Fantasy Basketball: Will Karl-Anthony Towns return to give your team a playoff boost?
By Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We have just over 10 percent of the NBA regular season left, but that doesn't mean things are slowing down. Nearly every team is still jockeying for some position, whether for the playoffs or lottery odds.
Injuries — real, exaggerated or flat-out made up — have a massive effect on fantasy basketball down the stretch. The most significant absences and returns are the central theme for this week's column but don't forget to pay attention to the smaller things. Streaming is crucial at this point in the year. Leagues are won and lost by reading between the injury lines and swooping in with aggressive waiver claims.
KAT could return tomorrow
There's optimism that Karl-Anthony Towns could finally return for Wednesday's game versus the Hawks, ending a nearly four-month absence. Towns was supposed to be back sooner but suffered a major setback in January that effectively reset his rehab.
This is great news for fantasy managers who have been patient enough to hold KAT during this saga, and it's time to add him off waivers if he's floating around in any leagues — just remember to temper expectations. The Wolves have just nine games left, with two back-to-back sets. I'd be shocked if Towns played in both ends, so optimistically, you're getting seven games from him. But given the long layoff, we must also expect a cautious ramp-up. This is speculation, but the team may play him 15 minutes or less in his first game back, and I doubt they'll push him to 30-plus minutes until the final couple of games. Still, he can put up big numbers in 20-25 minutes, so it's worth starting him.
Grizz hopeful Morant plays Wednesday
This isn't an "injury" update, but it fits the theme. After taking a leave of absence and being retroactively suspended by the NBA, Ja Morant is targeting a return tomorrow. Morant, who has missed nine games, rejoined the team Monday to start ramping up his conditioning, and he was notably present on the bench during Monday's win over the Mavericks.
Fantasy managers don't have much to worry about. The point guard got a warm reception from teammates and fans, and he's one of the better-conditioned athletes in the league. Don't be surprised if he sees his usual workload out of the gate. Managers who added Tyus Jones should be able to drop the backup comfortably.
Kyrie in 'precautionary' boot, Doncic still day-to-day
Monday's loss to the Grizzlies was Kyrie Irving's second game back from a three-game absence, but he didn't exit unscathed. Irving has been playing through the pain of his big toe injury, but the concern is that he re-aggravated the issue Monday, as he was seen in a walking boot after the contest. The point guard downplayed the situation, noting that the boot is "just precautionary" but also intimating that the injury is "worse than I thought."
The 36-36 Mavericks — also without Luka Doncic (thigh), who is day-to-day over the past six games — don't have the opportunity to give Irving a proper rest. Dallas is just one game above the play-in, with the 11-seed, 35-37 Lakers nipping at their heels. That's a good situation for fantasy managers, as Irving will presumably continue playing through as much pain as he can handle. Dallas is likely trying to rush Doncic back as well, and it was encouraging that he was initially questionable for Monday's game before being ruled out.
The LeBron non-update update
In classic NBA-injury-reporting fashion, a commotion was made around coach Darvin Ham's statements that the Lakers "anticipate [LeBron James] coming back at some point." This seemed to be the case all along, and no updated timetable was given, so this is essentially non-news.
What is news, however, is Austin Reaves earning "MVP" chants amid a career-high 35 points in a win over Orlando on Sunday. Putting memes aside, Reaves has been excellent in LeBron's absence. Over this 11-game stretch, the sophomore Oklahoma product is averaging 17.7 points on 56/40/83 shooting, 5.3 assists (only 2.0 turnovers) and 3.0 rebounds in 28.1 minutes. He's been almost alarmingly aggressive, getting to the charity stripe 7.3 times per game and taking 18 freebies during Sunday's explosion. Until LeBron is back, Reaves is practically a must-roster player in all leagues.
Elsewhere Around the NBA
Randle goes for 57
In Monday's track meet against the Timberwolves, Julius Randle popped for a career-high 57 points as the Knicks fell 140-134 at home. It's a disappointing loss for New York, but fantasy managers who hoped for a bounce-back season out of Randle are getting it. After a slow October and November, the forward has averaged 27.5 points on 46/35/76 shooting, 10.9 boards and 4.4 dimes since December. There's no reason to expect a slowdown in the final stretch.
Brooks' Villain Arc continues, lands 18th tech
Not even Theo Pinson is safe from Dillon Brooks' wrath. During Monday's win over the Mavericks, Brooks was hit with his 18th technical foul after slamming home a dunk and taunting Pinson, who never checked into the game, by waving invisible pom-poms. Later, Brooks outright called Pinson a "cheerleader" and said he "should be sitting down."
I'm going to take a wild guess and assume this tech will not be kindly rescinded by the league. So, Brooks is expected to be suspended for Wednesday's game against the Rockets, as the league automatically hands out a one-game suspension to players after they are assessed 16 techs in a season. Brooks isn't rostered in too many fantasy leagues, but there's some streaming opportunity for Luke Kennard, John Konchar and David Roddy in what could be a blowout over Houston.
Rookies heating up
As has become a bit of a tradition, some of the league's rookies are starting to find their stride in mid-March. The All-Star break can help reboot some guys hitting the rookie wall, and decreased focus from opponents in the season's final weeks means easier looks.
I highlighted Jabari Smith in last week's column, and he's continued to play well. His eight-game streak of double-digit scoring was snapped during Sunday's loss to the Pelicans, but he immediately bounced back with 17 points, 11 boards, two assists, one steal and one block with zero turnovers against the Warriors.
Jalen Williams' stock remains on the rise. His gradual improvement throughout the season is a rarity, and someone who can learn and adapt that quickly has a high ceiling. Don't be surprised if the Rookie of the Year race is closer than anticipated. Over his past 16 games, the Santa Clara product is averaging 18.9 points on 55/45/87 shooting, 5.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals with only 1.8 turnovers. Of course, ROY is a full-season award, and Paolo Banchero's hot start is propping up his stats. But the reality is, Williams and Banchero have been trending in opposite directions. The latter has picked things back up this month but endured a rough February where he shot just 3 percent — yes, 3 percent — from beyond the arc. But, over the past nine games, the favorite has averaged 22.0 points on 45/35/67 shooting, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Those numbers are nice, but he can't compete with Williams' efficiency, defense and assist-to-turnover rate.