Fantasy Deep Cuts: West
Today's column takes a whirlwind trip through the NBA, discussing under-the-radar fantasy assets for each team in the Western 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.
The Mavs' season hinges around the chemistry (and health) of their two stars, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The most obvious second-tier fantasy target is Delon Wright, who should get enough minutes ahead of Jalen Brunson to maintain value throughout the season. My under-the-radar pick in Dallas, though, is Dwight Powell. The Mavs gave him a three-year, $33 million extension as an expression of their confidence, and he's poised to start at center on opening night. Maxi Kleber could give him a challenge at center but it doesn't sound like Porzingis will be in the middle too often, so it should be easy for Powell to exceed the 21.8 minutes he averaged last season. On a per-36-minute basis, he was just outside the top-50 last season with averages of 17.6 points (59.8% FGs, 77.2% FTs), 8.9 boards, 2.4 dimes, 1.1 blocks, 0.9 steals and 0.8 threes. The middling defensive stats hold back his upside, but with a roughly 24-minute role he should be a nice pickup in the final rounds of fantasy drafts.
The Nuggets' backcourt was a hotbed of waiver wire value last season, with Monte Morris and Malik Beasley both punching above their weight for months at a time. Their upside is worth remembering, but it's hard to actively target them while Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are healthy. Among the Nuggets’ second-unit players, I'm inclined to grab Jerami Grant for his blocks, boards and 3-point shooting – he averaged 2.1 triples after the break last year, on 41.9% from deep. He's still just 25 years old, so the best is yet to come, and Nuggets writer Nick Kosmider projects him playing "near the same 32.7 minutes he averaged last season [with OKC]." It doesn't help that Grant is going from one of the fastest-paced teams last year (OKC was 6th at 103.4 possessions per game) to one of the slowest (Denver was 26th at 98.5 possessions), but I still value him as a cheap source of blocks and threes who won't hurt you anywhere.
The Warriors will assuredly have some surprise values this season, but I'm not eager to gamble on them in drafts. Established studs Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are risky due to potential DNP-Rest, especially late in the season when games played are most critical in head-to-head leagues. Klay Thompson's return date from ACL surgery is up in the air, but he basically ruled himself out through the All-Star break. D’Angelo Russell’s chemistry with Steph remains to be seen, and he’s a prime trade candidate once he’s eligible to be dealt in mid-December. Kevon Looney has been trending up with high praise from coach Steve Kerr, but the signing of Willie Cauley-Stein has muted my enthusiasm. I'll still call Looney my most-intriguing guy to watch, as he could split center minutes and grab a handful as a PF – we didn't see that last year, but he played significant PF during his first three NBA seasons. Whether he might play alongside WCS seems doubtful, based on their offensive limitations (see shot charts below), but we'll get a better sense of the rotations this preseason.
Even if WCS and Looney form a platoon as pure centers, a 22-26 minute role for Looney should be enough to help owners with blocks, boards and especially FG% – he's even a sneaky playmaker with 2.3 dimes in 23.0 minutes as a starter last year.
The Rockets are so top-loaded that it will be hard for role players to make a mark in fantasy. After all, James Harden and Russell Westbrook had a combined 71.1% usage rate last season – they usually pick the bones clean before teammates get scraps. Eric Gordon missed another 14 games last year and has settled into a specialist role for points and triples, and I'm not optimistic that Austin Rivers, Danuel House or 33-year-old Gerald Green will offer much beyond 3-pointers either. Tyson Chandler serves as necessary depth and nothing more, which leaves just one option for second-tier value – P.J. Tucker. The veteran forward played all 82 games last season, averaging 34.2 minutes per game, and had quiet roto value thanks to steals (1.6), triples (1.8) and rebounds (5.8). His shooting percentages were awful, but that hardly matters because he rarely gets the ball – he was the only top-100 player with a usage rate in single digits (9.5%). In fact, he was the only guy inside the top-300 with single-digit usage. It doesn't thrill me that he's playing for Team USA this summer, putting extra wear onto his 34-year-old body, but he's worth a look in the final rounds if you need steals.
In 26 games after joining the Clippers last season, Ivica Zubac averaged 9.4 points on 53.8% shooting, 7.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 blocks and 0.4 steals. He posted those numbers in just 20.2 minutes per game, but I find it hard to envision him getting more than 20-22 again this year. Montrezl Harrell is reportedly working on his conditioning to play more minutes, and L.A. can use Patrick Patterson as a makeshift center in certain smaller lineups, leaving Zubac in a modest role to protect the rim, hit the boards and set screens. A higher-upside gamble would be Landry Shamet, who will be used "as a primary ball-handler more next season," according to beat writer Jovan Buha. I'm currently viewing him as a 3-point specialist, having made 3.3 triples per 36 minutes last season (13th-most among qualifying players). More assists would be huge, so the 'primary ball-handler' angle is something to watch this preseason. It helps that starting PG Patrick Beverley is basically a lock to miss games due to injury, so if nothing else Shamet should have nice streamer appeal.
