Rookie Report: Ja Morant Soaring

Matt Stroup
Rotoworld

For the purposes of today’s column, there is no such thing as being 25, 26, 27 or 29.

If you’re in the middle of your NBA career, you flat-out don’t exist.

This week, Roundball Stew is ranking the top-10 NBA rookies and the top-10 NBA old dudes.

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Let’s begin with the kids:

TOP 10 (FANTASY) NBA ROOKIES

1. Ja Morant (No. 106 on BasketballMonster.com's 9-category leaderboard): Morant is not the top rookie in terms of the rankings currently, but he is set up for more upside and success than any other first-year player this season — and that includes Zion Williamson (which I’ll explain in a minute). After a sluggish start (12.0 ppg, 4.5 apg, 5.0 turnovers in his first two games), Ja has exploded for 23.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.0 spg and 1.0 3s, shooting 54.7 percent from the field and 80.0 from the line with 4.0 turnovers. Those turnovers aren’t going anywhere, but what more can you ask from a 20-year-old rookie? These percentages (the FG shooting in particular) are just unbelievable. I thought Morant had a chance to shoot well at the pro level after he shot 49.9 percent for Murray State last season, but this is even more than we can ask. 

As for Morant’s value going forward, over that recent five-game sample he’s been the No. 65 player in 9-category leagues, and there’s room to improve on that if he picks things up in steals. In sum, he’s an absolute beast, and I’d absolutely buy-high on him in fantasy. All too often the fun fantasy players (like last year’s Luka Doncic) have some fatal statistical flaws that ruin their value. Morant, if you can live with the turnovers, gives you the entertainment and production all in one place. 

2. Zion Williamson (N/A): He hasn’t played a single game, and we already know that he’s not likely to debut this month, but I still put Zion just behind Morant because I just don’t see anyone else in this rookie class carrying his same upside for the rest of this season. I also think the Pelicans are likely to be pretty careful with him all year, which could be really annoying, so keep that in mind as you measure your expectations.

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3. Brandon Clarke (No. 39): If you’re just looking at overall production, Clarke has been the most-valuable fantasy rookie from the vaunted Class of 2019 so far. I certainly thought about going full-on HOT TAKE here and putting him ahead of Zion, but I couldn’t quite do it. Either way, Clarke has quietly been a standout fantasy option (11.3 ppg / 6.4 rpg / 0.9 spg / 1.7 bpg / 60.7 FG / 90.0 FT) in just 22 minutes a game. As you may have gathered from that set of numbers, he’s also been a per-36 minute monster, putting up 18.1 ppg, 10.3 ppg, 1.4 spg, 2.8 bpg and 0.5 3s. The bottom line is he’s got an excellent fantasy floor, and flat-out scary ceiling, and you have to think that the 2-5 Grizzlies are going to up his minutes at some point this season. Try to land him on your squad before that happens. When it does, Clarke is going to take things to another level.

4. PJ Washington (No. 68): Washington has at least one trey, at least one steal or at least one block in every game this season, and when you put it all together, you’re looking at an appealing combo of 13.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.0 spg, 1.0 bpg and 1.8 3s, on 52.6 percent from the field and 70.0 from the line. He’s not often going to be the guy who uncorked 27 points and seven 3s on opening night, but he is a guy you can put into your lineup and rarely worry about, and in a season of headaches that will do just fine.

5. Eric Paschall (No. 60): I still worry a little bit about Draymond Green coming back and putting a dent in his value, but at some point you look at the state of the 2019-20 Warriors — and it seems clear that a guy like Paschall is going to get a lot of chances the rest of the way. Over his last five games, he’s at 20.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.4 spg, 0.8 bpg and 1.2 3s, with a 56.3 / 89.7 percentage split. That includes six 3-pointers in his last two games after draining none in his first six outings. I wouldn’t consider his value guaranteed like the other guys I’ve listed above, but Paschall looks like a no-brainer start until further notice.

 

6. Tyler Herro (No. 127): Herro (like Kendrick Nunn, who I’ll talk about in a second) had his season-high (29 points) against the Hawks. In four games since then, he’s put up 11.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.0 spg and 2.0 3s on 40.5 percent shooting in 27 minutes a game. He’s certainly got a lot of upside and a path to late-round value right now, but it could still be a while before the 19-year-old breaks out and becomes a full-on fantasy stud.

