By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The NBA's nine-day preseason came to an end over the weekend. It was a fittingly condensed schedule preceding what will be a time-crunched 2020-21 regular season.
For the most part, the timeless don't believe anything you see in the preseason adage still rings true. But this preseason gave us some glimpses of what we can expect — both from rookies and young players, as well as from the nearly-half of the league that we hadn't seen play since mid-March.
A meaningless exhibition on a snowy night in Detroit may not tell the whole story, but as fantasy managers, we quite frankly don't have anything else on which to draw conclusions. With that in mind, here are eight takeaways from the 2020 NBA preseason:
The 2020 NBA Draft looks just fine after all
Thanks in part to the draft being postponed from June to November, the 2020 class set the record for longest time being dragged through the mud. It was a solid 17 months of criticism. While this draft may not have a Zion Williamson or an Anthony Davis, it already looks much more competent than most gave it credit for. The preseason is the preseason, but virtually every top rookie had some encouraging moments – more often than not, the good seemed to outweigh the bad.
In terms of immediate fantasy value, though, not much has changed. LaMelo Ball has the highest ADP of any rookie, and while it's easy to see why, he also finished the preseason shooting 26.2 percent from the field in four games. With that said, his playmaking might be even further along than we thought, and his high-level rebounding numbers look like they'll translate to the NBA.
#3 pick tossin' some flashy dimes... the BEST of LaMelo Ball (@MELOD1P) in the #NBAPreseason for the @hornets! #NBARooks
The 2020-21 NBA season tips Tuesday, December 22nd on TNT. #KiaTipOff20 pic.twitter.com/aXNRXFr2Am
— NBA (@NBA) December 20, 2020
In Cleveland, Isaac Okoro looks like a potential starter right away. Okoro struggled in Saturday's preseason finale — a game in which the Cavs trailed 103-54 at one point — but prior to that he'd logged three straight double-digit scoring games. Shooting is the big question mark for Okoro, who hit 5-of-11 three-point attempts. He's not going to be a 40-plus-percent shooter, but if he can pick his spots and tread water above 30 percent, he could have some utility in deeper leagues.
Among the other impressive rookies were the Bulls' Patrick Williams and the Spurs' Devin Vassell. Williams averaged 11.3 points (48.6% FG) and 4.0 rebounds in 27.1 minutes, though he struggled at the free throw line and mostly shied away from taking threes. Still, the Florida State product had some really impressive moments, and it's worth noting that he started the final two exhibitions over Otto Porter at small forward.
Meanwhile, Vassell finished the preseason as the second-leading scorer (13.7 PPG) among rookies who played at least three games. Vassell stroked threes (5-10 3PT), finished in the lane, grabbed 5.3 boards per game, and added 3.0 steals per game. He led all rookies in fantasy points (via the NBA's and Yahoo’s default scoring system) during the preseason (32.7 FP/G).
The only rookie to out-score Vassell was Cole Anthony, who put up 13.8 points per game across his four appearances. As expected, Anthony was not shy about getting his looks (10.5 FGA in 23.2 MPG), but for the most part they were falling. Anthony hit 47.6 percent of his field goals, including 47.1 percent of his 4.3 three-point attempts per game. If his non-scoring production (3.8 APG, 1.3 SPG) proves sustainable, Anthony could have some value as the sixth man in Orlando.
I'd be remiss if we didn't touch on Aleksej Pokusevski — or as many are calling him: the white Anthony Randolph. Pokusevski came out firing in the preseason, putting up 11.0 shots per game — more than half of which were threes – in just 23.6 minutes. His field goal percentage (33.3%) was horrific, but Pokusevski's size, ball-handling and overall confidence really stood out. He also grabbed 9.3 rebounds per game, but Pokusevski is likely to be far too inefficient to warrant fantasy consideration.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, we did not get to see the No. 2 pick, James Wiseman, at all during the preseason. His first taste of NBA action will likely come in Tuesday's marquee opener against the Nets. It would've been nice to get a couple of looks at the big man, who's barely played any sanctioned basketball in the last calendar year. But Wiseman still ranks as one of the season's most fantasy-appealing rookies — especially if he's able to secure a permanent spot in the starting lineup.
The only player to go ahead of Wiseman last month was Anthony Edwards. The No. 1 pick had some nice moments, particularly in the first half of the Wolves' final tune-up, but on the whole it wasn't pretty. Edwards shot just 28.9 percent from the field, including a ghastly 25.0 percent from three on 6.7 attempts per game. His drives to the hoop were often pretty reckless. For the most part, Edwards struggled where we thought he'd struggle, and his flashes of brilliance were few and far between. It's way too early to sound the alarm bells, but those who saw Edwards as more Dion Waiters than Donovan Mitchell aren't feeling much different after three exhibitions.