JaVale McGee seems like an easy, cheap target at center in the later rounds – the question is whether his shockingly effective fantasy campaign in 2018-19 (top-75 value in nearly any format) will spoil any potential 'value'. Am I taking him top-75? No. The Lakers are bringing in Dwight Howard as a rebounder and rim protector, and he'll start if he makes the roster. If I can land McGee in the 100-120 range, though, it feels like a reasonable gamble. After all, he needed just over 22 minutes per game last year to notch 12.0 points on 62.4% shooting, with 7.6 boards and 2.0 swats. All he needs to do is run the court, catch lobs and snatch rebounds to duplicate those numbers – it's weird to say, but as he closes in on his 32nd birthday, JaVale is as relevant as he's been in a decade.
The Grizzlies' roster has more questions than answers, both in fantasy and reality, but I'm not afraid of taking Kyle Anderson with a flier pick. He was plagued by a shoulder injury throughout his first season in Memphis, limiting him to just 43 games played before having thoracic-outlet decompression surgery. He should be fully recovered for opening night, though, and the Grizzlies still have plenty invested in the 26-year-old combo forward. Beat writer Omari Sankofa II projected in The Athletic that Anderson will come off the bench, but I could see him starting at SF ahead of Jae Crowder and Josh Jackson. Even if he does play a reserve role, Anderson was top-75 in 2017-18 and top-100 last year despite playing under 30 minutes per game. He's built for roto, but I wouldn't expect much in points-based leagues.
Jordan Bell and Gorgui Dieng both have reasonable per-minute fantasy upside, but they're trapped in a backup battle behind one of the most durable guys in the league – Karl-Anthony Towns. Neither Josh Okogie nor Keita Bates-Diop have provided much reason for optimism in fantasy leagues. Okogie should start this season, though, which is enough to keep him on the radar. In 14 games last March, Okogie notched 8.8 points on 44.2% shooting, 1.0 triples, 3.2 boards, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.6 blocks. That came in 27.0 minutes per game, and if he clears the 30 mark he should have steal-specialist appeal, at a minimum. And if his perimeter shooting improves and he adds a few rebounds, he could soon be a better roto asset than teammate Andrew Wiggins – it's not far-fetched. I'm also keeping an eye on Shabazz Napier and Noah Vonleh for streaming value this year, only because I'm not convinced the guys ahead of them can stay healthy (Jeff Teague and Robert Covington, respectively).
New Orleans Pelicans
A deeper cut in New Orleans is Nicolo Melli, a 28-year-old forward with deadly 3-point range, whom the Pelicans signed for $8 million over two years this summer. He's been playing professionally in Europe for nearly a decade and is coming off another strong year in the EuroLeague, shooting 38.5% from deep for Fenerbahce. It would likely take an injury to Zion Williamson for Melli to help fantasy owners, but he's worth keeping an eye on since New Orleans lacks depth at PF and they need all the outside shooting they can get.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The breakout favorite in OKC is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, so I'll pivot to a less-heralded backcourt option – Dennis Schroder. This runs counter to my instincts, as Schroder is a poor shooter (43.0% for his career, 41.4% last year) who has never averaged more than 6.3 assists or 1.1 steals per game. I don't advocate drafting him unless you took Chris Paul and want the handcuff. Nevertheless, CP3 is a prime trade candidate if some team is willing to swallow his massive salary, or he accepts a reduction of what he's owed (Miami reportedly wanted him to waive his player option for 2021-22 to facilitate a trade from OKC this summer). Even if Paul stays in Oklahoma City, he could see limited minutes and rack up late-season DNPs, opening the door for Schroder in a backcourt with few options beyond SGA. It's worth remembering that in 14 starts last year, Schroder averaged 19.3 points, 1.9 threes, 5.5 boards, 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals in 34.6 minutes. If the 25-year-old is turned loose due to injury or trade, look out.
