Today's column takes a whirlwind trip through the NBA, discussing one sneaky fantasy asset for each team in the Eastern Conference. Most players will be deeper in the rotation, and they may not all be drafted in your leagues -- in which case, keep them in mind as the season progresses. There's a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started.
Alex Len will start for the Hawks, most likely, joining Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter and John Collins. Ankle issues plagued Len early in his career, but he doesn't deserve the "injury prone" tag -- he's still 26 years old and has played at least 69 games in five straight seasons (with 77+ in three of those). Len's perimeter shooting is what intrigues me most -- after the All-Star break last year, he averaged 1.9 triples on 41.0% shooting from deep, scoring 13.4 points with 5.2 boards, 1.3 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.3 steals in just 22.3 minutes. Len could fade if rookie Bruno Fernando develops faster than expected, or Damian Jones muscles his way into more playing time, but he's still an intriguing option in the final rounds.
Daniel Theis deserves some attention due to the lack of compelling depth in Boston's frontcourt. Rookie big man Grant Williams could also make an impression, and I'm not betting against Robert Williams to step up at some point this season. Celtics beat writer Jay King projects Theis as a 24-minute player who might close games, given his defensive superiority compared to starter Enes Kanter. I'm not quite as bullish on the playing time, but Theis should still be a quiet source of blocks, FG% and boards this season. I’m hoping Tacko Fall earns some court time for the Celts, too, but I’m not optimistic – I'd at least get to see the 7’6” prospect play for the nearby Maine Red Claws, where he should absolutely dominate.
Rodions Kurucs could find himself starting at PF this season, assuming Brooklyn opts to bring Taurean Prince off the bench. It's a familiar role for Kurucs, who started 46 games last season and averaged a modest 9.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.1 triples, 1.0 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks. Those numbers came in just 23.0 minutes per game, though, and coach Kenny Atkinson clearly likes what he brings to the team. “Part of the reason we wanted to move him to [power forward] is because he rebounds the ball well,” coach Kenny Atkinson said last March. “[On] offense he spreads the defense out and he’s like a guard ... so it’s a funky matchup for other teams to match him." He's also still just 21 years old, so it's not unreasonable to think he can hit the 1/1/1 mark for steals, blocks and 3-pointers while doing just enough to help with rebounds and points.
The Hornets project as a mess this season. They signed Terry Rozier to fill the void left by Kemba Walker, but he's unproven as a full-time lead guard and is surrounded by a questionable roster -- the Hornets may start Dwayne Bacon, Nicolas Batum, Miles Bridges and Cody Zeller. I'm trying to dig up unlikely values in this column, so I'll go with Cody Zeller. Yes, the Hornets have plenty of intriguing, young guards like Bacon, Malik Monk and Devonte' Graham. They'll all be on my radar this preseason, but I'm not against Zeller as a (truly) boring big man to scoop up with your final pick. Charlotte's alternatives at center are Bismack Biyombo (earning a staggering $17 million this season) and Willy Hernangomez. Zeller was hurt last season and played in only 49 games, but when healthy he can chip in enough value to merit ownership -- he had 10.1 points on solid percentages of 55.2% FG and 78.7% FT. He also had 6.8 boards, 2.1 dimes, 0.9 blocks and 0.8 steals in 25.4 minutes, good enough for top-100 value in 9-cat leagues.
Tomas Satoransky could play an outsized role for Chicago this season, at least until lottery pick Coby White is handed the reins at PG. The Bulls clearly don't have faith in Kris Dunn, and they added Satoransky this offseason for a reason -- he has experience, and success, as an unorthodox PG for the Wizards. I'm not convinced Satoransky will have post-break value with Chicago, and coach Jim Boylen's frustrating 10-man rotations don't help matters. Satoransky will more likely be a late-round guard I grab for early-season value, with the expectation that he'll be sacrificed to the waiver wire. Or he'll be a streaming play. Either way, I'm intrigued by his numbers as a starting guard in 46 games last season -- 11.2 points, 6.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.0 threes.