6a. RJ Barrett (No. 274): A ridiculous thing happened while I was writing this column, which is that I had a massive brain event and forgot to initially include Barrett — who has fallen all the way to 274th in 9-category leagues. So I’m slotting him in at 6a with this explanation: In a points league, he belongs right up there with Ja Morant, thanks to 17.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg and 1.4 3s. If you’re playing in an 8-category league and throwing free throws, he makes a ton of sense as well. However, if it’s a 9-category league, his FT percentage (49.1, on 6.6 attempts a game) along with the 2.9 turnovers is a brutal combo. So I’m putting him here because he’s not for every fantasy squad — and wasn’t originally in this column. RJ Barrett, 6a. Moving on... 

7. Kendrick Nunn (No. 74): Is it time to worry about Nunn? I’m going to say that’s affirmative, because after a dynamic five-game run to start the year (22.4 ppg, 2.6 apg, 1.8 spg and 3.0 3s), he’s now at 9.0 ppg, 3.0 apg, 1.0 spg and 1.3 3s on 33.3 percent shooting over his last three. Normally I’d dismiss this as typical rookie turbulence, and trust the coach to let the rookie play through it. However, this is Erik Spoelstra we’re talking about, and he just has too many options in that rotation. I certainly wouldn’t outright bail on Nunn during this slump. If he’s still struggling a few games from now, it may be time to yank the ripcord. 
 

8. Goga Bitadze (No. 143): Goga could go away pretty quickly once Myles Turner returns, but if there’s anything encouraging about this run, it’s that the No. 18 overall pick has shown he doesn’t need a ton of time on the court to produce fantasy value. Over his standout four game-stretch, he has put up 9.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 3.0 bpg and 0.8 3s in just 24 minutes a game. Obviously Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis need to play. However, when you look at the competition in the Pacers frontcourt (hello, T.J. Leaf!), it’s not crazy to think that Bitadze can carve out a 20+ minute role as the season goes on. 

9. Rui Hachimura (No. 161): After a strong start (18.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 0.8 3s his first four games), Rui has smashed face-first into an early slump, putting up 5.3 ppg and 4.7 rpg on 30.4 percent shooting his last three games. The Wizards still have a lot invested in him, so I’d expect him to get back to top-125ish production before long.

10. De’Andre Hunter (No. 251): It pains me greatly that I had to click the “All Players” tab to find Hunter in the season-long rankings (my Basketball Monster heads know what I’m talking about). Despite the turbulence, I still refuse to drop him in fantasy — and not just because I’m literally wearing a De’Andre Hunter shirsey as I write this column. He’s still just one game removed from his best night of the season (16 points, eight boards, two treys in 36 minutes on Tuesday), and he’s too talented and too involved (28 minutes a game on the season) to not have it all click into place sooner rather than later.

Missed the Cut (but still on my radar):  Coby White (No. 264)… Matisse Thybulle (No. 225 overall)… Jordan Poole (No. 244). 

Click onto Page 2 for the top-10 fantasy old guys in 2019-20…

"BLUE WAS OLD" — THE TOP-10 FANTASY 30-SOMETHINGS:

(James Harden, 30 years old, is not eligible. Gotta be older than 30 to qualify)

1. LeBron James (No. 8 in BasketballMonster.com's 9-category rankings): For those who showed faith in LBJ after a maddening 2018-19 campaign, you are reaping a handsome reward. The LRC (LeBron Renaissance Campaign) has included 26.1 ppg, 11.1 apg (would be a career-high), 1.6 spg, 0.7 bpg, 1.6 3s — and most importantly, first-round fantasy value. As of right now LeBron, Harden and Kevin Love are the only players over 30 in the top 12.

2. Kyle Lowry (No. 13): Here’s the good news — Lowry is putting up absolutely vintage numbers, with 24.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 6.7 apg, 1.1 spg and 3.9 3s on 48.1 percent from the field. My concern, however, is with his playing time — and not in the way we normally worry about minutes. Lowry is actually averaging a league-leading 39 minutes a game, excellent news for his fantasy production in the near future, and a slightly scary proposition for his chances of holding up the entire season. I still don’t think I’m trading him unless I can get back a top 15ish player, so I’d try to avoid selling low just because you’re preemptively worried. The production is just too good to take off your roster unless you’re getting back something pretty stout. 

