline roster-worthy players like Jordan Bell, Luke Kennard, Bam Adebayo, Dennis Smith, Jr. and Josh Hart — four of whom were selected outside the top-10.
Looking ahead to this season, we’ll take a look at several of the top rookies in the 2018 class in an effort to project which are most likely to be worth a gamble in the mid-to-late rounds, and which are best left on the waiver wire to begin the season.
Wendell Carter, Jr., Bulls
Overshadowed by Marvin Bagley and Grayson Allen for much of last season, Carter may just be the most NBA-ready big man in the class. He’s not the explosive athlete Bagley is, but Carter was nearly as proficient on the glass, and he’s a more consistent shooter and a significantly better rim-protector. With veteran center Robin Lopez still on the roster, Carter isn’t guaranteed to start right away in Chicago, but he’s clearly the future at the position, with his developmental timeline matching up with the rest of the Bulls’ suddenly intriguing young core.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
We didn’t get to see any of Doncic at summer league, so, to some, he remains as much of a mystery now as he was on draft night. But for those who’ve studied Doncic’s work overseas, there’s reason to believe he’s the best long-term fantasy asset in the 2018 class. At 19, Doncic is already one of the most — if not the most — accomplished European players to ever make the jump to the NBA. Like all rookies, he’ll face a learning curve, but the hope is that Doncic’s years of experience playing professionally will help smooth the adjustment process as Dallas flips the switch from rebuilding team to playoff hopeful.
Where, exactly, Doncic fits in with the Mavs remains to be seen, but his ability to play at least three positions should enable him to stay on the floor and work as both a primary and secondary initiator on offense. Doncic won’t face an overwhelming scoring burden right away, but from an overall production standpoint, he projects to be the most well-rounded rookie in the class.
Deandre Ayton, Suns
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Ayton emerged as the near-consensus No. 1 pick, but he doesn’t carry the same absolute lock feel of an Anthony Davis or a Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s not so much a knock on Ayton as it is an indictment on just how special the Davis and Towns were coming out of Kentucky. While Ayton is more physically dominant, he got away with using his superior size and strength in college, and it remains to be seen how much of an adjustment process he’ll require at the NBA level.
But even if Ayton struggles relative to expectations, he should still be among the safest fantasy bets in the 2018 class. He’ll step into a starting spot from Day 1, and the Suns, who traded Alex Len this summer, have little motivation to cede minutes to aging veteran Tyson Chandler. Ayton should be a monster in the paint who rebounds at a high rate and finishes everything at the rim, but just how well his mid-range game and outside shot translate will ultimately determine his first-year fantasy ceiling.
Marvin Bagley, Kings
From a pure production standpoint, it’s difficult to poke holes in Bagley’s freshman year at Duke. He averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds, shot better than 60 percent from the field, and knocked down nearly 40 percent of his three-point attempts. While his defensive abilities remain a massive question mark, those concerns aren’t nearly as magnified in a fantasy context. Bagley won’t provide much in the defensive categories, but on a Kings team with very little talent up front, Bagley will be in position to take on a significant offensive role right away. Even with his efficiency likely to dip, Bagley projects to be a valuable source of points and rebounds, but not much else.
Mohamed Bamba, Magic
Long-term, Bamba has as much, if not more, potential than any rookie in the class. With a borderline-unprecedented combination of length, athleticism and fluidity, Bamba is the physical prototype for the future of the center position. Will that translate to immediate fantasy value? We’ll see.
While he flashed elite rim-protecting ability in his one year at Texas, Bamba was a hesitant scorer who subsided largely on put-backs and dunks and struggled to get clean looks with his back to the basket. The framework of an incredibly smooth-for-his-size jumper is in place, but it may take time for Bamba to develop the requisite confidence to unleash it in full capacity.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the 2018-19 season is the presence of veteran Nikola Vucevic, who’s averaged a combined 16.6 points and 10.1 rebounds over the last five seasons. Orlando can’t kick Vucevic to the curb, and while the Magic will certainly carve out a role for Bamba, this season could very well be a developmental year for the 20-year-old before Vucevic’s contract comes off the books next summer.
Jaren Jackson, Jr., Grizzlies
One of the youngest players in the draft, Jackson won’t turn 19 until mid-September, but the No. 4 overall pick will likely be thrown into the fire right away for a Grizzlies team hell-bent on returning to the postseason. Jackson is ahead of the curve, for his age, on both ends of the floor, and if his college production is any indication, he’ll have a good chance to lead all rookies in blocks this season. The question is whether Memphis will be comfortable handing over a starting spot to Jackson. Even if he plays behind JaMychal Green, Jackson should see enough minutes in a shallow frontcourt to be relevant in deeper formats, and perhaps in standard leagues, as well — particularly if his three-point stroke (39.6% 3PT last season) translates.