This trio of Hornets/Bulls/Cavs doesn't thrill me at all for fantasy purposes, but I'll go with rookie Darius Garland as a potentially underrated fantasy option. Jordan Clarkson proved himself to be a valuable sixth-man last year, and Cleveland's backcourt isn't overflowing with depth -- Brandon Knight and Matthew Dellavedova are the only other healthy alternatives. Cavs coach John Beilein said he'll play Garland alongside Collin Sexton, and Cleveland is playing for the future so they might as well air out the young guys to see if they can share a backcourt. Garland may not fill up the supporting-stat categories, based on his lone season with Vanderbilt, but he averaged 16.2 points with 2.2 triples on 47.8% from deep -- that's reason enough to gamble on him in the final round.
Luke Kennard may not earn a starting spot this season, if coach Dwane Casey goes with a defense-first wing duo of Bruce Brown and Tony Snell. A sixth-man role could suit Kennard nicely, though, as he'll benefit from higher usage and the score-first mentality we saw late last season and in the postseason. After the All-Star break, in 25.7 minutes, Kennard posted 11.7 points, 2.1 triples, 3.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 0.5 steals. The poor supporting stats will likely always plague his fantasy value, but he can hit value simply for scoring, 3-pointers and a handful of boards. I'm mildly intrigued by teammate Bruce Brown, a likely starter, but he needs to show massive improvement offensively to merit fantasy ownership.
Goga Bitadze is a rookie to watch this preseason. Indiana took him No. 18 overall and team president Kevin Pritchard said he's "more polished and ready to play in an NBA game than a normal kid coming out of college." Indiana seems locked into a frontcourt featuring Domantas Sabonis alongside Myles Turner, with the stretch-five concept in full bloom. Bitadze is another big man who can shoot from deep, having averaged 12.1 points, 6.4 boards, 2.3 blocks and 1.2 triples in the EuroLeague last season. The Pacers have no obvious alternatives at backup center, unless they stagger Turner and Sabonis, which gives Bitadze a path to fantasy-relevant playing time on Day 1.
The Heat are tough to read in mid-August. Goran Dragic will start at PG but he's on the downside of his career, and coach Erik Spoelstra likes to use Justise Winslow as a makeshift PG. Rookie G Tyler Herro looked great in Summer League, but it's unclear how that might translate to real NBA games. Derrick Jones Jr. finds himself as a likely backup for Jimmy Butler, and the list goes on -- two more 'x-factor' players are Dion Waiters and James Johnson. Both veterans have reportedly had great offseasons, staying healthy while reclaiming their conditioning in workouts together. Waiters has never been a reliable fantasy guard, even at full strength, but Johnson could get back to top-100 output if he stays on the court. He's not a likely target in points leagues but is just a few years removed from an excellent roto campaign with averages of 12.8 points, 1.1 threes, 5.0 boards, 3.6 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.0 steals (in 2016-17). I'm not expecting him to reach those numbers, but if he carves out 22+ minutes he should still benefit owners in 8-cat and 9-cat.
Pat Connaughton? The Bucks might harbor fewer potential 'sleeper' values than any other Eastern team, barring injury. Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez are locked into existing roles with established value. Wesley Matthews will shore up the SG spot and fill the void created by Malcolm Brogdon's departure, but he's no longer a reliable fantasy asset. He played 30+ minutes last year, for instance, but cratered his value with 39.9% shooting and a mere 2.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 0.8 steals per game. That won't get it done in most leagues, and as he approaches age 33 there's no reason to think he'll trend up. George Hill was impressive in the postseason but doesn't have a big enough role, and guys like Kyle Korver, Ersan Ilyasova and Robin Lopez are simply stuck behind high-minute starters. That leaves Connaughton, whose versatility and impressive per-minute production give him just enough daylight. I still won't be drafting him, but I can see him as a DFS and streaming staple.