3. Kevin Love (No. 12): This is what I expected from Love last season before he came out shooting horribly and almost immediately got injured — 18.9 ppg, 14.4 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.4 bpg and 2.6 3s on 49.4 percent from the field and 87.5 from the line. I’d put Love into a similar area as Lowry in terms of value. If you can somehow get a safer top-15 option in a trade, then I’d do it. Otherwise, I think you reap the benefits of the value until things (hopefully never) fall apart.

4. Al Horford (No. 26): Just when we thought Easy Al was settling into a quiet-but-useful back nine of his career, he moves to Philly — to play alongside Joel Embiid — and takes things up a notch. His current scoring average (17.1) would be his most since 2013-14, when he averaged 18.4 ppg for the Hawks. He’s also putting up 7.1 rpg (up from 6.7 last year), along with 1.1 spg, 1.1 bpg and a career-best 1.7 treys per game. He’ll certainly be better when Embiid isn’t playing, but Horford is plenty involved with the Sixers at full strength, and either way, getting Al in the middle rounds is looking like one of the clear-cut wins of draft season.

5. LaMarcus Aldridge (No. 30): His scoring and rebounding stats are down a little bit (19.0 ppg / 6.0 rpg after averaging 21.3 ppg / 9.2 rpg last season), but Aldridge has offset that with 2.1 bpg — which would be a career-high. Even if those blocks don’t hold, it’s clear that age-34 Aldridge has plenty left to offer, and will likely remain a top-30 fantasy producer well into his 50’s.

6. Russell Westbrook (No. 42): I don’t really think of Westbrook as old, but the reality is he’s now 31 and officially qualifies for this list, so we might as well check in and see how the Houston Experiment is going so far. Let’s look at last year’s Russ vs. this year’s Russ so far:

2018-19: 22.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 10.7 apg, 1.9 spg, 0.5 bpg, 1.6 3s, 42.8 FG, 65.6 FT, 4.5 TOs

2019-20: 20.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 8.7 apg, 1.9 spg, 0.6 bpg, 1.1 3s, 45.8 FG, 62.8 FT, 4.0 TOs

Overall, his numbers are down in points, rebounds, assists, 3s and FT percentage, and they’re up in FG percentage and turnovers, and his fantasy value is slightly down from top-30 range last year to top-40 range as a result. It’s certainly not a disaster, but I wasn’t ready to deal with high-volume bad FT shooting + lots of turnovers heading into the season, and I’m not ready to deal with it now.

7. Chris Paul (No. 69): If there’s a universe where you can get CP3 at anywhere close to a top-60 or top-70 price — even top-50 — it looks like it might be worth it. Over his last five games, he’s at 18.0 ppg, 5.8 apg, 2.2 spg and 2.2 3s, shooting 46.8 percent from the field. He always carries some risk, but he looks ready to produce strong stats if not vintage Chris Paul ones as long as he can stay on the court.

8. Brook Lopez (No. 70): He hasn’t started hitting his 3s yet (just 28.6 percent), but is still averaging 10.4 ppg, 2.5 bpg and 1.5 treys. There’s some buy-low potential here for a guy who put up top-30 value last year.

9. Mike Conley (No. 241): I had to double-check this ranking, and it is in fact true. Conley in Utah has been a flat-out disaster thus far, as he’s shot 33.3 percent through eight games. Also a concern is the fact that his minutes (30), shot attempts (12.5), scoring (12.8) and assists (3.6) are all drastically down from last year. I still don’t believe that he’s going to struggle like this, but given his decreased opportunity in this offense, it’s getting to be time that we lowered expectations for Conley this year. Ultimately, I still see him as a buy-low, but be careful about overpaying. I’m officially somewhat worried.

10. Dwight Howard (No. 76): Hasn’t been thrilling, but a low-volume edition of Howard in L.A. has actually been a viable fantasy option, thanks to 7.9 rpg, 2.1 bpg and just 1.3 FT attempts in 22 minutes a game. We often ask coaches to give players more minutes. In this case, I’m perfectly fine with limited run.

Missed the Cut (but still on my radar): Aron Baynes???!!! (No. 34 overall, doesn’t have a path to season-long value while filling in for Deandre Ayton)… Derrick Rose (No. 73)… Jeff Teague (No. 79)… Danny Green (No. 87)… Paul Millsap (No. 103)… Lou Williams (No. 114)… Goran Dragic (No. 120)… and wow, there are a lot of productive old dudes this season. 

Please send notable omissions to: me. Next week we will return to discussing players in their mid-20’s. Thank you and good day.

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