Mikal Bridges isn't exactly a sleeper, as the 2018 lottery pick comes into this year as a young building block for a bad team – something fantasy owners relish. Inverse to last season, I'm high on at least six Suns players: Devin Booker (depending how high he goes), Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric and Bridges. All those guys should benefit from stability at the PG position and Ricky Rubio is an ideal, unselfish table-setter for this squad. Bridges was set free late last season and the results were modest, but intriguing – after the break he notched 8.7 points, 1.0 threes, 3.5 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.3 blocks in 33.7 minutes. Steals are the core of his value, giving him late-round specialist appeal at worst, and he could surge higher with a more consistent 3-pointer and sneaky dimes (he had 3.9 per game in February, for instance). Being interested in drafting Suns players is a nice change of pace.
Portland Trail Blazers
There's no need to discuss Zach Collins' strong late-round potential here, something we've hit upon numerous times this summer (including a recent podcast with myself and Mike Gallagher). There may be value to be mined in the group of Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja and Kent Bazemore, though I'm mostly expecting those guys to cancel each other out. One player who could sneak into fantasy value despite a low profile is Anfernee Simons, who played just 20 games after being taken No. 24 overall last year – straight out of IMG Academy, without NCAA or overseas experience. The bad news is that he's behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the most durable, high-minute backcourt pairings in the league. The good news is that Portland reportedly wants Simons to play some backup PG, and he followed up an explosive finish to the regular season (37 points on April 11) with an excellent Summer League in Vegas. Blazers GM Neil Olshey said recently that scoring "comes very natural for [Simons] ... it's easy for him." Head coach Terry Stotts said, "When he drives in the lane, there’s just an easiness to it.” C.J. McCollum added, "He’s got the total package, man." We may not glimpse his ceiling this season, but either way he should be a fun guy to own.
The Kings' depth is good for the team but does fantasy owners no favors. De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley should be locked and loaded with enough playing time to support their lofty draft valuations. I'm less convinced that guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic or Trevor Ariza will earn enough playing time to be more than late-round fliers. Harrison Barnes has always been a hollow man for fantasy value – even if he gets 32+ minutes per game, he's just a low-end source of scoring and 3-pointers. It's unclear how coach Luke Walton's center rotation will play out, but I'll be willing to roll the dice on Dewayne Dedmon after a career year in Atlanta – he was a top-50 roto value (9-cat) with excellent percentages, 7.5 boards, 1.3 triples, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks in just 25.1 minutes. Harry Giles and Richaun Holmes give the Kings substantial depth at center, but that platoon shouldn't stop Dedmon from settling into the 24-26 minute range. It's a situation to monitor closely this preseason.
San Antonio Spurs
Jakob Poeltl was a disappointment for anyone who drafted him in the final round last year. Limited playing time was the issue early, as he adapted to Gregg Popovich's system and demanding standards, but the leash was lengthened as the year went on. Modest payoff came after the All-Star break with averages of 6.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 0.7 steals. The key is that he made 65.3% of his shots in that span and put up helpful stats in a mere 20.8 minutes per game. His minutes jumped to 25.3 in the postseason, too, and he seems to have won over Pop. The Spurs can use LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles at center but they aren't overflowing with depth, so Poeltl should have a shot at 22-26 minutes per game. If he gets there, he's a likely top-120 guy with an emphasis on traditional big-man stats.
The Jazz have five compelling fantasy options: Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic (in that order). If you take the top five guys on all 30 teams you already have 150 fantasy players, nearly enough to complete a 12-team, 13-player draft. Some teams will not have true sleeper appeal, therefore, and Utah is one of them. It appears Joe Ingles will fill a sixth-man role, which would allow Jeff Green or Royce O'Neale to start. O'Neale played in all 82 games last year but that was the extent of his fantasy worth, as he contributed anemic stats that didn't help most owners. Green had a surprisingly productive year in D.C., averaging 12.3 points, 1.4 triples and 4.0 rebounds in 77 appearances, but he was still just a borderline roto player in 27.2 minutes. He won't get that playing time in Utah. Dante Exum's unfortunate injury history makes him impossible to draft even if you're convinced that he can be a reliable fantasy player – and I'm a doubter. Ed Davis should soak up whatever Gobert leaves behind, Georges Niang might play his way into a handful of minutes, and maybe Emmanuel Mudiay can get in the rotation. Unless injury strikes the core unit, though, none of these guys are appealing. And with that conclusion, this column about under-the-radar value ends on a contrarian note – don't dig too deep into Utah's roster for value on draft day.
If you missed my previous Eastern Conference sleeper column, you can check that out here. You can also listen to the most recent RW podcast about Karl-Anthony Towns as a No. 1 fantasy play, the rise of Zach Collins, and more. Enjoy!