New York Knicks
Bobby Portis intrigues me with the Knicks, especially since Mitchell Robinson has battled knee soreness this summer. As discussed on a recent Rotoworld podcast, there's really no such thing as "minor" knee soreness for a big man in the offseason -- it's indicative of a problem that rarely, if ever, magically goes away during the grind of an 82-game season. The problem for Portis is that New York loaded up on capable bigs this offseason, adding Taj Gibson, Julius Randle and Marcus Morris to the roster. Prized young forward Kevin Knox also logged about 1/2 of his minutes at PF last season, so the playing-time crunch is real. Portis was a top-120 player in just 26 minutes per game last year and I'll at least keep an eye on him in case Robinson misses time.
Terrence Ross is in his prime at 28 years old and he was unstoppable at times last season, giving the Magic instant offense in a reserve role. Opposing teams knew he'd be the focal point of the offense, yet he still managed to get his shots off and make them in bunches -- he scored 23.0 points per game in April and was at 16.3 points after the All-Star break. Ross is another guy who may not stuff the stat sheet for you nightly, but he'll get enough points and 3-pointers (with a steal or two per game) to justify a spot on your roster. It helps that Orlando doesn't have a ton of backcourt depth -- Ross is joined by Michael Carter-Williams and Markelle Fultz backing up the starters. For the record, I have no interest whatsoever in Fultz. Ross also played in 81 games last season, confirming his durability. Other than 2017-18, Ross has played a minimum of 73 games in each season since joining the NBA in 2012-13.
Kyle O'Quinn is worth watching in Philly, given Joel Embiid's injury history with no more than 64 games played in his three NBA campaigns. The Sixers added Al Horford this summer, of course, and could pivot to a Horford-at-center lineup if/when Embiid misses time. Even so, O'Quinn should earn backup center minutes and we have recent evidence that the 29-year-old can produce in a limited role -- he barely played for Indiana last year, but after the break in 2017-18 he notched 8.7 points on 57.0% shooting with 7.6 boards, 2.6 dimes, 1.9 blocks and 0.5 steals in just 21.6 minutes for the Knicks.
Fred VanVleet is already a popular sleeper (and a must-handcuff for Kyle Lowry owners), and Pascal Siakam is primed for a massive year in fantasy. I'm not confident in this take, but I'll peg Norman Powell as a potential sleeper this season. Patrick McCaw is the Raptors' most obvious alternative to start at SG, but beat writer Blake Murphy has penciled in Powell as the starter, noting that "the Raptors believe in McCaw’s point guard skills ... they’re curious what he might look like in that role after a summer in their development system." Toronto liked Powell enough to lavish a big contract on him last summer, too, and he's owed $32.5 million over the next three seasons -- OG Anunoby and Terence Davis are the only other players with deals extending through 2021-22. If McCaw does manage to develop into the backup PG role, the Raptors may start FVV alongside Lowry, to Powell's detriment. For now, though, I'm willing to view him as an intriguing deep-league sleeper.
Moritz Wagner is intriguing as a stretch big man whom the Wizards have reportedly coveted since last summer -- they weren't able to draft him in 2018 but got him as a prize for facilitating the Anthony Davis deal. Thomas Bryant is locked into the starting center job but there's reason to believe Wagner will get the backup minutes -- the alternative is Ian Mahinmi, a 32-year-old on an expiring contract, who played 14.6 minutes in 34 appearances last season. The Wizards are in a full-blown rebuild, despite the anchor of John Wall's contract (he can opt into a $47.4 million salary in 2022-23), so it makes sense for them to air out young guys like Wagner, Bryant, Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura. The youth-movement angle is also why I'm not as high on Ish Smith as some of my colleagues -- a 31-year-old guard who has never held top-120 value (9-cat) in eight NBA seasons? No thanks.
I'll dig into Western Conference lineups for sleeper value in an upcoming column, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, check out Tommy Beer's "too early top-150" ranks, listen to some hoops podcasts, and enjoy the offseason!