Other notable rookies:
Deni Avdija: 3 GP, 10.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 54.5% FG
Tyrese Haliburton: 4 GP, 6.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.8 SPG, 45.5% FG
Immanuel Quickley: 3 GP, 11.0 PPG, 4.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 42.3% FG
Malachi Flynn: 3 GP, 10.3 PPG, 4.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 47.8% FG, 41.2% 3PT
Theo Maledon: 2 GP, 15.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 43.5% FG (4-9 3PT)
Precious Achiuwa: 2 GP, 10.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 69.2% FG (9-13 FG)
Zion Williamson and Ja Morant are even better than last year
Two stud rookies getting better at basketball isn't exactly a groundbreaking development, but both Williamson and Morant looked brilliant during the preseason. A slightly trimmed-down Williamson only appeared in two games, but he dominated both, averaging 28.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists, while shooting 57.1 percent from the field. Williamson still didn't do much on defense (one block, one steal in 67 minutes), which is a concern, but he did go 17-of-22 at the free throw line. Given how quickly and efficiently Williamson is going to be able to pile up points, I'm considering making a small investment on his odds to win the scoring title (100/1 at BetMGM).
In Memphis, Morant looks faster and more decisive on offense. In just 25.8 minutes per game, Morant led the league in preseason assists (9.8 APG), while committing just 2.3 turnovers per contest. He's still not taking a ton of threes (3.0 3PA/G), but Morant is finishing at the rim at an alarming rate (55.5% FG), and he gets to the free throw line more than most players his size. After making virtually no moves during the offseason, the Grizzlies will lean heavily on Morant to command the offense this season.
Kevin Durant looks like Kevin Durant
The Nets only played two preseason games, but Durant suited up for both and looked no worse for the wear coming off of a torn Achilles. In 25.6 minutes per game, Durant averaged 20.0 points (50% FG), 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and 0.5 steals. The Nets have some major questions to answer on the defensive end, but with Durant leading a deep and talented supporting cast, the offense looked other-worldly. Brooklyn jumped out to an 18-point first-quarter lead against the Wizards and led Boston by 12 after the first period. As usual, everything Durant did appeared completely effortless.
The Lakers are extremely deep
LeBron James earned his fourth ring in the bubble, and the Lakers are coming off of the shortest offseason in professional sports history, but don't expect a post-title hangover. The Lakers had arguably the best offseason of any team (the league's GMs agree), adding veterans Marc Gasol and Wes Matthews, in addition to the NBA's top two bench scorers — Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell — from a year ago.
Gasol isn't the player he once was, but he's looked like a great fit during the preseason and is an upgrade over the Dwight Howard-JaVale McGee combination. Schroder brings much-needed shooting and play-making behind James, while Harrell's energy and rim-running should set the tone during the regular season.
On top of the new blood, the Lakers got a major boost internally from Talen Horton-Tucker during the preseason. The second-year man appeared in just eight NBA games last season, but by the time the season resumed in Orlando, he'd already earned the approval of some high-profile teammates. For the Lakers, Horton-Tucker was the story of the preseason. The 20-year-old looked like a bigger, longer version of C.J. McCollum.
In four games, he averaged 20.5 points on 54.7 percent shooting to go with 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game. In a win over the Clippers, Horotn-Tucker went for 33 points, 10 boards, four assists, and four steals, finishing as a plus-36 in 41 minutes. The Lakers are probably too deep for Horton-Tucker to step into a major role right away, but he showed enough in four exhibitions to force Frank Vogel into some difficult decisions.
I should also mention that the Lakers do still have Kyle Kuzma, whom they signed to an extension on Sunday. That move could be a vote of confidence, or it could solidify Kuzma's price in a future trade — but that's neither here nor there
The point is: the Lakers were already the league's best team, and they got even better. For as great as James is, there haven't been too many times over his 18 seasons in which he's had the consensus best team. Sure, the 2013 Heat and 2016 Cavs may have something to say about that, but those teams had other all-time-great teams vying for the title alongside them. The Clippers, Nets and Bucks are no pushovers, but this version of the Lakers feels a cut above the rest of the league.