Collin Sexton, Cavaliers
While the Cavs inked Kevin Love to a lucrative extension this summer, Sexton enters the season as the most intriguing piece on a team attempting to rebuild on the fly. The 19-year-old was one of the best freshmen in the country last season, and he was a standout on both ends of the floor at the Las Vegas Summer League. Long-term, Sexton profiles as a productive floor general, but the Cavs aren’t may not hand him the keys to the car right away. He’ll face competition for minutes from veterans George Hill and Jordan Clarkson, and Sexton’s iffy three-point shooting — 33.6% 3PT at Alabama — suggests he’s not a great fit off the ball. Production similar to that of De’Aaron Fox’s rookie season seems like a realistic — if not slightly pessimistic — expectation.
Trae Young, Hawks
Young has a chance to be one of the more unique — and polarizing — rookies in recent memory. The Oklahoma product went from sure-thing-National-Player-of-the-Year to almost missing the NCAA Tournament in the span of two months, leading the Sooners on a roller coaster ride that came to a screeching and disappointing halt in the Round of 64.
There’s something to be said about Young’s borderline-extreme confidence level, which never wavered throughout the ups and downs, but he’ll face what will likely be unfair expectations — especially after the Hawks traded up, and out of picking Luka Doncic, to acquire his services. All indications are that Atlanta, which is not so coyly trying to construct a Warriors East, is fully prepared to turn the reins over to Young — the question is whether that will translate to meaningful fantasy production.
In leagues that place high value on made threes, Young should be a viable option, who also adds assists and raw scoring. But there’s little reason to believe he’ll play efficient basketball, and his three-point volume, which could be unprecedented for a rookie, will likely be a cumbersome drag on percentages. Much like Lonzo Ball last season, Young will be a divisive fantasy commodity whose value could swing drastically on a week-to-week basis.
Kevin Knox, Knicks
After looking like (arguably) the best rookie at the Las Vegas Summer League, expectations for Knox have skyrocketed. While Knox, one of the youngest players in the draft — he won’t turn 20 until next August — is still in the early stages of his development, he’s an elite, versatile athlete who’s in one of the best basketball situations of any first-year player. With Kristaps Porzingis set to miss a significant chunk of the season, 2018-19 will be another rebuilding year in New York, but that plays to Knox’s favor.
The Kentucky product will have a decent chance to start right away, and even if he comes off the bench, he should have a long leash and could end up shouldering a sizeable portion of the scoring burden. For now, Knox is probably only worth a late-round flyer in deeper leagues, but he has the tools and projected role to be a points/threes/rebounds contributor, particularly if he ends up playing the four for David Fizdale.
Other Rookies To Watch
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Clippers
High-upside dynasty league prospect will begin the season behind Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic but could be an intriguing second-half option, especially if the Clippers fall back in the Western Conference playoff race.
Omari Spellman, Hawks
The former Villanova standout probably wouldn’t contribute for a good team, but the Hawks are not that, and they don’t have many options up front behind John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon.
Aaron Holiday, Pacers
Perhaps the most complete guard in college basketball last season, Holiday will play behind Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, and Darren Collison as a rookie. He’s much more interesting as a dynasty consideration with all three of Joseph, Evans and Collison set to hit free agency next summer.
Miles Bridges, Hornets
Bridges is a top-tier athlete with a high motor, but he’s the definition of a tweener, and he regressed as a shooter after returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season.
Kevin Huerter, Hawks
Atlanta drafted Huerter hoping he can do a reasonable impression of Klay Thompson. The Maryland product could have deep-league value as a single-category specialist.
Mikal Bridges, Suns
Widely considered the most NBA-ready wing in the class, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year will battle for minutes in what’s suddenly an overcrowded Suns’ wing rotation.
Elie Okobo, Suns
A late-riser up draft boards, Okobo is as raw as he is talented. The 20-year-old is the wild card for a team with very little depth at point guard.
Harry Giles, Kings
The former No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2016, Giles is finally healthy after sitting out all of last season. Expectations for the 20th overall pick in 2017 are cautiously hopeful.
Frank Jackson, Pelicans
Injuries kept Jackson off the floor during his true rookie season, but he’ll now serve as insurance behind Jrue Holiday and offseason addition Elfrid Payton.
Michael Porter, Jr., Nuggets
Well worth the gamble at the end of the lottery, Porter is as talented as any prospect in the class. But even on a team with shaky wing depth, he’s likely still a year away from fantasy relevance in most leagues.