Rookie/Sophomore Report

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  • Memphis Grizzlies
    Memphis Grizzlies
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  • Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic
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We're back with another edition of the Rookie/Sophomore Report, and this one will focus on the red-hot Grizzlies. Memphis has won ten straight games, and there's been no shortage of contribution from young and experienced players alike. Leading things off is a second-year guard who has been one of the NBA's most improved players, and we'll also touch on a rookie whose role has expanded in recent games.

Grizzlies' Bane continues to shine

Despite being down multiple rotation players due to either injury or health and safety protocols, Memphis has been the hottest team in the NBA. The Grizzlies extended their win streak to ten games Tuesday night, and while Ja Morant has been the headliner (and rightfully so), second-year guard Desmond Bane has also been key. One of the league's most improved players, Bane is averaging 17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, and 3.0 3-pointers in 29.9 minutes per game.

Each of those averages is an improvement on his numbers from a season ago, and Bane is doing this on shooting splits of 46.7% from the field, 42.7% from three, and 87.7% from the foul line. That's been good for top-50 value in 9-cat formats, with Bane ranking 43rd according to Basketball Monster. He managed to ruffle some feathers during the Grizzlies' blowout of the Lakers Sunday night, but that's a good thing, and it fits in well with the approach of the team as a whole. There's been no "backdown" from Bane or his teammates, a big reason why Memphis ranks among the league's best.

The question now is whether or not Bane can hang around the "Most Improved Player" conversation. The decision to trade Grayson Allen during the offseason freed up shots and minutes for Bane and De'Anthony Melton, with the former making one of the biggest jumps in the NBA as far as his production is concerned. As of Wednesday afternoon, PointsBet was giving +4000 odds on Bane winning the Most Improved Player award. That ranks behind players such as Morant (-150), Miles Bridges (+350), Darius Garland, and Dejounte Murray (both at +1400). Those aren't great odds for Bane, especially when considering the names ahead of him. But given his play, and Memphis' success, betting a small amount of money on Bane wouldn't be the worst idea.

Grizzlies rookie Williams takes advantage of playing time

Ziaire Williams' NBA career got off to a rough start, to say the least. While the 10th overall pick was in the rotation from the start, appearing in 18 of Memphis' first 20 games, he struggled to make an impact. In those games Williams averaged 5.0 points, 1.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, and 0.9 3-pointers in 18.6 minutes per, shooting 35.7% from the field and 66.7% from the foul line. As one would expect, Williams was well off the radar as far as fantasy basketball is concerned. Then he went through an 18-game stretch in which he missed 17 due to an ankle injury which, in hindsight, may have been a blessing in disguise.

Williams has started three of the five games that he's appeared in since, averaging 11.4 points, 1.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.6 steals, and 1.8 3-pointers in 23.2 minutes per. And he's shot the ball well, making 52.4% of his shots from the field overall and 45.0% from three. This hasn't resulted in great fantasy value, as Williams has been a 16th-round player over the last two weeks. But the progress made is certainly worth noting, as Williams has been an understated reason why Memphis has flourished despite not having Dillon Brooks (ankle). There's no need to add Williams right now, but fantasy managers should track his performances.

Magic's Suggs, Spurs' Vassell making progress

Due to a fractured thumb, rookie point guard Jalen Suggs has been sidelined since late- November. He has been making progress in his recovery, however, most recently taking part in a recent practice. It's important to note that Suggs still has a splint on his injured thumb. And at the time of the report (Tuesday), Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said that Suggs' response to the workout will determine the next steps. With a positive response, it's possible that Orlando will look to ramp things up during the team's upcoming three-game road trip. Suggs wasn't a great fantasy option when healthy, but he's still being stashed in many leagues (39% rostered in Yahoo) due to the expectation that he'll be back in the starting lineup once cleared.

Also making progress towards a return in Spurs second-year wing Devin Vassell, who has missed his team's last three games due to health and safety protocols. Despite providing 11th-round value in 9-cat formats Vassell, who was a top-100 player at one point this season, is rostered in just 24% of Yahoo leagues. It's possible that he'll be cleared in time for Wednesday's game against the Rockets, as he needs to record one more negative test for COVID-19. Simply put, fantasy managers in need of additional depth at the SG/SF positions should not hesitate to pick up Vassell if he's available. Even with San Antonio having a logjam of sorts at those spots, Vassell has been one of Gregg Popovich's most consistent options, whether he starts or comes off the bench.

Pistons' Cunningham crashes hard after a solid 5-game stretch

Cade Cunningham was playing quite well before a stint in the league's health and safety protocols put him on the shelf for four games last month. He managed to pick up where he left off in his first five games back, averaging 17.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks, and 2.8 3-pointers per, shooting 41.6% from the field and 83.3% from the foul line. Cunningham has been a bit inconsistent when it comes to his shooting, which has seemingly varied by the game. He was at his best in Monday's win over the Jazz, posting a line of 29 points, one rebound, eight assists, two steals, two blocks, and five 3-pointers in 38 minutes.

But that explosion may have been just as much about Utah's defensive struggles as it was Cunningham's mastery, as the following night, the Bulls limited him to eight points, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal, and two 3-pointers in 29 minutes. As is the case with any rookie, there will be some nights when Cunningham appears to have figured it all out, and others when his inexperience is impossible to ignore. What would help is Detroit getting back to full strength, which would help GM Troy Weaver and coach Dwane Casey figure out the rotation. Cunningham should continue to have his moments, but it's possible that he'll be at his best once the trade deadline passes. Why? Because, in theory, Detroit should have more clarity with regard to who will be a part of this rebuild.

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Can Pelicans' Jones make an All-Defensive team?

Similar to the All-NBA teams, All-Defensive honors tend to be dominated by experienced players. Even more so, in fact, as no rookie has been honored since Tim Duncan in 1998. But that dry spell could come to an end this season, as New Orleans forward Herb Jones has made a very good case for himself. Counting Tuesday's win over the Timberwolves, he's averaging 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocked shots per game, making Jones the lone rookie to boast those averages. That production is a major reason why Jones, who won SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors at Alabama, is closing in on top-100 value in 9-cat formats. And his play on that end of the floor has not gone unnoticed.

"He’s someone who takes the challenge every night of guarding one of the top players on the other team," Josh Hart said according to NOLA.com. "He does an amazing job of using his length, of using his physicality to his advantage. And he’s just a really smart basketball player. He knows what spots to get to. His defense this year has been amazing. I think it’s really worthy of an All-Defensive team."

Jones is rostered in 55% of Yahoo leagues, which is a bit low given the production and his placement within the Pelicans rotation. And with Zion Williamson (foot) still without a timeline for return, Jones won't be leaving the starting lineup anytime soon.

Rockets' Christopher continues to make strides

While there's been no shortage of fantasy-related conversation regarding fellow Rockets rookies Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher may be a bit overlooked. He hasn't been great in any single category, averaging 7.1 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.8 3-pointers per game while shooting 45.4% from the field and 80.0% from the foul line, but Christopher hasn't been a liability, either. Rostered in 3% of Yahoo leagues, Christopher has been a 16th-round player over the last two weeks.

There's no need to rush out to pick him up right now, but the rookie is definitely worth tracking heading into the trade deadline. Because if Houston were to move Eric Gordon to a contender, that would unlock even more playing time for a young talent like Christopher. He's played 25 minutes or more in just four games over the last month, with three coming during a four-game stretch in mid-December in which Christopher averaged 12.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, and 1.3 3-pointers per contest.