The East is wide open
While there's a clear favorite out West, the Eastern Conference is once again a toss-up. Going into last season, Milwaukee was the heavy favorite to emerge, only for things to come crashing down against the fifth-seeded Heat in Round 2. Miami's run to the Finals changed how evaluators view the Heat's ceiling, but Milwaukee and Brooklyn loom as the consensus top two contenders in the East.
Tier 2 consists of the Heat, Celtics, Raptors, 76ers and Pacers, while a host of plucky teams will battle for spots in the play-in tournament. The Bucks and Nets are favored for a reason, but both teams have major question marks. For Milwaukee, those questions revolve around translating regular season success to the playoffs, and whether Jrue Holiday is enough of an upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. For Brooklyn, the health of Durant and Kyrie Irving is by far the chief concern. But the Nets also have some fit issues to iron out, and they'll have to prove they can hold up defensively against the best teams in the league.
One of Brooklyn and Milwaukee making the Finals is a solid bet, but it's necessarily a safe bet. Would it really shock you if Miami made another run, Boston got hot at the right time or Philadelphia finally found the right balance? Me neither.
Rockets are the league's biggest wild card
This has probably been true more than once over the last few years, but the Rockets have really outdone themselves this time. For starters, their franchise player — the best offensive player of the last half-decade — is very publicly attempting to force his way out of town. If the Rockets stand their ground and don't deal James Harden, it's tough to see that player-team relationship mending itself over the next several months. If they do trade him, the Rockets would get worse in the short-term but would likely add a younger cornerstone piece as part of a mega-trade package.
The Rockets with James Harden are better than the Rockets with, say, Ben Simmons or Tyler Herro. But in some ways it would be refreshing to see a new brand of basketball in Houston.
For his part, Harden looked mostly like his old self after showing up late to training camp. He finished Thursday's exhibition finale with 20 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in 27 minutes.
Regardless of what happens with Harden, the returns of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins will be fascinating to watch. For the most part, Wall looked impressive in three preseason appearances, averaging 16.3 points, 5.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals in just 22.9 minutes. Expectations should be lower for Cousins, but he, too, looked better than expected.
New addition Christian Wood appeared in only one preseason game, but he made it count. In 24 minutes Thursday against the Spurs, Wood finished with 27 points (10-18 FG, 2-6 3PT, 10 rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block).
The most fun version of Steph Curry is back
One would imagine playing on the most talented team of all-time could be a fairly enjoyable experience for a selfless superstar like Curry. Golden State won two titles in three years during the Durant Era, but with Durant now in Brooklyn — and Klay Thompson again on IR — the show is back to being Curry's and Curry's alone.
After playing in just five games a year ago, Curry came out in the preseason like a man eager to remind people he's one of the greatest offensive forces in NBA history. In three appearances (26.1 MPG), Curry launched 11.0 three-point attempts per game, racking up 22.7 points to go with 3.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals. In his final appearance, Curry went for 29 points and six threes in 29 minutes. It was blatantly obvious that Curry dictated everything in the halfcourt, and the Kings still couldn't find a way to stop him from working his way into open looks.
The Warriors may not have enough to compete for the title this season, but Curry is positioned for his best individual campaign since 2015-16.
Knicks will frustrate fantasy managers all season
For most of the last decade, the Knicks franchise has existed for no other reason than to give fantasy players false hope. More recently, their strategy of signing every mid-level free agent available has produced a roster of players who could be productive but are usually hamstrung by poor coaching and/or unpredictable rotations.
In Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks at least have a proven commodity to lead the team, but if the preseason was any indication, things won't be much easier for fantasy managers. Thibs appears intent of rolling with Nerlens Noel at center over Mitchell Robinson — a nightmare deja vu scenario for Knicks fans and fantasy players alike after last season's Taj Gibson debacle.
Thibs also brought first-round-pick Obi Toppin off the bench in all four preseason games. This is much less of an issue, but it's still frustrating considering the Knicks' place in the NBA hierarchy. Developing the young talent in which you're heavily invested should come before ensuring Julius Randle gets his 22 and 8.
If there's a silver lining for the Knicks, it's that RJ Barrett played nearly 31 minutes per night in his four appearances. Barrett averaged 17.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steal, and while he hit nearly 51 percent of his field goals, he went just 2-of-16 from beyond the arc.
Immanuel Quickley, the Knicks' other first-round pick, also looks like a possible gem at No. 25 overall. Quickley started the exhibition finale Thursday against Cleveland and finished with 22 points (7-12 FG, 3-5 3PT), five assists and five steals in 29 minutes. In the previous game (also against the Cavs), Quickley had nine points and seven dimes off the bench.